This post has been sitting in my drafts for about two years, and I'm finally getting around to finishing it! I'm going to talk about the basics of post processing that I use and have worked well for me. Before I go any further, this will be entirely focused on Adobe Lightroom, which is both cheap ($10 a month through the creative cloud or around $100 standalone) and an unbelievably powerful tool to any photographer.
Step 1 of my post processing guide, and this is a step you have to take before you ingest your images to the computer: Shoot RAW. I won't really get into a long discussion about the long-standing argument about shooting RAW vs JPEG, but just accept that RAW wins. RAW is basically the ingredients to the cake, but not the cake. It is everything you need for a perfect image, but the image isn't done yet. Taking that further what that really means is that you control the final look of the image and nothing is baked into the file by the computer in the camera. The most obvious place this impacts is white balance, and if you've ever shot inside a decrepit warehouse gym, you understand how easily white balance is thrown off by bad lighting. If you shoot JPEG, white balance is determined by the camera, and while it can be altered in post, it cannot be corrected the same way as RAW. RAW files influence the final image in a number of other ways, but all you need to know is this is the largest, cleanest, most untouched file your camera can produce. This should be your starting point for an edit, not a compressed JPEG that limits your options.
So I'll go over a basic edit that I'll preform on an individual image basis and the usual order I'll go about. (Note: I have basic presets that I've developed and will generally import with on of these active based on the image I'm ingesting -- my normal workflow will skip a number of these steps)
First things first, skip everything else and head down to Lens Correction. I almost always use lens correction (except with fish eye lenses where I want the distortion) because it corrects a number of the issues you can experience with a wide range of lenses like distortion and vignetting.
Next head to camera calibration. I'll usually select "camera standard" which will give a fairly good starting point to how the image looked on the back of your camera. As a note, you'll find these panels towards the bottom of the develop module. If you're starting your edit from scratch, I want both of these changed first because they will impact the coloring and exposure of the image slightly across the entire shot.
Cropping: I can't overstate how crucial this phase is. Because of the way focus systems work, you may not be able to frame a photo perfectly, and get it tact sharp, because of that framing and composition could be off. After those previous basic adjustments are made, the crop is whats going to nail the composition of the image. I won't go nuts about composition here, but before you edit your image, it should be cropped as well as straightened. A crooked photo is not interesting, it's crooked. Any shot that has a horizon line or a straight vertical beam in it needs to have that line straight in the final image. Very very minor tweaks add huge value in "finishing" the image.
Next up the two most critical steps: White Balance and Exposure.
White Balance adjustments help correct for all the issues that can happen when the camera misinterprets what the actual color of a scene was, or you can adjust to get the image more in line with how you want it to look (realistic vs. creative). To correct this, I'll hit the eye dropper and then sample an area of white/grey in the image. That will usually get the WB close, and will then just need a minor adjustment on the temperature slider.
Now exposure is other huge global adjustment that radically impacts the image. This is where you're correcting for the brightness/darkness of the image. Especially in dark indoor locations, you can really save an image here. The exposure slider must be used with caution and not as a primary way of getting the image properly exposed. As exposure is added to an image, more and more noise is introduced (a common theme in editing). As a rule of thumb you don't ever want to adjust this slider more than 1 full stop (between -1.0 to +1.0). Especially using cheaper camera bodies, pushing much more than this will not save your image, but make it really look worse.
Next up, contrast. I like a strong contrasty image. I've never found a reason to go below 0, and I'll usually land around +25. Contrast can also be adjusted in the tone curve section by adjusting the point curve to medium contrast or strong contrast. Play around and see what method works for your look. You'll notice the harder you adjust contrast though how the color and exposure of the image will be altered as well, so you may have to go back and get tweaking.
Highlights and shadows -- the bright parts and dark parts of your image. When I first started, it seemed to make sense to put the highlights to -100 and the shadows to +100. That was really just because I had no idea what I was doing and I thought it looked neat. It doesn't. Like anything else, use adjustments with moderation. But some examples when to make big changes with these sliders: extreme dynamic range. Let's say you shoot on the beach. It is very tough to get the subject, as well as the sky properly exposed in the same image. In this case, I would under expose my subject so I could still get something like a blue sky, and then bring the shadows up in the edit. Normally in a gym environment, I want to bring down the highlights a bit to get a better skin tone, and pull up the shadows slightly.
Whites/blacks -- again, these should be tweaked with caution. I like a strong, contrasty image, so I generally increase the whites, decrease the blacks, that helps put more "punch" in the shot. The "professional" way of doing this right has you holding the option key and sliding the whites until a white outline begins to develop, and doing the same thing with the blacks until a black shadows starts to fill in.
Presence might be my favorite place to experiment because so much can be done in just a few little tweaks. +100 clarity is the first thing any amateur photographer will do when they open up Lightroom. It makes everyone look like they are cut out of stone and have huge muscles -- the "300 effect". The more you get comfortable working and editing your images, you'll realize, moderation is again key. Clarity can add a lot of structure to an image, but it will also make everything look extremely post-processed and not real. I think for a fitness scene - +30 is "moderate." Vibrance and saturation deal strictly with the color of the image. When you hear about "desaturating" an image, that's where this work is done. Tweaking a combination of the vibrance/saturation sliders will pull color out of an image and add a fade. Cranking these sliders too far the other way will make the colors cartoonish. Again, you're shooting RAW so for a standard edit, I'm going to bring up my vibrance to around +10 to get some color back in the image, and the saturation anywhere between 5-10.
Let's go all the way down now to "detail" and specifically "noise reduction". Noise reduction is a huge debate in digital photography. Noise reduction is going to pull out all that digital grain that develops when a camera shoots at high ISO or an exposure was wrong and you've heavily corrected it with the exposure sliders. For the most part, I would stay away from ever using noise reduction more than a +10. Reason being is that as that slider's value increases, detail is lost and smoothed over in an effort to get rid of the digital static. My advice would be to just try and nail the exposure in camera - even if that means shooting at a very high ISO instead of trying to "fix it" in post production. Some purists insist on not ever using this slider, but I find it very useful, especially if you have a lot of blacks near the edges of a high ISO image. A small tweak on this slider will help smooth out those edges without doing "damage" to the detail of the subject.
So that's my basic process that I go through in Lightroom. Like I said, I have presets that I've built and use in most scenarios as a starting point, and then go through these steps to "finish" my image. The combo of the RAW image and Lightroom are a powerful duo, but always remember to use those sliders with moderation. A good image should stand on its own legs without having to have every slider adjusted "+100, -100." Get editing and let me know how it works out.
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