A Photo: Start to Finish

I have been meaning to do this post for quite a while but never thought to do it while editing a newly shot photo. So I sat down today and went back through the history list on one of my photos from this past weekend and exported copies at important edits.

So here you go. A look at the process I use to edit one of my photos.

Notes: I use Adobe’s Lightroom for all of my (non-iPhone) photos. I’m currently using Lightroom 3. I just haven’t been taking enough photos to justify the upgrade to 4 though I think I may do that soon. Also, I’m not going to give specific settings and values for any adjustments. Every image and every photographer is different and you really need to use your eyes and just make your photos look right to you. That’s really all I’m doing.

Straight out of the camera

I liked this photo right away. The stream is curving nicely through the frame. There isn’t too much glare on the water. And the sky is a good rich shade of blue even though I was shooting toward the sun. I shot this with my 30mm prime lens (Best. Lens. Ever.) at ISO 100, ƒ/11, 1/125 sec.

Crop and adjust angle

The first thing I do with my photos (after importing into Lightroom and selecting which ones are going to be edited) is to crop them and adjust the angle. I crop almost all of my photos to a 16 X 10 frame. It suits my eye. It’s almost the cinematic 16 X 9 but not so obviously ‘long’ an image, if that makes sense. This also lets me adjust the amount of land or sky in a landscape shot like this one. There was only a little sky to begin with so it looked better, to me, to crop out some of the brown, boring marsh.

I also adjust the angle of the shot. My old, crap camera doesn’t have a level in it so I invariably need to make adjustments. I use the Angle tool on either the horizon or some other straight line. Its one part of the editing I just can’t eyeball on my own.

Remove spots and darken sky

I use the Spot Removal tool with the Heal setting, rather than Clone, to remove spots. It works really well in a clean, clear sky which is where you’ll see most spots anyway. They show up in and around clouds as well and it works almost as well there. You just have to be careful that you’re not getting weird artifacts. This one was very easy.

To darken the sky I pulled a Graduated Filter down from the top of the frame to the edge of the trees. I generally use Brightness in my filters to darken because it gives more control than Exposure. I also bumped up the Saturation in the filter to bring out some more of the blue sky.

Auto tone and add clarity

I usually let Lightroom do all of the hard work for me. I’ll try the Auto White Balance, though I think my camera is usually slightly warmer and more pleasant and leave it as shot. I almost always use Lightroom’s Auto Tone and then make adjustments from there as needed. In this case I applied Auto Tone and liked it enough to not tweak it at all. If I do make adjustments they are usually to correct Lightroom’s sometimes overzealous brightening of Exposure and to fine tune Black level and Brightness. I also will apply Recovery if I’m working with an image that has white clouds to get more detail out.

I do generally add Clarity to my photos. It enhances contrast in the mid-tones and can give your photos a more ‘finished’ look. If it’s going to be a color photo I might add Vibrance and Saturation, too, but I knew from the outset I wanted this one to be monochrome.

Convert to B&W and add contrast

This step is pretty simple. I just converted the image to black and white and changed the Tone Curve to Strong Contrast. That gives monochrome images a bit of a deeper, and to my eye, more classic look.

Adjust B&W levels and darken bottom

Much like with Auto Tone, I use Lightroom’s Auto B&W settings and make adjustments from there as necessary. In this case I increased the green and yellow levels in the B&W mix to bring out the trees a bit more.

I also added another grad filter up from the bottom to darken the marsh reeds a little more relative to the rest of the photo.

Add grain and vignette

Getting close to finished here. I like to add a little bit of grain and a slight darkening vignette just to give my photos a classic print look. Seems a little silly to be adding film-camera-era ‘imperfections’ to a digital photo, but I really think it makes monochrome images look more real and finished.

Adjust brightness, and Done

I just tweaked the Brightness slider a little to lighten up the image overall and it’s done.

There you have it. From start to finish that’s my general process for editing my photos. I think the most important thing is not any individual adjustment. It’s that you take the time and play with the settings to get the look you want out of your photos.