With the advent of digital cameras, there is one element of photography that has disappeared completely – the darkroom. In many ways this is a good thing; the vast amounts of expensive kit that was required to process your own photographs meant that a whole room in your house had to be pretty much dedicated to the cause – I remember in the 70s my father getting the photography bug and buying from various secondhand sources the whole kit – projector, dishes for the various chemicals required, even an electric drying tray for the finished photos!! He even made window blackout boards from sheets of chipboard painted black. It was a massive hassle and didn’t last long, although I think it’s all still stashed in the attic, under a 30 year old layer of dust.
These days of course, all you need is a mac and some software in order to process the pictures you have taken. Most computers come with free image handling software, although of course this is really only for viewing, and maybe also cropping, pictures, and little else. If you get bitten by the bug, then you will quickly realise that you need something a bit more advanced.
I started my photographic journey off with Adobe Photoshop Elements, which is in effect the ‘light’ version of the Adobe Creative Studio Photoshop product used by professionals. The logic is that, like most technical things, only 50 percent of the features will be used by 99 percent of the users, so they made it affordable enough for home users. Photoshop in its various forms has become pretty much the standard tool for photographic manipulation. The current version of Elements, version 9, has pretty much all the features you are going to need in an accessible user interface which lets you process all the existing image formats, including, crucially, RAW format which is what ‘proper’ digital SLR cameras can shoot in. This is a file format which captures all the image data in a fully adjustable format, allowing vastly increased post – processing. However do not forget that if you do wish to use this format of image, then Photoshop requires an added bit of Adobe software [which is free] known as Adobe Camera Raw, which is a RAW format processing toolkit allowing incredible alterations, such as the key one, exposure.
Because Photoshop allows the use of such tools as layers, which are multiple overlays on top of an image file that can be used for altering contrast, brightness, saturation and so on whilst still leaving the original image intact, it will let you do most things you will want to try in one suite of software. However Photoshop’s real strength is that it is a platform that supports plug-ins – these being third party applications that are launched from within Photoshop that let you do specialist tweaking to your image files.
I have purchased a few of these plug-ins over the last year. In one blog post it is not really practical to try and review such a massive range of functions comprehensively, so I will stick to an overview and if you want to explore further into the subjects I cover, then click on the relevant links.
But remember one thing: No software, however clever it is, will compensate for taking a poor photo in the first place. What I have learnt is that the more effort you spend ‘in the field’ taking the photo, the more effective these tools become. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say in Yorkshire.
1. Adobe Camera Raw
I didn’t really see the point of this tool at first, except that it solved the problem that a lot of people have when they begin to shoot in RAW format, and then find that Photoshop won’t open the camera’s native RAW format.
However more recently I have really begun to understand the vital functions it allows – in effect you don’t really need much else to produce high quality photos and some professionals use nothing else – but it is safe to say that you have three main elements to the workflow. Just remember that this is only of use with RAW format files.
a] The Main settings tab
This tab enables you to use sliders to alter the exposure of the image, which is a killer tool. For example – say you under expose an image – not the end of the world, and certainly not as bad as OVER exposing it, because you can still recover hidden detail from an under exposed shot. OK, so you increase the exposure slightly and use the very helpful histogram to see where the exposure is going. You can the tweak other settings such as Fill Light, Contrast and Brightness, and these in combination have a very major effect on rescuing a photo you thought you had blown. You can also set the Clarity [which defines the edges in the photo], Vibrance [which has a neat effect of increasing colour saturation but in a balanced way, without over cooking].
b] The Noise and Sharpness Tab
Much as the name suggests really. You can increase sharpness, but be careful here. By increasing sharpness, two by-products may occur. One is loss of fine detail, the other is the addition of significant Noise, which then means you have to over-use Noise Reduction software to compensate, and you may end up with an artificial, plasticky – looking end result.
You can also use Camera Raw for noise reduction, and should do so when the image is zoomed in to quite a large degree to see the effects you are introducing.
c] The Camera Settings tab
This tab allows you to choose presets from a drop down list in order to apply different values to the settings already mentioned, and also to save them.
2. Topaz Labs Adjust
Topaz Labs produce a range of plug ins for both Photoshop and Elements. Adjust is a really cool toolkit which allows you to use pre-set values to apply vibrancy, exposure and colour changes in order to achieve that elusive ‘pop’ to your photos. It really is very good – no doubt you could achieve most of not all of the effects using Photoshop, but this is a very fast, user-friendly workflow tool which lets you use a number of pre-sets, and to tweak them and save your own as well. I tend to use it more discriminatingly now – when I first got it, I went beserk as it is very tempting to do, and overcooked a lot of my photos.
Adjust is a great tool for adding that ‘pop’ to a photo. It’s all too easy to take a picture and not really capture the vibrance of natural features such as rocks, grass, sky and so on – and by simply increasing saturation it will not look any more convincing. But you have a spectrum of pre-sets which you can use in Adjust, including the ability to apply an HDR-like effect to a single image. The effect is not as convincing as if you did a ‘proper’ HDR, but is good nonetheless.
Below is an image made up of two versions of a RAW file I shot – one before Adjust, the other after.
3. Topaz Labs Detail
Detail is really more of a sharpening tool, to be used when the image you have taken would benefit from a little extra definition, either in places or as a whole. Exactly the same kind of user interface as the other Topaz products is present here in Detail. It does work – again if the base image is decent. You can use its presets, or make your own and save them – to really pull out fine detail from a previously ‘flat’ photograph, and also gain depth from an image also. It is explained on the Topaz website as a module which ‘internally separates an image into different parts: small details, medium details, large details, and color. ‘
I tend to use detail to expose interesting surfaces, such as the rusted paint work on the tractor in the above image. I will also tend to use Detail and Adjust as ‘either or’ tools – I find that if you use both on the same image it can look rather artificial. However as a helper tool, it really adds some life to photos.
Again, look at the ‘Before and After’ images below to view an example:
4. Imagenomics Noiseware [Standard and Pro]
One of the problems with images that are processed, especially with tools such as the ones listed above, is that noise can be added. This is essentially pixels that appear on the image which show up as a kind of dark ‘rash’, causing the overall clarity of the picture to be destroyed. The same artefacts can also appear when you take shots with a high ISO rating. The problem you have is that all image processing software suffers from the restriction that it sees detail and noise as basically the same thing – and so you need a clever application to allow the removal of one without destroying the other. Imagenomics is a clever toolkit, because, again based on presets that you yourself can add to, it allows not only different levels of noise reduction/retention, but also the ability to select certain areas of an image only – so you only apply the settings like a ‘brush’ to a defined area of the picture.
As you can see from the screenshot above, the ‘full’ setting has been used and a very strong noise reduction effect has occurred. This is a very powerful tool and should be used with caution. I have found that when I started out, I used a workflow which was to sharpen massively in Camera Raw, pop the image in Adjust, maybe then fry it using Detail, and by that time I had so much residual noise that I had to apply a strong noise reduction effect which rendered the image plasticky and unreal. Now sometimes, this is a very cool effect to have. I think that, for example, very bright, light, modern buildings look great with this ‘artificial’ sheen on them; but for other styles such as portraits you are likely to be slapped around the head by your subject of you portray them as looking like a plastic surgery victim!
I’m intending to deal with specific HDR software in a separate article, coming soon. But for now, I’d recommend that you try out some of these tools if you’re not already using them.