Post-Processing AKA Making an Image its Absolute Best

I wanted to do a post that showed what goes in to a photograph that becomes a printed product from Jesse Starr Photography.  Every print/ canvas gallery wrap/ metal print/ album page/ etc.. that is ordered from me will have been fully developed and retouched.  When you get a disc of image files, they will only have basic color and contrast adjustments applied and will make for sub-par prints compared to an authentic Jesse Starr Photography print.  Consider this when contemplating print/ product orders. Cameras these days really take some amazing images straight out of the camera without the need for a lot of extra work on the computer.  That said, even the best raw capture needs some enhancement to reach its full potential.  When I was photographing with black and white film, I would spend a good amount of time in the dark room developing the print and dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) areas that needed it to get the absolute best out of the negative.  Now this process has been transferred to the digital darkroom that resides on the computer.  I photograph in a format called RAW and this is essentially a digital negative that needs to be developed.  I use a series of professional software and hardware tools to get the desired results.  My goal is generally to enhance the photograph while keeping it from looking faked or "photoshopped".  This takes skill and experience and is something I always work to get better at.

The tools I use for post-processing my digital image files are:

  • Spyder Monitor Calibration Device and high end IPS matte LCD monitor- Every monitor in the world is a little different in terms of color and density and it is pointless to develop an image without a calibrated monitor.  I use a hardware calibration device that reads the colors on the screen and adjusts them to an industry standard baseline.
  • Adobe Lightroom 3- Great for ingesting images and making exposure and color adjustments to the RAW capture
  • Adobe Photoshop CS5- Photoshop is an incredibly powerful tool that allows everything from advanced color and contrast adjustments to cloning tools for cleaning up an image
  • OnOne Phototools 2.6- This plugin operates from within Photoshop and offers some great presets for working with images
  • Nik Color Efex Pro- This is another plugin that offers another way of enhancing images selectively
  • Wacom pen tablet- I use a pen tablet that allows me much more precise control over my selections and masking tools in Photoshop and Lightroom

I am starting off with an image that already has strong posing, composition, and lighting to show just how much can be enhanced from a great starting point.  Images that were captured in less than ideal lighting (eg. a 12pm outdoor wedding with no shade) will require more work to become great.  The model in this image is the lovely Stephanie who I photographed while at the DWF convention in San Antonio.

As you can see below, the image has some nice soft light and interesting composition but exhibits a few issues.  (Remember that I am looking at a calibrated monitor and yours may very well look quite different.)  Problems: a little dark overall, skin could be brighter, and color balance is off.

I always start in Lightroom to do my basic editing because it allows me to work on the highest amount of data.  First thing I did was to simply adjust the color balance to warm up the image a bit.  The sky was hazy which generally gives a cooler color temperature so I warmed it up by adding some red/orange to the mix:

Next up was the brightness of the mid-tones in the image and I adjusted that and lightened the skin a bit as well:

The image is starting to look a lot better already but it was definitely missing some punch so I added a bit of contrast and color pop while still in Lightroom:

Great image but could still use some more enhancements if it is going to be wall portrait ready.  This model had pretty great skin to begin with as well as a professional make-up job but there is still some imperfections that can be seen in this closeup crop that would show in a large print:

This is the point in post-processing that I leave Lightroom and enter Photoshop.  I opened the image up in Phototools to do some selective skin retouching to even out the skin imperfections.  It's subtle but it's one of those details that takes the image from ordinary to extraordinary:

This model is obviously very fit and not in need of any body modifications but I wanted to demonstrate how I am able to do some slight thinning using tools in Photoshop. Below is a close-up of  the back and we are going to pretend that we want to make stephanie look a little thinner:

I used the liquify tool to push in the skin a bit to give a slimming effect.  Again, I tried to keep it from looking unnatural:

To bring out the final pop that I wanted in the image, I used a few more contrast adjustment tools in Photoshop to give me the look I wanted:

And finally, I found the bright white defocused flowers in the lower left corner to be slightly distracted so I used some patching tools to eliminate and minimize them:

For a quick comparison, here is the before image again: