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More Raw Image Conversion Magic

Little Stony Man Overlook Shenandoah NP, Virginia Andy Richards  Copyright 2007

Little Stony Man Overlook
Shenandoah NP, Virginia
Andy Richards Copyright 2007

Sometimes I wonder what my next blog topic will be about. Other times, I have a couple ideas in the queue for next. And sometimes, even with those ideas ready, another idea comes up that I feel compelled to write about. That happened this week

In my continuing re-work of my website images, I have incorporated the new workflow and for 99% of my images, I am getting improved results and trashing the older, smaller jpegs that were originally uploaded. But what has been a pleasant discovery is how many images I had essentially rejected are I am now able to bring out details in—without resort to blending and HDR type techniques.

The image here is an example. I shot this image in 2007 with a Nikon D200, without a graduated ND filter, in conditions with clearly too much contrast to capture in one shot (or at least, that is what I thought then and until very recently). I made several exposures with the intent of trying my hand at some blending (this was before I had any working knowledge of blending and HDR third party programs). While I am certain that there are some very skilled Photoshop users out there who could make a nice image, I had neither the skills nor the patience to get what I felt was an acceptable result. So, the raw image remained in the files. I am an optimist, and have read a number of times that storage is cheap and technology continues to advance. So I do keep images that might have some future usefulness.

This image is not—compositionally—the strongest image. I feel that the trees and foliage jutting into the foreground (ironically) detract from the composition and I would like to have found a vantage point that would have excluded them. But in terms of the technical post-processing, I think it is a great example. The below shot is the image opened in ACR using my prior workflow. It has been adjusted for color temperature, I added clarity and vibrance, did some basic noise reduction, and calibrated it for the Nikon 18-200 zoom lens used to capture the image. I slightly tweaked exposure (but any greater adjustment and I began to lose the highlights), and set the black and white points.LITTLE STONY MAN SHENANDOAH NP_BAD

As you can see, the foreground and especially the “middle ground” are terribly blocked up and lacking in visible detail. I followed the cardinal rule of exposing to the right, but this is an image that screams out for either a GND filter, or blending of several exposures.

The two most powerful sliders for an image like this one are the shadows slider and the contrast slider

Moving into Photoshop, I played around with a couple different ways to “improve” the exposure. Using levels, I moved the mid-point slider to globally lighten the image (I could mask off the sky, of course). That demonstrates why many Photoshop commentators call it a “blunt” instrument. There is an immediate loss of contrast, as well as a breakdown of details. In short, it looks “crappy.” Curves were not much of an improvement. The Shadow/Highlight adjustment in Photoshop was, again, not much better.

I never used to touch the shadow, contrast, or saturation sliders. Now I am freely using the first two

In NIK Viveza 2, I set some control points and used the shadows, contrast, and saturation sliders. While the result was considerably better that the prior tries, the end result still looked “worked.”

So, I went back to my raw image, armed with the knowledge I gained from Jeff Schewe’s “The Digital Negative.” The image at the beginning of the blog is the result. And the main tools were the sliders in the very first window (essentially the same as the sliders in the Lightroom 4 Develop Module for LR users). The two most powerful sliders for an image like this one are the shadows slider and the contrast slider. I find that if I expose correctly (see Expose Right to Expose Correctly), I rarely do much with the exposure slider (although Schewe suggests it is the starting place and he likes to set it “by eye”). I set color temperature (usually not much adjustment there), and then look at the histogram. If it is within the left and right edges, I usually set the clarity and vibrance sliders next. If there are blown highlights, I try to correct them with the highlight slider. Then I work with the shadows slider and the contrast slider (relying on reading I had done previously—applicable to older ACR processing engines—I never used to touch the shadow, contrast, or saturation sliders. Now I am freely using the first two. I still prefer to do any saturation other than what naturally occurs with clarity and vibrance in Photoshop or with a plugin like NIK).

In this image, I pushed the shadows slider nearly to its limit. I continue to be amazed at how good it looks. I am not a pixel peeper, and in that context, I am unable to detect any destructive result. As this tends to flatten contrast, I use the contrast slider, but a bit more judiciously. Other than these two sliders, there is very little difference in the resulting image brought into Photoshop. But what a difference in the end result!

 I still prefer to do any saturation other than what naturally occurs with clarity and vibrance in Photoshop or with a plugin like NIK

The modifications made in NIK Viveza 2, afterward are much more subtle. A slight amount of saturation boost in the sky and in the “middle ground” foliage, a bit of “structure” and some contrast adjustments and some localized lightening of shadows and darkening of bright areas are all I did to the final image.

I will be on vacation for the week after next, including the next couple weekends, so I will be on hiatus from this blog. I hope to bring back some new images and ideas. See you soon.

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2 Responses

  1. Andy, It’s not magic. It’s math. 🙂 I’ve been reading Jeff’s book on your recommendation. I haven’t gotten all that far into it, but I wonder does he talk about using sliders twice? In other words, when I open your picture I still see a little plugging in the shadows. Not bad and I would leave them alone on my work considering I like that. But, have you tried opening them as far as you can go, saving that, and repeating the process? OTH, the leaves in the foreground are amazing and I wouldn’t want to mess that up. — Ray

    • LOL, Ray, Math IS magic to me! Funny, because I do a fair amount of “numbers” in my day job, but anyone who knows me knows that if its more than 2 digits, I need a calculator :-). Jeff’s book is kind of a “textbook,” which means I will probably have to read at least parts of it over again (maybe a few times). I don’t recall him discussing using the slider twice. He does talk about doing local work, using the local adjustment tools. But within the same raw image, one the changes are made, if I understand it correctly, it is done (in other words, if I moved the slider all the way to the left, it records that and when I save and re-open, the slider is already at the far left — no more room to “slide”).

      But your comment was fascinating enough to get me thinking. If you save the image as a copy (e.g., as a TIFF), you can re-open it in ACR and the sliders are re-set! I tried it and then saved again as a 2nd copy and tried it again. The effect of the shadows slider appears to be so “gentle” that it looks like you could continue to this with multiple passes until you achieved the result you like. Seems like there would be some really cool possibilities for layer blending. Thought provoking question. Thanks for asking and motivating me to play around with it.

      I do agree though, that I like the effect of some blocking in the shadow areas. It was late dusk (I walked out in the dark with a small flashlight), and some of that is just realistic.

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