Post-processing of digital images

April 27, 2013  •  1 Comment

To say that post-production or photo editing equipment and software are controversial is an understatement. In one of the very first postings on this blog I discussed the difference between JPEG and RAW photo image files and the need to always have RAW files available for post-capture digital editing. Now I would like to address the details of post-processing equipment and software. This is clearly controversial and rapidly changing but I will give you my opinions about the advantages and reasoning for what I use (today.)

The first impossible controversy regards the computer platforms available for digital imaging. I will say upfront that I use a PC and software designed for a PC.  My choice was made for three reasons.  First, I came from the world of academia and to a lesser degree, business. The PC is dominant in these areas so I knew the machines and software. Second, there is generally more software available for the PC. Third, the PC is less expensive than a Mac or Apple system. Now before the Mac users start screaming, I am the first to admit that the Mac is probably a better system for any graphics application. Good photo editing software is available for both systems and the software costs are similar. Generally, though, you need to make a choice early in your photo editing career, because the software is usually platform-specific and cannot be used on both systems.  I would lean towards the PC platform if you are in a large business or academic institution. I would lean toward a Mac if you do not need to share all of your non-photographic work with many colleagues and would definitely choose a Mac if you are going to edit video.  

That said, I use a high-end PC with a fast processor (3.6 Mbs), separate high-speed video card with 2 GB memory, 16GB of RAM, and a 2TB internal hard drive, multiple USB3 connections and 2-27" Viewsonic high-resolution monitors. I have multiple external 1, 2, and 4TB hard drives for back-up. You need a lot of RAM for photo editing and lots of hard drive space and a good back-up system to store your work.

There are multiple paths to appropriate post-production software. There is the camera software approach using what comes with your camera. These software packages are usually satisfactory for RAW file editing, conversion to JPEG, and printing. They are proprietary and, therefore, subject to change so if you have any aspirations to develop and expand your photographic work, I would avoid the proprietary camera company programs. A second approach is the low-end, freeware approach. Several programs are available to convert and edit photo files at little or no charge. Sometimes these programs link to on-line photo storage and sharing sites such as Flickr and Picasa. These work great for point-and-shoot and cell phone photographers but those shooting seriously with a dSLR usually want more than these programs can provide. Next are the rich, mid-range, purpose-specific photo editing tools such as Adobe (Photoshop) Elements (for either the PC or Mac) and Aperture for the Mac. These are full-featured programs that have far more capabilities than most photographers want or need and will do almost any editing job asked of them.  Finally, there are the top-end editing tools used by advanced and professional photographers - Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. These are two totally different packages that serve different but compatible roles in your photo editing work flow.

What is Adobe Lightroom (LR)? LR is a photographic database that was designed to store, catalog, and locate large numbers of digital images. LR also combines the photo editing power of Adobe Mini-bridge, Bridge, and CameRAW to view, convert, and edit images in a non-destructive manner and with a very easy to learn user interface. LR manipulates digital images at the image file-level rather than the pixel-level. Adobe Photoshop (PS), on the other hand, is part of a huge creative suite of programs used to manipulate digital images at the pixel-level in a destructive manner.  Wow - that is a lot of very specific terminology - what are these two programs used for and what do they do?

LR is the starting point in the digital imaging workflow of most serious photographers. LR allows the photographer to import RAW (or JPEG) image files from a camera or memory card into a computer. During the import, the files can be renamed, assigned to specific folders, converted to digital negatives (DNGs), have key words assigned, and undergo basic image processing available in Adobe CameRAW (ACR). Once the images are imported LR can be used to correct white balance and tint, adjust exposure, straighten and crop, create local color, contrast, and exposure adjustments, sharpen and reduce digital noise, and apply special effects to the images. LR also creates a viewable image and has multiple tools to compare, sort, locate, grade, tag, flag and copy images. It acts as a file manager for the RAW images allowing movement on hard drives and allows the creation of smart (automatically updated) or stable collections of photos.  LR can geo-tag photo locations.  The latest version of LR also creates various output formats for the web, slide shows, books, and prints.

Photoshop is the top end of photo editing software. Most photographers who do not do graphic design probably only use a small fraction of what PS can do. PS has two import features called Bridge and Mini-bridge that bring photos into ACR for editing and conversion to output files for printing or sharing.  ACR works much like LR to make image-level edits and corrections before PS is used.  PS allows editing at the pixel level so the user has complete control over all elements of the photo.  The photo edits, for the most part, are destructive edits meaning that the image will be irreversibly altered if saved. PS does not have the sophisticated database functions of LR and does not do the cataloging and searching as well as LR.

Both LR and PS can use pre-sets and third-party plug-ins to automate much of the work of photo editing. The automation of PS is far more sophisticated using scripts and batch processing to speed your workflow.  Examples of these include high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, focus stacking, and panoramic stitching of multiple images. The two programs work together seamlessly to enhance your editing workflow and image storage and retrieval.  So, how are the two programs used by a nature photographer?

The more I talk with professional photographers, the more I realize that about 90% of post-production editing is done in LR and only about 5-10% in PS. LR is a powerful image editor that gives busy photographers a comprehensive database with which to catalog tens of thousands of images and find them again in seconds. As an editor, LR performs all of the functions of ACR in a very intuitive user interface.  Color balance, tint, leveling, cropping, exposure and contrast adjustment, noise reduction, and sharpening are handled effortlessly in LR.  Local adjustments of nearly all of these functions can be done with both brush and gradient tools.  I will review these editing functions in more detail at another time, but, for now, recognize that these tools are available.

PS adds three hugely important functions that are not in LR and a few hundred other functions used by graphics designers.  The three biggies in PS are layers, masks, and content-aware fill. These destructive, pixel-level tools add creative touches not possible in LR and give the nature photographer the ability to "fix" issues in a photo that could be distracting to the central theme of the photo.  There are literally hundreds of other manipulations that can be done in PS that are not available in LR. Most of these are interesting but not necessary for the average photographer.

That is the editing overview and I will have much more about editing in future posts. Next time we will explore high dynamic range (HDR) imaging and its role for the nature photographer. 



Mark Fusco(non-registered)
Enjoyed your post. I would be interested in your advice about how I should proceed with my (very) amateur photo collection. I have a ton on of photos I have taken over the years with a variety of different digital cameras (different file name conventions). All the files are dumped on my home hard drive with variable organization. Some are organized by subject some by date with a minimal amount of tagging. For the last several years I have used the desktop version of Picassa on my Mac. I have made some edits with picassa (mostly cropping and simple light/contrast adjustment) so my understanding is that these edits have created a separate image file. The net effect of this chaos is that when my wife asks me to find a certain photo or type of photo I can never find it. My question is, how should I organize this mess? Should I stick with Picassa and just put in the hours of going through and tagging everything? or should I switch to Lightroom or something else. Also, if I switch do you know what happens to my Picassa edits. Thanks again
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