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 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:

Less is more – Be a Better Photographer!

Beach Chairs

Beach Chairs

“Okay, I’m done.”

“That’s it? You’ve only been shooting for ten minutes!”

“Yep, got about 50 shots, I should have 4-6 proofs for you from that bunch.”

“So we’re done?”

“Pretty much…I mean I can keep shooting, but there’s really no point, it’ll just be duplicates of the same stuff.”

This was the dialog I had with a co-worker a short time ago when I went to take pictures of her son. It is indicative of a mentality that exists in society…not only is size king, but so is quantity. If you were to take two photographers and set them side by side, who would you think is a better photographer: the one who took 40 shots or the one who took 400? Many of the general public would probably respond by saying the latter, without giving it much thought. When it comes down to it though, people can recognize inferior quality no matter how many shots you put in front of them, so it’s a good idea to slow down, take your time and not only get it right in camera, but get it right once (or twice), but know when you have it and stop!

The same holds true in your post processing as well. I know of several studios that just inundate their clients with hundreds of shots to choose from. They can’t understand why these clients never get any prints or very few prints from the studio. They think that people like to have a choice, and that the more choices you give them, the better. While the idea is not without merit, (because choice is a good thing) it can go to an extreme… that is where some trends are going. The reason why they are not getting prints done is because too many choices can also be paralyzing. If presented with 4 options, it is very easy to pick out which one you like best, whether it’s cars, cameras, televisions or photos. Presented with 400 options, the choice becomes more difficult and time consuming, primarily because you become concerned over picking the “wrong one”.

My perspective, in contrast, is to deliver just a select few shots. It makes the choices easier for the client. In a world where time is an increasingly valuable commodity, getting bogged down in sorting through hundreds of images trying to find one or two to print and hang can be more frustrating and lead to inaction. In essence it’s like you are transferring the process of elimination part of the work flow from your hands to the client. This has several downsides with minimal upsides. The one upside is that “Hey, the client chose this, not me.” can absolve you of responsibility for getting a bad shot framed. I would venture to ask though: why was a bad shot among the choices?

As I told a friend via email recently, it also comes to one of work flow management. Which would you rather deal with as a photographer – a work flow where you process 50 images or 500 images? The argument that “it’s digital, so what’s the big deal?” always seems to get under my skin a little bit. For me, the big deal is that some are going out there and not putting much time or thought into capturing the essence of a scene. They just lift the camera, point in the general direction of what they want and just fire away. I’ve actually heard the term “spray and pray” used for such shooters. The idea of slowing down and taking your time to both enjoy the moment and to really take into consideration all the nuances of things like lighting, shadows, and minimizing distractions has benefits. For me, the benefits far outweigh the downsides. First, it is a much more enjoyable situation to be in. Not only do you have fewer images to process, but you can really take your time, pay attention to the detail, and get every nuance of the image pegged!

Second, you will probably find that you are less stressed yourself. You’re not worried about missing the shot because you didn’t have time to consider all the aspects – primarily because you are considering the nuances. Third, and most importantly, when you relax and aren’t stressed, your clients aren’t stressed either…a photographer and their subject often feed off each other. I have so much fun when taking pictures of subjects, I often forget that I am there for a specific reason – we’re enjoying the moment.

That’s right…we are enjoying the moment – client and photographer! We’re laughing, and having fun, and I just happen to have a camera in hand recording it. Yeah, the first shots are often always a little awkward for them, but once they see my mug grinning over the camera at them and laughing and joking around, the stress level decreases by a factor of ten! When your client is less stressed, they photograph better! They are more willing to strike goofy (in their eyes) poses! You can capture the shot!

So, think about your workflow and how many shots you are taking. By planning more and taking less, you can see increases in productivity threefold

1. Cut down on post processing (both for quantity and quality)
2. You stress less, and thus, your client stresses less.
3. You increase your keeper percentage!

That seems worth it to me – what about you?

Printing on Wood

US Flag

Guest Post by Olli Randall

In our modern, digital world everything seems disposable. We take photographs and videos by the hundreds, stick them online and forget about them – leaving only a messy data-trail that will continue to clog up the internet long after we are gone. So it’s nice to occasionally swim against this tide and make something tangible: a genuinely special picture you can take down and touch that looks great to boot. Welcome to the world of wood-printing. Here we talk you through how to turn your disposable digital photo into a nostalgic wall-piece you’ll want to keep forever:

US Flag
US Flag

Choose the ‘right’ photo

The first, and in some ways hardest step is getting the right photo. Wood-printed photos have a tendency to work best with a ‘vintage’ look – so a bright, confusing picture from a carnival or party isn’t ideal. However, if you have to go with one, first put it through Photoshop and desaturate it while bumping up the contrast. That’ll help with the vintage feel. Remember that your transfer will eventually come out as a mirror image. This is usually OK for objects, but can make faces look a little weird. If you’re doing a personalised image of someone (as a gift, say), be sure to ‘flip’ the image in Photoshop before printing.

Choose the right wood

There are a number of ways to do this. The easiest is to simply head down to your local DIY store and get hold of some cheap shelving wood. Anything will do, just make sure it’s as close to white as you can get – use darker woods and you’ll lose some of the shadows and wind up with a murky picture. The alternative is to do something a bit special by using a fancier wood like Maple or Bamboo or birch. If you’re in a position to source and cut your own wood, even better: it’ll give the print a special quality that really ties it to your home. However, it doesn’t matter if you simply buy in store. Once you’ve chosen your wood, you’ll need to make sure both photo and wood are the same size, so decide how big/small you want your print beforehand. Finally, print your photo making sure you use a laser printer. Ideally you want to be printing this onto proper photo paper. If you don’t have the equipment at home, you can get this done at plenty of high street stores for under £3.

Editor note:  Local prices to the U.S. would range anywhere from 50¢ to $1.50, depending on the store you go to and the size of your print.  4×6″ prints will obviously be less than an 8×10 or an 11×14″, and some outfits you get can 4×6″ prints for as little as a dime.  Just be sure to instruct that they use plain paper – not glossy or mat 4×6 inch stock photo paper…the key here is the chemical reaction the paper has with the acrylic concoction!

Apply Acrylic Gel

Take your piece of wood and apply a thin layer of acrylic gel to the surface. At this point, it’s important to remember you don’t want a layer that’s too thick or with any gaps. This gel is going to be crucial for transferring your image across, so pay attention to how you’re spreading it. Bumps, lumps and uneven bits are a no-go: take your time and get it just right. You can use any acrylic gloss gel medium to achieve this. Basics have a range, as do places like Liquitex and Loxley. Most cost under £10 (I found a bottle of Liquitex for under $10 US here in Cleveland area) and are relatively easy to come by. Simply ask in store at your local arts/DIY shop. OK, so now you’ve applied the gel, your photo is ready to go. This next bit will go against every instinct in your body, but trust us on this one. Place your laser-print photo face down on the gel so it covers the entire block of wood. Once this is done, take care to smooth out any air bubbles. Now for the next step:

Leave it Overnight

This part is simple: just leave it somewhere to sit overnight where no-one and nothing can tamper with it. That means out the reach of pets and children!

Remove the Paper

This is the part any kids in the house will love. Messy, exciting and not a little nerve-wracking; removing the paper involves wetting your fingers and rubbing it off, once piece at a time. Of course, this is guaranteed to make one doozy of a mess, but that’s all part of the fun. As you rub away, you’ll being to see your image peek through the shreds of scattered paper – an exciting little moment as you realise exactly how well (or otherwise) your print has worked.

Add a Finish

Once the paper is all off and your chosen image is staring back at you from its rightful, wood-bound place, it’s time to add the finishing touches. We recommend applying a thin layer of wood-stain for about ten seconds then rubbing it off. For your convenience it’s probably easier to do this in sections, as leaving the stain on too long will make the print too dark. To give the final piece a ‘finished’ look (as it ideally should have), sand the edges down – taking care to remove any excess lumps of gel. Then simply add a thin layer of soft wax to seal the print and wait for it to dry.

Viola! You have yourself a custom-built vintage print of your chosen photograph. Hang it up, give it as a gift, set it to one side and get to work on another… the important thing is to cherish it forever.

Olli Randall is a writer at who fills his spare time up with photography, more writing, and relishes in experimenting with different printing techniques.

Final Editor Note:  Stay tuned, after Olli sent me this write-up, I was so inspired, I went out to do it myself.  I’ll be posting my trials and errors through the world of printing on wood later this week!