Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Photo Processing 101

Educating my clients about the value of their photography investment is an ongoing process throughout the whole experience from beginning to end, sometimes beyond that (yes!). I normally don't get into the technical details if they don't ask. But once in a while, some of my clients are more curious than others and ask a lot of great questions about what goes into creating these amazing photos and what sets them apart from your typical WalMart or Target photo session. So I thought it'd be cool to give a little photography 101 for everyone. The topic - IMAGE CAPTURE/POST PROCESSING.

What's image capture & post-processing? Simple, it's the process your image goes through from the start of the photo session, to the digital enhancement process, to the online hosting of their images. These "invisible" steps are crucial to delivering the high quality product my clients expect. I use professional equipment, but these are merely tools. Your final images do not come like that out of the camera, contrary to some popular belief. The RAW images are very nice, but my clients expect more and do know better because they've invested their time and money into my knowledge, experience, and service to ensure the professional quality result that they can brag to their friends about :). This is what sets my work and their cherished images apart from everything else.

To save you from a long drawn out essay on this, I'll write out my process in bullet form, gotta love that, right? And I'll throw in some costs factors as well to give you some idea of the financial investments involved. Here we go...

The following is a high-level overview of my image processing workflow:

  1. Capture images at your photo session using manual exposure mode in which I manually adjust the cameras settings by controlling the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. This will ensure the best exposure possible using available light combined with artificial light as needed. I use Canon's 5D and 30D SLRs. The 5D retails for around $2700 and the 30D around $1100. That's just for the bodies! Gotta buy lenses for them ... yep. For example, my Canon 24-70 wide angle lens retails for around $1150 and my Canon 70-200 zoom retails for around $1650. Then there's the endless list of accessories to make shooting easier, but I won't get into all that. Why do they cost this much? LOL, let's save that for another lesson.
  2. Upload RAW image files from my camera's Compact Flash (CF) memory card onto my computer's hard drive. Typical number of images from a portrait session is around 100-150. Weddings are typically around 1000+. Typical time to upload is around 10 minutes to 30 minutes. I use SanDisk Extreme III 4gb cards. They retail around $75 a piece. I have a handful of those :)
  3. Sort through photos and begin global editing process in Adobe Lightroom (LR). LR retails for around $300. In LR, I like to fine tune exposure and color saturation to give it that "pop". LR has many tools to do this - Curve adjustments, Vibrance, Saturation, HSL, Color boosts, Vignette, Clarity, Highlight recovery, Brightness, Contrast, and so much more. I'll also add effects to give it my artistic touch that my clients expect and love. Typical time in Lightroom = 3-6 hours for portrait sessions, 16 to 24 hours for weddings.
  4. Export Lightroom images to JPEG. I shoot in RAW mode so I can have more control over the image, but it needs to be converted into a format for printing. JPEG is that format. Typical export time for portraits = 10-15 minutes. Export time for weddings = 30-45 minutes.
  5. PHOTOSHOP time! Yes I use Adobe Photoshop (PS), it's a great tool. I have PS CS2. CS3 is already out and retails for around $650. I use it for final touches such as retouching, adding other effects, sharpening, and resizing if needed. There's no typical PS time since some photo sets require more or less than the other. Perhaps the most important tool I use in PS would be Kevin Kubotas Magic Sharp action. That's the last step I put all my images through. So many images in fact, I use that action as a batch or automated edit process. This lets me sharpen hundreds or thousands of images while I step away for a few minutes or up to an hour, depending on how much work PS needs to do.
  6. Create the beloved SLIDESHOW! This is one of my favorite steps in the process. I take 50-100 of my favorite images and create a flash-based slideshow to post on my blog for my clients and their friends & families to enjoy. Definitely a client favorite. This process can take up to 2 hours from the time I create the files to the time the upload is complete on the web. The software I use is Show-It Web and retails for around $200.
  7. Upload images onto PICTAGE. Pictage charges photographers $99/month just to use their services. But I still have to pay for all materials (e.g., albums, books, prints, etc.). They handle all order fulfillment, but take a cut of the price. Pictage is great in that it's a true outsource resource, they do EVERYTHING so I can focus on my business and my clients. This is one of the longest processes. First I have to create a client "account" on Pictage. I then need to resize, reformat & organize the photos to meet PICTAGE's format and specs. Then it's time to upload via FTP (file transfer protocol). This can take up to 8 hours! Typically I'll save this step for the evening so when I wake up in the morning, upload is complete :).
  8. Album design is not necessarily a part of post-processing, but it is a process. In an effort to focus on my business & client service, I outsource this step to an album designer. This costs anywhere from $300-400 per design. It's a nice thing to have so that I can ensure a timely delivery of the album to my clients. If I didn't outsource this step it could add months to the delivery process!
Here are some before & after photos. Befores on the LEFT, Afters on the RIGHT:

Amy's original portrait on the left looks great, okay I think she looks beautiful! It's a good exposure, not bad by itself. But I want more. So I add slight retouching to her skin to give it more glow, used my favorite "S-Curve" adjustment, enhanced colors slightly, then sharpened.

The Before pic was a nice captured moment, but I wanted to give it a more timeless look so I added a blue split tone action. I raised the exposure just a tad and then sharpened.

The Before shot was great, good colors (it's what Canon's 5D is famous for!). But in the After photo, I raised the exposure just a bit, added a slight S-Curve adjustment, then boosted the color vibrance in Lightroom. Then I sharpened in Photoshop.

Brooke is so adorable, it was hard not to get a great picture! These were shot around 9:30am on a cool Saturday morning under overcast skies, the morning sun was fighting to poke through those clouds! So I had some nice diffused light to start with which is key to the images I wanted to produce. As you can see, I warmed up the tones in the "after" picture (on the right). With a little S-Curve adjustment, her blue eyes popped nicely. I like using tonal adjustments through the S-Curve method instead of levels and color saturation boosts. For me, this method really gets color to pop nicely. There are many ways to achieve this, I just prefer this method. Sometimes I'll even boost the Vibrance setting in Lightroom before I apply the S-Curve method.

I pretty much did the same as above for this photo...

I love this action shot. The Before pic was cool, but this exact moment had some overcast so I wanted to add some punch and something different. I used a lomo and cross-process effect that enhances & warms colors and adds a nice vignette effect. Cool stuff :)

I really liked the colors in the background of the Before photo. But I wanted more (of course). My goal was to let autumn foliage pop out more so I enhanced the colors again using the s-curve and vibrance tools in Lightroom. Then I sharpened in Photoshop.

I hope this was an interesting read. Please let me know your comments or if you have any questions, let me know!


Erin Harvey said...

Thanks so much for the post Armin. While yes the photos are fabulous on their own, it helps those aspiring photographers out there know that photos aren't all going to be perfect straight out of the camera. I can't wait to get back home to process my photos from DC yesterday.