In the shadows - how to improve your photographs with one slick cursor move
By: Philip Smith - 10/01/2011
Previously on RAW passions, we left you with the tantalising prospect of exploring the world of RAW files to really push your photography forwards. In this second part - we deliver.
In the first part of this series we encouraged you to explore the world of RAW image processing.
I studied photography at Bournemouth College of Art in the 1980s which was a vibrant and exciting place to be (erm… the college not Bournemouth). We were all in love with developing our own film. I was expert at the tricky business of loading film into the developing tanks in total darkness – very fast, very nimble – like a ninja weasel – another disappearing craft like dry stone walling. And everyone seemed to have a secret chemical formula or method that got that most sought-after object – ‘a good chunky neg’. We would spend long long hours in the communal darkroom printing our chunky negs and obsessing about our blacks and our whites and our grain. I loved it.
Now you can re-create that excitement at the computer screen – but without the chemical burns in your jumper, the acidic smells mingled with adolescent hormones, and the strong desire to book the enlarger booth next to Ann Pethers.
Images before (left) and after (right) adjusting the RAW ‘negative’.
More detail in the shadows areas – look at how the foliage of the bay tree is ‘revealed’.
Getting going with your RAW processor
So you have shot some frames in RAW format and have downloaded them to the computer. They don’t look anything special – usually very dull colours with little contrast. They won’t come alive unless you process them with a RAW processor.
There are many RAW processors out there; some you download and use as standalone applications. Some are integrated into image management software like Photoshop. They all do basically the same thing but some are better than others. Best to look on the internet and forums for opinions about which are best. But Adobe products are the market leaders. I am going to use the processor integrated into Photoshop CS3 as my examples.
We only have room here to deal with a few of the processing tools. But once you have got the basic principle you can explore for yourself. There is loads of information on the web – notably the Adobe learning siteis very good for beginners.
Part of the RAW processing window shows a whole lot of sliders and read-outs.
The coloured graph at the top of the column is the histogram. A histogram shows you a graphic map derived from the brightness values of each pixel (dot of colour) and how these values are distributed across the whole image. Left is dark, right is light.
You can see that our graph is weighted to the left; so the image brightness is unbalanced – with too much emphasis on the darks. So the idea is to spread the brightness values out so that the image shows a good range of tones that are easy on the eye.
An easy way to do that is to adjust the exposure which you can do by using the slider bar ‘Exposure’. The exposure now has been brightened by a value of 0.90. That’s a very precise number and that’s the point. Adjustments can be very subtle giving you absolute control over the finished image. Now the histogram is looking healthier with a good, more even tonal range over the whole image. We haven’t eliminated the shadows – that’s what gives the image its depth and richness – we have simply balanced it better.
I have also:
- added a bit of ‘Recovery’ as some of the highlights had ‘blown’ – that is, they had become so bright that they lost detail. Recovery builds the highlight information back up;
- adjusted the ‘fill light’ slider. This is like adding an extra lighting source to the image – it boosts the middle tones of the image and can often reveal more detail;
- added a bit of ‘clarity’ – this is a very subtle ‘sharpening’ tool that helps boost the contrast of the mid-tones – we will deal with sharpening in a future episode.
Now my image looks more like it.
But I still don’t like that bay tree. I think it’s still a bit too ‘heavy’ – I would like to see if it would be better lightened. Now in Photoshop I can use ‘Quick mask’ to select the area and to lighten it without touching any of the other parts of the image.
The image with 'Quickmask' in Photoshop, ready to work on the bay tree.
Welcome to world of ‘burning’ and dodging’ just the same as the darkroom but a whole lot more effective. The effects are all very subtle – even tiny – but they make a world of difference especially if the images are to be seen on the printed page or in an exhibition context. See what you think of the differences in the bay tree foliage.
This has been just a brief introduction to the wonderful world of RAW. Next time we will go into more detail on Workflow and some advice on how to organise your files without getting drowned in data and processes.
Would you like us to go into more detail in future articles on processing images – histograms, curves and levels? Why not let us know with a comment on the Blog?
There is more information on many aspects of photographing gardens and plants in our book Better Plant and Garden Photography.
- Philip -
About Philip Smith
Philip Smith is a professional photographer specialising in gardens and plants with 15 years’ experience. His photography has featured in many magazines and books including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS) , and Gardeners’ World. His work has also featured in exhibitions at Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and London.
As co-founder and Managing Director of the International Garden Photographer of the Year Philip is responsible for the world’s premier competition in the field, which culminates in an annual exhibition at Kew Gardens and other venues. Philip is the author of Better Plant and Garden Photography.
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