When I started photography as a serious hobby, I often looked at photos on the web and in magazines and wondered how these pictures were made. Why were these photographers able to take shots like that and I wasn’t?
The first that came to my mind was of course the camera. It must be the gear, the big ass DSLR and all the expensive lenses they were using. After all, that’s why these cameras are called professional cameras, isn’t it? Then came the iPhone and people started to phost stunning pictures taken with a mere cell phone. So I had to admit, it is not expensive gear that makes good photos.
It was an uneasy discovery, as it forced me to realize, that, in the end, it is the guy behind the camera who is responsible for making a picture look stunning or – mundane.
Many people think, a good picture is only good if it looks great right out of camera (OOC). Some even think, that you’re only a good photographer if your pictures look great right out of cameara. They could not be more wrong. Taking the picture is only the first step. 99.99% of all stunning pictures you see are the result of a second step, called post processing.
Trust me. It is worth learning this. And to motivate you, I will publish posts now and then, showing how the picture looked like right out of camera and what I did to get it to the final picture.
Step 0: Shoot RAW
First, one important thing if you want to make your pictures shine. Set your camera to shoot RAW format. Yes, I know, JPG is faster and uses less space. But unless you shoot in an environment were you can control the light or are under a very tight deadline, shoot RAW. It allows you to play with white balance in post processing and it simply gives you much more data to work with. Trust me. Even if the RAW file often looks rather bland and boring when you bring it into the computer. Just like this one:
Step 1: Import into Lightroom, crop and adjust exposure
When I took this shot, I overexposed by about half a stop, in order to keep the snow as bright as possible while taking care not to overexpose (i.e. blow out the highlights into pure white). As a result, the sky looks blown out, so I bring the exposure back again, in this example by setting the exposure slider to -0.75. This made of course also my snow rather dark, so I added a gradient filter to the bottom third of the picture, bringing the exposure in that part up again exposure slider to 0.76. And then finally I crop it to 16:9 format, my favourite format for landscape photos. This also puts more emphasis on the leading lines (fence and tracks) and puts the spot where they vanish into the lower left third of the picture and the little forest into the upper right third, implementing the “Rule of thirds“.
Step 2: Taking care of highlights and shadows
Next step is about highlights and shadows. My goal here is to get definition into the very bright and very dark areas of the picture. It is this step, where it pays off shooting in RAW as it will allow you to bring back details in the light and shadow areas. I reduced the highlights by -5 and decided to add a second gradient filter (exposure slider to -0.98), this time to darken the sky and bring back the clouds . As a result, my trees were now very dark, so and brightened the shadows by +100, as much as I could.
Step 3: Sharpening and detail
This step will depend very much on the camera you’re using. On my Leica files, I don’t sharpen at all and use only very little clarity. This picture has been taken with a Olympus OM-D micro four third camera and the kit lens, so I set clarity to +30 and sharpness to 87 which got me to the final image you see on top of the post.
JPG out of camera
For those of you wondering how the out of camera picture would have looked like, this is it.