The Magic of Processing

I started dabbling in Photoshop for fun in 1997. I was just a kid. Later, in college, I got my first job at the University library. One of my job duties was working in Photoshop to restore damaged historic photos from the library’s collection. At that time, I built the real foundation of the processing skill I bring today. I didn’t get much instruction, but I learned how to layer, how to blend well, and how to fool the eye.

Fast foward a couple decades or so. When I began to sincerely invest in my education as a portrait photographer, with that new formal knowledge based on the foundation of all those years of experience… suddenly, I could see the Matrix. Does that reference date me?! hahaha

But really… Images: they are all. just. pixels. A photo is a painting made out of pixels. Photoshop makes an image into modeling clay in technicolor. You can do anything you want with it. It is such an amazing, sophisticated tool.

I know I talk a lot about processing on my blog, and my experience in that realm is definitely on my A list of skills. But I don’t use processing to make boring images interesting. My goal is to use processing to make amazing images spectacular.

Processing and retouching conversations usually center around “perfecting” a client’s appearance. I do correct the posture and retouch impermanent blemishes, as a mundane matter of course. But to me, the real gold of processing is not about making people thinner or fixing skin. It’s about creating magic.

Straight out of camera.

What if her hair flew up just a little higher and spread out just a little more? What if she had pointed her foot more gracefully when she kicked it up? What if the sunset that night had been more colorful? What if the sun set right behind them instead of off to the right somewhere?

Magic. That’s what.

With magic.

Look for this image at the Amador County fair next week!

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Understanding Image Quality: Part 1

I want to take a little time to explain some different aspects of image quality in a way that’s not too technical for non-photographers to follow.

The images you see in a Relish proofing gallery are very low-quality previews of the final processed images. I’m not gonna pretend that watermarked digital proofs aren’t a bummer. I hate showing my work like this. But the high pressure of in-person-sales is not my style–I want people to have the opportunity to spend some uninterrupted time looking over the images before they buy. I sincerely do not want to sell anyone an image they don’t love.

But this means I have to do something to protect my investment in these images for the proofing process, because unfortunately image theft is rampant online. These proofs won’t print larger than about 1″ tall without looking like a child’s drawing, and the watermark makes it very clear these previews are proprietary and are not to be shared or saved.

I have to ask my clients to trust me about image quality, because these low-quality proofs don’t show the depth of detail in the final images. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this post! The image quality I explain here is the image quality you can expect from every Relish gallery. I operate on the standards established for commercial photography by Adobe Stock and Getty Images. If for some reason I ever couldn’t deliver that on a session, I would offer a complimentary reshoot rather than deliver those images.

So, what is the recipe for great image quality? How do you know it when you see it? I’ll be writing a series of posts over time to delve into this in a way everyday folks can understand. The short answer? Great images are made by leveraging precise knowledge on great equipment to uplift free-spirited creativity.

There are many factors that make up the prevailing assessment of image quality. In portraits, focus should be sharp on both eyes. Exposure should be correct. The image should be free of excessive artifacts like noise, dust, chromatic aberrations, and color separation. There are times to break the rules, and I’m happy to do it for good reason. But quality standards exist to help us create the most rich, real, and beautiful images the state of our art will allow.

Poor Quality: Exposure Issues
Highlight Clipping: BIG RED NO!

To put it more plainly, here’s a poor quality image. I’ll tell you why it’s bad. The highlights are clipped. See how the side of the building is WHITE where it seems like it should probably be yellow? Those parts of the image are so overexposed that the camera’s sensor recorded no detailed data. The same thing happened in the shadows here. There are no details in the blacks.

It’s kind of like when you walk into the sun from a dark room and you can’t see anything until your eyes adjust. You’re not capable of seeing both the extreme dark and the extreme light at the same time–you have to adjust for one or the other. In the same way, this scene went outside the range of what my camera could capture.

To the left is what the same image looks like to me when I’m processing. BIG. RED. NO. The red is Lightroom’s highlight clipping indicator, and the blue is the shadow clipping indicator.

My friends, I do not turn these indicators off when I’m working. Ever. Because a quality image should look identical whether they are on or off.

Below is an example of a successful image. There’s no difference between the with/without indicator images. Even though this image was also shot in dramatic light, there is no clipping anywhere–detail was captured throughout the entire frame. I was able to do this by adding light to the shadows (a flash positioned off camera), therefore reducing the range of light to dark that my camera needed to capture.

It’s so hard to talk about this stuff without getting a little technical! Here’s the long story short:

Detail of 100% Zoom

If an image package includes full resolution digitals, this is what you can expect to see at 100% zoom.

The images behind those proofs are crisp, clean, detailed, and beautiful.

Why I Don’t Use Presets

One of my images with a popular preset applied. The white patch on the right is burning my eyes! that highlight was not blown out in the original image.

My feed’s always flooded with ads for photography presets, also known in the social media world as filters. These pre-made sets of editing actions can be mass-applied to a whole photoshoot at once. Some photographers use presets as a tool to save time and give all their work a consistent look.

When a stylized preset is applied, the image can become more about the preset than the actual image itself. For this reason, presets can help increase the impact of images that are lacking in interest or quality. But they fall far short of hand editing when they meet with great image quality and attention to detail.

Clients and colleagues have complimented my processing and asked if presets are a part of my workflow. So, I wanted to take a few minutes to write about my approach to processing, and explain why I don’t use presets.

If you’ve ever followed a photography feed or even talked about photography near your phone, you’ve probably seen preset ads. Brixton film, Jake Olson, who else sells presets? There are so many out there. The example photos look dreamy–bright, rich, deep and intense, or soft, muted, and tranquil. Surreal in a really good way. It’s easy to think that mood was created by the preset alone.

But, no. A professional photographer shot those images, and although the preset was applied, many other actions were also taken to create that final product. When presets are simply applied wholesale, one-and-done style, the effect is not always so dreamy.

Left: My hand edit; Right: a popular preset with no other edits

When I began studying as a photographer, I was incredibly fortunate to have a very patient and technically-minded mentor who taught me in depth how to shoot and edit for the best possible image quality. It was a major milestone for me in my path to begin shooting professionally when I was accepted as a contributor for Adobe Stock and Getty Images–two separate commercial image sources, each with a strict insistence on impeccable image quality. My artistic editing springs from that foundation of technical excellence. I start with a clean image, and branch out to create a little fantasy in my editing without losing that integrity.

Consider the images above. On the left, in my hand edit, I kept the blacks dark and the whites bright, making space for the midtones. I clipped the blacks gently to give a soft matte look. I softened the green but left it a natural hue. I augmented the direction of the light. I removed some distractions from the background and minimized the prominence of the textures in the road and grass. I pumped up her hair and subtly straightened her posture, and I processed her skin first by hand and then by applying my custom look with a sophisticated skin texture algorithm.

Left: My hand edit; Right: the same popular preset as above.

In this detail crop of the same image, you can really see the difference in the level of detail between the hand edit and the image with the preset applied. The preset made her white shirt look blue and her face look orange. Her hair is not flattered, and her eyes are darkened so much that the light in them is almost totally lost. The preset brought out unwanted detail in the background and flattened her face, making it appear more broad. The same broadening and flattening effect can be seen in the preset-applied image below right. The skin tone is unnatural, and popped details in the gate steal attention from her face.

Left: My hand edit; Right: another popular preset–her face is flattened and broadened by detail loss.

I love an artistic, stylized edit, but presets don’t give me that. For my workflow, they remove detail and rob the processing experience of its intention and artistry. There’s nothing a preset can do that I can’t create by hand, which gives me so much more freedom to create.

Left: My hand edit; Right: original image straight out of camera with no edits

Presets do serve as a great reflection of popular culture. In 10 years, we may look back on them with nostalgia the same way we look back now on Glamor Shots, In Living Color, and JNCO pants. SO cool at the time, right? So NOW. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the love may not last.

As much as I enjoy being gently swayed by the changing tides of style, it’s important to me that I stay rooted in classic beauty. I want to make sure the work I’m creating will still be relevant and just as enjoyable in 10, 20, or 50 years. And, above all else, I want my portraits to be about the person, not the processing.