I recently had a private message indicating that some of my work has a distinct look and asking about how I get what I do. I am aiming for something when I process -- with greater or lesser sucess. But here's what I'm doing in general. I want a straight photography look, with post processing taking a backseat to composition in terms of what you NOTICE -- or so I hope. If you don't like my process, why then take what you like and leave the rest, lol. Photography is a lot like a buffet... Background When I started taking pictures as an 11 year old (in far away 1966) I only shot slide film in a 1955 Kodak Pony 135 Model B. I have two of them that work now in my collection, lol. That was the only 35mm film available where I lived -- they simply didn't have print film. It was Kodak Ektachrome or Kodachrome as the only games around and I shot Ektachrome because it was faster and more available and if I remember also cheaper. I loved the look of slide film. When I started shooting digital I wanted that look -- but it seems the jpg engines could give you a more vivid look but it always looked "overcooked" to me. I wanted very solid bold color but without an unnatural look -- to me that was the look of Ektachrome. To really "get" what I'm trying for you actually need to view some slides in a viewer or something. If you'll do that you'll see I'm not getting it really -- but closer than standard renderings from jpg engines give you. The other characteristic of slide film is high contrast -- which of course contributes to the perception of color saturation. What you had to be very careful of with slides is that there is very little "knee" and "shoulder" at the ends of the dynamic range like there is with negative film (particularly b/w). With slide film, you HAVE to nail the exposure or it all goes wrong and there's not fixing it when you print it, lol -- what you got is what you got. So you can get some lovely stuff, but in some situations your cloud detail might all turn to brilliant white space, or you would have very dark shadows. My Model for Photographic Workflow It's Ansel Adams. Yes, my work looks NOTHING like Ansel's and he wasn't known for shooting slide film but bear with me. Now Ansel was considered by many to be the "straightest" of straight photographers but he did an ENORMOUS amount of PP during developing and printing by adjusting developers, temperature, selection of paper contrast, and a whole lot of burning and dodging to make local adjustments. His photos were often as far from "out of camera" as you could about get without doing multiple exposures, compositing, and so forth. There are two books whose wisdom I treasure and they are his books called "The Negative" and "The Print". I can distill his wisdom down -- though not convey it really -- with something he often said comparing photography to music: the negative is like the score for a symphony, but the printing process is like the performance. Basically: you try to get everything "there" when you take the picture -- but you make it look like you want it to look when you do the "performance" in the printing process. That's all in those books though you have to "map" it to modern workflow. For a digital photographer the post processing in your editor is the most analogous process to the performance part. Printing these days is a matter of getting what you want on a calibrated monitor, sending it to a calibrated lab (or printing it yourself which I don't do) and knowing what you saw on your monitor is what your print will look like. Getting the Initial "Negative" is Critical or PP is Virtually Useless In the "score" phase, ETTR or "exposure control" of some kind is critical to give one leeway in the shadows without losing the highlights. I use Pekka Potka's method to put highlight/shadow clipping information in the viewfinder -- a tremendous advantage of EVF's and live view. Sometimes I may need to do HDR to "get everything in the negative" and that's a judgement call which you develop. My goal with HDR is for you to not know for sure that it IS HDR. I want photo-realistic whenever I can achieve it. So, in that case then the "raw" HDR shot (which looks nothing like my final work -- very flat) will be the "negative". The original shots that feed the HDR are all just a part of the "negative" I'll work on to get my final look. I will usually adjust the original shots some BEFORE I send them to the HDR merge but DON'T go crazy on sharpening them or HDR will exagerrate that perhaps to the shots detriment. And this is why I shoot in RAW. I want as much information to work with in post as possible. Shooting RAW is neither a virtue nor a sin as some seem to convey it: it's a choice based on ones goals for the photos one makes. Digital Processing So here's what I'm trying to get in digital most of the time: The color "pop" of slide film without the overcooked look of excessive saturation. Good use of the full dynamic range of the sensor and somehow "cram" it into a higher contrast presentation like slide film but without the losses at the top and bottom slide film often brings. Fairly low noise (like a good low speed slide film has almost invisible grain). Clarity -- something about slide film brought out clarity in images -- perhaps it's just the higher contrast? Something though. Black level should be adjusted to get a "natural" tone range in the shadows although sometimes the contrast adjustment takes care of this. This is IMO one of the cardinal sins of some folks HDR is that everything floats WAY above a reasonable black level for the shot Here's what I do, generally, to get there in PP using Lightroom 4 and terminology varies widely between software -- your method may vary. As I write this, I realize how inadequate this will be and you will really have to experiment heavily with this -- there really isn't a "formula" unfortunately since every photo is different and your VISION will be different. Adjust the overall color balance (white balance) to get approximately the color tone you want overall. Don't play with saturation yet though. Make a heavily bent curve by taking the "Highlights" slider way down (often to the bottom) and "Shadows" way up (often to the top). The initial presentation "flattens out" and is totally unattractive at this point Fiddle with the contrast (often moved very high), exposure and "Blacks" (black level in more conventional terms) to get an initial presentation that has the contrast and the level of compressed highlights and recovered shadows I'm looking for. Use the color sliders to selectively bring up "important" colors. One of the characteristics of slide film was non-linear color response and it's weird: white was white, but the saturation of certain colors could be exaggerated. For instance, perhaps the blue of the sky, or a red or orange object you want to stand out (or down) -- then adjust the saturation or level in the color up or down as needed. This is a key to getting a major aspect of the slide film look: color pop without an excess increase in overall saturation. At this point, when you have an overall "look", sit back and look at the photo. Where does you eye wander? Is there anything that catches your eye that detracts from what you want people to see? You may have some areas that have the color off, be too bright, etc. At that point, you need to start using "brushes" to darken, lighten, or adjust color to "balance" the look of the elements in the composition. If you are unsure of what you've just done to a photo, then stop. If it really doesn't quite satisfy that wordless internal critic, than come back to it later. Sometimes the conscious mind seems to need a little time before the unconscious can "talk" to it -- or maybe it's just me, lol. Notice I've not mentioned sharpening, geometric correction, cropping and so forth. Those I think are a given and like salt and pepper they are a "season to taste" thing based on what one wants. Really, the process is iterative and you will go back over those previous adjustments. The nice thing about non-destructive editors like Lightroom is that you can make a virtual copy of the original, wipe out all your adjustments, and start again without throwing away what you did (in case that does turn out to be "the one", lol). Let me think about this some more, and I may have more to say soon. The problem is I DO this, but I haven't talked about it much, sorry. But I do want to stress: PP and the initial capture are tightly coupled and require a strategy to really get what you want out of a photo. That was something Ansel preached and it is as true today as ever despite the march of technology. So what I get out of my photos is the result of an approach which starts with how I take the photo.