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The Postprocessing Pipeline

From RAW image to radical results with Lightroom and Photoshop

Kohl Christensen riding a mountain of water on a chaotic day at Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

A few years ago, while shooting big-wave surfing, I captured a remarkable image of pro surfer Kohl Christensen riding a mountain of water on a chaotic day at Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

Normally, when shooting surfing, you’re looking for a clean wave, without any whitewash contaminating the wave face itself. In this image, and on this wild and windy day, the surfers were trying to catch any decent wave they could, and the wave Kohl caught turned out to be quite interesting because of the backwash that was pulled up into the wave face. The spray flying off the top of the wave, combined with the messy look of the wave, is what makes this image work.

This image was shot with a Nikon D4 and an AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm ƒ/4G ED VR II, which was mounted on a huge Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley head. This image was intentionally shot pulled back at around 290mm, so I could show the huge wave and put the surfer in context with the surroundings. I shot over 3,000 images that day, and this is the one image that really stood out from the rest. Last fall, this image was chosen by Apple to promote the cutting-edge 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display. It appeared on their website as a full-screen image on a 5K Retina iMac showing off the high-res quality of the monitor. So, if you think you’ve seen this image before, the odds are very good that you have.

The Importance Of Post Processing

Once the image was captured as a RAW image, the process is only halfway done. As I teach in many of my workshops, and as I espouse in my recently updated digital workflow ebook, A Professional Photographer’s Workflow: Using Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, the postprocessing of an image is anywhere from 40% to 50% of the imaging process for my work. How the image is processed has a huge effect on how it’s perceived. I’m not talking about doing anything wild and crazy with the image—by that, I mean that to really make the image shine and look just as it did on that day takes some work in postprocessing. As this is a fairly short article covering a lot of ground, I can’t go into how every slider in Lightroom works, nor can I cover in minute detail the adjustments made to this image in Photoshop. For the full story, check out the book.

Figure 1. This is the image as it appeared just after importing it into Lightroom. As usual with RAW images, they sometimes look rather dull when first imported into Lightroom. This image was shot in a neutral color mode where the contrast and saturation settings in the camera were turned down to the lowest settings so that highlights are protected and I have a solid base image with as much dynamic range as possible to work up in postprocessing.

As you can see in Figure 1, when this image was imported into Lightroom, it was dull and muddy. There are a few reasons for this. One reason is, there’s about 500 feet of haze from the ocean spray between my position and the surfer, and the other is that I purposely have my camera set to shoot in RAW mode with a neutral color and contrast setting so highlights aren’t blown out in high-contrast shooting scenarios.

As a side note, I must mention that to get the best results when postprocessing images, a color-calibrated, top-notch monitor and a well-thought-out workspace are requirements if you want consistent and accurate color. I calibrate my Eizo CG243W monitor, which shows 98% of the Adobe RGB color space and is fine-tuned to be accurate from corner to corner, with an X-Rite i1Photo Pro 2 monitor calibration device. In my experience, Eizo and NEC make the best monitors I’ve seen for the color-accurate needs of photographers. Because we’re going to adjust our image visually, this is a key step in any digital workflow and one of the most important aspects of digital photography. In fact, I’d say having your color management dialed in is more important than the lens or camera used to capture the image. If you aren’t seeing accurate colors on your monitor, then working up your images is a waste of time.

When processing images, I’m typically trying to replicate the scene as I saw it with my eyes. Hence, I’m looking to replicate the white balance, tones, contrast and overall scene faithfully before I start thinking about how I can add graduated filters or vignettes to help my viewer make sense of the scene. I also want to make clear at this point that I don’t consider myself a photojournalist. For some assignments that are more photojournalistic in nature, I won’t add or remove anything in the image that wasn’t there. But, for most of my work, which is normally used for commercial advertising, I’ll make subtle tweaks to help direct the viewer’s eye to where I want them to go in the image. For this image, you might already have noticed there are two other surfers swimming in the foreground. Those surfers were distracting from the surfer on the wave, so I removed them in Lightroom.

Adjustments In Lightroom

The goal in Lightroom is to bring back the contrast and saturation in the image, and also to dial in the color balance. As seen in Figure 2, I set up the Lightroom Develop module to show the image as large as possible, and I’ve pulled out the right-hand panel as far as it will go so the sliders are less jumpy and allow for more precise adjustments. I always have the Histogram visible at the top of the right panel, and I work from the top of the right-hand panel downward as I work up the image.

If the white balance in the image looks fairly accurate, I usually skip over the White Balance sliders and start by adjusting the Tone and Presence sliders in the Basic dialog. The reason I skip over the White Balance sliders is that the Tone and Presence sliders will affect the white balance, and if I set the white balance right off the bat, I’ll have to come back and tweak it again after adjusting the other sliders in the Basic dialog. For this image, I ended up leaving the white balance as it was shot since it looked fine and didn’t need any adjusting.

Figure 2. This is the image as it was worked up in the Lightroom Develop module. Also visible are the adjustments I made to the Basic and Tone Curve sliders to boost the contrast and saturation in the image.

As you can see in Figure 2, I brightened the image slightly by moving the Exposure slider to +0.70 and boosted the Contrast significantly (+49). Generally, with the Tone sliders, I massage the highlights and shadows in the image with the relevant sliders. For this image, the highlights were pulled down slightly and I pulled the Shadows slider out quite a ways to open up the hard shadows since the wave was backlit by the afternoon sun, to some degree.

The Whites and Blacks sliders were used to adjust the end points of the histogram. I try to stretch the histogram out so there’s a full tonal range of colors in the image, which may mean the white and black points in the histogram are at the edges of the histogram, or as with this image, that the image looks normal. For my work, and to create the best possible image quality, I have to finish working up every image in Photoshop so I can extremely accurately set the black and white points of the histogram with a Levels adjustment. In my experience, setting the black and white points of the histogram in Lightroom is a difficult process and isn’t nearly as accurate as in Photoshop, partly because of the hybrid color space used in Lightroom and partly because there’s no Levels adjustment option in Lightroom.

Once I had the Whites and Blacks sliders set, I added some Clarity and a bit of Vibrance to the image to give it a little extra punch and saturation. I always use the Vibrance slider before adding saturation with the Saturation slider. The Vibrance slider is a nonlinear slider, meaning that it saturates less saturated colors more than it does the already saturated colors. This helps to equalize the saturation of all colors in the image. The only hard and fast rule I have when processing images is not to take the Saturation slider farther than +15. If you pull it out farther than that, you’re creating colors that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce.

I added a little midtone contrast to the image using the Lights (+9) and Darks (-5) sliders in the Tone Curve dialog. I didn’t make any adjustments in the HSL/Color/B&W, Split Toning or Detail dialogs. Note that, in the Detail dialog, I left the Sharpening sliders at their default positions because, at this point in my workflow, I only want to add capture sharpening to the image. While there isn’t room here to discuss a sharpening workflow in great detail, there are three steps in a sharpening workflow: capture sharpening, creative sharpening and output sharpening. Capture sharpening is sharpening applied to counteract the anti-aliasing filter that sits in front of the imaging sensor in most cameras and blurs the image slightly so digital artifacts like moiré don’t show up in the image. Creative sharpening is adding sharpening to one part of the image to make it stand out, and output sharpening is applied after the image has been fully worked up and you’re resizing the image for a specific usage, like generating a small JPEG or preparing the image for printing.

In the Lens Corrections dialog, I checked Enable Profile Corrections under the Profile tab, then set the Distortion slider to 0 so the image looks as it did to my eye through the lens. I backed off the Vignetting slider to keep some of the vignetting produced by the lens in the image. Under the Color tab in the Lens Corrections dialog, I checked Remove Chromatic Aberration to remove a tiny amount of chromatic aberration in the image. In the Effects dialog, I added a very subtle vignette to the image, as seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3. In the Lens Correction dialog, I have “Enabled Profile Corrections” and also removed Chromatic Aberration in the Color tab (not shown) of the Lens Corrections dialog. I also added a slight vignette to the image to help drive the viewer’s eye towards the surfer.

Going back to the top of the right panel, I used the Spot Removal tool to take out a few dust spots—these all appeared in the sky above the surfer. I also used three separate Graduated Filters to control the brightness of the sky and whitewater in the foreground of the image. In general, I use a lot of Graduated Filter adjustments in my images to help direct the viewer’s eye to my subject. These Graduated Filter adjustments are quite subtle, and if you didn’t know that I added them, you’d never suspect I was helping your eye go to the surfer. The Vignette and Graduated Filter adjustments are part of this creative method I use to massage the tones in the image.

Figure 4. I added three Graduated Filters to control the brightness of the sky and the whitewater in the foreground of the image and also to help the viewer’s eye get to the subject faster.

That’s it for my Lightroom adjustments. As I’ve already indicated, for my work, I find it critical to take the image into Photoshop and continue working it up there where, at the very least, I make a Levels adjustment and do any other retouching that might have been too difficult in Lightroom. When I export the image out of Lightroom, I export the full-size image as a PSD in 16-bit mode, at 300 ppi, in the ProPhoto RGB color space with no sharpening added.

Adjustments In Photoshop

In Photoshop, my aim is to create a master image file, which will remain in the ProPhoto RGB color space. Once I have this file worked up, I can convert the file to any other color space, as needed, and make the necessary adjustments for any and all uses of the image down the road. I make all adjustments to the image using adjustment layers and duplicate layers. In the end, I save the PSD file with all of the adjustment layers along with the RAW image file.

Figure 5. In Photoshop, I added a Levels adjustment layer with a layer mask, which allowed me to very accurately set the levels of the Histogram, while the layer mask allowed me to extend the dynamic range of the image by pulling back in those areas that were clipped by the Levels adjustment. I also added a brightness/contrast adjustment layer as well as a Vibrance adjustment layer.

When I pull images into Photoshop, they sometimes seem to have a haze over them that can be removed with a Levels adjustment. Because of that, my first adjustment in Photoshop is a Levels adjustment layer (Figure 4). Because we’re now working in a normalized ProPhoto RGB color space, I can very accurately nail down the endpoints of the histogram. Basically, I’m pulling in the white and black points on the ends of the histogram in the Levels dialog to create a full tonal range. Of course, this depends on the image. If I’m working on an image that was shot on a foggy day, pulling in the white and black points in a Levels adjustment will remove a lot of that fog, which probably won’t be what I want in that image. With this image, I pulled the far-right slider in the Levels adjustment from 255 to 245 so it just touches the right edge of the histogram. This forces the whitewater to be closer to pure white, and knowing some of that whitewater was certainly pure white to my eye when I saw this scene, that makes sense. For the Blacks slider on the far left of the histogram, I pulled that one over from 0 to 25. Note that for the Blacks slider here, I didn’t pull it all the way over to where it touched the histogram on that side. The reason is that it started to make part of the wave on the far right side of the image much too dark for my taste.

The next adjustment I made was a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer and, with this layer, I added a touch of brightness to the image. In my experimentation, adjusting the brightness of images with a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer gives a slightly different result than moving the middle slider in the Levels adjustment layer.

The last adjustment layer was a Vibrance adjustment layer. I pulled the Vibrance slider over to +20 to add back some saturation that was lost when I applied the Levels adjustment layer. I’ve found that if I apply a significant Levels adjustment layer in Photoshop, that often removes some of the color saturation in the image and I add it back with the Vibrance adjustment layer.

Here you can see the entire evolution of the image from start to finish. The top image shows how it appeared when imported into Lightroom, the middle image is with the Lightroom adjustments and the bottom image is the final image with the Photoshop adjustments.

That’s it. At this point, the image is ready to roll and can be converted to any color space profile needed and sent out to clients. Of course, I have a whole other workflow when converting to Adobe RGB and controlling the histogram so important highlights aren’t clipped, but that’s another article. I never send an image to anyone in the ProPhoto RGB color space. I always send images in the Adobe RGB color space, or if they’re going to be used on the web, in the sRGB color space. Before sending the image out to clients, I typically make a print on either Ilford Gold Fibre Silk (my favorite paper) or Epson Proofing Paper Semimatte just to make sure the image will print well.

As you’ve seen, this image came a long way in postprocessing. This isn’t unusual for surfing images shot from the beach, where there’s a lot of distance and ocean spray between the subject and myself. The great majority of my images aren’t this dull and washed out when they show up in Lightroom. I hope this example shows how postprocessing can bring an image to life and how much work is typically involved for even basic postprocessing.


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Michael Clark is an internationally published photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images from remote locations around the world. A sampling of his clients include: Apple, Nikon, Red Bull, National Geographic, Outside and Outdoor Photographer.