If you’re like me and follow a good number of photographers on social media; it’s clear that there are many differing philosophies and techniques regarding post-processing. It’s even possible to arrive at similar results while using different techniques. So what is a photographer to do when seeking out advice or feedback about post-processing decisions?
The first thing I would suggest before even going down that path is to have a clear idea for what you are trying to achieve before you press the shutter button. You will get the best results in post if you have good RAW files to work with. Post-processing should be viewed as part of the process of bringing a photo to life; it’s not everything however. What comes before you press the shutter and how you shoot the photos are equally as if not more important. Blindly following a technique just because some other photographer promotes that idea is probably going to lead to less than desired results in the end. Oftentimes photographers will constantly mention a specific technique because they’re trying to sell you something. While that may have worked for that photographer in that specific instance it doesn’t mean that it works for everyone nor every situation.
Last week I went to the iconic Sentinel Bridge overlook in Yosemite Valley for a sunrise photoshoot. I knew that the sun would be rising from somewhere behind Half Dome which would result in a very high contrast lighting situation. The majority of my processed photos are all single-frame exposures; as I’d either typically opt for graduated neutral-density filters to manage in-camera exposures or with no filters at all. Having a rigid philosophy on this however would have resulted in having an unnatural dark line between the trees and Half Dome since there were no straight horizon lines in this photo. Filters were clearly not the ideal technique for this photoshoot. So what options did I have? I decided to bracket anywhere from 3 to 5 exposures per composition in one-stop increments to cover the range from shadows to highlights.
I shot my photos with an idea for what I wanted to achieve in the outcome. My next challenge was back home on my computer trying to figure out which of the many varieties of exposure blending techniques would yield the best results for what I was seeking. One technique frequently touted by photographers is to blend exposures by hand; sometimes via luminosity masks. I’ve used this strategy before and it works. It can take a very long time however to get good results when viewed at 100% depending on how intricate the masking is. I decided that Luminosity Masking would be my fall-back plan if all else failed. So my next steps were to try the Lightroom Photo Merge tool to create an HDR file. I hadn’t used this tool much before but if it could yield good results and save me time then why not? I had to experiment with a number of settings before I got the results that I wanted. This involved unchecking the tone mapping and auto-align boxes; and using a medium amount of de-ghosting. Tone mapping yielded the most hideous results as it had that garish “HDR look” in addition to having a lot of haloing. My philosophy is if it looks like HDR then it’s too much HDR.
With a solid photo merge file, I then tried applying the Lightroom graduated filter which I often use for taming contrast in my photos. Back to what I said earlier in this article about this scene lacking straight lines; I had the same issue when using the LR graduated filter. Luckily the tool comes with masks that work quite well with single exposures. The problem I ran into here though was when I masked out the transition areas it resulted in a lot of undesired ghosting around Half Dome and the tree leaves around the sky area when viewed at 100% since this file was actually a multi-exposure composite. If my goal were only to post on social media sites and never sell my work then the results would have been perfectly fine. That’s not good enough for me. I believe in producing the best files possible otherwise it’s not worth it. Ok, so that’s one technique that didn’t work for this situation. What next?
I started over again with the same photo merge file. This time I just used the global highlight, shadows, whites and black adjustment sliders in Lightroom to adjust contrast. Some photographers would likely poo poo such a simplistic idea but again, who gives a shit if it works. My goal with these Lightroom files is not to come to a final product in Lightroom. I process my LR files into working TIF files which I then fine-tune with Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masks for curve layer adjustments and saturation masks within Photoshop. This ended up being the path that I took for this photo.
Once I had my working TIF file in Photoshop I utilized my standard workflow with luminosity and saturation masks. For a finishing touch I did some dodging of foliage highlights and painted some light glow around the sunrise light. That’s not something that a purist would go for but it’s my photo and I’ll do whatever I want with it. This photo of “Fall Sunrise at Sentinel Bridge With Half Dome in Background, Yosemite National Park, California” was created while using a variety of different post-process techniques and methodologies. Could I have achieved similar results via more complicated means; sure. It’s the end result that matters to me though. Making more complicated processes just for technique’s sake does nothing for me nor the viewer.
Don’t get married to a specific technique. Be technique-agnostic. Thoughtfully consider the right tools for the job – nothing more and nothing less. It’s perfectly acceptable to learn from others and listen to what they have to say. In the end however you have to be the final decision-maker. Never lose sight of the end goal which is the photo. It’s your photo.
Disclosure: I received Tony Kuyper’s Actions Panel and tools for free several years ago in exchange for reviews but I have nothing to gain financially by posting this article.