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What "post-processing" means to me (and you, if you're my client)

I usually put photos online for clients with only minimal processing. If you are a client reviewing your online gallery, what you should look for, as you decide which photo to order a print of, is the smile, the pose, the background — the look of the photo in a general way. And don't be troubled if the photo looks a bit flat. It usually does. When I shoot, I do only "raw capture," that is, I don't ask my camera to generate nice output, I take the raw data that the camera's sensor captures and then I go to work on it myself. And while I admit that sometimes I do process photos so they will look as good as possible online, most of the time — especially when I'm working on photos for clients — I'm working to produce a master file that will result in the best possible print.

Before and after

This photo of my daughter Catherine at the Dallas Arboretum is as close to an "original" as I get, but it has already been processed by Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.4 as part of the raw-to-jpeg conversion process.


Now, I go to work and five or ten minutes later, I end up with this:

The photo ready to print.

And now the photo is ready to send off to the lab (Mpix Pro) for printing.


Don't see what's changed? Look more carefully. Okay, this isn't magic, so I'll tell you:

  1. Horizontal alignment has been adjusted and the photo has been cropped slightly.

  2. White balance (color tonality) has been corrected—well, modified. The original white balance wasn't technically wrong, but in the final photo, Catherine's skin is a little pinker and more pleasant looking.

  3. Increased overall contrast (using Lightroom's tonality curve), set black point (makes blacks really black), and enhanced "clarity" (mid-range contrast). These steps make the photo start to "pop."

  4. Removed a small blemish on Catherine's right cheek (left side of photo) and also a small mole just below her lip.

  5. Minor noise reduction (the photo was shot at ISO 800 but wasn't too noisy to start with) and modest "capture sharpening". These effects are almost impossible to see on a computer screen but will make a difference to the print.

  6. Added "vignetting", that is, darkened the outside edges of the photo to highlight the subject's face in the middle. As a complement to the vignetting, slightly desaturated (weakened the color) in the background and also added an almost imperceptible extra blur to the background, as well.

I don't do this with a preset or a template. I do it one photo at a time, one tweak at a time. If you want to see the changes as they are applied, click the link below for a slideshow that will show you the process in eight stages, including two final and more dramatic changes (black and white treatments). Be sure to read the captions that appear onscreen and use the navigational tools to jump back and forth to compare the changes. Some of them are fairly subtle.

Trust me: It makes a difference to your print

And if you still don't see all the changes, well, don't feel bad. It really is hard to see some of these differences on a computer screen. Even if you have a large, high-resolution, calibrated monitor, I'm generally not displaying large, high-res copies of photos. But trust me, these changes really do make a difference to the final print. That's why I don't usually make these changes until clients place their orders.

There is of course a great deal more than can be done with a photo — you can move the subject's eyes farther apart, remove the subject's former boyfriend from the photo, convert the photo so it looks like a crayon drawing, give the photo a "grunge" effect, merge several layers to create an HDR effect, etc. But that isn't post-processing, that's manipulation. I very seldom manipulate my photos in that way.


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