Creating a Lightweight Photoshop Workflow
Rough seas, Norway, March 2012
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2012
Last night I was the guest speaker at a Camera Club; something that I like to do a number of times each year in order to share my knowledge, but also to pick up information from others. The event went well and the presentation I delivered was entirely new, not only in content but in approach. The real innovation for the session was that I demonstrated how I use Photoshop to craft my images.
What became apparent from talking to people after the event was that my workflow in Photoshop was quite minimal yet achieved a lot. You see I have standardised my approach to be adequate for around 95% of my images and most of my changes can be applied in just a few minutes. Sure some of the better images I will spend longer on, but only if the additional effort is justified.
Here then is my approach:
- Clean up the image by removing dust spots etc on a new empty layer. I do however try to keep my sensor clean by using an Arctic Butterfly brush so that any cleanup work is minimal.
- Use a Curves adjustment layer to adjust brightness
- Use a curves adjustment layer to adjust contract
- Use a saturation layer to adjust saturation
- Add a new empty layer and stroke the image to create a frame
Whilst I didn’t demonstrate it last night I have created an action in Photoshop to automate the addition of the above layers so that all I need do is activate the action using Ctrl-F3 (which is the key combination I have assigned).
Consider also that all my adjustments are on layers which give rise to a number of benefits:
- I can turn the layer on or off to hide the effect
- I can adjust the opacity of the layer to control how strong its effect is on the image
- Each layer has a blending mode that you can use to make further enhancements
- Each layer has a layer mask attached to it which I can use to target the adjustment onto a specific area of the image
Once I am happy with the image I create a new consolidated version from all the layers by pressing Shift-Ctrl-Alt-E. I then sharpen this for output e.g. for paper or for the screen. My finished image is then saved as a PSD file with all the layers remaining in place. Again this gives rise to timesaving benefits:
- Each time I output the image to new media I can create a version of the image with the correct level of sharpening and simply turn off the other layers
- I can create modified versions of the same image e.g. versions with and without the frame
- If in a couple of weeks I decide I was a little heavy handed with one of the adjustments e.g. saturation, I can simply adjust the opacity of the relevant layer to control the effect
- If I later decide to work on the image further I have all my earlier layers already in place and ready to enhance further
By following my approach I find that I minimise the total time I spend on each image whilst achieving good results.
Don’t Let Noise Kill Your Images
Cornwall, October 2011
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2011
One of the complaints that has dogged small and compact cameras in the past is that they are prone to noise and noise can kill images dead. Unfortunately, whilst advances have been made, these cameras by virtue of their smaller sensors can still have problems. So what to do?
The first thing to realise is that not all image noise is the same or has the same negative impact on the final image. Colour noise appears as random colour speckles in the image and can result in images that appear “muddy” and ultimately lose definition and detail. This noise is quite ugly and should be removed whilst trying to do as little damage as possible to the image.
Luminosity noise appears as speckles of light and dark areas on the image and resembles film grain. If you remove all of this noise your images can look a little “plastic” like. If you have too much of this noise in your images you can lose the definition and they don’t appear sharp. But if you have a small amount of this noise it can actual make your images appear more detailed and sharper when printed.
The best approach is not to try to remove the noise from your images but to avoid introducing the noise in the first place. And as smaller sensor lightweight cameras have smaller sensors that are more susceptible to noise, you need to consider some of these strategies:
- Keep ISO’s low. Don’t rely on having your camera ISO set to auto. Yes it will increase the ISO when light is low to avoid slow shutter speeds but it will probably do this much too early.
- Use your camera in Aperture Priority mode where you select the aperture to determine the depth of field and the camera calculates the shutter speed. See next point for why.
- Consider how much depth of field you really need and what is the widest aperture to allow this. With small sensor cameras you will find you can use a much wider aperture to achieve a given depth of field. A wider aperture means more light reaching the sensor which means faster shutter speeds so you can use lower ISO settings.
- Shoot in RAW. You can then take control of the level of noise reduction applied to the final image. With most RAW converters you can even apply different levels of colour and luminance noise reductions to suit your image.
- Use a monopod in low light. This allows you to use slower shutter speeds without the need to increase the ISO.
- Expose the image to the right in the histogram. To use this approach you really need to be shooting RAW format but the technique involves slightly overexposing your images by perhaps 2/3 of a stop.
- Try to avoid long exposures if possible. Over about a second the sensor will warm up and create noise.
Whilst cameras have improved greatly in their handling of noise the above techniques are still valid and will help you create a quality image.
Are Compact Cameras up to the Job
Wasdale Head, January 2011
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2011
I was having a discussion with an acquaintance the other day who was arguing with me that Compact Cameras are just not up to the job of taking good quality images. His argument revolved around his own experience with a compact digital, where the results were “mushy” and much of the detail had been lost. Before we get into why his argument is flawed, let’s take a moment to look at what being “up to the job” actually means.
If we shoot an image with a digital compact camera and shoot a second image with comparable settings on a DSLR, then the DLSR image will almost certainly be the better quality. This does not however mean the image from the compact camera isn’t up to the job as this would depend on the intended use of the image. If the image will only be used to produce a 6×4 inch print or perhaps a low resolution image for a web site, then there is no advantage to be had with the DSLR. If however you want to produce a 30×20 inch fine art print then the compact camera is unlikely to be up to the job.
But what about a 35mm film compact camera? It’s quite possible you would be able to take a great image which could produce an image of this size. The person I was discussing this with had somehow muddled up his experience of digital photography with compact cameras in general and had forgotten entirely about film. Looking further at his argument I was also able to identify the camera he had been using was a cheap consumer compact and not one aimed at the photo pro/enthusiast. This is likely to make a big difference in that the lens might be of a lower quality, the camera sensor is likely to be smaller and the image is probably stored as a JPG rather than RAW. Let’s explore each of these in turn.
Lens quality, even on a compact camera is very important. Lenses must be sharp across the entire zoom range and display little diffraction. The ability of the lens to resolve detail is also an important factor. If the lens won’t resolve sufficient detail or isn’t sharp, the images produced will seem to be “mushy”. Now an expensive compact camera isn’t a guarantee of a good lens but a quality lens costs money and you can be sure no camera manufacturer will sell a camera with an expensive lens cheaply.
Next we have the subject of sensor size and whilst even high end compact cameras have small sensors in comparison to DSLR’s or Micro 4/3 cameras, they are larger than the sensors in cheap compact cameras. Add to this the tendency for cheaper compacts to be of a higher resolution e.g. 14Mpixels rather than the 10Mpixel you find on most high end compacts, you end up with a camera that produces images with a lot of noise. The solution most of the manufacturers have to this problem is to apply a lot of noise reduction, which is simply the blurring of the image to remove the appearance of noise. The result is “mushy” images.
Finally, the images tend to be recorded in JPG once the noise reduction has been applied. Unfortunately not every image needs the same level of noise reduction and often too much is applied. A much better approach is to capture your images in RAW format and then apply the noise reduction in software as part of the conversion process. This allows you to make judgements about how much noise should be left in the image with a trade off against sharpness.
So, to prove my point, look at the above image. This was captured on my LX5 compact camera in RAW format before process in Lightroom. The resulting image was then resized in order to produce a A3+ print at 300dpi. Is it sharp? Yes. Does it contain lots of crisp detail? You bet it does. In fact, here is a small section of the image shown at 100% so you can judge for yourself, and keep in mind a print from this will be even more impressive once sharpened.
Unfortunately I still don’t think I convinced my acquaintance.
New Lightweight Definition
Lofoten Islands, Norway March 2012
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2012 – but feel free to repost and share
When I decided to start this blog it was my intention to discuss the creation of great photography of professional quality using lightweight equipment; that is smaller and lighter than the usual DSLR and accessories. Having thought this through further I think there is a need for another dimension to this definition. Rather than concentrating on size and weight I think the third dimension is time and for a very important reason. Creating great photography seems to be taking me more and more time these days.
Since turning digital some 10 years back I have found the role of the photographer has dramatically changed and is taking far more time. Consider the idea of a stock library. In the old world (pre digital) a photographer would typically shoot and submit slides to agencies, keeping records of who had what. The agency would record, file, keyword, possibly scan the work as well as promote the photographer (if you were lucky). Now all of this work has passed to the photographer including with some agencies the role of promoting the photographer and their work. There are a few exceptions but generally there is much more for the photographer to do with rates of return much lower than they were 10 years ago. It’s therefore necessary for the photographer who wants to earn decent money in stock to be as efficient as possible, or to put it another way have a lightweight workflow.
Even if you don’t want to make your living at photography but just want to produce great work, you still need to store and catalogue your images. You need to spend time converting the images from to TIFF files and then perfect your vision using tools such as Photoshop. All this adds up to time on your computer rather than time behind the camera. This is something that we need to address and a new dimension that I will try to cover in my future blogs.
Travelling Even Lighter
Manchester, May 2012
Copyright: Robin Whalley 2012
Today was a great day for photography. I met up with a friend in Manchester where we spent the entire day shooting urban scenes. The weather played ball for once and the light was simply stunning. It was the sort of crisp clean blue light that you get in early April which makes architectural images (especially metal and glass) simply sparkle. Take this image where I was fortunate enough to catch the light on the building whilst a rather dark storm cloud passed overhead. There is a clarity of light in this that you don’t ordinarily see in the UK in May.
What really stood out for both of us however was that by the end of the day we were still very fresh and could have carried on shooting for much longer. In the past we have both taken too much equipment, equipment that wasn’t needed and in truth never got used. Today was different however and we adopted the Lightweight philosophy.
Steve was shooting film and has a Nikon F90 with a 28-105mm lens carried in a small shoulder pack. I was using the GX1 + 14-45mm lens. I also carried a 9-18mm lens and a 45-200mm lens. I did use both of these during the day but only for a handful of images. I also carried my LX5, spare batteries, memory cards and a small monopod – you never know where you will venture on these sorts of days. All of this was in a small LowePro slingshot bag.
In truth I was carrying to much kit with me as I really only needed the GX1 and the 14-45mm lens. All of this would have fitted easily in a small shoulder pack that I have. Never the less, we were able to complete the entire day from 9:30 to 6:00 walking around and shooting. Not once did we run out of energy and when we did stop for the odd break and something to eat, our equipment didn’t get in the way of others.
Lightweight photography is definitely the way to go.
Over the course of a year I am asked to give quite a few presentations to camera clubs here in the UK. These presentations cover a variety of topics rather than just being about Lightweight Photography, but I do often make reference to my use of compact cameras. I also like to take along A3 prints I have made, including those from my LX5 compact camera, so people can view them at the break.
The first thing I like to try is for people to pick out the LX5 prints from those made on my 5D MkII. People sometimes guess which one but there is virtually no one who selects the correct print with a rationale such as the quality isn’t as good. My challenge then is to ask how many people print larger than A3+ and very few say they need to do so. Of those that only print up to A3+, I like to ask “how many spend lots of money on expensive lenses and SLR bodies in order to produce images that they can’t distinguish from those shot on a compact camera costing a few hundred pounds”. Killer question eh?
All sorts of justifications now start to come out as to why they can’t possibly use a compact camera. One of the most frequent and one that is regularly raised as a question is that you can’t use filters with a compact camera because there is no filter ring to attach the filter folder to. In fact I also hear this when I am out with my camera; people come over to me to ask how on earth I have attached a filter.
The truth is that many of the high end compact cameras do allow for a filter attachment but people don’t realise it. Often there is a plastic ring around the base of the lens that can be unscrewed. It’s then possible to attach a tube to the thread which also has a thread at the other end to which you can attach a filter ring and holder. The cost of this little accessory is around £10 and they can be purchased from eBay for all sorts of cameras. As I say, I use mine with an LX5 but my friend has a Canon G12 and can do the same. He also came across someone with a Canon G9 who found he could attach the filter holder. Another acquaintance had a Canon S95 which also used this solution. In fact, it’s probably a good bet that if your compact camera can shoot RAW files that it will also have some sort of mechanism for attaching filters.
So don’t make this assumption and reject compact cameras from your photography. And if you know your camera does have a way to attach filters, why not leave a comment here to share this with others.
The other night I received a number of emails that reminded me how people involved in Landscape Photographers are failing to move with the times. It used to be that you would start photography using a 35mm film camera and in time, if you were interested in Landscape Photography you might move up to a Medium Format camera. Finally, if you were taking your Landscape Photography seriously and ultimately wanted to turn pro, you would use a large format camera which gave a number of benefits such as image size and camera movement. In truth for many, the camera movement was mainly necessary in order to get proper depth of field and stopping down the lens to a small aperture e.g. f/64 just wasn’t sufficient.
What prompted me to think about this last night were a number of emails I received showing relative newcomers to Photography posing next to their new large format cameras. This caused me to wonder if they had a specific reason to migrate to the large format camera or if they were just following the well trodden path of landscape photographers in the past.
In the past, large format equipment meant exceptional image quality and detail together with huge depth of field; all the things the landscape photographer needed. It still does equate to these things however there are other routes to achieving great landscape results. I can show you images that I have shot with my GX1 using a 28mm lens set to f/7.1 where the rocks at my feet are sharp and detailed, as are the distant hills. This is one of the advantages that having such a small sensor brings; incredible depth of field even at quite wide apertures.
As for the question of detail and resolution, I can upscale my prints to 30 inches and it’s got just as much visible detail as the file printed at the native size. Why, because the printer is the limiting factor. If I can see the barbs on a barbed wire fences when I view the image at 100% on screen, then I might need to print the image at double its current resolution or more before I can see the same barbs in the print. The limitation is therefore the quality and resolving power of the lens and the ability of the printer to print the detail.
I should stress that there is nothing wrong with large format cameras and that a micro 4/3 camera can’t compete with the image resolution from a large format camera, but do you really need all that extra cost, weight and time investment if you don’t print larger than say A3+?
I will however admit however that it doesn’t look quite the same when I am posing for a promotional shot with a tiny GX1 as opposed to a large format camera.