Imagecraft Bootcamp — Save the Throw-away!

The city at sunset -- Amsterdam, Netherlands (April 2015) Nikon D700 + Nikon 50/1.4 (Photo credit: Andy Townend)

The city at sunset — Amsterdam, Netherlands (April 2015)
Nikon D700 + Nikon 50/1.4 (Photo credit: Andy Townend)

Hi, this is Mitch — your host for this series.  Today I’m introducing a new feature of Imagecraft Bootcamp… Save the Throw-away!

This is a once-per-month opportunity for readers to submit an image to me for post-processing help, for an image that they are on the brink of tossing into the digital trash because they have reached the limit of what they can do with it.  Will I be able to solve every problem?  Likely not — especially if the photo is out-of-focus, the data file is corrupted, the resolution is too low, or some other unforeseen issue that I can’t overcome.  However, I’ll give it my best shot and see what can be done to save the photo.

Conditions?  The image must be shared here, with both the original untouched image straight out of the camera (RAW format is preferred, if available), and the best effort of the reader to fix it.  Both images will be featured, then I’ll present the steps I took to fix it from my standpoint, complete with a before-and-after comparison at the end.

For this first effort, Andy Townend (based in the Netherlands) sent me his original Nikon D700 RAW file (above) and the best result he was able to come up with using Google’s post-production package, HDR Efex Pro 2 (below).

In Andy’s own words:

This post is a piece of *failed* homework.

The intention, to recreate the brilliance of this week’s Imagecraft Bootcamp – Shadow Recovery hosted by Mitch and Lucille.

My first challenge was to find a photo worth recovering – then I found this one, a memorable sunset over the rooftops of Amsterdam, taken on a very happy Photo 101 “meeting” earlier this year. There was alcohol involved hence the very poor quality of the original shot.

The second challenge was to edit the original shot in Lightroom CC following Mitch’s detailed instructions.

Of course, I am hopeless at following instructions, and, in common with many men, rarely ask for directions.

So, I gave up, and cheated by pushing the darkened image through HDR Efex Pro 2.

Not happy with the result particularly but at least my effort is better than the old *the dog ate my homework*.

Will try harder next time.

I promise.

(shot with nikon d700 and nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens at ISO200, 1/250s at f/8.0, edited in Lightroom CC and HDR Efex Pro 2) — Andy’s original post can be found here.

I haven’t worked with HDR Efex Pro 2 (it was previously produced by Nik, until Google bought them out), so I don’t know if I can improve upon what he was able to get with that package.  However, I think I can produce a result that he might like better via Adobe Lightroom, so that’s the package I’ll be using instead.

Please note: Producing the final image for Andy involved 95+ steps and actions, most of which I will not cover here because the results are too subtle to pick out in a post like this one.  However, I will cover the major steps and the reasons behind them.  So with all that behind us, I’ll proceed.

First up, I wanted to closely examine his RAW file (below).

It looked fairly typical, though I saw some odd artifacting in the clouds (below)…

… and a large dust mote (below).

To better understand the artifacting that I noticed, here’s a 3:1 enlargement of what I’m referring to (below).

What is that?  That’s a reflection, though I couldn’t identify the point source for it in the image.  Reflections of this sort usually occur when using something like a UV filter or Skylight filter on the front of the lens.  I asked Andy via email whether he used a UV filter on the front of his lens and he confirmed it, a Nikon UV filter.

I used to get reflection artifacts like this on my own images; however, they completely disappeared when I finally stopped using a UV filter.  Now the only filters I use — and I do so sparingly — are a polarizer filter (linear for film and circular for digital) and a neutral density (ND) filter.  Given a strong enough light source, reflections can happen with any filter placed in front of the camera lens.  However, the key is to buy filters that use high-quality glass and non-reflective lens coatings (preferably multi-coating on both sides of the filter).  What brands do I recommend?  I have successfully used B+W, Heliopan, Hoya, Schneider, Singh-Ray, Sony, and Zeiss.  I have had problems with many of the brands that I didn’t mention.

I can hear you now — “But the ones you recommend are all expensive!”  Yes — they are!  But do you want to have your images be ruined by reflection artifacts?  If not, then you have to bite the bullet and purchase the good filters, simple as that.

And what about the dust mote?  That’s a fact of life with both digital and film, and you deal with it in post-production by simply retouching.

Anyway, the first thing I do for this image are my usual steps to post-processing — Auto Tone, lens corrections, basic sharpening (or not, depending on the image and my intended end result), color correction, etc.

As always, the Auto Tone blows the highlights by boosting the Exposure (look at what happened to the clouds), so I gamely reset it. Every. Single. Time.  And I repeat this with every new post because it’s so important to get the highlights right.

Below is the image with the Auto Tone settings in place, but with the boosted Exposure setting zeroed out. The highlights (the clouds) are now back to what they should be (see all the nice details?).  I know this may be difficult to see; the corrections I’m making are subtle in this image, so they are not going to be as obvious as they have been with the prior posts in this series.

Good post-processing is all about making the image look better, but doing it in a way that it’s not obvious to the casual observer.

Now I darken the sky a bit, to make the clouds more defined.  This may be too dark at this step, but I’ll boost the highlights and/or shadow areas later.

When I do post-processing, I RARELY adjust the whites or the exposure settings.  Why?  Because the human eye can pick out adjustments to the whites and exposure settings much easier than it can highlights, shadows, or blacks.

Now I begin to dig into the section of the image that contains the buildings (below), and use several Graduated Filters to gently lighten it up.

I will use dozens of subtle adjustments to continue massaging the buildings (below).  I’ve included my list of steps and actions (far left of the screen grab) so you can see that I’m not exaggerating.

Many times I’ll use the Ctrl-Z and Ctrl-Shift-Z keyboard combinations to undo and redo (toggling) a specific action to see if it improves it or not, before moving to the next step.  For a digital image like this, post-processing can eat up an hour or more; for a film scan, that figure can be much higher.

I will also adjust the Tone Curve, Clarity, and base Shadow levels.

Again, these are all subtle changes, so don’t feel confused if you don’t pick them out between images in this post.

Finally, we get to the point where the image is coming together, but needs to be color corrected.  The buildings (above) are too blue and cold looking, so I’ll use a Graduated Filter to warm them up and give them additional definition through the Clarity setting.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that this is also when I remove the reflection artifact and the dust mote (below).

The buildings also have some subtle keystoning going on, so I’ll fix that.  This process introduces odd white spaces on either side of the image (below), as well as a slight arc to the very bottom of the frame.

We’ll use the Crop Overlay to correct that.  And…

Voilà! — you have the finished image below!

Below is Andy’s finished image and the one I just did, side-by-side — so you can compare them.

As I earlier indicated, this was quite a bit of effort — some 95+ steps and actions to the final result.  On some of my images, the steps can reach into the hundreds and take me several days to complete, so this really boils down to what level of effort you want to expend.  Certainly Andy’s use of HDR Efex Pro 2 saved him a lot of time, but then he still wasn’t pleased with the end result.  My process resulted in an image that looks a lot more natural, but it took a lot of time to do so.

Certainly something for you to mull over.

In the meantime, here’s the challenge: find a throw-away image of your own (don’t “borrow” a photo from someone else off the Internet!), and go through the post-processing steps I’ve been teaching you over the past several weeks.

Once you’ve finished, be sure to include “#photo101rehab”, “#photorehab”, and “#imagecraftbootcamp” with your normal tags — and if you wish to submit it to our Flickr group, you’ll need to join us there prior to doing so.

If you like the results — GREAT!  If you don’t — then let me know and we’ll see what we can schedule as a future step-through post here.

UPDATE:  If you’re reluctant to comment or post publicly (I completely understand), or want to contact me (Mitch) directly, just go to my About page — which you can find here — and send me a message via the feedback form in the “Contact me” section.  That will launch an email directly to my personal Inbox (sorry, I don’t publish that in the clear due to all the spam I get as it is) and we can communicate and work out the details that way.


Good luck, and see you next Wednesday!

30 thoughts on “Imagecraft Bootcamp — Save the Throw-away!

  1. Thank you so much for featuring my image and for all the hard work that went into transforming it, there is always something new to learn, that is the joy of photography, and of friendship.

    • You’re very welcome, Andy!

      A good CLA (Cleaning, Lube, & Adjustment) will take care of any zits on the sensor, and is usually a good idea for any camera and lens that is several years old.

    • Ah — so you’ve noticed! You’re one of the very few to say something about that.

      Yes, I’ve been polishing both my shooting and post-processing skills. I seriously feel that I’ve finally surpassed the level of work I was doing when I was a pro back in the 1980’s to early 1990’s.

      It’s taken several years to get my photo chops back up to par; however, I dedicate many — oh so many — hours to the cause now, that I’m bound to improve by sheer effort alone. 😀

      Seriously, I work on post-processing at least one hour per day, sometimes much more. The shooting goes quick; it’s the post-processing that’s still the huge time sink for me.

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