Lightroom Workflow: Mundane to Beautiful

Making better pictures comes in three forms – better setup, better composition, and better post production.  You will make your best shots if you improve in each of these areas.  So, today, I’m going to share a technique I’ve used in my Lightroom workflow to take boring and bad photos to make them beautiful in post production.  Here’s where we’re going to go:

The Final Product from my Lightroom Workflow!

So, the final product looks pretty good here, right?  It means we must have had a keeper to begin with, right?  Well, not necessarily – the first shot looked like it was under-exposed, and could easily have been thrown out.  Take a look:

The Beginning before my Lightroom workflow!

Yeah, it looks pretty bland – there’s no pop, the shadows are too dark, the blues in the sky are bland, and it’s something that we might just blow past as an under-exposed shot.  The truth is though – we’ve gotta trust the histogram when using our Lightroom workflow.  Take a look:

Histogram in my Lightroom Workflow

What we have to remember is that there are no blown highlight details or shadow details lost according to our histogram.  We’ve got detail on both ends.  What the histogram is telling us though, is that more of our photo is in shadow than in highlights.  We do have some of both, but we need to bring some balance to it.  So, let’s get started!

Step One in my Lightroom Workflow

Step 1

In getting started, we need to bring out the shadow detail more, but I also want to bring some of those highlights down a little too, because it just looks a little too harsh.  Here’s the default scene inside of Lightroom.  Let’s see what happens when we bring the highlights down – and when I say “down”, I mean way down!

Step Two in my Lightroom Workflow

See how the harshness of the sky on the right has been pulled back?  Much better, but we still need to bring out some of that shadow detail on the next step in the Lightroom workflow, so, let’s take a look:

Step 2

Step Three in my Lightroom Workflow

Now we’re talking!  We can see the details in the red rocks.  It’s still kind of bland though, without a lot of pop to it.  This is where the Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation sliders for my Lightroom workflow come into play.  Here, it’s a matter of personal tastes, and any one persons preferences are so subjective, I don’t want to say “Do it this way”.  But, for my taste, I like my pictures to pop, so here’s my results from adjusting the CVS sliders:

Step 3

Step Four in my Lightroom Workflow

Remember, it’s just my personal tastes, but I like the settings of 50-15-15 through to really get some eye-dropping pop in my photos.  It’s pretty nice, but if I push these sliders much further, it will start to look garish.  This means I need to dabble a little with the tone curve in my Lightroom workflow to get the pop that I am looking for.  So, in remembering the histogram, I am wanting a bit more detail from the dark and the bright areas need to pop a little more too without getting lighter.  Here’s where I made some tone curve adjustments:

Step 4

Step Five in my Lightroom Workflow

The pop is really starting to take shape here…but the red still need a little more brightness to them to really keep the look and feel consistent wit what I want the image to look like once all is said and done.  To do that, I dive into the color palette, grab the red luminosity slider in my Lightroom workflow and crank it up all the way.  The results are pretty nice!

Step 5

Step Six in my Lightroom Workflow

With the develop panel moving down toward the bottom, I am revealing the details of what I did wrong during capture…my ISO settings were too high given the exposure levels!  I was shooting at 1/800th of a second, and my ISO was at 800 as well!  It’s an “oops” for sure, but thankfully, we can compensate for it thanks to the benefits of our Lightroom workflow and it’s noise reduction feature.  We’ll also take care of our post production sharpening here too.  Remember, less is more (over-sharpening leads to halos, and over-application of the noise reduction tends to cause a buttery fake look to images).  But, we still need to take care of the details:

Step 6

Step Seven in my Lightroom Workflow

It’s at this point when I noticed a dust bunny from my lens (see near the top of the sky).  So, I headed back up to the top of the Develop Module to take care of business:

Step 7

Step Eight in my Lightroom Workflow

Now that I’ve fixed the dust bunny, it’s time to move onto my final step..my lens correction!  No matter how good your lens is, there are imperfections, from chromatic aberrations to edge distortions.  The general rule of thumb is that the wider the lens, the more edge distortion there is.  Since I shot this with my 10-22 which is an ultra-wide, there’s some substantial distortion to fix.  So, let’s take a look:

Step 8

Step Nine in my Lightroom Workflow

At this point, I’ve pretty much done all the edits I need.  The image went from mundane to beautiful, and is something worth sharing with the world!  What do you think?  Any developing techniques you’ve learned about my Lightroom workflow that you’d like to share?  Sound off in the comments with what you like and what you’d change in this 8 step Lightroom post process!

For those of you that prefer audio/video tutorials, I’ve done a short YouTube video walking through my Lightroom Workflow. It’s a lot faster than the read, but some details are lost if you tend to go after minutia:

Go soak your gear!

It pays to review your web traffic periodically because I just learned a way that your bathtub can be used for photography!  Not only is it a good place to mellow out after a stressful shoot, but it also makes a heckuva softbox!  I was on a forum that had referenced the blog and a guy had some product that he placed in his tub.  I thought it was an interesting idea, and decided to give it a try.  As it turns out, the tub is a great place to put your gear!  Granted, not to soak it (sorry, but I had to tease the title that way), but to act as a great background and softbox combined in one.

Here’s a few sample shots.  For all the tech-types, these are pretty much straight out of camera (or sooc) – all I did was adjust the WB for Flash and adjust the ACR sharpening from 25 to 75.  All are resized to 650px wide for the blog.  Here’s the setup:  I took the Canon kit lens (18-55) on my 40D, threw on the 550EX, and set everything to default values.  Shutter at standard sync speed of 250, aperture at f8 and ISO at 100.  I powered the 550EX at it’s standard setting, on camera (relax strobists – I can hear you shuddering from here),  and started firing a few shots.  I pointed the flash to camera right and got this:

ruler1

Yup, that’s a God-awful shot, with a nasty shadow.  Perhaps I could ditch the shadow.  Since we’re not exactly using conventional wisdom here, let’s try it with the flash pointed straight at the subject:

ruler2

Hey!  That’s actually not too bad.  It’s not that great, and still definitely a “Meh” kind of shot as it’s still got something of a shadow.  So, I spun the flash to fire above me and bounce off the ceiling:

ruler3

Voila!  You know what?  For being a spur of the moment thing, and without a lot of pre-planning or preparation, that’s not bad at all.  And, it was shot in a bathtub!  Anyone else out there have a bathtub?  Try some shots in it for different items.  I used a tape measure, but what about a pen, or a microphone, or a printer, or even a lens?  I bet you could get some pretty cool results with very little setup!  Anyone else have some odd or unusual ways to get clean backgrounds and even lighting on the cheap?  Feel free to share your thoughts, ideas, and feedback in the comments.  Feel free to link your own efforts there too!  Happy shooting all and we’ll see you back here again tomorrow!

Focus Stacking: A Primer

The Final Result

With all the advancements lately in the photography world, the ability to perform tasks like focus stacking has been off-shored to built in algorithms in specialized cameras, in post production software (i.e. Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, Helicon Focus, and a host of others that have now flooded the market.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for making things easier, and improving ones workflow, but I do still ascribe to the theory of learning certain fundamentals and essentials for building your photography skills both in composition, and just to understand the mechanics of photography. With that in mind, I’d like to devote a bit of time to discuss the task of focus stacking.

Focus Stacking Versus HDR

First off, focus stacking is used mostly in genres like macro photography, where intricate detail is needed across a range wider than what the aperture will allow for during composition.  The principle is much like the layered approach to HDR imagery – where you stack layers of images with different compositions on top of each other and blend the right portions through the entire image.

Where focus stacking differs from HDR is the types of images that you are layering.  In HDR images, you are overlaying images with different exposure values over one another.  In focus stacking, you are not changing the exposure values, rather just the point of focus.  As depth of field drops off both in front of and behind your focusing point, the subject will blur.  While this may be an appreciated blurring technique in some cases, in other cases, getting different depths of field from different focusing points can make for a tack sharp macro throughout the range of the subject.

As is most often the case, explaining a photography concept is best done with images, so let’s take a look at an example.  For easy demonstration, I took a white cordless phone and placed it on a black background.  This way color issues are kept to a minimum…

First Focus Point

Notice on the first focusing point, the sharpest point is right near the front?  It also quickly drops off into the background as I was shooting at f2.8  The low aperture number means I will have a very shallow depth of field, which is what is causing the blurred background.  To bring the rest of it into focus, I need to “stack” more shots that have a different point of focus.  So, let’s add another few to the composite:

Second Focus Point

Third Focus Point

Fourth Focus Point

Fifth Focus Point

The end result from stacking all these together can be accomplished by any one of a number of methods ranging from the most time-consuming of doing it manually inside Lightroom or Photoshop, and the most efficient one of using 3rd party software.  While several options do exist, the one that has become pretty much the industry standard is that of Helicon Focus!  Their quality of processing is, bar none, among the best I’ve seen.

In the meantime, here’s the result of an image that has been focus-stacked:

The Final Result

It’s a quick edit, and done with only having focus-stacked 5 images.  If I wanted a really detailed depth of field on something more important than a cordless phone from circa 1990’s, I’d likely have taken at least 10-15 images and massaged them through Helicon Focus more carefully.

For a behind-the-scenes footage video, stop over to the Facebook page!  (Be sure to “like” it and share a comment while you are there…)

If you really want to go hip deep into focus stacking and macro photography, there’s a great book by Julian Cremona called Extreme Close Up Photography and Focus Stacking available on Amazon.  Good read, and really takes this subject to the Nth degree!