Sunday, August 10, 2008

Finishing Your Images

(Insights into today's digital darkroom)

I'll never forget those times many years ago spent with my father in his darkroom. I remember to the dismay of my mother a conversion of one of our 3 bathrooms to a darkroom and the trouble my father went to making it completely light proof. It wasn't ideal and was quite cramped but was functional. Later on we moved across town to a larger home. This new home afforded my father the opportunity to realize his dream. The plan was to take one section of the three-car garage and convert it. Yes he went all out, with finished walls carpeted floors, plumbing, and electrical and even air conditioning. We spent hours in that masterpiece of a darkroom enlarging, dodging and burning and developing primarily black and white photos of family outings. There was a certain mystique about entering that dark room filled with the glow of amber light, the negatives hanging off the line, the smell of developer wafting in the air. I couldn't get enough of it.

Unfortunately today's digital darkroom doesn't offer that same ambience. In fact the whole experience has come down to you your computer and whatever software you have chosen to finish your images with. Don't dismay however because things are good in the world of digital. For those of you who take your photography seriously it is important to finish your images with software. Remember that finishing an image is not the same as correcting a bad image. This is the subject of an entirely different article. Even if the changes are subtle finishing steps you take will result in an image that others will marvel over and you will be proud of.

At the very minimum every photo will benefit from some slight sharpening techniques as well as minor tonal corrections. We can do so much more with the many software programs out there, whether it be Photoshop Elements, CS3, Capture NX for Nikon users, or any number of free or shareware programs out there. You have the ability to manipulate the color curves, shadow and highlights, correct color casts, mimic various filter effects, fixing digital noise or grain and the list goes on and on. With more advanced programs like adobe CS3 one is able to utilize layer masks which allows you to combine photos with different exposures and come away with an evenly exposed photo with definite blacks, subtle highlights and detail in the shadow regions.

I suggest spending the money on a good companion tutorial for your software. It is almost essential as a reference guide as these programs have a steep learning curve. I can recommend books published by New Riders and authored by
Scott Kelby for those of you who use any Adobe product. They publish a reference book with every new edition and they are written in a straightforward explanation style of writing.

When finishing your images I suggest you never work on an original file, always make a duplicate in case you destroy those pixels. Here is my typical workflow for one image: (1) open image in Photoshop at %100 viewing size then I scan the entire image visually for blemishes which is usually dust on the sensor. I then utilize the Healing brush and make those items vanish. (2) I reduce the photo to standard size and resolve any colorcast issues. (3) I then move to color curves and make small adjustments in mid tone brightness, saturation, (watch this as it is easily overdone) contrast and shadow detail. (4) Finally I adjust sharpness, this should be done at %100 and I suggest keeping your radius down and threshold at about 1. I usually bump up the amount to around %150. This setting works well for most photographs but undoubtedly you'll find methods and settings that work best in your workflow. (6) All that's left to do now is to save your work. For photos that I would sell or otherwise be proud of I save one copy as a TIFF file and another as a JPEG file. My web host doesn't allow TIFFS to be uploaded. It is important to remember that if you only save images as JPEG files this is a lossy compression method and you will lose some of the original pixels, which may affect color rendition. On the other hand the TIFF file is a lossless form of compression, which saves all your layers. Be aware however that TIFFS are really large hard drive eating files anywhere from 50 to 90mb.

In closing lets recap the main points (1) All digital images can benefit from some finishing techniques (2) Choose a photo editing software that suits your needs and budget (3) Shorten the learning curve by investing in a good companion text (4) After your adjustments are made make sure and save your work as a TIFF so you do not lose any pixel data.

I hope this article helps those of you fairly new to the process of digital imagery. Thanks for reading and most of all have fun with it.

Shawn Martin

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