Lightroom is a very powerful tool if you know how to use it. I'm not a master, but I've simply done enough fiddling to know my way around to accomplish the ends I want. But I do put effort into my edits, because it's an important part of the process. It was with film - the actual photograph was the start, but masters like Ansel Adams knew their way around a darkroom just as much (if not more) than they did the camera. So it is with digital. And I'll be honest, it irks me a little bit when people turn around and say "oh, don't bother editing, it's fine, we want to see everything!"
That's great. Thank you. I'm glad you have so much faith in my skills as a photographer that you think my SOOC (straight-out-of-camera) images are as good as the ones you've seen, and I hate to break it to you, but that's not the case.
EXAMPLE: What follows is the before and after (and a couple in-betweens) of one of my favourite images from my recent trip to Los Angeles. The first is the original RAW image simply converted straight to a .jpg file with zero adjustment. Now it's not that I think it's a bad image, but it needs some work. When I look at this, and when I'd taken the picture to begin with, I had something different envisioned.
- Gear: Canon 6D body, Sigma 35mm f1.4 lens, Lee Filters Big Stopper (10-stop neutral density filter) + holder/adapter ring, cable release, Gitzo GT1545T tripod, Manfrotto 496RC2 head
- Settings: 35mm, ISO 100, f9.0, 96 seconds
- Taken approximately ten minutes before sunrise
What I've done:
- straighten horizon (honestly sometimes I wonder if I could take a straight picture if my life depended on it)
- crop to minimize dead space in the sky, beach clutter in the foreground, and both to the right
- localized cloning because I had some dust on my sensor showing up as dark spots (most notably in the top left, though there was some along the mountains)
- localized cloning to remove highlight specks on the pier and beach (this wasn't as noticeable on screen, but really annoying on the print)
- lens profile corrections enabled in Lightroom to correct for lens vignetting and minor lens distortion
- sharpened and minor noise reduction added
- converted to black and white
That's all standard and takes me typically 30 seconds to three minutes, depending on how fussy I'm being with regards to the crop. That gives us this:
So let's start to make it interesting:
- Exposure increased by nearly a full stop
- Contrast and clarity pushed up
- Highlights, shadows, blacks, and whites pushed and pulled in different directions to give a basic improvement to the tonality
- Tone curve adjusted and fine tuned to further enhance tonality (it's pretty close to a basic S-curve, just tweaked)
Basic exposure and tone adjustments. This is where a lot of my edits stop, and I have most of this worked into presets so I don't have to manually re-do it every time. I usually adjust the curve a bit, but it's minimal. Result:
- Three separate graduated filter adjustments added:
- one about a quarter from the left to pull up exposure on the side to match more of the image
- one even with the diagonal water line to add contrast to the water and darken the horizon line/pier
- one horizontal near the top of the frame to slightly burn down the sky and enhance the mountain line
- Three separate brush adjustments added:
- one to lightly burn (darken) the sand
- one to dodge (lighten) the seaweed on the beach in order to recover detail from where I'd crushed it with the blacks adjustment/tone curve across the whole print
- one along the mountain line to increase contrast and further enhance it
Voila. That's what I wanted.
Now, full disclosure, I didn't edit this in quite as linear a fashion as I've set out here. I never do. I follow it to an extent, but I always jump back and forth between the curve and the grad adjustments, maybe tweak the crop, back to the brush adjustments, and so on and so forth. It's a process. A lot of the time I feel like I'm at the optometrists office where they try to figure out your prescription... "better one, better two?" Grad on, better one? Grad off, better two?
I'm by no means a master in Lightroom, and certainly not in Photoshop. But I've practiced with it. When I initially take that shot, I know that I have all of these adjustments available to me and what they do and where I can go with it. I have a pretty good idea what I can and can't fix in post-processing. There's limitations. I can't take a terrible photo and make it great. But if I have a concept in mind and a decent digital negative/SOOC image to work with, I can get the print I want, or close enough to satisfy.
- Ansel Adams