the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

How Far Do You Go?

Desert Abstract 2One of the challenges of shooting in RAW format is deciding what and how much processing to do. (Tangent – why is RAW capitalized? It is not an acronym such as JPEG or TIFF. It simply means unprocessed. In Wikipedia, it isn’t capitalized. But somehow, it doesn’t look right to me. I’m usually a stickler for correct writing – just ask anyone at my day job where I edit everyone’s reports; they may even call me a grammar nazi – but leaving it uncapitalized when every other file format is capitalized seem wrong. So grammar nazi or not, I’m capitalizing it.) When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera does the processing for you. You can always tweak it later, but the majority of the work is done. With RAW, you should do the heavy lifting and process the image yourself, at least if the default processing by your RAW converter program (Lightroom in my case) doesn’t do a good job. And it is rare when I find I can’t do a better job processing than the default.

But the question remains, what to do and how much? Some might answer, just enough so that it looks like it did in real life. But what is that? Take, for example, the images presented here. These are shots of water seeping out of sandstone near Moab, Utah. I’ve included both my processed versions and the original RAW versions from Lightroom with zeroed developing (with all the sliders set to zero – realize, however, there still is some processing involved, it is impossible to present true RAW images, some processing must occur to translate the images into something humans can view). I took these images in the shade on a sunny, blue-skied morning. So these were naturally lit by a broad, blue sky, which cast a rather flat, blue light onto the sandstone. Does that flat, blue light truly show what I saw, or do my processed versions show what I saw? The answer is up to me as the maker and you as the viewer. Did I go too far?

Well, what did I do to turn the RAW images into the finished images? They were first processed in Lightroom, correcting for lens distortion and chromatic aberration. Then I set the white point and the black point to add contrast, took a little off the exposure, and adjusted the highlights and shadows to bring detail into the blacks and whites. I added some clarity to add a bit of sharpness and some vibrance to add saturation. I then adjusted the color temperature, increasing it to remove the blue tint. I then added a radial filter to lighten the water patterns and darken the rest. And finally, made minor changes to many of these adjustments to fine tune them.  I then took the images to Photoshop, performed Tony Kuyper’s triple play to add punch to the highlights and shadows, lighten up the orangy-browny vegetation on top, and added a “smart glow” to punch up the color a bit. In total, it took about 10 minutes each to do all this work.

I’d think the most controversial of these changes would be the changes to the color, in particular adding vibrance and the smart glow.  The rest is pretty standard old-school darkroom photography made digital (except perhaps the Kuyper triple play, that doesn’t really change the images that much).  The problem here is deciding what is too much in terms of the color. Because the subjects were in shadow, it is difficult to determine what the colors would look like in the sunshine. And of course, what sunshine are we talking about? Sun at noon? Sun at sunset?

I guess the answer is it depends. Did I take it too far? I don’t think so; you may. But these are close to what I wanted to show when I took the images. So for me, the answer is no; I processed them as I thought proper. For you the answer may be different. If you think so, let me know your thoughts.Desert Abstract 1

Desert Abstract 2 - RAW

RAW image unprocessed


Desert Abstract 1 RAW

RAW image unprocessed


8 responses

  1. That is a very thoughtful article Joe. You ask a great question. I like the result and it doesn’t look over-cooked to me, so I don’t think you went too far. What if you had used LR’s new raw HDR edit along with some minor tweaks and acheived a nearly identical looking result…. would people say you’d gone too far because it was an HDR? And some photographers swear they would never, ever use HDR processing but then the first thing they do is crank up the contrast and micro contrast until it looks over the top sometimes. Go figure.

    I am glad to see you back in action after the loss of your beloved cat. Take care and thanks for the great article and processing.

    May 6, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    • Thanks Ernie. What you say about HDR is true. It is just as easy to go over the top without HDR as it is with it. BTW, I have played a bit with the new Lightroom HDR and like it quite a bit.

      May 7, 2015 at 9:14 am

  2. Each has its place – the pastels of the desert in shadow can complement a decor as well as your saturated version. I would likely not have made them quite as saturated if I were processing them, but hit his your art, not mine. – Winfield

    May 6, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    • Thanks Winfield. I love the Southwestern desert and all the color and textures it presents; I’m sure it’s that underlying emotion that drives my image processing toward more saturated versions.

      May 7, 2015 at 9:12 am

  3. Lichtbild

    There is no easy answer, it´s more a question what you have seen in that moment and what you tried to transmit… I think if you wanted to transmit an relaxing and tranquil scenery the pastels of the desert were more suitable but what you show us is not a relaxing desert scene but shots of water seeping out of sandstone creating textures, colors and shapes that caught your attention and I think that you have done exactly what is best suited for this scene… of course you can do like Monet and his Rouen Cathedral Series trying to capture the same scene at different times of the day playing with lights and shades and the weather then decide which of them represent the “correct” one ;P greetings

    May 7, 2015 at 7:54 am

    • Very well said. My interpretation of the image is different than someone else’s and that is what make photography an art.

      May 7, 2015 at 9:10 am

  4. pammyv02

    In regards of post processing, there is no right way or wrong way to go about. It really depends what you are trying to transmit to the viewer. It is your vision that you try to bring through the image. In this case the processing worked. The colours bring out the underlying emotions in the image.

    May 13, 2015 at 4:13 am

    • Well said. Thank you for commenting.

      May 13, 2015 at 7:15 am

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