February 1, 2011
How much is too much? Most people won't complain about too much money, or too much flavor. But, when it comes to images, how much color is too much? Of course, it's a very individual choice. What's too much for me may not be enough for you.
If you've ready my posts in the past, you know I'm a big believer in the importance of post processing. If you're serious about photography, then you need to develop some sort of work flow, file and folder naming structure, backup routine, and basic processing skills. You may choose to limit your processing to just cropping your images, or you may enjoy more precise color and contrast controls. Or, like me, you may enjoy the process of translating a simple exposure into an artistic rendering, even it if goes beyond photojournalism standards. Whatever your choice, digital photography forces us all to come to work out some sort of routine.
I also want to point out that all digital images are processed and enhanced. Even if your camera is set to the factory defaults, you're still getting the color balance, contrast and saturations that the engineers decided would look best. There is no such thing as an unprocessed digital image. The questions are, who is going to determine the processing, and how much should be applied?
This image of sunrise on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains provides a good example to explore the concept. The mage has strong compositional elements, and also strong color relationships. The rocky hill in the foreground was about 1/2 mile away, and the mountain peaks were about 10 miles away. The morning sun was just peeking above the mountains behind me, and just kissing the peaks. There was rain on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas that morning, and the clouds were making it just past the summits, which created the red and magenta glow along the ridge line.
But, the image didn't start out that way. The photo above (photo 1) shows the image pretty much straight out of the camera. I have my camera set to do the absolute minimum amount of processing, so the photo is flat and dull. That's OK for me, because I want to make those decisions while I'm looking at the image rather than blindly accepting the camera makers settings. The image was captured in raw mode, exposed for 1.0 second at f/16 using a Canon 24-105mm lens at 70mm on a full-frame camera. I also had a 2-stop graduated neutral density filter on the lens to help equalize the exposure between the rocky hill in the foreground and the sunlit mountain peaks in the background.
The first thing I did was to do as much processing as I could in Lightroom (see photo 2 above). Lightroom is especially good at global adjustments, that is those that affect the entire image. In this case, I adjusted the white balance to remove the overall blue color cast. The starting image was very flat, so I used the Blacks slider to pull the dark tones down toward pure black, and used the Exposure slider to brighten the light areas. That gave the image a lot more pop, and really started to bring out the colors that I saw. I also applied a custom camera profile to help the colors to be uniformly saturated.
But, there were a couple of things that I didn't like. The main issue I had was with the color of the rocks in the foreground. The dark reddish color may be accurate, but I found it to be a distraction from the pink and red glow in the background. Also, I just didn't think it was a very attractive color. The easiest way to deal with ugly color is to remove it.
To address that, I needed to take the image into Photoshop (see photo 3 above) I mainly did two things to the image. First, I created a detailed mask so that I could work on the foreground rocks separately from the background. Then I applied a series of adjustment layers to first drain the color out of the rocks, then to add a little bit of a blue cast back in. Next, I boosted the color saturation in the background so that the photo starts to be more about color than composition.
If a little saturation is good, is more better? You'll never know if you don't try some different alternatives. The image above (photo 4) takes the saturation even further. I used a method where you convert the image to Lab color mode (that stands for Lightness, a-channel color and b-channel color). The technique gives you good control of saturation. When you're done, sometimes it's amazing how dull the starting image looks in comparison. In this case, the color starts to go over the top, so the image starts to tend toward a color abstract, almost a caricature of a sunrise photo.
So, what happens if I go one step further? To create photo 5 above, I added a radial color gradient from yellow to red to blue, using a mask to keep the color behind the foreground rocks. If you're into intense colors, this might be the image for you.
We went from dull, to bright to intense color, so what about no color? Again, you never know if you don't try. The final image above (photo 6) shows a black and white conversion done in Lightroom. I did adjust the color brightness to lighten the reds and darken the blues to bring out the glow. I also boosted the contrast somewhat since I find black and white images generally need more contrast.
Viewing conditions can affect your choice. I find that highly saturated colors work better on a screen than they do in a print. And, I tend to like large prints with somewhat lower saturation than a small print. So, there's not really just one simple answer that works all of the time.
What's my favorite version? I'm not really sure, and my taste will probably drift over time. But all of the versions awaken my memory of being in the Alabama Hills watching a beautiful sunrise. Hopefully, one of versions will also bring that same feeling to the viewer, and awaken their own memories of watching a sunrise.
Post processing is fun, and I believe it can really bring out the potential in an image. But in the end, the image is more important than the processing. There's an old story that someone once asked photojournalist Weegee how to get amazing photos, his answer was to use f/8 and be there. Lots of folks get hung up on the f/8 part of the quote, but he's really saying that you have to be there to record the image. Sunrises don't happen in the middle of the afternoon or in your living room. And sometimes, just recording a memory is enough. I really debated if I wanted to get up early enough to go out for sunrise that morning. You can check the weather, look at the clouds and so forth, but there's no guarentee that a sunrise will be spectacular. In this case, I'm sure glad I was there..