Since the introduction of digital cameras post processing has become an essential part of a photographer’s workflow. In this article I share my approach to post processing landscape photographs using Adobe Lightroom.
Why Post Process?
In order to get the most out of our expensive digital cameras it is necessary to shot in RAW. The purpose of a RAW file is to capture as much information about a scene as possible. This is so that the photographer has all of the data they they need when it comes to post processing.
There is a popular phrase that nicely describes the purpose of a RAW file.
“Get the data, deal with it later”.
A RAW file is not intended to be the finished article. As a result all RAW files lack contrast, saturation and sharpness and will benefit to some extent from some level of post processing.
Generally I try to get as much right in camera as possible. My main reason for taking photographs is to get me out of the house and to experience the wonders of nature at first hand. I therefore would rather spend more time with my camera than with my laptop.
That being said I do still enjoy editing my photos. I love seeing them come alive as I work with them.
Generally my approach to post processing is to create an exaggerated version of reality. I am not looking to produce a perfect representation of the scene at the moment I clicked the shutter button. Instead what I am trying to produce is an image that emphasises a particular mood or feeling.
To put it another way, I know what I want to achieve before I start the editing process.
Three Step Process
Over the years I have developed a three step process that usually yields the result that I am after. I try to keep that process as simple as possible and have refined it over the years.
- The main edit
- Finishing touches
Each of these three steps is broken into three further (sub) steps making it easier for me to remember each one in turn.
Step 1 – Preparation
The purpose of the first step is to prepare the image for the main edit. This involves correcting distortion, cleaning up the dust spots and some basic adjustments to the tone curve.
Correct Lens Distortion
The first thing that I do to any image is to correct any barrel distortion. This is where straight lines appear to curve out away from the centre of an image and is easily fixed by loading the correct profile for whatever lens was used.
This will also correct any natural vignetting that may occur with that specific lens. I have seen videos on YouTube where photographers have left this step till last. However, as it can have a significant impact on the exposure of an image and so I always do it before the main edit.
Remove Dust Spots
For me the biggest no-no in digital photography is failure to properly clean an image. I can forgive almost anything else but not that!
Mostly I spend a few minutes working through the sky (and other areas with little fine detail) cloning out any dust spots that I find. Sometimes they can be difficult to spot so I tend to zoom in to 200% magnification and work across the sky from left to right.
Boost the Contrast
If properly exposed most RAW files will lack contrast giving them a dull, flat appearance. Boosting the contrast will instantly give a photograph extra punch, dramatically increasing it’s impact.
I usually increase the contrast using tone curve presets. Here there are just two options: medium contrast and strong contrast. The one that I select will be very much dependent on the image but go for strong contrast more often than not.
For me it is important to apply such general changes right at the beginning of the process so that they do not negate some of the finer grained adjustments.
Step 2 – The Main Edit
It is during step 2 that the majority of the work is done. It is here where I have the greatest impact on the overall feel of the image. Get this wrong and it won’t matter what went before or comes after.
Fine Tune the Exposure
This is where I spend most of my time when editing. My aim is to create a balanced exposure that has details in both of the highlights and shadows whilst retaining as much contrast as possible.
This I do in three steps:
- Adjust the overall exposure of the image so that the highlights and shadows are evenly balanced
- Pull down (darken) the highlights to reveal detail in the brighter parts of the image, most often the sky
- Lift (brighten) the shadows to reveal detail in the darker parts of the image
Sometimes I need to adjust the whites and blacks in order to avoid clipping. For me getting the exposure right is the key to a successful edit; time spent here is never wasted!
Reveal Fine Detail
I like my images to retain as much fine detail as possible. That is why I enjoy shooting on overcast days.
The best way to I have found to do this is to bump up the clarity. Clarity works by increasing the the contrast of the mid tones enhancing textures without impacting highlights and shadows.
However, it should be used with caution. Push things too far and your photo will very quickly take on an unnatural appearance.
Adjust the Saturation
The final thing that I adjust as part of the main edit is the saturation. The adjustments that we’ve already made to boost the contrast also have the effect of increasing the saturation. Therefore I rarely touch the saturation and ambience sliders.
Instead I like to adjust each channel separately.
I generally find that the interest in a landscape photograph will be in the warmer colours: the reds, oranges and yellows. In order to draw the attention to these areas I will boost the saturation of these channels.
Finally, to further increase the impact of the warmer colours I reduce the saturation of the cooler ones (the greens and blues) and sometimes push the hue of the greens towards the yellow end of the spectrum.
Step 3 – Finishing Touches
We are on the home stretch but we still have some work to do. The image will still benefit from a few finishing touches.
Add Some Sharpening
Probably the most important part of finishing an image is to add sharpening. Sharpening can be incredibly divisive but most of us agree that it is best to err on the side of caution.
Overly sharpening an image can lead to unattractive halos around the edges of objects. As with most adjustments it best to apply a little restraint when applying sharpening to an image.
It’s also a good idea to use masking to ensure that sharpening is only applied to areas that need it.
Crop the Image
99% of the time I shoot in landscape orientation. I am a strong believer in shooting for the platform that an image will be viewed on. For me that is YouTube. I also believe that landscape orientation works best for Facebook and Twitter as well as my website.
As my images are intended to be viewed primarily on YouTube I always produce a 16:9 crop.
The only platform I feel favours a portrait orientation is Instagram because of it’s bias towards mobile. I always produce a 8×10 version for Instagram.
Add a Vignette
The final thing that I do to an image is to add a subtle vignette. This helps to draw the attention away from the edges of the frame towards the middle.
That is the workflow that I currently use for the majority of my photographs. As with anything it is constantly changing.
I hope that you take at least something from this article and if you have any advice for me at all please leave a comment below.