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Interpretation And Refinement

Pressing the shutter button is only the very beginning

This Article Features Photo Zoom

lupine field near Yosemite National Park
A lupine field near Yosemite National Park, California.

“I can’t verbalize the internal meaning of pictures whatsoever. Some of my friends can at very mystical levels, but I prefer to say that, if I feel something strongly, I would make a photograph that would be the equivalent of what I saw and felt…” —Ansel Adams

In these days of digital capture, postprocessing your images after the exposure is made is an integral part of making good images. In the old days of slide film, recording enough detail in highlights and shadows was a challenge. D-SLR cameras generally create images that hold a great deal more information in the high and low tones, but often appear too flat. Whether using film or digital, the untouched results aren’t “reality,” or what the eye sees. In addition, the unadjusted capture probably has little emotional connection to, as Ansel put it, what the photographer saw and felt about the scene.

A screenshot of the Layers palette in Photoshop, showing each of the adjustments Neill made to the image.

The positive side of this is that our images are more likely to contain a wider range of detail and give us more creative options. The downside is that digital captures often require help to make them come to life—for the images to look like what was seen and felt by the photographer.

First, it’s important to use software that’s sufficient to give you control over your images. Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom are excellent management tools, but they’re also full of powerful and easy features for processing your images. For many photographers, these two programs are sufficient for all their needs.

Recently, I’ve been using Lightroom to make my edits and initial adjustments before polishing up the file in Photoshop. Photoshop remains the ultimate tool for digital photographers, and the “lite” version, Photoshop Elements, is an effective and simple program for getting started with the digital darkroom.

One key aspect of maximizing your images is creating a master file for each digital file. This applies to both scanned film and digital captures. I started using master files when first scanning my 4×5 film for digital printing in the early 1990s. When using Photoshop, it’s important to use adjustment layers while using its tools. Each adjustment you make using tools such as Curves, Levels or Color Saturation is made on a separate layer.

Once you’re pleased with the results, you then can save the file using a naming convention such as Title-master.psd without flattening the layers. The master file becomes your archive for the full-resolution image, plus the adjustment layers you’ve created. You always can revert back to the originally captured (preferably in RAW) or scanned file and reprocess the image should the master file become damaged beyond repair. As I’ve improved my skills or discovered new tools for processing a file, I often start over to create a new file to improve upon the existing master file.

With a layered master file, refinements can be made easily at a later date by adding new layers or tweaking existing layers to further perfection. Tastes and preferences change over time. This ability in digital processing to both save one’s efforts for repeatable reproduction and allow for creative growth in interpreting an image in an efficient and convenient manner is simply revolutionary.

In terms of refining past adjustments, Aperture and Lightroom track your processing history and allow you to go back to adjust or reverse or eliminate past adjustments. Although not as powerful as Photoshop adjustment layers, you still have ability to refine or reverse your efforts.

Your full-resolution master file is the primary foundation for preparing images for any use you might have—fine-art prints, JPEGs for the web, files prepared for publishers, etc. You simply flatten the layers, set the image size and resolution, sharpen for output and Save As the new file with a name related to its use. When I make my fine-art prints, I save the file named to that size, so I don’t have to open and prep the master file when I next need to make that print.


Here are some great sites for improving your skills in postprocessing:

Plus, all three of these applications offer trial downloads:

The lupine image shown here was made in my backyard. It had rained the night before, and the sun was just coming up over the hillside. I used my 90mm tilt/shift lens, with the lens tilted forward to gain sharpness throughout the frame. Also shown is the Layers palette, reflecting each individual adjustment used to refine the RAW capture from my master file. The layers include adjustments made using the Select > Color Range tool in Photoshop. With this tool, I created luminosity masks to the highlights, midtones and shadows.

The key effects of the layers used on this image are the separation of tones, especially in the shadows. The blacks were too light in the RAW file, so they were darkened while maintaining clear separation of the shadow values. The feeling of light in this scene was that of glistening highlights off the flowers and grasses. To maintain that effect, the highlight curves was pushed so that the whites were as bright as possible without losing separation of detail within the lightest tones.

With all of the tools available today for postprocessing your images, there’s little excuse not to dive into the digital darkroom. If you’re not currently making master files of your favorite images, complete with individual layers containing each adjustment you make, then you’re missing one of the greatest benefits of digital photography. Ansel often referred to his negatives as his musical score, and his print, the performance. Your digital capture has all the notes for your image, and your digital darkroom is how you make those notes sing for a grand performance!

To visit his Photo Blog or sign up for newsletter updates on his Landscape Essentials course with, visit William Neill’s website at

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.