Why I Post-Process My Images – Part 2 – Image Sharpness

Malahide Castle
Dublin, Ireland
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

In the first part of this series, I considered general image appearance and color. While I am not assigning any particular order of importance, I did that first because I think it is the most “in-your-face” aspect of photography. Color, brightness, contrast, and appearance in general is what first draws the eye. But after some visual inspection, I think the eye becomes more discerning, and almost immediately sees – and critiques – image sharpness. It also think it is important to understand that the first two topics, color and appearance and sharpness, are very much interrelated. As we noted in Part 1, in all of photography, we are dealing with “appearance,” and with the viewers very individual capacity to interpret what they see. But things like saturation, brightness, contrast and exposure can certainly influence the appearance (and importance) of sharpness, both visually and mechanically (overuse of some of the “appearance” algorithms can deteriorate images and reduce apparent sharpness). I am not saying that every image must be in razor sharp focus. Rather, I am saying that awareness of this aspect of photography is important.

Image Sharpness:

Do we really need to sharpen our images? Years ago, on the old AOL photography board, I got into a “discussion” with another photographer. He didn’t believe any sharpening was necessary because his newest name-brand DSLR produced razor sharp images straight out of the camera (they didn’t). Another photographer commented on an image we were “critiquing,” and said: “looks sharp to me.” While unintentional on his part, he made a point I want to underscore here. Much of photography is appearance. And this is perhaps nowhere more true than in the concept of image sharpness.

Sharpness is a significant consideration that is often very misunderstood. Perhaps the most important concept here is that every technical definition I have ever read or heard speaks of “apparent” sharpness. Apparent sharpness is influenced by viewing distance and the size of the image being viewed. But every lens has a focus point where it is at is at its most sharp, and good focusing technique remains critically important for the photographer. For years there were really only about 3-4 factors that influenced apparent sharpness: the quality of the glass, the characteristics of the film, the size of reproduction (usually print), and the ability of the shooter.ย  Glass continues to have a large influence. Indeed, as the digital sensors get larger (in terms of pixels), the difference in lens quality is exacerbated. There is a very real difference in the sharpness of focus of images rendered by a good quality lens and a poor quality lens. Modern manufacturing technology has perhaps made the divide between traditionally lower quality lenses (think, generally, cheaper third-party manufacturers) and high quality lenses generally made by the major camera companies. And even between them, there were even significant quality differences – usually between their less expensive offerings and their “pro-quality” expensive glass. Today some of the third-party lenses are virtually indistinguishable in glass quality (often the differences come down to build quality and re-sale value).

Technique, of course, will, always be a critical factor in all parts of photography. Understanding depth of field, sharp focus and how (and when and when not) to attain it, and what the limits of sharp focus in your particular image are continue to be important. And yes, even if you use auto-focus (AF), which has gotten very, very good over the years, you still need to understand what it is doing and how to use it. In fact, AF can fool even an experienced shooter who is not paying attention. Some years back, I blogged about some differences between my full-frame and APS framed Nikon DSLRs. An astute pro friend and mentor of mine, pointed out that an image I was using to illustrate flowing water was out of focus. The corresponding one wasn’t. I let the AF fool me and didn’t pay attention to the details.

nearly every image made from a digital camera could benefit from some sharpening

Most of us no longer deal with film characteristics. But digital imagery has added a new factor to replace the film consideration. Sharpness in film was mostly determined by its grain structure. Digital sharpness is mostly a matter of pixel size, number and configuration. A digital photograph is comprized of many (thousands) of tiny pixels, represented by computing’s most basic “1’s” and “0”‘s, stacked around each other. Imagine a Lego creation. Each one of those little lego blocks represents a pixel, for our purposes. If you step away from the object, the further away you get, the less obvious the indvidual legos, and the more the object looks like its intended form. Also, smaller blocks, more densely packed will take on the form sooner than larger ones as you pull away. Our “lego” pixels, however are tiny. You generally cannot distinguish individual “blocks” without substantial magnification. Take any image and increase its on-screen size, and you will eventually begin to see the individual pixels, and how the stack around each other to make the image. Note that they are rectangular. The border between each pixel creates a line, and generally, depending on the width of that line and the difference in contrast or color between the pixels, you can get a kind of “jaggy” look from the square corners (sometimes referred to as “stair-stepping). Known as “aliasing,” this latter effect can look cartoonish, to downright unpleasant, and is the common result from raw “sampled” images from a camera sensor. Most currently sold camera sensors have an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor, which has the effect of slightly blurring those “aliased” pixel borders. Of course is a lot more complicated than my elementary explanation, but hopefully it is enough to understand why sharpening is “a thing.”

Adding proverbial “insult to injury,” when converting an image to digital “1’s” and “0’s,” an image processor engages in interpolation, from the fixed grid of pixels on the sensor, in order to complete the entirety of the image. Interpolation turns nature’s continous tones into discrete pixels, and the process itself often results in some softeness, regardless of the quality of the sensor and lens. And finally, the process of re-converting the pixels to media (especially print media) can result in significant softening of an image. This is why sharpening – at differing stages of the processing, and for different end purposes, is so important.

Given all this, it stands to reason that nearly every image made from a digital camera could benefit from some sharpening. I am hedging here on purpose. Recall my earlier reference to “apparent” sharpness. The anti-aliasing process will vary, based on color, lighting conditions, the presence (or not) of contrast in the image, etc. I almost always run some sharpening on an image at some point during my post-processing. If you “capture” your images only as JPEG (or in a few cameras that have the capability: TIFF), the software in the camera will sharpen the image and in more sophisticated DSLR cameras, you have some ability to “adjust” the sharpening. In most cases, I recommend you capture raw images. They will not be sharpened until post-processing, because it takes raw conversion software to do that. There are a couple “high-end” cameras out there (Nikon, Sony and Canon have them for sure – I would guess so do other major manufacturers) that do not have the anti-aliasing filter. That seems to be an important item especially for landscape shooters. It has its own set of problems. But the beauty is that in post-processing, you can generally fix all these issues.

All this stuff seems like a lot of work … but the good news is that all this complicated stuff has already been done for you!

Every photo software program has some manner of sharpening capability. Some are better than others. Many (Photoshop’s sharpening tools come to mind) are complex and difficult to learn and require a lot trial and error. Most authors and power users recommend sharpening in steps. Generally, they suggest a “pre-sharpen” designed to counteract the effect of the sensor anti-aliasing filter; case-by-case “targeted sharpening” on specific parts of an image (euphemistically called “creative” sharpening), and finally, a sharpening step designed for the type of output (generally print or monitor) and size of image being rendered. The Orange lily below is an example of an unsharpened raw conversion on top, a “pre-sharpened” image in the middle, and a fully sharpened for monitor image on the bottom. All 3 were rendered from raw using Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) engine. I set the sharpening settings to no sharpening in the ACR conversion (more on that later). Both stages of sharpeing were pushed to their “100%” adjustment. It may be difficult to see the difference between the first two images. Part of this will be variances between monitors and part of it that “perception” thing I mentioned at the beginning. I am basically trying to illustrate the process here. The final image, for example, might be considered by some to be oversharpened. Oversharpening can yield a “crunchy” artificial look. Sharpening (like most aspects of photography) will often be a matter of taste. Of course, it is important that you get the desired sharpness when making the image with the camera. No software (yet) can “fix” or sharpen an image that is blurry because the shooter didn’t get it right in the camera. Here we are mainly talking about working with the limitations of digital presentation.

Raw; Presharpen and Final Sharpen Examples
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

If this stuff really excites you (you may want to seek counseling ๐Ÿ™‚ ). There are some good explanations out there on the internet, and some really good print references. I recommend “The Digital Negative,” by Jeff Schewe. If you are a real masochist, you might want to pick up and read “Real World Image Sharpening,” by the late Bruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe. In Photoshop, there was a “sharpen” algorithm that was, frankly, a pretty blunt instrument, and there was “Unsharp Mask” (a term that actually comes from the old “wet” darkroom). Years back USM was the best tool and it was – for me at least – a mind-boggling math problem, involving 3 settings known as radius, threshold and amount. I know, right? ๐Ÿ™‚ . This all seems like a lot of work. But it is worth the effort in many cases.

And there is good news. All this complicated stuff has already been done for you. Starting a number of versions back, a group comprised of pro-users and some of the actual Photoshop Team set up a collaboration known as Pixel Genius (Martin Evening, Seth Resnick, Andrew Rodney, Mike Skurski, Jeff Schewe, and Bruce Fraser). They created a Photoshop “plug-in” known as Photokit Sharpener. I used Photokit for a few years as it incorporated the 3-step sharpening mentioned above, and was much easier to use (if less versatile) than Photoshop’s native “unsharp mask” algorithm. They mightย have been the first ones to do it on a commercial scale, I don’t know. But over the years, a goodly number of competitors have emerged, and now there are a plethora of programs which are either Photoshop “Plug-ins,” stand-alone, incorporated into their own suite (OnOne, DxO and Topaz are examples). Recently, Pixel Genius announced that it would close, and their final gift to us was a freeware, freely downloadable, most current version of their product (I haven’t tried it yet, but just downloaded it and will for sure play with it).

By “consistent,” I do not mean use the same settings every time, by the way

It really doesn’t matter which on you use, in my opinion. Many, if not most, of them are good. They all work differently. The point is, you should probably obtain one of them and use it – preferably one you are comfortable with and incorporates reasonable ease of use. Just search for “image-sharpening software” and you will find lots of information. When I made the move to NIK software (formerly NIK, then Google, and now owned by DxO), I eventually started to used its Raw Presharpener and Sharpener Pro modules. I did so mostly because I was using the other NIK modules and I liked the ease and familiarity I gained from its interface. The 3 examples above were made using NIK.

Another thing that is worth noting is that most raw conversion software today (at least the integrated programs like Photoshop, OnOne, etc.) generally have sharpness settings in the conversion process, which may very adequately handle the first stage of sharpening. Because I routinely use NIK pre-sharpener, I have my raw converter sliders set to zero for sharpening. I think it is important, once again, to have a good idea what is going on underneath the hood. I think having sharpening set up in the raw converter and then doing an additional “pre-sharpening” would not only be redundant, but would result in unintended results, defeating the purpose of sharpening the image. I am not certain which of these are better (though my intuition tells me it may be the plugin programs), but I think the important thing is to think about it, have it as part of your routine and be consistent about it. By “consistent,” I do not mean use the same settings every time, by the way. To me, this is one of the risks of the raw conversion settings. They are often hidden in the interface from your view. I just downloaded the free version of Photokit and will try to do some comparisons for my own interest soon. One of those things to play around with during the winter ( oh yeah. I forgot. I live in Florida now. We dont’ have “winter” ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

Overuse of any of these global adjustments will often defeat the purpose of all of this

There are other post-processing issues that will have an affect on apparent sharpness. One of the most important is the contrast adjustments most software offers. For years, “contrast” was basically the only adjustment available. It operates globally on the image and basically works with the blacks and whites. In order to use it effectively one often had to do some complex masking of an image in order to achieve the intended result only on the parts of the image that needed it. Currently, there is another pretty sophisticated global adjustment. It has different names in different softwares, but Photoshop calls it “clarity.” This adjustment attempts (rather successfully, I think) to adjust contrast just in the mid-tones which are generally not visually effected by the more global “contrast” adjustment (or at least you cannot see them because the highs and lows are so dramatic). Even more recently Photoshop and other have added another adjustment (called “dehaze” in Photoshop), which has the same effect of targeting just certain tones in an image. While not truly “sharpening,” these adjustments often make the image “appear” sharper to the eye.

A final word of caution. Overuse of any of these global adjustments will often defeat the purpose of all of this. As we mentioned above, it is possible to “oversharpen” an image for its purpose, and it can result in an ugly or unrealistic look. Creatively you might want to play with this. Note that I said “for its purpose.” When making inkjet prints on my Epson home printer, I often had to sharpen an image to the point that on-screen it looked overdone, but turned out a very sharp and pleasing print. Conversely, there are adjustments that do not really have anything to do with sharpening – directly (recall the comment that everything is interrelated). One of the best examples is the much overused “saturation” slider tool. I recently ranted about what is see as abusive overuse of “saturation “(especially – for some reason – with fall foliage images – sometimes by shooters who really should “know better”). To see the effect of this tool, open an image in your favorite image processing software and magnify it enough so you can at least begin to see the pixels. Then move the slider to its upper limit and back down again slowly. Observe what happens to the definition around the saturated colors. These days I only very rarely use the “saturation” tool on an image – partly for this very reason.

 

Next up:ย  In the final instalment, I will cover compositional considerations of post-processing . . .

Why I Post-Process My Images

My LightCentric Logo open in Adobe Camera Raw Converter (ACR)
[Copyright Andy Richards 2020]
For the most part, as a photographer for some 45 years I have made images with a “photorealistic” look. I freely and unabashedly admit that I “enhance” my shots using post-processing software. Lately, as I have gotten older (or perhaps bored?), I have begun doing more alternative presentation with my photography. That is certainly a reason to use digital software on my images. But it is not the reason. I am a firm believer that no matter how “natural” one thinks an image should look, nearly all digital images need to be “worked” with in post-processing, including the “photorealistic” ones.

I know photographers, at all different skill ranges who are very content with shooting images and presenting them, as-shot. Many shoot in JPEG mode in the camera and never really give a lot of thought about post-processing their images. This was even more common before programs like Adobe Lightroom, OnOne, Topaz, DxO, and others began offering”user-friendly” software interfaces, with “preset” post-processing. Today there are hundreds of “presets” available, many of them free, and many more at a relatively low cost, all designed to create a “look” (or occasionally, to correct problems). I will take a whimsical look at some of these presets in a blog post coming soon. There may come a day (indeed some may say it has already arrived) when these presets will essentially eliminate the need for manual post-processing entirely. Given this, there is really no reason today not to do some post-work, even if it is entirely confined to these presets.

there is really no reason today not to do some post-work, even if it is entirely confined to presets

Some of us; largely because it is what we learned and are comfortable with, will no doubt remain “old school.” I am always looking at new software and have embraced some of it. But mostly, I still post-process in Adobe Photoshop. Adobe has a lot of competition these days, but when I jumped in, Photoshop was really the only option. I learned it and have stayed with it. If I were starting new, I probably wouldn’t, as the learning curve is steep and there are programs which may be more photographer specific out there.

“Arty” effects and alternative presentation is certainly a reason to use digital software on my images. But it is not the reason

While you might be content with your photos right out of the camera, I hope as your skills and interests develop, you will consider the significant advantages of raw capture, and the ability to make your presentation better even with just some simple post-processing. As I wrote this, it got long (well, longer than usual ๐Ÿ™‚ ) and I realized that perhaps it would be more palatable as a 3-part series. I hope you will read on, as the additional “parts” contain some good information. For starters, though, I will begin with general image appearance and – perhaps most importantly – color.

Glade Creek Gristmill on a cloudy, dreary day; unprocessed; straight out of camera
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Digital photography is kind of like cooking (an analogy I am sure I “borrowed” from someone else years back, and continue to use, because I think it is apt). Many foods must be cooked to enjoy them at their best, and this means combining ingredients. It also means knowing how to cook things. A lot of the raw materials used in cooking just aren’t very appealing in their raw stage. In fact, some of them are just downright un-palatable.

“Raw is not an acronym

Perhaps appropriately, the format of images digitally captured, are referred to in their native format, as “raw.” I have pointed out previously, that “raw” means just that: raw; as in “uncooked.” Raw (unlike most other formats, such as JPEG, TIFF, etc.) is not an acronym. It is possible to cook anything from “scratch,” using only raw ingredients. It is also possible to purchase food in a pre-cooked, or partially prepared, stage. I am not suggesting that this cannot be done very well. Stauffer makes a pretty good Lasagna, pre-done with only baking required. ๐Ÿ™‚ But most will appreciate a meal fully cooked from scratch, by a skilled chef. In most cases, I suspect, there is a combination of ingredients, some of them acquired in various stages of pre-preparation (perhaps analagous to the “presets” mentioned earlier).

Most of the “new” photographers I have the occasion to counsel shoot the same general subjects that I do. I do very little sports photography, and no photo-journalism. I strongly (and perhaps pedantically) recommend to these new photographers that they shoot in raw format (assuming their gear supports it). There are certainly those who are happy to accept “fast food” cooking (the camera’s built in conversion to jpeg or tiff), and to know enough about the cook and how to direct the cook, to obtain the result they are satisfied with. And there are certainly some cases where that is just expedient. Sports and photojournalists, more often than not, just don’t have time for a “gourmet” meal. But I believe most of us would benefit from getting our ingredients “raw,” and then take some time to appreciate the aromas of fine cooking. In order to obtain a palatable final image from a raw file, it is going to have to be “cooked.”

Glade Creek Gristmill; warming filter applied
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

Here, then, are some of the most important reasons I do my own “cooking:”

Two different photographers can stand side by side and see the scene very differently


Color:

One of the primary results that is largely effected by the “cooking” process is color. There are many things that effect color, including the medium of capture (whether digital or film), lighting conditions, and the perception of the viewer. It is common for certain colors to be rendered by the default raw converter as the “average viewer” perceives that color. The complication, of course, is how we define “average viewer.” Two different photographers can stand side by side in front of an image and see the scene very differently – including the perception of color. And, while there are certainly colorimetric “standards” for measurement of color, those same two photographers will still perceive those colors differently.

More importantly, it is common that the color displayed is not what the photographer wants to portray. Staying with the cooking analogy, some people like a little more spice, sweeter, etc. And that is the benefit of post-processing a raw image file.

Burton Hill Road Farm Scene
Barton, Vermont 2010

As I have learned more and more about digital post-processing, I have discovered some primary areas where this happens. Things that are “supposed” to be white are a great example of this phenomena. In 2010, I made what may be my favorite Vermont fall foliage landscape image ever. Conditions were right. There was a “thread” on the “Scenes of Vermont” foliage board where I posted the image, which remains today. I probably should go back and replace it with my “corrected” images. A couple years later, while working on my LightCentricPhotograph website, it jumped out at me. Clouds, fog, and frothy water, in most cases, are perceived as white. My fog in this image had a very distinct purple/blue/grey hue. While I think the color is “possible,” it is not the image I saw that clear, cold, fall morning. I think the color-corrected image is much more realistic and much more pleasing. In another example, I had the perhaps misfortune of coming to Babcock State Park on a particularly rainy, cloudy weekend. Grey clouds always introduce a color cast and you can see the gray cast in the original image. What is harder to see is the gray-blue cast in the water. The second image incorporates a warming filter (in Photoshop). As you can see, while it improves the appearance of the rest of the scene a bit, the water still has a cast. Water–to our eye–should be “white.” The third image is corrected using NIK Viveza2, by reducing saturation of color in the water, with a bit of added contrast and brightness. I think the water looks more like it is “supposed” to look.

Glade Creek Gristmill
Color Corrected
Copyright Andy Richards 2011

I put quotation marks around “supposed” on purpose. In art photography, there is no “correct” color. But there are certainly colors that are generally perceived by most of us within a range under the particular conditions. The Vermont image was made in the early morning sun, on what turned out to be a perfectly cloudless, sunny day. The original image from the camera might lead the viewer to think the opposite – that this was a cloudy, dark day. Color correction changes this perception entirely, in my opinion.

It is often the case that the color displayed is not what the photographer wants to portray

 

Exposure and Appearance:

Because I record images as raw files, there are usually some “darkroom” type adjustments that need to be made. Understand that post-processing software is not designed to “fix” your mistakes. Getting things like sharp focus, exposure and composition right in the camera is still required.ย  But we have always found ways to improve aspects of our photographs, beginning in the darkroom. Today, digital processing software perhaps gives us more ability to be creative and improve images than ever before. Beginning in my raw conversion program, I first look at the image “globally,” checking for things like color, exposure and contrast. If any adjustment needs to be done, I do that first. But remember Newton’s Law, here (or at least a modified version of it). When you move a slider, it will effect the adjustments other sliders make.

One of the things I love about my current setup is the ability to make more targeted adjustments. Most software today has powerful masking tools, both incorporated and with the ability to more or less manually mask. This means adjusting can be done with an adustment (like Photoshop’s “clarity” slider) that is discriminate in its action, adjusting, for example, just certain tones in an image. It also means a more specifically target area can be masked individually and adjusted. Some of this has been available in software for some years now. Others are constantly newly developing.

Above, I noted that sometimes a photographer wants an image to look a certain way. The beauty of non-reportage or scientific photography is there is no one correct presentation of an image. Note the substantial difference in tone and color in the lily image above, from the sharpen example images earlier. Post processing gives you the ability to creatively work with images – and to experiment – especially with color.

Next up, Image Sharpness

It’s All in Your Perspective

Tower Bridge
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During the past several years, I have migrated to smaller gear. Importantly, this has included the diminutive Sony RX100 camera. For the money, this may be the most versatile small travel camera on the market today (though the competition stiffens every year – which is a good thing ๐Ÿ™‚ ; and there are a couple other systems – like the Olympus 4:3 outfit, and the Fujifilm XT series – that have a heavy pro following). But no matter what gear you might be carrying, or using, there are going to be compromises and things a particular “kit” is just not going to be able to handle. For me, with the gear I carry and the travel I do, it is more often than not, two things: “reach” and “perspective.”

The only way I know of to fix the “reach” issue is to add a heavy telephoto to the mix, or get closer (which isn’t always going to be an option). So I haven’t attempted to “fix” that. Rather, I am working around it as best I can. Perspective, however, I have learned, I can “fix.” Well, at least I can improve it in post-processing.

The only way I know to fix the “reach issue is to add a heavy telephoto … or get closer the subject

Perspective is, in some ways, the opposite problem of “reach.” It often involves being too close, or the lens being “too wide” (if that is possible ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Sometimes the same solution can be applied; i.e., moving. For many years, very good photographers did not have the quality zoom lenses we have today and used to “zoom” with their feet. When possible, that is still excellent advice. But moving away from your subject creates new challenges. It makes the subject smaller in the frame. It introduces elements and obstructions into the image that you often do not want. And often the need is to get higher and that is not always possible. I love shooting landscape images (when I get the opportunity) from the top deck of the cruise ship because it aids in perspective for tall subjects by getting me higher. But walking around on location, I often do not have that luxury. If you can find a way to get higher, or have the opportunity to work and area and find higher viewpoints, seek them out.

Tower Bridge
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

To try to ameliorate these issues, I have learned yet another virtue of post-processing software. Perhaps unfortunately, my usage will most center around Adobe’s products, because it is what I have and know. I have been impressed with the capabilities of other software – notably OnOne (which unfortunately, hasn’t worked well with my hardware), and am sure they all have built this feature in their software. It is worth exploring. This is not a full on tutorial. There are a ton of them out there already. This is really more designed to bring this issue to the reader’s attention and then encourage some exploring of your own.

Fixing perspective issues, I have learned, is yet another virtue of modern post-processing software

I have been able to remarkably improve the perspective on several of my travel images, mostly using the Transform Perspective tool in Adobe Photoshop. The Tower Bridge image was the most pronounced example I could find in my recent “take” of hundreds of images in the British Isles. We were on a “whirlwind” 4-hour tour of parts of London, and the bridge was not planned by our guide to be a part of the tour. But we cajoled him into getting us somewhere close enough to stop and photograph it. This is the location he go us too. This is obviously an image better shot from a distance, and because of the urban landscape, from somewhere high. But that wasn’t going to happen. When I got home, I was not surprised – but was still mildly disappointed with the results of my several images. But I went to work with Photoshop’s Transform Perspective tool, and the second image is my result. I believe it is much more pleasing.

Using the tool requires a combination of other tools, including some of Photoshop’s “content-aware” features, and other straightening tools. There is a bit of a learning curve. (for example, I had to learn that this tool does not operate on the background image, and you need to create a duplicate layer to do the corrections on, which is always a good practice anyway, for non-destructive editing). Also, perspective corrections also often change the aspect and scale of an image (stretching and/or squeezing), and there is a scale tool for working with those adustments. Something I find particularly useful in Photoshop, is to pull “guides” (horizontal and vertical lines) out from the margins around the areas I am trying to get horizontally or vertically level. Guides also help with correcting vertical perspective. In Adobe Light Room, you can use the Lens overlay feature to create (and scale) a grid overlay pattern on the image (although my brief expirimentation leads me to believe that is is not a versatile as the Transform Perspective Tool in Photoshop).

One important item to be aware of, is that all the above corrections will almost always result in the loss of some of your image (i.e., cropping). When shooting in these situations, it is wise to leave some space around the subject to allow for later cropping. One of the most useful editions to Photoshop in recent years is “content aware” technology. Content aware allows you to remove, replace, move and even crop items (without having to eliminate cropped elements), letting the Photoshop engine make its best “guess” at filling in the space based on the surroundings. It is certainly not perfect. But it is pretty surprisingly good, a lot of the time. Of course, it is nothing you couldn’t already do – manually – but it was painstaking enough that most of us just cropped the best we could, instead. To the best of my knowledge, the Content Aware feature is not yet available in Light Room. But in Photoshop, I can often use content aware cropping, content aware fill, or both, to retain elements of an image that would otherwise have been lost to cropping. Busy images do not work as well, but images with simple graphics or mono color (sky, grass, etc.) work well, often with little or no cleanup afterward.

I recently saw some images posted by another talented shooter taken with a wide-angle lens, that showed perspective distortion at the edges – a possible characteristic of wide-angle lenses with “grand landscape” type images. Reaching out to him, I learned he (like I would guess the majority of shooters today) uses Adobe’s Light Room (which has really been made and marketed to photographers). I am old school, and set in my ways (which may really just be another way of saying “lazy” :-)).

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

But I do have Light Room, so I looked at it. The “Transform” tool performs a similar function (it is also resident in the ACR converter that I use to convert my raw images – which is supposed to be the same “engine” as Light Room). I imported the Eiffel Tower image into Light Room and used the Transform tool in the Develop Module to correct the perspective on this image. Fortunately, this one only required some mild vertical correction and the application of the sliders were pretty easy. In doing my research I found this really well-written article on how to accomplish perspective corrections in Light Room and Photoshop (although it is really most a Light Room article). Even if you use other post-processing software, there is useful information in this easy-to-read tutorial and I recommend reading it.

Amsterdam – UNRETOUCHED
Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I felt like it deserved a tougher test, so I took one of my poorly executed images through the same “hoops.” The Amsterdam image is obviously one where the shooter (yours truly) did not get his handheld image level in the camera to start with. But just making a quick “rotate” adjustment in any software reveals that there is more at issue here than just the level part (for what its worth, Photoshop has a “straighten” tool built into its cropping tool for fixing these types of issues. My experience has been that I get better results using guides and doing it myself, but YMMV). So, once again, I imported this image into Light Room, and went directly to the Transform Tool. I used the sliders for rotate, vertical and horizontal to get this one “right” (note that there is still a perspective issue on the wing to the left on the building – which may be fixable, but is beyond my talent level at the moment). There is also a slider for scale (you inevitably will get some cropping and may have to make an image smaller or even larger to fit the space properly and maintain all elements of the photo) and for adjusting aspect ratio. These same tools exist in ACR, but the Light Room implementation seems much more intuitive and easy to use. Either way, I think its pretty powerful stuff. Here is the result. I think it is much more pleasing than the original. I did my post-processing from start to finish in Light Room on this one.

Amsterdam
Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Earlier, I emphasized “similar” because the Photoshop Transform and Light Room Transform tools are not exactly identical tools. I suspect the “engine” is the same under the hood, but the controls are very different. After some playing I came to the conclusion (based only on my own limited experience) that I was still getting my desired result more effectively using the Photoshop Transform Tools. One thing that the Photoshop tool has is something called “skew.” This allows a little more “freeform” correction, by adding a horizontal or vertical slant to the subject. I find that when I am having trouble matching the vertical perspective and the horizontal rotation, that this is very useful for changing the horizontal in the image without completely changing the vertical. Images like the Eiffel Tower image often present such challenges, and I did apply some skew transformation to several of my tower images on my website. I most certainly used it on the Tower Bridge image. I also think it is easier to minimize the loss of parts of the image from cropping using Photoshop. However, this tool often means using either creative cropping, content aware replacement, or some combination of both.

When shooting in these situations, it is wise to leave some space around the subject to allow for inevitable cropping

These tools require some ability with software, patience, and the willingness to work on post-processing to obtain a desired result. I appreciate that not everyone wants to do this. But I think that the results are often worth the effort. I have been using the Transform Perspective tool for a long time, now. But perhaps not to its best use. I encourage you to try some of these tools. Use non-destructive techniques, or at least, work on a copy of your original image, and don’t be afraid to play around. What is the worst you can do? And maybe learn something. I do almost every time I play around with a new tool.

It’s All in Your Perspective

Tower Bridge
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

During the past several years, I have migrated to smaller gear. Importantly, this has included the diminutive Sony RX100 camera. For the money, this may be the most versatile small travel camera on the market today (though the competition stiffens every year – which is a good thing ๐Ÿ™‚ ; and there are a couple other systems – like the Olympus 4:3 outfit, and the Fujifilm XT series – that have a heavy pro following). But no matter what gear you might be carrying, or using, there are going to be compromises and things a particular “kit” is just not going to be able to handle. For me, with the gear I carry and the travel I do, it is more often than not, two things: “reach” and “perspective.”

The only way I know of to fix the “reach” issue is to add a heavy telephoto to the mix, or get closer (which isn’t always going to be an option). So I haven’t attempted to “fix” that. Rather, I am working around it as best I can. Perspective, however, I have learned, I can “fix.” Well, at least I can improve it in post-processing.

The only way I know to fix the “reach issue is to add a heavy telephoto … or get closer the subject

Perspective is, in some ways, the opposite problem of “reach.” It often involves being too close, or the lens being “too wide” (if that is possible ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Sometimes the same solution can be applied; i.e., moving. For many years, very good photographers did not have the quality zoom lenses we have today and used to “zoom” with their feet. When possible, that is still excellent advice. But moving away from your subject creates new challenges. It makes the subject smaller in the frame. It introduces elements and obstructions into the image that you often do not want. And often the need is to get higher and that is not always possible. I love shooting landscape images (when I get the opportunity) from the top deck of the cruise ship because it aids in perspective for tall subjects by getting me higher. But walking around on location, I often do not have that luxury. If you can find a way to get higher, or have the opportunity to work and area and find higher viewpoints, seek them out.

Tower Bridge
London, England
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

To try to ameliorate these issues, I have learned yet another virtue of post-processing software. Perhaps unfortunately, my usage will most center around Adobe’s products, because it is what I have and know. I have been impressed with the capabilities of other software – notably OnOne (which unfortunately, hasn’t worked well with my hardware), and am sure they all have built this feature in their software. It is worth exploring. This is not a full on tutorial. There are a ton of them out there already. This is really more designed to bring this issue to the reader’s attention and then encourage some exploring of your own.

Fixing perspective issues, I have learned, is yet another virtue of modern post-processing software

I have been able to remarkably improve the perspective on several of my travel images, mostly using the Transform Perspective tool in Adobe Photoshop. The Tower Bridge image was the most pronounced example I could find in my recent “take” of hundreds of images in the British Isles. We were on a “whirlwind” 4-hour tour of parts of London, and the bridge was not planned by our guide to be a part of the tour. But we cajoled him into getting us somewhere close enough to stop and photograph it. This is the location he go us too. This is obviously an image better shot from a distance, and because of the urban landscape, from somewhere high. But that wasn’t going to happen. When I got home, I was not surprised – but was still mildly disappointed with the results of my several images. But I went to work with Photoshop’s Transform Perspective tool, and the second image is my result. I believe it is much more pleasing.

Using the tool requires a combination of other tools, including some of Photoshop’s “content-aware” features, and other straightening tools. There is a bit of a learning curve. (for example, I had to learn that this tool does not operate on the background image, and you need to create a duplicate layer to do the corrections on, which is always a good practice anyway, for non-destructive editing). Also, perspective corrections also often change the aspect and scale of an image (stretching and/or squeezing), and there is a scale tool for working with those adustments. Something I find particularly useful in Photoshop, is to pull “guides” (horizontal and vertical lines) out from the margins around the areas I am trying to get horizontally or vertically level. Guides also help with correcting vertical perspective. In Adobe Light Room, you can use the Lens overlay feature to create (and scale) a grid overlay pattern on the image (although my brief expirimentation leads me to believe that is is not a versatile as the Transform Perspective Tool in Photoshop).

One important item to be aware of, is that all the above corrections will almost always result in the loss of some of your image (i.e., cropping). When shooting in these situations, it is wise to leave some space around the subject to allow for later cropping. One of the most useful editions to Photoshop in recent years is “content aware” technology. Content aware allows you to remove, replace, move and even crop items (without having to eliminate cropped elements), letting the Photoshop engine make its best “guess” at filling in the space based on the surroundings. It is certainly not perfect. But it is pretty surprisingly good, a lot of the time. Of course, it is nothing you couldn’t already do – manually – but it was painstaking enough that most of us just cropped the best we could, instead. To the best of my knowledge, the Content Aware feature is not yet available in Light Room. But in Photoshop, I can often use content aware cropping, content aware fill, or both, to retain elements of an image that would otherwise have been lost to cropping. Busy images do not work as well, but images with simple graphics or mono color (sky, grass, etc.) work well, often with little or no cleanup afterward.

I recently saw some images posted by another talented shooter taken with a wide-angle lens, that showed perspective distortion at the edges – a possible characteristic of wide-angle lenses with “grand landscape” type images. Reaching out to him, I learned he (like I would guess the majority of shooters today) uses Adobe’s Light Room (which has really been made and marketed to photographers). I am old school, and set in my ways (which may really just be another way of saying “lazy” :-)).

Eiffel Tower
Paris, France
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

But I do have Light Room, so I looked at it. The “Transform” tool performs a similar function (it is also resident in the ACR converter that I use to convert my raw images – which is supposed to be the same “engine” as Light Room). I imported the Eiffel Tower image into Light Room and used the Transform tool in the Develop Module to correct the perspective on this image. Fortunately, this one only required some mild vertical correction and the application of the sliders were pretty easy. In doing my research I found this really well-written article on how to accomplish perspective corrections in Light Room and Photoshop (although it is really most a Light Room article). Even if you use other post-processing software, there is useful information in this easy-to-read tutorial and I recommend reading it.

Amsterdam – UNRETOUCHED
Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

I felt like it deserved a tougher test, so I took one of my poorly executed images through the same “hoops.” The Amsterdam image is obviously one where the shooter (yours truly) did not get his handheld image level in the camera to start with. But just making a quick “rotate” adjustment in any software reveals that there is more at issue here than just the level part (for what its worth, Photoshop has a “straighten” tool built into its cropping tool for fixing these types of issues. My experience has been that I get better results using guides and doing it myself, but YMMV). So, once again, I imported this image into Light Room, and went directly to the Transform Tool. I used the sliders for rotate, vertical and horizontal to get this one “right” (note that there is still a perspective issue on the wing to the left on the building – which may be fixable, but is beyond my talent level at the moment). There is also a slider for scale (you inevitably will get some cropping and may have to make an image smaller or even larger to fit the space properly and maintain all elements of the photo) and for adjusting aspect ratio. These same tools exist in ACR, but the Light Room implementation seems much more intuitive and easy to use. Either way, I think its pretty powerful stuff. Here is the result. I think it is much more pleasing than the original. I did my post-processing from start to finish in Light Room on this one.

Amsterdam
Netherlands
Copyright Andy Richards 2019

Earlier, I emphasized “similar” because the Photoshop Transform and Light Room Transform tools are not exactly identical tools. I suspect the “engine” is the same under the hood, but the controls are very different. After some playing I came to the conclusion (based only on my own limited experience) that I was still getting my desired result more effectively using the Photoshop Transform Tools. One thing that the Photoshop tool has is something called “skew.” This allows a little more “freeform” correction, by adding a horizontal or vertical slant to the subject. I find that when I am having trouble matching the vertical perspective and the horizontal rotation, that this is very useful for changing the horizontal in the image without completely changing the vertical. Images like the Eiffel Tower image often present such challenges, and I did apply some skew transformation to several of my tower images on my website. I most certainly used it on the Tower Bridge image. I also think it is easier to minimize the loss of parts of the image from cropping using Photoshop. However, this tool often means using either creative cropping, content aware replacement, or some combination of both.

When shooting in these situations, it is wise to leave some space around the subject to allow for inevitable cropping

These tools require some ability with software, patience, and the willingness to work on post-processing to obtain a desired result. I appreciate that not everyone wants to do this. But I think that the results are often worth the effort. I have been using the Transform Perspective tool for a long time, now. But perhaps not to its best use. I encourage you to try some of these tools. Use non-destructive techniques, or at least, work on a copy of your original image, and don’t be afraid to play around. What is the worst you can do? And maybe learn something. I do almost every time I play around with a new tool.