My coffee buddies kid me about having to “doctor” my photographs to make them come out well. I have explained that taking a photo is just the start of creating the final product. Post production is every bit as important as pushing the shutter in the creative process. I’ve got Ansel Adams on my side. He famously spent hours in his darkroom to create the photos we recognize today as masterpieces. For Adams, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”
My photographic process begins in the camera, of course. I shoot in RAW rather than JPG. A JPG file is itself an edited and compressed file. The file is edited according the the camera’s algorithm. A RAW file, on the other hand, is unedited. It records what the camera saw without editorial correction Because it is unedited and uncompressed, a RAW file contains a wealth of information that can be used in post processing.
Here’s an example of a RAW file of a photo I took Saturday morning before sunrise in Chicago. The photo is a six second exposure taken with a wide angle (12mm) lens on a crop sensor camera. When I first looked at the photo on my computer screen, I saw that the horizon line was tilted. A closer look found something more serious – the buildings are all leaning, converging toward the center.
You can see this better in the following photograph. The yellow lines point ever so slightly toward the center rather than being straight up and down. You can see this most clearly by looking at the lines nearest the left- and right-hand boarders.In addition to a tilting horizon and the converging lines, the photo has a couple of other issues that I took care of in post processing. First, the horizon line is too close to dead center. Placing the horizon so close to the middle leaves a vast expanse of featureless water in virtually half the photo. The photo is also very dark, although the Trump Hotel in the middle of the frame is nicely highlighted by the pre-dawn light.
Using Adobe Lightroom, I straightened the horizon, selected a closer crop, and used the “Transform” tool to eliminate the convergence. I then increased the exposure of the entire photo by half a stop, inched up the contrast (+10) and clarity (+20) sliders, and opened up the shadows (+76). After increasing the exposure, the sky was too bright, so I reduced the blue luminance a bit (-5). Finally, I added a little (-11) post-crop vignette.
With that, my surgery was complete. Here’s the final product.
Post-production is an essential task for the serious photographer. The camera has its limitations; it doesn’t record things the way we see them with the naked eye. A little “doctoring” is essential.