1/640s @ f/7 ISO 100 @ 400mm
I photographed this beautiful raptor this morning in the Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve in Southern Patagonia, Argentina. The sun was low and still had that golden glow photographers admire so much; it was to my back and coming over my right shoulder providing a nice catch-light in the Caracara’s eye. I often get questions about my processing and thought I would use this image as an example. Below you will see before and after photos.
I always shoot in CameraRAW. I don’t want to abdicate my creative decisions to Canon’s in-camera JPEG algorithms. Not everyone chooses to shoot in RAW but you will find that virtually all professional photographers do and if you’re not I would invite you to start doing so. I spend about 30% of my time capturing the image and 70% processing the image. My software is: Adobe CameraRAW (ACR) and Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 (PSE11).
I’m not going to explain the process here (this is not a tutorial). I am only sharing the particular adjustments I made to this image so you can get an idea of my workflow. These are my creative decisions and you might make completely different decisions—that’s why they call it creative. Duh. So without further adieu here are the adjustments I made and the order in which I made them.
- I uploaded my CameraRAW file to ACR and immediately viewed it at 100%. If it’s not tack-sharp at 100% I discard it (there is no saving an out-of-focus image). I don’t care how cool it looks—out-of-focus images go in the trash. Remember all Camera RAW files look bland and flat in the beginning (they’re completely neutral with no in-camera processing like a JPEG file).
- I next check the White Balance (I shoot in Auto WB mode). In this case I adjusted the WB to 5200 which warmed it up some (reflecting the beautiful golden light of the early morning). I typically like my images warmer as opposed to cooler (cold weather photos being the exception). This is a personal preference and yours may differ. I notice that Canon’s in-camera JPEG algorithms tend to shoot warmer than Nikon’s (remember RAW is neutral).
- You can see the RAW image (before) is somewhat underexposed so I bumped the exposure in ACR to +25 (you can see the difference in the processed image (after). The histogram in ACR is helpful but bottom-line it’s another artistic creative decision you must make on your own. Each image requires its own adjustments and no one set of adjustments fits every image scenario
- I bumped shadows significantly by +50 to bring out more feather detail in the bird’s plumage but highlights required no adjustment in this case. Again other images will need different adjustments to create a balance between shadows and highlights. Modern digital cameras (especially high MP full-frame cameras) have really increased dynamic range over what we used to get with film.
- It’s important to have some true blacks and true whites in an image (yes even in color images). In this case I boosted whites by +35 and lowered blacks by -35. This happened to be an offset and it doesn’t always work that way—treat blacks and whites on their own merits and experiment. This adjustment will automatically add some contrast without using the global contrast slider.
- I boosted clarity by +25 and I prefer using this slider as opposed the global contrast slider. It’s my understanding that clarity only enhances the middle range of pixels where the contrast slider affects all pixels. I really like what this adjustment can do for an image and find myself using it more and more. A similar situation occurs with the vibrance slider.
- I also increased vibrance by +25. Like the clarity slider it’s my understanding that this color adjustment only effects the middle pixel range. It is much more subtle than using the global saturation slider. In both cases (clarity and vibrance) the affects tend to be more subtle and not over the top. When I’m satisfied with all of my adjustments I upload the RAW image to PSE11 as a JPEG file.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 11
- In PSE11 I cropped the image to an 8 x 10 aspect ratio that I found pleasing.
- When I first viewed the RAW image in ACR at 100% it was almost tack-sharp. So in PSE11 I only increased sharpening by a radius of 0.50 at 80%.
Photographer’s Note: I have many photographers who follow this blog and my articles at Northrup Photo and they represent all skill levels from the “Newbie” to the seasoned professional. I am not a post-processing guru or expert by any means and many of you know much more about processing than I do. I wrote this to share what I am doing and it will probably change as I continue to learn more. This is simply to encourage photographers to take their processing seriously and to learn as much as they can. Post-processing will not fix a bad photo but it can make a good photo outstanding and memorable. As always, have fun doing what you’re doing. SFD
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer, Traveller
Southern Patagonia, Argentina