Post Processing Your Images to Enhance Story

Our job as photographers is to capture the best possible image in the camera – an image that captures mood and the message we want to tell about the subject. Post processing of this image should always enhance or supplement the ‘story’ of the image and should not detract in any way. For example, in the photo of a leaf on Abraham Lake, I made a careful composition that showed the story of the leaf, the ice and the wind. It took me several attempts to pull out the best photo possible from this scene. Once I captured what I wanted in the camera, I turned to the digital darkroom to enhance the message. First, I converted the image to black-n-white to selectively manipulate contrast to bring out the snow and ice patterns. I then added back the original colour information in the photo from a duplicate colour image and then I shifted the colours slightly in the scene to enhance the cold mood but bring out the warmth of the leaf. In the end I think my processing choices enhanced the mood and feel of the photo. To learn how I did the processing on this photo be sure to come to our talk Enhancing Story and Mood in the Digital Darkroom to be held this Monday, January 21st in Cochrane (Note: There’s a catch to this one! You gotta be registered for the Persistent Vision Photography Seminar first!)

©Darwin Wiggett - The in-camera capture before processing

©Darwin Wiggett – The in-camera capture before processing

©Darwin Wiggett - The leaf image after processing to enhance the story.

©Darwin Wiggett – The leaf image after processing to enhance the story.

These days with all the funky software plug-ins out there most of us tend to go a little gimmicky with our processing choices adding ornamentation over function. If the processing is obvious, your story will be diluted. Samantha and I find that most people fall into the over processing trap especially with HDR photos. For example, in the first pairing of images below the left side of the frame shows one of the five exposures captured for HDR processing . The right side of the frame shows a typical ‘overcooked’ HDR image. This image was not overly exaggerated from the kind of results we commonly see! Yech!

©Darwin Wiggett - the original capture on the left, the over processed HDR on the right.

©Darwin Wiggett – the original capture on the left, the over processed HDR on the right.

Usually when we process HDR images we try to make the final result look more like our eye saw the photo (see the image below). There is a time and place for grungy, cartoonish, HDR images but we don’t think that place is with the subject above. Why? Because our ‘story’ was not a fake, shiny plastic landscape but a beautiful, natural landscape.  We’ll also be talking about our HDR processing workflow in our talk this coming Monday.

In the end, we always ask ourselves: does our processing bring out our story, or is the processing starting to become the main attraction? If our processing doesn’t add, or worse if it detracts from the story, we’ll go back to the drawing board and try again.

©Darwin Wiggett - a 5-image HDR processed with a lighter hand to tell a more accurate story of the subject.

©Darwin Wiggett – a 5-image HDR processed with a lighter hand to tell a more accurate story of the subject.

 

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

10 Comments

  1. Jens
    January 19, 2013

    Hello,

    I much prefer the simplicity of the first image of the leaf at Abraham lake. The beautiful blue colour looks more natural to me, like the colour I’ve seen when hiking to glacier ponds and lakes. The second image, looks like so many of the over processed images we see today.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      January 20, 2013

      Hi Jens,

      If the goal of the photo was to document the ice and the leaf the way it looked to the eye, then you are correct, the result is over processed.

      But documentation was not my goal. My goal was to tell the story of the leaf, the ice and the wind and the processing choices I made highlighted the structure and contrast of the ice, the textured feel of the wind blown snow and the colour contrast of the leaf and the ice. Each processing step was made to enhance the story. Don’t be confused by two different purposes in processing: making it look real (like our eye saw) or processing to enhance story which always tends to exaggerate reality.

  2. Tom Robbins
    January 19, 2013

    These are great questions to keep in mind while processing images. As you say, it is all too easy to become so enamored with the power of today’s processing software that the subject itself assumes a secondary role in the final result.

    Reply
  3. Evan Spellman
    January 19, 2013

    I really enjoyed the before and after post processing.
    essentially working with the digital negative in RAW format allows this.
    Beautiful Series of photo’s presented here !
    A photographer can also use thier Bracketed Raw photo’s to Make Luminosity Masks in Photoshop. Although a very advanced technique and time consuming, the results can be worth the time and effort.
    here is Tony Kyuper’s website about this.
    http://goodlight.us/writing/tutorials.html

    here’s a Vimeo tutorial about Luminosity Masking.

    Cheers,
    Evan Spellman

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      January 20, 2013

      Hi Evan, We use Tony’s Luminosity Masks frequently, they are fantastic!

  4. Evan Spellman
    January 19, 2013

    opps forgot to include the vimeo link about luminosity masking
    http://vimeo.com/52523841

    Reply
  5. Richard Siggins
    January 19, 2013

    I think I agree with Jens on the lake/ice/leaf shot. Something between the two maybe.

    You make a great point about using post processing to enhance the story. I find that I can fall into the over processing trap and the end result may make people saw “wow!” but it reduces what was really there. To your point it distracts from the story. Several times I have gone back and toned it down a bit.

    People ask “is that the way it looked or did you Photoshop it?” at which point I have to explain the process of shooting in raw and editing. I try to create what I saw, but it’s also art and not documentary photography. I don’t have a problem with editing to direct people’s attention to where I want it and possibly better tell the story.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      January 20, 2013

      Hi Richards, see my response to Jens, the goal of the image was not realism but to tell a story.

  6. Hiro
    January 19, 2013

    I think there are stages to master post-processing. Hopefully, I want to obtain the skills to apply digital filters to meet my inner vision. It requires practice and takes time. Anyway regardless people like the processing here, I like lighting and composition.

    Reply
  7. Curtis
    February 13, 2013

    I read a comment by another photographer who said it wasn’t necessarily his goal to make realistic photos, but rather, believable ones. This is what came to mind when I read your response Darwin.

    Reply

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