Work done in darkrooms was an important step in creating beautiful images. Now it has been replaced by computers. Post-processing is vital. In layman terms, processing of data (photograph) captured on camera is required for the image to be seen as per the settings. This can happen in the camera, when it is called in-camera processing or the raw data can be processed at a later stage on computer, this is called post-processing.
(Out of the camera jpg on the left and on the right, jpg which was post-processed from raw)
The first step for everyone interested in doing serious photography is to shift to post-processing the raw files on a computer. jpg files are good if they are to be used directly from the camera. Many photographers do minor tweakings on the jpg files too, using various image editing programs but this practice is not good. Start clicking raw. Unfortunately, there is still no consensus on the raw file format. Every camera manufacturer uses its own format. Nikon uses ‘nef’. Even the nef files have undergone some revisions. Still, it is better to click raw and then post-process.
Camera manufacturers also provide basic software to convert raw to jpeg or tiff and to do some minor tweaking like correcting daylight temperature, exposure compensation, shadow and highlight detail recovery, saturation, etc. Though good for the job they are intended to do, these programs are generally very limited in their capabilities. These programs are popular because they show the raw files after applying the camera settings that were used while clicking the photograph. These are also easy to use and have almost no learning curve. The serious work can be done on various other image editing programs. Darktable, Photoshop, Lightroom, Gimp with ufraw, Affinity etc are some tools that are quite popular.
Some prerequisites for post-processing –
- A powerful processor. Most image editors depend on the number-crunching capabilities of the processor. Graphics card capabilities are hardly used if at all.
- A large amount of fast RAM. This is where the image is stored while working on the image editors. All the step-backs too use up the ram. High-resolution images require more ram. Opening multiple images further push the requirements.
- A good monitor. IPS based, high resolution, large size monitors are best.
- Monitor calibration. This is even more important than the type of monitor. I use Spyder to calibrate my monitor
- Data backup. This requires no explanation.
The raw files contain a lot of information that can be extracted. The basic workflow for processing images that I follow –
- Correct the daylight balance (Balancing Act (in Color))
- Color space – sRGB is the easiest if you are in any kind of doubt.
- Exposure compensation. It is best to have the correct exposure while you click but in some scenarios, exposure compensation may work wonders like in star-trails. Do keep reading my articles. I’ll write about it some day.
- Shadow and Highlights detail recovery – Don’t go overhead with this and end up having an image that looks too artificial. Plan for this part at the time of clicking. If the image may end up with lots of lost details in shadows and highlights, plan on HDR.
- Tweaking of the curve (Curves Tool at your service). This is the single most important step to correct the overall image.
- Distortion correction – This is an important step with architecture.
- Noise reduction if required (Noise – Add or Remove)
- Burning / Dodging (Burning and Dodging) – Use multiple low-intensity strokes rather than a single high-intensity stroke.
- Use of airbrush, stamping or cloning tool, etc.
- Any effects’ filters if required – This includes most of the ready to use plugins too.
- Sharpening (Sharpening) – This is what usually makes the image pop out.
- Further conversion to B&W or any special colors
- Addition of noise if needed (I usually don’t like it but sometimes it can add character or give an impression of sharpness)
- Save the processed file (Image File Formats – Basics)
- Keep the raw file also for backup
Some steps may have to be repeated or sequence-changed depending on the actual image being worked upon, but this flow can be a basic guideline, to begin with.
Some examples which require a repeat or change of sequence can be – increase in noise due to sharpening, black and white conversion requiring the use of a digital colored filter, etc.
I suggest sticking to the same order to get the maximum benefits out of post-processing. Some of the above steps can be done for a batch of photos which makes the job easier. This batch processing is available in many of the commonly used image editing programs. Some others allow the adjustments to be copied and pasted across multiple images.
There are thousands of lessons available across the internet related to image processing/editing programs. They can provide the initial push. The best way to learn is to experiment and play around with the software. So set your camera to raw if you have not already done so, click photos and enjoy the present day darkroom work while sitting comfortably in front of your computer.
(This photograph was clicked in very low available light after pushing up the ISO. Post-processing of the raw file resulted in this image. The original image, as seen on the preview screen of the camera, was dull and full of noise.)