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New Software and Process; Old Images

Somesville Bridge Town Hall, Somesville, ME Copyright 2009  Andy Richards

Somesville Bridge
Town Hall, Somesville, ME
Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

Sometime during the early summer of 2012, much to my chagrin, I discovered that all of the images uploaded to my SmugMug™ LightCentric Photography website were not large enough files to give customers the ability to order the largest prints offered by their printing services. I originally uploaded every image at 72 ppi resolution, without thinking about the printing side of things. Perhaps part of this was my (erroneous) thinking that people would view my images, and then contact me directly for prints. While that certainly remains an option, I am actually happy to have purchasers go directly through the shopping cart system and printing partners for both my SmugMug and my FineArt America sites. So, I began the laborious process of re-purposing images for uploading, gallery by gallery. It involves hours and hours of work.

But there is an upside. The need to re-work all of the images presents an opportunity. It is making me re-think some of the images I upload to the site, for one thing. But the opportunity presented is primarily because of my “freshened” workflow for post-processing digital images. I blogged in 2012 about “discovering” NIK™ software’s Viveza 2, and Color Efex programs. This software has completely changed the way I view and go about post-processing. Those who have read my blog over the years, or know me, know that I have been a Dan Margulis “disciple” for several years, using his LAB curves techniques as part of my workflow for the bulk of my images over the years (“Photoshop LAB Color“, by Dan Margulis). While I still think the LAB curves approach is a very effective and simple workflow to achieve dramatic color results, it often required painstaking selection and masking activity on an image. This was a time-consuming, and often trial and error, project for each image. Nik’s “U-Point™” technology takes away 90 plus percent of all that “fiddly” work and saves many hours, allowing you to focus on results rather than process.

“U-point” takes away 90-plus percent of the “fiddly” work, allowing you to focus on results rather than process

But perhaps the best opportunity is my recent education about Adobe’s most current raw processing engines, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) in Photoshop CS 6, and Lightroom 4′ raw processing engines. I credit—and thank—Jeff Schewe and his newly published book “The Digital Negative” for this new appreciation of the power of Adobe’s raw processing engine. I have been a long-term Photoshop User, and old habits die hard. I still prefer to “work” my images in Photoshop rather than Lightroom, but as Schewe notes, the engines are nearly identical with only small (and perhaps quirky) differences. Photoshop is a huge program (filled with many “bells and whistles” I will never use), and it is expensive. If I were starting out as a digital photographer today I think I would probably have only purchased Lightroom and been pretty darn satisfied with what it can do. But whichever one you use, it is worth doing some “homework” on the power of raw processing.

Whether you use Lightroom or ACR, it is worth doing some “homework” on the power of Adobe’s raw processing engine

In years past, I have been mistrustful of any software other than Photoshop, preferring the “control” I had with Photoshop. But as the digital revolution continues, the technology continues to improve. There is now much more ability to do “non-destructive” editing before you “cook” the image in Photoshop. Adjustments in early versions of ACR were not always kind to images. But the current version (“Process 2012”) is nothing short of amazing. Previous advice was to set white and black points and color temperature in ACR and do essentially everything else in Photoshop, or with a third party program. In ACR process 2012, I have completely changed my workflow. Now, with the sliders (which, since CS6 and LR4, are identical), I set exposure and color temperature, adjust shadows and contrast (something I never did in ACR, but the process Adobe uses with these sliders is so “smart” that is it now nearly impossible to overdue these adjustments), do lens-specific correction, add “clarity” and “vibrance” (essentially specialized contrast adjustments for mid-tone contrast) and set the white and black points. I also make adjustments for noise reduction.

While Schewe says you can take care of your “capture sharpening” needs in Lightroom or ACR, I still use his company’s Photokit Sharpener to do all my sharpening. The images I import into Photoshop for processing already look awfully good. I have used it only sparingly, but both of these image processors also have the ability to do localized adjustments with a brush or gradient tool.

Once in Photoshop, my go-to program is Viveza 2

Once in Photoshop, my “go-to” program has become Viveza 2. I will occasionally use Color Efex’s “graduated neutral density” filter (ACR and Lightroom have a gradient filter you can use for this, but I prefer the detailed control I have with NIK software for this process). I use some of the other Color Efex tools very occasionally. There are different schools of thought on this. My good friend, talented photographer, and Photoshop aficionado, Al Utzig, tells me that Color Efex is his “go-to” software and he uses it nearly exclusively, resorting to Viveza 2 in only specific instances (white milk and chocolate milk 🙂 ).

Park Loop RoadArcadia NP, MECopyright 2009  Andy Richards

Park Loop Road
Arcadia NP, ME
Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

Back to the “opportunity, I am seeing two things. First, images that I did before, I am able to do better, with better color and better localized adjustments. But the second thing came as a bit of a surprise: I am finding images that I would not have tried to work with that now are coming out with very nice results using my newly-found knowledge of ACR process 2012, and the NIK software. The Acadia National Park Road here appeared to me to have too many exposure issues to yield a nice result. What I have learned, though, is that the exposure was actually much better than I thought, and what was holding me/it back was a fundamental lack of knowledge of how to get the most out of the pixels. My friend and mentor, Kerry Leibowitz, pointed that out to me last year with one of my images. He has developed some pretty sophisticated and impressive post-processing techniques, using blending methods which he uses to get all he can out of the captured pixels. But he also goes into the field with the tools and knowledge to bring home captures that are optimum. While I have known the theory of proper captures (expose to the right—see my blog, “Expose Right to Expose Correctly“), it took some continuing education to see why.

The image of the Somesville, Maine, Bridge, is one that I had originally essentially rejected. There was too much “work necessary” to fix issues. While I am not claiming that it will be an award-winner, the result after running the raw image through my new ACR and NIK adjustments is, in my view, now acceptable. And the total time to process the image was probably less than 20 minutes. The beauty of the Adobe processor engines and NIK is that I can now do a lot of those “sophisticated” things quickly and easily.

3 Responses

  1. Andy, excellent article. I’ve been going through some of my old photos and using these tools have found that some of the images I passed over can be made to look pretty good using these new tools.

    I still use Color Efex Pro as my primary “go-to” plug-in but I have been using Viveza more since you are such a proponent. One thing I have to get myself thinking about is which tool is the better one to use to accomplish my goal. Just because I really like my hammer and it does a good job doesn’t mean I should automatically reach for it everytime, Instead of using it for everything, I need to think about what’s in my toolbox and use the tool best suited for getting the result I’m after. I recently had to think about how I could accomplish a look I wanted. I wasn’t able to do it in Photoshop and Color Efex Pro didn’t do it. After thinking (novel idea) about what was in my toolbox, it occurred to me that Viveza was the tool I needed.

    By the way, I really like the two photos you included with this post. Of course the curve in the road shot is kind of what my daughter would call an “Al” shot. When we visited Acadia, the Sommesville Bridge was on my list of “must see” places. I was disappointed in my photos there but yours is very nice.


    • Al: Thanks. I think of you a lot when I am using this software. Probably wouldn’t have even tried it, but for your urging and the recommendation of James Moore. I thought about you immediately when I decided to look at the Park Road Curve.

      I think (continuing with your “hammer” analogy 🙂 ), you hit the nail on the head. It is a matter of deciding which tool will obtain the best result. After I do my “prep” work, I look at the image and decide whether it can benefit from any of the filters in Color Efex. If not, I skip it. I do make a fair amount of use of the GND filter set. I also have found some uses for the remove color cast set, but less often. I love the ability to apply control points for localized work and to “adjust” the effect of the filter.

      But it is a rare instance that I don’t go into Viveza afterward.for localized fine-tuning of the image. I find it is a much preferable way to get whiter, more realistic whites, especially in waterfalls.

      If you have not done so, I STRONGLY recommend the Schewe “Digital Negative” book. The pre-prep make the image so much better and the work in the NIK programs so much less. Adjustments become much more subtle.

      Here is a mini-rundown of my workflow. (1) Adjustments in ACR, (2) Capture Sharpening with Photokit, (3) cropping and sizing in PS (LOVE the new straighten tool in the crop tool — though I seldom need it if I have used the bubble level on a tripod), (4) spotting, cloning, etc., (5) courtesy of A – duplicate background layer, name it NIK, and convert it to a smart object. THEN, look at the image carefully to see what kinds of adjustments I will make in NIK software.

  2. […] I continue to be impressed with parts of the NIK™ suite of software. In the beginning, I was prepared to find that it was a gimmick for “lightweight” users and not for Photoshop Purists. I have acknowledged the error of my ways (and my own narrow-mindedness) in a couple of recent blog posts on Viveza and Color Efex. […]

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