A Processing Workflow, step by step

Discussion in 'Image Processing' started by Luckypenguin, Nov 30, 2013.

  1. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    A little while back I was asked by a coupleof forum members to give a bit of a description of my processing workflow and how I achieved a certain "look". I've finally gotten around to doing a workflow description which follows below. Everything described here is based on a Lightroom workflow (v4.4) and running on a Windows 7 operating system. A lot of what is described here has analogs in other editing softwares but some of the terms used by each may vary from those mentioned here and some of the particulars of the software may be different. For information's sake the image used as an example was taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Olympus M Zuiko 9-18mm f4-5.6 ultra wide-angle lens set at 9mm.

    My first stop, and something I only started doing not all that long ago, is to drag and drop the image onto the map. I don't particularly have a use for this but it's easy to do so why not?


    Next step is to go into the develop module where all the work begins


    If I was to export the raw file without any edits it will look like this. The point here is that the undeveloped raw file is obviously just the starting point, not the finished product. You'll notice that this particular image was taken partly in shade and partly in direct sun so a choice needs to be made on how to expose it correctly to deal with the dynamic range of the scene. For me there is no real choice when exposing an image; I'll always try to push the exposure as far into the highlights as I dare without burning any highlights that I wish to retain. This is what I call "shoot-to-process", where I'm not worried about whether the image is exposed correctly but whether it is exposed to give me the best file for processing. Specifically, I want to minimise or even eliminate any pushing of the file which will induce noise, particularly in shadows. More often than not my OOC jpegs don't look very good, but this is by choice not by bad management. The Olympus used here is the perfect camera for optimising the exposure for three reasons. 1, it has a solid dynamic range to work with including a good amount of room in the highlights to pull back data. 2, it has an extended dynamic range jpeg mode which gives me a good representation of the dynamic range that I might eventually be working with in the raw file. This is important because it much more accurately defines the highlight and shadow limits than a standard, contrasty jpeg. 3, as well as the usual histogram it has what are referred to as "shadow and highlight blinkies" where it will overlay blown highlights with red and black shadows with blue. Finally 4, the image displayed on the screen IS the same exposure as the image that gets recorded to card. It is not some equalised image designed to give a consistent exposure to the live view image.


    Looking at the histogram, you can see what happens when you expose to the right. I will be relying on the ability to recover the highlights from the raw data


    The first real processing that I will do is load my preset for this particular camera. I won't go into the particulars here since as I go through I'll be fine tuning most of the preset values.


    Looking at the image after applying the preset you can see that it is looking better already. Here is the histogram before and after loading the preset. You'll notice that the highlights have pulled back to the left slightly and the centre is now more evenly distributed.



    Usually from this point I'd start working my way through the Basic Module but the orientation of the image immediately looks wrong to me so I'm going to deal with this first. In framing the image I am pointing the camera up slightly which is going to induce perspective distortion, and unless I was a little drunk at the time (possible) it appears as though I've made the mistake of lining up the right edge of the vertical. In some circumstances this may give an interesting effect, but otherwise it is wrong, wrong, wrong. It is the centre of the image should be vertical. Going to the Lens Correction Module (and making sure to tick Constrain Crop so the edges are automatically trimmed), I can hover my mouse over the Rotate slider and get a grid overlay.


    In this case the centre of the image is five squares in from either side, so this is the line at which I want the image to be vertical.


    Next up I want to deal with the perspective distortion where the image appears to be leaning in at the top. This is adjusted using the Vertical slider. Generally it is considered more natural to leave just the slightest hint of lean to the image, but you can also choose to go straight up and down if you wish.


    The full image


    I'm not happy with the edges of the image so I'm going to give it a crop to remove the distracting edge details on the left


    The full image again. I'm still undecided how far I want to crop the right edge so I'll come back to this later.


    At this point I'm now ready to start looking at the exposure. I do this by looking at the image itself of course but also by keeping an eye on the histogram, since this provides a visual representation of the distribution of the exposure. I'll go into the methods of adjusting the exposure in some detail since this is "where it's at" in terms of raw editing. In Lightroom you get five sliders to adjust this: Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks. These are ordered logically from a workflow perspective but not from where each slider influences the histogram. From left-to-right (darkest to lightest) it goes Blacks, Shadows, Exposure, Highlights, Whites. To see the area of influence of each slider you can hold your mouse over each slider and the corresponding section of the histogram will be highlighted.






    The important thing to note here is that each slider won't only adjust the data within the highlighted section of the histogram, but it is weighted to that section. Each slider influences the entire histogram distribution but with diminishing effect the further the data is away from the highlighted section.

    One of the key benefits of raw processing is the ability to access the full dynamic range of the sensor, but simply pulling down the highlights and pushing up the shadows doesn't produce a pleasant looking image, because high dynamic range and contrast don't go together. You might say that Lightroom and other editing programs offer contrast adjustment, but I don't use it because it is a very crude method of exposure control. You still need the appearance of contrast of course, and this is where I want to be adjusting those five sliders to ensure that I have a histogram that stretches all the way from left to right. An image should always have a true black, and almost always have a true white somewhere.

    Getting back to my example image, not having a true white isn't an issue since I already have too many. Lightroom offers a neat way of showing black and white pixels. To show which parts of the image are true white (i.e. blown) you simply click and hold either the Exposure, Highlights, or Whites sliders and hold down the Alt key. The image will turn black where it is not over exposed and white where it is. It will also display colours which represent where individual colour channels have been blown. White means that every channel is blown.


    By cropping in on one of the offending sections we can see this in more detail.



    To recover these pixels we need to go to the highlights and whites sliders and pull them to the left (negative values). This is a trial and error process. You can follow the histogram, you can use the blown pixel alert (the Alt key trick), but ultimately it is looking at the image itself that should be your guide. In this case I've used the values as shown.


    Checking my blown pixels I now get this. I haven't eliminated all of them, but as I alluded to earlier I believe that an image should ideally just kiss the right hand edge of the histogram. Not all the time, but most of the time.


    The entire image is shown below...


    ...and the same crop that we looked at earlier, but now less retina searing and with some detail returned.


    The histogram as it currently stands. You'll see that the spike on the right which represents the brightest, whitest parts of the image has now been pulled back from the very edge of the histogram.


    To be continued...
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  2. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    Continued from the previous post.

    The image is now good on the right hand side of the histogram, so it's time to look at the left.


    Using the Alt key in combination with clicking and holding on either the Shadows or Blacks sliders I currently get this, which means that only a tiny few true blacks currently exist in this image.


    Looking at a crop of the image that contains shadows I see this.


    Remembering that the shadows are the darker parts of the image and the blacks are the darkest, I want the shadows to be visible but the blacks to go all the way to the left. Once again by adjusting the sliders while watching the histogram, the black pixel warnings and the image itself I come up with these values. The +50 means that I have actually pushed the shadows, but the -50 means that I have pulled the blacks.


    The resulting image looks like this...


    ...and the histogram looks like this. Immediately obvious here is that while the bulk of the data is located away from the left a thin trail extends all the way with a small spike at the end indicating the pure black pixels. It is this small but significant part of the histogram that is doing much to provide the appearance of contrast without large portions of the image being lost into dark shadows.


    With exposure mostly taken care of, I want to look at a few other details. In the crop shown below I'd like to see the roof tiles with some more saturation. This crop incidentally is showing some unsharpness and a smearing type effect which sometimes occurs with the ultra wide-angle lens. This behaviour on the Olympus 9-18mm can be a bit inconsistent in this way and generally it maintains good sharpness until the very corners.


    By moving the Saturation slider to the right I get that little bit of extra pop from the roof tiles, but that has also exacerbated another thing that is a pet peeve of mine: the darkness and over saturation of the blues in the sky.


    In the context of the full image.


    To me the look of the sky blues is one of the nastier side effects of producing what would be called a punchy, highly saturated image. I dislike it for both the over saturation and the darkness of the colour blue. The over saturation I don't like because I don't feel it looks natural, but my reason for disliking dark blue skies is a bit more complex.

    I do the vast majority of my photography during the day, outdoors, and in good weather. We think of good weather being clear and bright, and yet these dark blue skies produced in some images create this odd reality that exists only within the camera. A dark grey sky exists in real life as a sign of bad weather, but what exactly is a dark, forboding looking blue sky? That just doesn't look right to me.

    Another way to look at it is also this: what is a common trick used to emphasise an indoor space and give it the impression of airiness and spaciousness? You light it, of course, and remove any large sections of dark colours that take away from the effect. I feel the exact same theory applies to daytime photography, and I would apply this even if my intention is to convert the image to black and white at the end of the process. Incidentally I have found that Samsung cameras while not immune from the effect, are the least likely to produce these dark, over saturated blue skies.

    To make the adjustment to correct this I go to the HSL (Hue, Saturation, and Luminance) panel. Opening it below you can see that my preset already includes a small reduction in saturation of the blue channel and increase in luminance, but clearly this wasn't anywhere near enough.


    So I make further adjustments to both...


    ...and the end result is this. The sky is now lighter and less saturated but one thing to keep an eye on is that the hue of the sky doesn't start to tend too far towards purple. If this is happening you can always go to the Hue value for the colour blue and move it slightly in the direction of cyan. As always there is a limit to how far you can push the exposure of the sky before you start getting negative effects such as coarse gradations and noise. As ever, the higher you can afford to expose the sky in the first place, the better.


    While I'm here I thought it might also be useful to have a quick look at the detail tab which handles sharpening and noise reduction. Both of these tend to be done "to taste", but a feature I feel that is worth having a look at is the Sharpening Masking. The contents of the panel as per my preset for this camera is as follows.


    To show the effect of masking I'm going to turn the sharpening up way high and set the masking value back to zero. A crop of the resulting image looks like this.


    The edges have been sharpened (over sharpened in this case) but also the areas of minimal or virtually no detail such as the sky which is not a desirable outcome. By adjusting the value of the Masking slider to 25 the image looks considerably different.


    What is happening here is that Lightroom is evaluating the original image and separating the parts of the image containing detail from those that don't. To see how it does this you can again use the Alt key while clicking and holding on the Masking slider. Lightroom will sharpen the highlighted sections but not the darkened sections. Adjusting the value of this slider adjusts the sensitivity for what is considered detail that is to be sharpened and what is not.


    Now before I'm done I'm going to make one more exposure adjustment but this time using the tone curve rather than the sliders. As mentioned earlier in good daylight I favour a lighter, brighter image over a darker one whilst still maintaining the extreme edges of the histogram to avoid blown pixels and to maintain contrast. To brighten the image using the tone curve whilst not affecting the edges of the histogram I place anchor points near the left and right edges and then pull up the midtones slightly as shown below


    My final histogram now looks like this. You'll see that it is weighted to the right hand edge without pushing over it and also still maintains a thin tail that extends to the far left.


    The image itself now looks like this. Some may consider this a little too bright but that is just how I like it.


    Now at the end I can reconsider the crop of the right hand side of the image which I decided to do as follows.


    Going back to the very beginning of the process, I started here...


    ...and ended here. Now the differences aren't massive, night and day, or in your face but that is not really the point. I'm not chasing HDR or punchy colours and contrast but instead just trying to take a base image and chase the 2% here, 1% there, 0.5% over there that add up to something that stands out as clean, crisp and light, and something that will print well if I were to choose to do so.


    Actually, this may not be quite the end because from here I may choose to go into Nik Color Efex and apply some Tonal Contrast to enhance the microcontrast, maybe add some mild Cross Processing or Film Effects if I want to alter the colours, add some vignetting, or indeed go into NIk Silver Efex to convert it to black and white.
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  3. Yeats

    Yeats All-Pro

    Jul 31, 2012
    New Jersey, USA
    Great tutorial, Nic. Very kind and generous of you to share the ingredients to the "secret sauce". :thumbup:
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  4. wt21

    wt21 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 15, 2010
    Can't read this now, but bookmarking to come back and read it this week. Thanks Nic!
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  5. grebeman

    grebeman Old Codgers Group

    Thanks for the effort you've put in on this Nic, have saved it as a pdf file to read and digest later.

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  6. pniev

    pniev Student for life

    May 13, 2013
    Thanks, Nic. Much appreciated. I read it with great interest. It's very nice to see how you process and I've learned about a key feature that I thought was only available in PS: the use of the ALT key.
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  7. BBW

    BBW Administrator Emeritus

    Jul 7, 2010
    betwixt and between
    I'll add my thanks, Nic - truly a generous labor that you've shared with us.:th_salute:
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  8. zpuskas

    zpuskas Regular

    Nov 15, 2013
    Santa Barbara, CA
    Zoltan Puskas
    Wonderful tutorial and much appreciated, thanks.
  9. Luke

    Luke Super Moderator Subscribing Member

    Nov 11, 2011
    Milwaukee, WI USA
    I look forward to finding the time to check this out in depth. Thanks for sharing your time and talents, Nic.
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  10. mcentral

    mcentral Regular

    Oct 27, 2013
    cambridge, massachusetts
    Masterful job. Thank you very much for doing this! I had cobbled together some of this knowledge, but this gives it all some coherence. Looking forward to using your insights (eg. setting points in the tone curve) to refine my pp. I agree with your take on over saturated blue skies, and I agree with the goal of clean and crisp and light, which you demonstrated perfectly (this "bright" can actually be quite natural, as you show, just not what we've become accustomed to - maybe because the cameras or camera operators can't handle the highlights so exposure is then consistently brought down too far, and then we just got used that.)

    Wondering if you've had a chance to use the Lens Correction Auto feature in LR5? It's pretty amazing, I find, and sure speeds things up. But sometimes it has a mind of it's own and needs a manual override.
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  11. Armanius

    Armanius Bring Jack back!

    Jan 11, 2011
    Houston, Texas
    Nice step by step Nic!! Enjoyed reading it through it all!
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  12. wt21

    wt21 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 15, 2010
    Thanks Nic. Great to step through your process.

    I'll have to pay more attention to my blue skies.

    But I REALLY love the tip of holding down the alt key. Yes, in blown highlights/shadows, but even more so in sharpening. I never knew that before. VERY helpful. Thanks.
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  13. Boid

    Boid All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    I was one of the "members" badgering Nic to spill his processing secrets, and I'm so glad he did! Thank you ever so much! It's the deftness to your edits that I admired most, and the process was really illuminating.

    Really, thanks for putting in so much effort and time into this. Much appreciated!
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  14. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    Yes, using the alt key is a big help in revealing problem areas.

    I find the sharpen mask to be a very useful tool. Many times I've seen it written that one camera or another produces noise at base ISO, but the unprocessed raw file will actually show very little. It is only after you add sharpening and add clarity that the noise becomes noticeable. The natural reaction to this is to apply some noise reduction which brings down the sharpness of the whole image. The other advantage of the mask is that it reduces the sharpening applied to out-of-focus areas which keeps them smooth and stops them looking nervous and distracting to the subject.
  15. Luckypenguin

    Luckypenguin Hall of Famer

    Dec 24, 2010
    Brisbane, Australia
    I'm not so sure that it is the fault of the operator, but simply the reality of exposing an image with a broad dynamic range. In the example here taken with a camera that has 12.5 stops of dynamic range and pushing the exposure of the white walls as far I dared I've still ended up with a sky that is darker than I prefer.

    I haven't yet upgraded to Lightroom 5 but when I do I'll be sure to check out the auto correction of perspective distortion.
  16. wt21

    wt21 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 15, 2010
    Yes, I just noticed that. I had never used that slider, because I didn't understand it. Frankly, I've never quite understood how any of those sliders worked, so it was all hit-or-miss. Using the alt key makes it all very clear.
  17. Boid

    Boid All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Tried following your method and came up with this image of the Cambodian countryside

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  18. Armanius

    Armanius Bring Jack back!

    Jan 11, 2011
    Houston, Texas
    It seems that if you mask too much, it also looks bad. The artifacts around the un-masked areas seem more distinct and obvious.
  19. Boid

    Boid All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Jack, if you use PS, this is actually a better way of sharpening only the edges without bringing in noise or artifacts.

  20. Nic, thanks so much for the time and effort you put into the tutorial. Wonderful stuff and has taught me how to do a few things I did not know about :) Really, really appreciated. Bookmarking.
    • Like Like x 1