Post-production. If you've not heard that term before, it refers to the editing of a photo after the photo has been taken. Post production can range from anything as small as increasing the brightness of a photo, all the way to editing out objects, changing the colour of objects or even merging different images together. There's no limits to what you can do do a photo! It really is a wonderful way to show creativity and edit a photo to show a particular mood or tone.
In all honesty, I've only really started using post-production within the last year. I had a slight aversion to it as I never wanted to heavily manipulate my photos and honestly I didn't understand my programmes enough to get the most out of subtle changes to exposure.
Although I feel my photos have come along way, I'd still call myself a beginner. But at the same time, I feel I've learnt enough to write this article and show you how to turn your photo from 'OK' to 'WOW'.
Why Do We Need Post-Production?
Well we don't need it as such. Cameras can take some awesome photos but if you really want to take your good photo and turn it into something amazing, or even convey an emotion, post production will do that. I was once told that half of what makes a good photo is in the post-production of that photo. You know what? I totally agree!
For starter's let's look at the 2 photos below. The first is the image taken straight off my camera SD card. The second image is after post-production using both Photoshop and Lightroom. I'm hoping that you're thinking the second image is a lot better. I certainly feel the second image conveys emotions and has more focus on the subject. There's more moody lighting and some distractions have been eliminated.
When I first looked at this photo straight out of the camera I thought it was a great photo. Now that I've edited it, I almost feel it wasn't that good anymore. That's how post-production should make you feel!
Before post-production using PhotoShop and Lightroom
After post-production using PhotoShop and Lightroom
Let's Get Something Out the Way... Presets
Before I dig into my tips and tricks to editing a good photo, I just wanted to address that elephant in the room: presets. If you don't know what a preset is it's a saved set of adjustments to an image that you apply to your photos. In fact, numerous Instagrammers actually sell their presets which are the adjustments that they apply to their photos. Technically you are then buying their 'style' as everyone has their own unique way of editing.
Controversial opinion here but I do not think you should buy presets or arguably even use presets. There. I said it. I can already see the tide of rage coming my way but let me just explain why I have this opinion. To me, every photo is different so I don't think it makes sense to apply a certain set of adjustments to an image and move on. A preset may work wonders on one particular image with certain colours and lighting but then you add it to another and it looks god awful. I'd actually be very surprised if this doesn't happen. You then have to either edit the preset to fit the needs of the photo or start from scratch.
That was reason number one. Secondly, I don't believe in using other people's signature styles. I think that Instagram, blogging and photography are all crowded areas and if you want to stand out and be successful, I think you need to develop your own style. Be unique. Be different. I'm highly against following what others do. Sure, I think it's good to take inspiration from others and note how they do a particular thing but to actually have their style and apply it to a photo without really thinking about it - yeah, I don't think that's the way forward.
Finally, (I say finally because I don't want to rant here) I think using presents disables us from learning how to do post-production ourselves. It's like getting a good photo but without the work. How will you be able to edit a preset that isn't working? How will you be able to grow into your own style? Because you have not learnt how to achieve those effects you have purchased, you may still struggle to edit properly.
Instead of dipping into your wallet to purchase presets, I'd recommend you invest your time in numerous tutorials (they are in abundance on YouTube) and reading blog posts on the topic. That's what I have done. Also, the best way to learn is to open up Photoshop and Lightroom and experiment. You grow by trying things out. You grow by trial and error.
Before post-production using PhotoShop and Lightroom
After post-production using PhotoShop and Lightroom
Best Programmes to Use for Post-Production
Phew - now we have presets out the way we can get onto the juicy stuff. Now, if you've not done much post-production before you may be wondering what programmes to use. There's so many things out there including numerous mobile apps and even in-app editors like editing within Instagram itself. However, if you ask anyone who takes post-production seriously what they use it will be either Photoshop (including Photoshop RAW), Lightroom or both.
Yes, I know. Both of these programmes are not 'cheap' options but in order to get the best tools for post-production, you will have to spend some money. Lightroom is made by Adobe, the same company who make Photoshop. You can purchase both programmes on a subscription basis from the Adobe website. I actually don't use the subscription service. I use older versions of the programmes. However, I am strongly considering upgrading soon as the new versions obviously have new features and can handle new file types. Haha, my Lightroom can't actually open my new camera's RAW files so an upgrade may be on the horizon.
My Post-Production Journey
I think my post-production journey is very important as it shows how we develop over time and that our eye for good editing also improves over time. I'm also going to show you exactly how my editing improved as I acquired more knowledge. I'll talk you through all the adjustments I make to each photo and can show you how each one has a big impact on the overall feel of the photo.
Lesson 1: How Exposure & Vibrance in Lightroom Impact a Photo
Let's look at the first picture, the image of me in Seychelles in December 2016. Let me talk you through my signature adjustments that I applied to all my Seychelles photos (except for the GoPro shots). These were all edited using only Lightroom. I increased the exposure significantly until they almost looked washed out and then decreased some of the highlights, nearly the full way. Finally, I majorly ramped up the vibrance to like 60 or 80. Done. Very minor editing but it still took my photo from this to this. See the comparison below.
Before post-production using Lightroom
After post-production using Lightroom
It's debatable whether my edits actually made the photo look better or worse. Although the colours pop a lot more with my edit, I feel I've lost the mood of the image and it overall feels very flat. I suppose I've made the image feel up-beat and happy with my editing. Whilst it potentially looked cinematic before, it now has more of a joyful and playful tone.
Before I go any further, I'd like to point out that there is no 'good' or 'bad' way to edit a photo. Photography is an art not a science and everyone has their own preference on what makes a picture mean a lot to them.
Lesson 2: Learning The Importance of Highlights, Shadows, Lights & Darks in Lightroom
My editing changed shortly after my Seychelles edits when I watched a tutorial on how someone else edited their photos. I learnt that decreasing the highlights practically all the way and increasing the shadows practically all the way on a photo completely flattens it and leaves you almost with a blank canvas to work with. You can then use the 'whites' and 'blacks' to adjust the shadows and highlights in a 'better' way. They colours will pop more this way and you can adjust to get just the right amount of depth in your shadows. This also seems to brighten an image a lot more. It certainly feels more rounded than playing with the exposure. After learning this, I have never touched the exposure again.
What else did I learn?
Lesson 3: Clarity and Sharpness in Lightroom
There's no denying that crisp images are definitely in vogue at the moment. Everyone wants that sharp image with every detail highlighted. It makes it feel high quality. There are two key ways in Lightroom to increase the sharpness of an image. These tools are 'clarity' and 'sharpness'.
I should point out that increasing the 'clarity' of an image will decrease the vibrance so you may want to increase the vibrance to counteract this effect.
Another important note is to not go crazy with these tools. I am the kind of person who doesn't do things by half and really ramped up these two tools. My images would sometimes come out looking overly-grainy and poor-quality. The grain also detracts from the focus of an image, making it look rather flat. Look at these two images below where I arguably went over-board.
Quality is compromised with excessive clarity and sharpness
Excessive clarity and sharpness distract from the key focus of this image
However, when used well, these two tools can add some really cool effects to your photos. Below are two better examples where these effects really add to the overall feel of the images.
Again, these photos were edited just using Lightroom. I didn't learn about the importance of Photoshop till a little later on.
Clarity and sharpness highlight the tiny details of the building and increase the contrast between the building and the sky
Look at all the details in the water! The sharpness also adds to the atmosphere.
So, let's look at my second photo in my 'production' journey which was edited in July 2017 - a whole six months after the first image. To save you scrolling, you can see the photo again just below this section. I applied my newly acquired knowledge to this photo and decreased the highlights, increased the shadows. I then increased the lights but didn't actually touch the darks. I countered the effect of the darks by increasing the clarity (increasing the clarity darkens the image). I then increased the vibrance and sharpness. But the photo wasn't ready just yet. No, there was one more thing I learnt - perhaps the most useful tool.
This is where Photoshop comes in. You can use Photoshop to manipulate certain parts of the image. In this instance, I was interested in darkening the sky to bring out the mood of the image.
Before post-production using Lightroom & Photoshop
After post-production using Lightroom & Photoshop
Lesson 4: Using Adjustment Layers in Photoshop
When I say I use Photoshop as well as Lightroom, I mostly mean I use adjustment layers in Photoshop. Adjustment layers enable you to adjust certain aspects of a photo. Say you wanted to darken the sky or change the colour of a certain object, you'd use an adjustment layer for this.
My favourite type of adjustment layer is the 'curves'. I'm not sure why but 'curves' seem a lot better in Photoshop than in Lightroom. This adjusts the highlights, shadows, lights and darks of an image. In the above image I used the curves to darken the sky. When adjusting the curve, only pay attention to the area you want to change. You will notice the entire image adjusts but just ignore that as when you are finished with your layer, these parts won't have changed.
Next, using the 'brush' tool you can paint over all areas that you don't want to be affected by the adjustment layer. If you find that you brush over too much of the adjustment layer, just flip your brush colour and the effects of the brush will be reversed and it will paint on the adjustment layer effect instead.
Sometimes I add multiple adjustment layers using the same tool of 'curves' until I get the look I want. Like most things, post-production is best learnt through practice and a little bit of trial and error. You can easily delete an adjustment layer if it looks all wrong.
Lesson 5: Colour Adjustments in Lightroom
First of all, I know I'm totally flitting from programme to programme. However, I wanted to give all information this tutorial article in the order in which I learnt.
Image 3 in my post-production journey, edited in November 2017 applies several of the tools discussed above. As you do more post-production, you'll learn that every picture needs different editing. Therefore the only tools I actually applied from above was playing with the shadows, highlights, lights and darks in Lightroom (lesson 2) and adjusting the vibrance but unusually for me I adjusted them down to get the image less vibrant (lesson 1). I also added subtle vignette to the image in Lightroom (I do this with all my photos).
The final edit I did was adjusting the colours. Lightroom has a really neat tool for this where you can adjust the hue, saturation and luminance but the best part is that you can edit these adjustments for each colour individually. Say you wanted to turn all the oranges more orange, you can adjust the hue or saturation for just the orange! It's wonderful! Hey, what if you want to make the sky look more purple? All you do is change the hue of the sky so it's more purple. These tools take a lot of playing around with but they are life-changing. You can tell I'm passionate about this, can't you?
These colour adjustments are so subtle but with post-production it's always the subtle things that make the biggest difference. Below I will show you the before and after of image 3 but also a 'behind the scenes' of another edit I have done as I don't actually keep the editable files of all my photos so couldn't show you the adjustments on image 3!
Before post-production using Lightoom
After post-production using Lightoom
The only colour adjustments I did for this image. I wanted the greens and aquas greener (make the trees more colourful) and the oranges less (make the deers and grass more of a brown colour)
Lesson 6: Clone Stamp Tool to Remove Anyway Unwanted Distractions from an Image in Photoshop
If you've made it this far, you must be serious about post-production. The clone stamp tool is one of the most widely-used tools in Photoshop and bloody difficult to master! Photoshop is renowned for it's tools that can manipulate an image such as the ability remove things and add in additional things to an image. I mean you can even take it as far as to draw on it! But for post-production of photos, I'm more of a believer in 'less is more' and aren't too keen on making an image unrecognisable. But the clone stamp is a useful little tool.
How the stamp works is you hold down the alt key and click on the part of the image that you want to 'clone'. By clone I mean your brush will turn into that area and you can place it elsewhere to replicate that area of the photo. You may wish to do this if there was a spot on someone that you wanted to remove. Clone the smooth skin and put it where the spot was. The spot disappears. Magic!
I used the clone stamp tool in image 4. There were some unruly papers on the desk besides Cookie which looked super messy. So I cloned a blank part of the desk to remove them from the image.
Let's clear something up. Sadly ,this tool isn't as simple as cloning and woosh the offending object disappears. It takes a lot of practice and patience to cover something up neatly enough to try not make it obvious that something was removed. As well as just using the clone tool in this image, I used adjustment layers to add shadows to the part that would naturally be in shadow as well as another adjustment layer on the tips of Cookie's fur which was suddenly white like there was a halo around it. This image is actually the only instance of clone stamping where I think I 'got it right'. It's bloody challenging!
Before post-production using Photoshop & Lightroom
After post-production using Photoshop & Lightroom
Using All You've Learnt to Make a Kick-Ass image!
So I'm sure we're all agreed that my final image 4 of Cookie is pretty badass. I normally hate my own work but I'm actually rather proud. If you think it sucks, please leave the blog as you will probably find my advice very poor and it's unlikely to help you in any way. So let's see how I used all 6 tools to make this photo. I didn't use ANYTHING else.
First I opened the image in Lightroom...
1. I lowered the highlights all the way and increased the shadows all the way using Lightroom. I then increased the lights until the picture was bright enough for me. I lowered the darks a fair bit which created a lot of contrast and made the image feel dark.
2. I added a hella lotta vignette to get the darkness surrounding the subject.
3. I used colour adjustments to brighten the saturation on the yellows and oranges (Cookie, her eyes and the Christmas tree lights) but decreased the saturation of any pinks (I have a horrible pink carpet that I was magically able to turn grey by just doing this).
4. I straightened the image. The before pic is super wonky. I must just be a wonky individual but fortunately for me I can straighten the image in post-production to make it look like I'm a living spirit level.
Now let's take it to Photoshop...
1. I started my first adjustment layer to make everything darker using 'curves'. I then painted over Cookie to make her immune to this new darkness. I actually then made a second one as I wasn't quite satisfied yet!
2. Another adjustment layer came in! This time I wanted to manipulate the vibrance. The lamp in the background was too distracting so I decreased its vibrance but made sure nothing else was affected.
3. I used the clone stamp to remove all those papers. Then I had to add 2 more adjustment layers using curves to tidy up the mess the clone stamp made to make it all look natural again.
4. I made an adjustment layer to ramp up the vibrance and saturation to the max. I used the brush tool to remove everything from this layer apart from Cookie's eyes. I then decreased the opacity of this layer until her eyes looked vibrant but still natural.
5. I created 2 more adjustment layers to adjust the vibrance. In one I increased the vibrance of the tree lights and in the order I reduced Cookie's saturation as she was starting to look unusually blue. Weird, huh?
That is all I did... from memory, anyway. Heh.
Bonus Lesson: Using Lens Flares in Photoshop
Oh, my - a bonus lesson! I applied all that I'd learnt to the image of the deer above. However, there is one more trick which I used that I think is worth mentioning. Lens flares. You can add these using an effect in Photoshop. These can really help to add a nice hazy, bright feel in only part of an image. In the image above, you will notice that the top-right is purply and light. Well, my friends, that is an added lens flare!
When adding a lens flare, I always duplicate my image to begin with as the flare will be added directly onto your image, not in a layer above. By duplicating my image, I'm creating a back-up so if anything goes wrong, nothing is lost. There's also another benefit of duplicating layers but I'll get to that later on.
My next step is to expand the art board or image (whatever you want to call it) massively so that it's much bigger than the image. Extend it to the place where you want the lens flare. I'm useless at explaining so see my screenshot below if you want to know what I'm actually talking about. The reason I do this is because I don't want my flare to dominate the image. I want just the edges of the flare to touch my image. By expanding the image much further than where my photo is, I'm allowing room for the main body of the flare. Anyway let's cut to that screenshot.
I hope that clears up what I was trying to say. Now, using the brush tool I paint a dot right in the corner of the new image (by new image I mean the original photo with all that blank space now around it). The point of this step is purely to tell Photoshop that my image really is this big as Photoshop thinks 'Nah, you've only really used that bottom corner (where your photo is) so I'm totally gonna ignore all this random extra space'. But the paint brush dot makes Photoshop acknowledge this space which is important for the placement of the lens flare.
The next step is to add the lens flare. How exciting! Along your top menu click 'filter' then from the new menu select 'render' and then 'lens flare'. You can then adjust the placement of the flare and the brightness until you are happy with how it will look on your image. Ignore any little dots that the flare is giving off as you will remove those shortly.
Now that your lens flare is on the image, you can crop the image back down so that just your photo is there, not all that empty white space. You can now also erase any parts of the flare you want (circles or blue dots) which should work nicely as you have your back-up file underneath.
Pro tip: if you ever erase part of the flare and it looks like their is an unnatural gaping hole in your flare, use the clone stamp tool to cover up this hole.
Finally, if you find your flare too bright, you can always decrease the opacity to make it more subtle.
That concludes how to add a lens flare! You can add multiple if you want as well if you want the area of flare to be larger. The example deer picture actually consists of 2 lens flares.
Pro tip: To me, a lens flare is like a replication of the sun so I always put the flare where the sun would naturally be shining down. In my example the sun was in the top right corner which is why I put my flare there.
Before post-production using Photoshop & Lightroom
After post-production using Photoshop & Lightroom
So, there's my beginner's guide to post-production using Lightroom and Photoshop. I hope you found this useful. Let me know if this was interesting or you just found it really dull and boring. I love post-production so I had heaps of fun writing this.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.