Technical Tips and Editing Hints for Creating Images that will last a Lifetime-by Chip Phillips
I recently re-visited a couple of old images and was reminded of how important proper technique and a non-destructive workflow is. Sean’s recent post on this topic was great, so I decided I’d add to it by presenting you with my technique and advice on the subject.
It is very important to me that the images that I shoot will hold up for years and years to come, so I am very careful that I use a non-destructive workflow and proper technique for virtually every step. Here is kind of a step-by-step rundown of how I go about capturing, processing, and outputting my images.
If you don’t already, start shooting your images in RAW format. It is just as easy to shoot in RAW as it is to shoot in Jpeg, so just make the switch. Every time you open up a Jpeg, do something to it, and re-save it, you lose information. It literally just gets thrown away . Always save your master files in Tiff or PSD, or something similar, and capture them in RAW if possible. If RAW isn’t an option, save the original Jpeg as a Tiff or PSD, and work on that file. Preserve your original at all times! Also, select the largest color space in your camera settings. That is “Adobe RGB” for me.
Make sure you have a sturdy tripod and ball head. The max weight rating of the tripod should be at least 3 times the weight of your heaviest setup. So, Let’s say you would be using a Canon 5D Mark II, with a Canon 70-200 F2.8L IS lens. That weighs about 5.5-6 lbs. Also, add in the weight of your head-usually .75-2 lbs. So, you would need a tripod that is rated at around 15-17lbs Max. Load. For a tripod that won’t break the bank, I recommend Manfrotto’s O55XPROB tripod. If you are looking into something that will handle more load and weighs quite a bit less, you can’t do any better than Gitzo in my opinion. I went for the Gitzo GT3541 LS. Its max load is 40 lbs, and it only weighs 3.8 lbs. A bit of overkill I know, but it gets really windy in the Palouse, and a very sturdy tripod is an absolute must when shooting with a telephoto lens in these type of conditions. For ball heads, the same thing applies, although I would highly recommend one of these makers: Markins, Kirk, Really Right Stuff, or Arca Swiss. I use a Markins Q3. It weighs only 13 oz, and it’s max load is 65lbs. I highly recommend it.
Accurately focused and properly exposed images are a must. If you aren’t confident about your technique, read up on field techniques, or take a workshop from someone and learn out in the field. Double check your focus by zooming in on your LCD, and make sure you have a good range of exposures of the exact same scene with a sturdy tipod, for situations that will require blended exposures in post processing. The blinking highlight warning can help with this. Also, check the histogram and make sure there isn’t any clipped information on either side.
A typical series of exposures might look something like this. These are screen shots straight out of Lightroom. Notice the triangles on the histogram. The left is filled in when there is clipping in the shadows, and the right is filled in when the highlights are clipped. The series shows that I have captured the entire tonal range of a very high-contrast scene.
After I have my images properly exposed and sharp, I import them into Lightroom. Lightroom is great in that it doubles as both an image library and RAW editor. All adjustments made in Lightoom are non-destructive, and can be changed or canceled at any time in the future. It is pretty intuitive as well. Make sure you have a large color space selected. I use ProPhoto and 16-bit for all my images. Make these adjustments in “edit/preferences/external editing”
The first thing I do is review my images. When I have chosen the ones I want to edit, I flag them. Next, if there is any exposure blending involved, I export the series of images into Photoshop for the blend. Various different techniques can be used for this depending on the images involved. I have been using a combination of hand blending with luminosity masks and the gradient tool in Photoshop. By doing things completely by hand, you have a great deal of control and can blend the image exactly as you want it. Tutorials are available on this topic online and through myself. I use Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masks extensively throughout my editing, and highly recommend them.
After I have the rough image with all the tonal range needed, I re-save it back into Lightroom. It comes back into lightroom as a Tiff or PSD, and all of your original RAW files are still there and unaltered. I now work from this master file from here on out. I work my way down the “Develop” module in Lightroom and do as much to the image as I can. After I get it looking pretty good here, I import it into Photoshop for processing. Many things can be done in Photoshop that can’t be done in Lightroom, such as more complex work with luminosity masks, various different effects such as “Orton”, more extensive cloning, and so on.
Here is a screen-shot of the image with all that I could do to it in Lightroom, just before export to Photoshop for fine-tuning:
Here is a screen-shot of the image when finished after fine-tuning in Photoshop:
Some fine-tuning of this image included adjustments to the tonal range with luminosity masks, saturating and desaturating color with saturation masks, cloud sharpening with local contrast adjustments (USM sharpening with a high radius and low amount), that nasty flare at the bottom was removed with the clone tool, and a little bit of “Orton” glow was added with a mask-painted in to small portions of the clouds only. The image was saved as a master file (Tiff or PSD), then sharpened for web, and is now ready to go.
3. Saving and Archiving
The last step is to make sure you save and archive your files for future use and editing. I always save a layered master file as a PSD or Tiff, before sharpeneing and re-sizing. This is the file I go to for print orders, publications, etc. I can size and sharpen it for the specific output. Be careful to always “save-as” and never write over this master file. Also, you will still have your original RAW files saved, unaltered, where they were originally imported. Back-up, back-up, back-up!!! Nothing bad has happened to me yet because I have been very careful about backing up my work regularly. I have an external drive with large capacity that I have scheduled to back up my entire image library every night. I use the free program “Fbackup” for this. One last recommendation is to burn your RAW “keepers” to disk and store them at an alternate location in case of a disaster, such as fire, etc.
I have used this workflow now for years with great success. I have been able to re-visit images that I shot years ago, and apply new techniques. This is extremely important to me because I am constantly learning new things and the ability to apply these to my original images is priceless. Just remember to use a non-destructive workflow, and capture sharp images with the full tonal range and you you’ll be a lot happier in the long run.
I give out literature such as this to all my workshop clients, plus starting this year, I will be giving out video tutorials as well. These go into more depth on various topics, and when combined with personal step-by-step guidance, can be very valuable learning tools. I’m constantly updating these to ensure that each participant can take advantage of my most recent discoveries, and am happy to be sharing some of it with you. In no way do I consider myself an expert in Photoshop as a whole. While entire college courses can be filled up with learning all the intricacies of Photoshop for countless different applications and purposes, I feel fortunate to have reached a high level of knowledge in the areas of Photoshop that pertain to landscape photography. I have learned everything I know from books and online tutorials such as this one, and am constantly learning new techniques all the time. Photoshop is basically just a bunch of different tools to help me get closer to my artistic vision, and every time I learn a new tool, I get a little bit closer. Chip