Why Photo Editing Is A Must For All Images

Why do I take photos? Why do I edit photos? And what is my goal for these images and how should they look after I’m done with them?

These are questions every photographer, photo editor, image designer, and/or photo print specialist need to ask and answer before creating or working with an image.

For me it’s simple. I’m not a photo journalist. I do care about the way the world really looks, but I’d rather show us the way the world FEELS. Take something pretty and make it beautiful. Make something beautiful into something extraordinary. As an artist I will use any and all tools at my disposal to reach my end goal and I won’t feel guilty one bit about this kind of (re)interpretation of the world and the people and places in it.

When we look back at the beautiful places we’ve been in our lives do we remember the crappy weather, the bad lighting, the out-of-season colors? Or do we remember these places better than they were–do we look upon these memories with our own “rose-colored cameras”?

And don’t be fooled by the hype purists sell. Our choice of aperture, focal length, shutter speed, use of lens filters, flash, white balance, and iso settings all change the look of a photo before we even take the shot. Then our cameras make small adjustments to these images as they write them to the memory cards. And even the strictest purist will still add contrast, noise reduction and sharpness to the final photo. In the pre-digital world, the choice of film, photo paper, and darkroom equipment and its usage all played critical roles in the finished image.

Therefore we make changes, often drastic ones, in the way a photo represents the world without ever stepping into Photoshop. So I’m simply taking what the equipment has already started and extending it even further. Many would argue that my final images look over-cooked, or over-ripened. But I like color and detail. I mean I LOVE color and detail.

Our eyes see much more detail than photos created by just a digital camera without any post-processing. I work with what the camera produced to bring out the detail in the shadows and highlights. And I expand the color contrast by pulling similar colors apart and increasing the separation between different colors allowing even more detail to come through. It may not represent the truest way the scene looks to either the camera or to our eyes, but I find it more dramatic and usually more appealing.

Traditional methods of photo editing start with white balance adjustment–keeping the whites white will help ensure the rest of the colors look OK. Then, either in Camera Raw or Photoshop, the contrast is adjusted to extend the full range of light and dark parts of the image towards extreme white and black using curves or levels. And a boost is added to the color before noise reduction and sharpening. This method provides pleasant, but limiting, results.

My more comprehensive method is born out of years of trial and error, both mine and other’s that I’ve learned from. Much of what I do got its start with what photo editor and color guru Dan Margulis calls his ‘Picture Postcard Workflow’. If interested in trying it yourself I recommend learning about his process, both through books he’s written and through his kelbytraining.com videos showing step by step this constantly evolving work-flow. Highly recommended!

Without going into excessive detail over what I do in this roughly 4-minute per photo work-flow, here are the basics:
I shoot in RAW, allowing maximum control of white balance and contrast control through all three (RGB) channels while keeping the most detail. And I work in 16-bit ProPhoto RGB color space once in Photoshop.

  1. I run all the images I want to process through DxO Optics. This tool takes the RAW images and makes automatic corrections to contrast, noise, edge-to-edge sharpness, chromatic aberration and color fringing, and lens distortion. It starts with systematically created profiles (modules) unique to specific camera and lens combinations. If you have a primary camera/lens set-up that DxO Optics has a module ready for, I recommend purchasing this tool. The results are much better and easier to work with than the automated Adobe Camera Raw developing profiles and tools.
  2. I then take the DNG file created by DxO Optics (keeping it in a RAW format) and run it through Adobe Camera Raw to correct white balance and flatten the image as much as I can. If the image has correct color/white balance and no crushed shadows or blown highlights I can better extract accurate detail from it.
  3. Upon entering Adobe Photoshop I confirm that the image does in fact represent correct color. I then boost the contrast (luminosity) in all three color channels (R)ed, (G)reen, and (B)lue independently–more precise control that adjusting contrast in RGB together.
  4. Moving into LAB color space (Dan Margulis swears by LAB and I’ve become a convert as well) I’m able to quickly spread the colors apart from each other and then I use a multiply blend process to radically boost the color saturation. LAB works with colors independently from luminosity, so I can manipulate the colors without affecting the contrast improvements I made in the previous step.
  5. Returning to RGB I blend back in some of the original unprocessed DNG file (from DxO Optics) as needed to tame the LAB out-of-gamut issues. You see LAB works with colors that cannot be reproduced in traditional RGB color space hardware like monitors and printers. I also do any alterations/fixes to the photo here before the last step.
  6. Returning back to LAB, I process the luminosity channel for noise reduction and sharpening before finalizing the output back into RGB as a 16-bit TIFF file. Again by working only with the (L)uminosity (or Light) channel I can remove noise and sharpen only the parts of the image that have definition without adversely altering the color.

Now obviously there’s a lot more to it than just that. And I’ve worked hundreds of hours on refining this process for my specific needs and tastes. I learned what I needed from books and on-line training and by using the skills I’ve picked up over the last 8 years of Photoshop usage. Again, if interested, look to Dan Margulis’ training for the details needed to use this work-flow with your own photos.

It’s really not that difficult to radically improve any images. And this is one of hundreds (thousands?) of documented methods for editing photos. But no matter how you choose to process your own photos, taking the time to learn some method(s) and develop your own style will be well worth the effort. As the results speak for themselves.

When I’m processing photos if I don’t get the results I was looking for at first, I can always come back later (sometimes years later) and try it again. Once stored on a semi-permanent platform (like a hard drive or cloud storage) a digital image becomes a dynamic resource for limitless manipulation and processing.

A Final Thought:

Ansel Adams gave us some of the best naturescapes ever in the world of photography. His medium was in black and white film(already a grand departure from what our eyes see). And he spent countless hours not just setting up to take a photo but afterwards in the darkroom making the final images look the exact way he wanted with the limited technology avaliable to him. I have no doubt that Ansel, if alive today, would use Photoshop and all the digital tools available to better his craft and the final images he creates.

Of course, I’m no Ansel Adams;)

If you need any info regarding my use of this ‘Postcard’ method and/or my philosophy regarding photo editing please feel free to contact me. If I have the knowledge or ability to help I will.
If you need me to apply my photo editing skills towards your own photo or collection of photos, please contact me as well. I currently don’t have pricing established for contract work. But I’m willing to work with anyone towards an mutually agreeable arrangement.

Chad Schulz, September 2013