If you are trying to improve your photography then you may be shooting RAW or at least thinking about it. Next, a better understanding of RAW editing such as Lightroom is probably on your to-do list. I’m no Scott Kelby but I’ve been editing RAW for the last ten years and have picked up a few tricks.
People love this image of a red acer tree, but I know its faults. I shot this image in RAW format which is a digital negative and has to be processed. It works in a similar way to a negative from the days of film photography. RAW files save a lot of extra information in each pixel. An editing program like Lightroom (for pc or mac) allows me to tweak and alter an image without damaging it. If I did the same thing to a jpeg file, I would not be able to change very much before I began to introduce errors such as colour outlines and shadowing.
Even so, the original shot of the acer tree was heavily under-exposed and I could never fully rescue it. I’m using this photo to demonstrate how much can be changed by editing from RAW in Lightroom. However, most of the principles used here apply in any editing program, even the built-in editing function in an app as simple as Instagram. I’ll explain as I go along.
One last point of introduction – budget restraints mean I am stuck with an old version of Lightroom. No, I don’t mind and it doesn’t matter! The principles are exactly the same. I don’t have certain fancy new functions like HDR or panoramic knitting and a few of the sliders are different. However we are all using different editing software and anyone can pick up tips for your own post-processing as long as I can explain it in broad terms.
Checking the white balance is always my first step. A cold day or a coloured room or a cloudy day are usually the main culprits to make the white balance wrong on a photo. This acer was a bit too blue and unnatural. Sometimes I can’t see whether the white balance is wrong or not and so I hit auto WB and see what I think of that. I’ll probably do a manual adjustment but auto WB is frequently accurate. I only do manual WB adjustments on my calibrated computer monitor; it’s not worth the risk on other devices. In other software you could use a warming slider.
There are lots of ways of adding light to an image in RAW processing. The obvious one is the exposure slider but I never do that first because it brightens everything including the bits that are too bright already. Instead I lighten the mid-tones of the image. On my version of Lightroom it’s called fill light. On later versions this slider has gone but the mid-tones can still be brightened using the histogram. Click on the left of the middle of the histogram, and drag it right. After increasing the light in the mid-tones, I may also increase the exposure just a little if it still needs it.
In other software and apps you can brighten shadows and then increase the exposure. This acer tree trunk was the darkest part of the image so brightening the shadows gave it some texture. You can usually also darken highlights a little to prevent those very bright sections from bleeding larger.
I altered the colour because I wanted to, not because it was strictly necessary. My vision for this image was vibrant, punchy colour. The first thing NOT to do is to increase the basic saturation slider. This is a really thuggish slider in Lightroom and I rarely use it. Vibrance is a better place to start. However for this tree I adjusted individual colour channels, namely red and orange. I lightened them as well as increasing the saturation. I then had to go to the detail section and increase the colour noise reduction a little. The image was starting to get over-processed.
There are other back-door ways of making colour stand out. Increasing the contrast can do it, as can increasing (aka clipping) the black slider. Sharpening can do it as well, and with summer images you can make warm tones stand out more by cooling the white balance a little.
There’s more than one way of doing this too. The important thing is to use a light touch. Sharpening can go wrong very quickly. I adjusted most of the sliders in the sharpening menu just a little. You can see the huge number of steps I took to tweak the sharpening in Lightroom on this photo. That is because I was making many tiny adjustments rather than using a heavy hand. I know it looks rather indecisive but the fact is that it all took me only two minutes!
With photos of landscapes and nature I increase the clarity. This is much harsher than sharpening but works a treat on distant texture. It is less likely to look good on close-ups. In other software this function may be called structure. Just a side note: Never increase clarity on a portrait unless it’s someone you hate!
In the end this image looks great on a small screen but was a bit too far gone to rescue fully. Some funny edges and shadowing started to appear. If I hadn’t pointed it out, you I wonder if you would ever have noticed? What do you think of my process here?
If this blog post has raised as many questions for you as it has answered, then please – please! – contact me and ask me. I am itching to know what questions or comments you have. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know, so please hit me up. Email, twitter, facebook, Instagram message or comment below. Thanks!