Brian's Photo Blog — Article 347
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Confronting My Past Incompetence
Wednesday 9 July 2014   —   Category: Processing
Recently I decided to gather all of my waterfall photos into a single, conglomerate Pacific Waterfalls “super-album” — see Four New Conglomerate 'Super-Albums' for more details. This meant that I needed to sort through the nearly 4,000 images on this Web site in order to track down all of those waterfall shots.

I was a bit surprised to find that exactly half of the 58 waterfall photos included in the album were taken with the older, fixed-lens cameras which I was using before I upgraded to an interchangeable lens DSLR in early 2011. As you can read in Brian’s Photographic Journey — Part 4: 2006-2010, my primary cameras at the time were a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 (which was able to shoot RAW images, but I used only JPG format) and a Panasonic HDC-TM700K video camera which I also used for JPG stills.

When I was evaluating the waterfall photos for inclusion in the album, I was even more surprised, and even quite dismayed, to see the poor job I had done in processing these images in Photoshop, way back 4 to 8 years ago. I found myself thinking, “Who’s the incompetent idiot that processed these photos?!” Of course, I had to shamefacedly admit that it was no one but me, myself and I!

As an extreme example, let’s look at this photo of White River Falls in central Oregon, near the Deschutes River. Admittedly, it was taken under very difficult lighting conditions, as the waterfall faces east, and I was shooting towards the setting sun in the west. Worse yet, I was not capturing RAW images that day, but only JPGs (see Point #1 below). This first picture to the right is the original JPG, straight out of the camera.

This second picture is the result of my first feeble attempt to “improve” the photo, which I performed about three years ago. Well, I suppose it IS better than the original, but it still has significant problems. Because Lightroom is not able to fix the distinct lens flare, I had to do a fair amount of cloning in Photoshop to remove it.

At the time I was fairly happy with my efforts. But when I examined it again just a couple of weeks ago, I was horrified! Because I felt that both my knowledge of photo processing and my skills therein had both increased significantly since that time, I was sure I could do a much better job if I started from scratch and tried again.

The third image is the result of my recent reprocessing. As you can see, there is a huge difference between this photo and my first attempt. I started with the same, difficult original picture, but I was able to achieve dramatically-better results because of my increased skills in photo processing. For more details about how I have improved over the years, see Points #2 and #3 below.

As I spent some time pondering why I had achieved such subpar results in the past, a few specific issues began to crystallize in my mind. I would like to share them with you, in the chance that it might help you to avoid the mistakes which have marred my photos.
  1. First of all, you are going to get subpar results from your photo processing if you start with subpar photos from the camera. Both of the Panasonic cameras I mentioned above have small image sensors and mediocre lenses. And I was capturing those images in JPG format instead of RAW. But even with my first SLR in 25 years — a Sony α55 — and pro-level lenses, I still, in my ignorance, continued to shoot JPG instead of RAW.

    It wasn’t until I upgraded to a Sony α77 that I was forced to use RAW because that particular camera produced such awful JPG images. At that point I also started using Adobe’s Lightroom to process my photos instead of Photoshop. These two major changes brought me into a whole new world of photo processing!

    Now, I don’t want to stir up the huge debate about the pros and cons of shooting RAW vs. JPG, but it really is an important issue that can make a very significant difference in the quality of some photos. Without going into too much detail, here are some of the major benefits of RAW over JPG:
    • As the Wikipedia RAW article states, there are “many more shades of colors [in RAW images] compared to JPEG files — RAW files have 12 or 14 bits of intensity information per [color] channel (4096-16384 shades), compared to JPEG’s gamma-compressed 8 bits (256 shades).” Therefore, you have much more data for each of the millions of pixels which make up the image. That extra data most often translates into superior image quality when processing the photo.
    • From my experience, the JPG processing that cameras perform seems to apply noise reduction and sharpening too aggressively. The result is a degraded image — and that damage cannot be undone later. When processing RAW photos, you as the user have total control over how much noise reduction and sharpening to apply, and you can even apply them in varying amounts to different parts of the same image if necessary. Because programs like Lightroom use non-destructive editing, if you don’t like the amount of noise reduction or sharpening you have chosen, you can easily change it!
    • JPG photos have less dynamic range, and are much more prone to clipping, than RAW images. Therefore, areas of a photo which are way too dark or way too light are much easier to repair with a RAW image — and in some cases they cannot be repaired in a JPG. This is the sad case with some of my older waterfall pictures. No matter how hard I try in Lightroom to fix the exposure problems, there just isn’t enough data there to pull it off, as you can see in this photo of Yosemite’s Mist Trail just below Vernal Falls.
    • With JPGs the white balance is pretty much “baked” into the photo, whereas in a RAW image the white balance is more “uncooked” (hence, raw), so that there is much more flexibility in adjusting the white balance during processing. If there is one thing I have seen over years of photography, it’s that cameras OFTEN get the white balance WRONG.
    To finish this point, let me quote from my article Every Camera Should Have GPS and RAW!
    During the past two years of shooting RAW images with my various cameras, I have become so accustom to the benefits of RAW that I can’t imagine myself EVER buying a camera which lacks this fundamental capability. I found this out the hard way recently when I purchased an Olympus Stylus TG-2 iHS in my first attempt to find a replacement for my unusable Canon S100. I was hoping that the TG-2’s lack of RAW images would not bother me too much, but I quickly found that it bothered me VERY much.
    In fact, it bothered me so much that I replaced the TG-2 with the RAW-capable Fujifilm FinePix F900EXR as my everyday pocket camera which I always have with me wherever I go. RAW — don’t leave home without it!
  2. Next you have the common problem of newbies who tend to overdo things. Once I discovered the amazing, almost miracle-working adjustments in Photoshop and Lightroom — like Shadows and Highlights, Levels and Curves, Clarity, Vibrance and more — well it was hard to hold back. If one scoop of ice cream is good, two is better! If one beer is good, two is better! If 50% Clarity is good, 100% is better! If 25% sharpening is good, 50% is better! Or so I imagined! But as with most things, there is a price to pay for overindulgence!

    When I looked at some of my old waterfall photos, I groaned and cringed from the pain of overindulging in photo-processing goodies! Too much contrast, too much saturation, too much sharpening! It was awful! And some of that overdoing-it wasn’t only from 8 years ago, but as recently as 2 years ago.

    But it seems that since then I have been learning that “less is more.” As the saying goes, “moderation in all things.” And I’m wondering if perhaps my year off from intensive photography didn’t help me gain some perspective, and take a step back from overly-intensive photo processing. For whatever reason(s), it seems that I’m taking a new, gentler approach.

    For example, when processing a RAW image I might slide the Vibrance control up to 30% and find that it looks pretty good. But then I’m likely to dial it back to 25%, just to make sure I don’t overdo it. It’s not that I’m necessarily trying to make the photo reflect “what it REALLY looked like,” or that I’m wanting all of my images to look perfectly natural, for I still believe that photography is art, and that you don’t take a photograph, you make it, as Ansel Adams famously said. But I am becoming more aware that over-processing a photo can, in some instances, detract from an image’s beauty and appeal, like a woman with too much make-up. And just as a woman’s make-up should enhance her natural beauty rather than compete with it, so photo processing should do the same with the original image.

    This over-processing was so much the case with many of my older shots that I not only reprocessed the waterfall photos in question, but also EVERY photo in that same album in which the offending waterfall picture was found! Even though it was very time consuming, I completely reprocessed all the images in the Multnomah Falls 2007, Eagle Creek 2010, McDowell Creek 2011 and Sweet Creek 2012 albums. The Deschutes River 2011 and other albums also desperately need reprocessing once I get a round tuit. Live and learn!
  3. A further problem was my insufficient knowledge of all what Lightroom is capable of. Rather than taking the time to work through the book I bought on how to use Lightroom, I simply jumped in and figured things out on my own. While this approach sufficed to a certain extent, it also left me woefully ignorant of some very useful and important functionality which would have made a big difference during my early years of processing photos with Lightroom.

    One issue with some of my photos which used to give me great trouble was a purplish cast in the rocks, particularly when the rocks are in the shade, as you can see in the image to the right. There are two factors which combine to cause this problem.

    First of all, many digital cameras shift their white balance slightly towards red in order to produce, in the opinion of the manufacturers, more pleasant skin tones. Because I am not photographing people but landscapes, I find this red-shift to be annoying, but usually not too difficult to correct.

    But then you have another phenomenon interacting with the red-shift. Often rocks in the shade will have a bluish tint because they are reflecting light from the blue sky. Unfortunately, camera sensors seems to detect this blue tint a lot more than our human eyes do. One thing is for sure, the rocks in this creek were definitely NOT blue!

    What happens when you combine red and blue light? You get purple! Yet one thing is for sure, the rocks in this creek were definitely NOT purple! As the Wikipedia article on purple explains:
    “Violet is a spectral, or real color ... and it has its own wavelength ... whereas purple is simply a combination of two colors, red and blue. There is no such thing as the 'wavelength of purple light'; it only exists as a combination.”
    Previously, in Photoshop, I would attempt to rid the rocks of their purple tint by reducing the saturation of both red and blue, because the Hue/Saturation dialog box doesn’t have a separate adjustment for purple. This usually did not work out very well, as other parts of the image were affected, not only the rocks.

    Even though I had been using Lightroom rather than Photoshop for my primary photo processing for quite a while, it took way too long for it to dawn on me that Lightroom’s separate adjustments for purple would solve my problem. Sometimes I have such a hard time breaking out of my routine and thinking outside the box! As you can see from this reprocessed image, adjusting the purple color affected only the rocks and totally eliminated their purple tint, resulting in much more natural and accurate colors. Hurray!

    Taking a closer look at other Lightroom features, it took me some time to start using the Adjustment Brush, but once I did, it opened up a lot more possibilities. But because of the way the Adjustment Brush is designed, it can only take you so far. It’s a great tool, but not always the best tool for every situation.

    Although I had dabbled with them in the past, lately I have been discovering, at a deeper level, the amazing power of Lightrooms’s Graduated Filter and Radial Filter. Very often a photo needs different adjustments in different parts of the image. These two filters are versatile and effective tools which enable you to easily apply adjustments which can be achieved in no other way.

    For example, the first photo to the right is an unprocessed RAW image of Green Peak Falls. As you can see, it has various sections of brightness and darkness, with other areas which are in-between. In order to get the best results, you can’t simply adjust the image as a whole. Therefore, I used four different Adjustment Brushes on four separate areas of the photo in order to lighten or darken certain parts. I also used four different Radial Filters in order to apply specific adjustments to specific parts of the image.

    It may take more time and effort to work this way, but the end results are definitely worth it! When I take a picture of a certain subject, I often have to put a lot of time and effort just to get the shot. So why would I want to be lazy, skimp on the processing, and settle for subpar results? In that case, I might as well have never taken the shot! The time and effort it took to make the photo would be wasted! No, if it was worth it to take the picture, it’s worth it to process it properly.
So, there you have my analysis of why my earlier photos were of such subpar quality: I was starting with JPGs instead of RAW images, and I was overzealously misapplying some of the capabilities of Lightroom while remaining woefully ignorant of some of its other capabilities.

I have to admit that it’s embarrassing to look back on my ham-fisted attempts at photo processing from previous years. What’s even more humiliating is that I've shared them on this Web site for all the world to see! Yet on the other hand, it’s also encouraging to see how far I've come. Of course, I will never be able to say that I have arrived — there is always more to learn and improve upon.

Hopefully the lessons I have learned and shared in this article will help you to progress faster and further than you might have, and to avoid some of the mistakes I have made along the way. Bon voyage!
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 347
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