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My approach to a "look" for my photography

Discussion in 'Image Processing' started by entropicremnants, Mar 4, 2013.

  1. entropicremnants

    entropicremnants Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 16, 2012
    John Griggs
    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...


    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.
    • Like Like x 36
  2. twokatmew

    twokatmew Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Jun 1, 2012
    Lansing, MI, US
    Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I'm looking forward to more! :biggrin:

    Sent from my phone. Please pardon my brevity!
    • Like Like x 1
  3. spatulaboy

    spatulaboy I'm not really here Subscribing Member

    Jul 13, 2011
    North Carolina
    Thanks for taking the time to do this! I've checked out your site, you do excellent work!
    • Like Like x 1
  4. Thanks for such an informative post.

    Very much agree here. This is the counter-argument to the oft-read statement that processing or raw shooting is only for those that "can't get in right in camera". There is at least as much care and thought involved in capturing an image that will give you the best data to work with later.
    • Like Like x 1
  5. digitalandfilm

    digitalandfilm Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 18, 2011
    I abide by all the above written guidelines, and now I am sticking with glass that has a character and "soul".. so to speak. That glass is Carl Zeiss Jena and I learned of it on Manual Focus Lenses and Vintage Zeiss Glass on Modern Cameras | Frank Glencairn

    The first shots thrilled me because of it's nice bokeh and color characteristics.

    Olympus lenses are also top-notch, as are Panasonic. Just misses that "special sauce" that the CZJ lenses have.

    Thanks again for posting this- I took away a lot.
    • Like Like x 1
  6. entropicremnants

    entropicremnants Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 16, 2012
    John Griggs
    Thank YOU!

    And you are right about a character attributable to lenses. I have never owned top notch Zeiss, Leica etc. glass sadly. But I have had some I very much like. At this point I am more enamored of that ineffable character than I am of simple specs. Hence my affection for the Oly 17mm f/1.8, lol.
  7. hkpzee

    hkpzee Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 5, 2011
    Hong Kong
    Thank you very much for taking time to explaining your workflow in such details. I never really took the time to analyze my own process, but now that I've read yours, I find myself actually following a very similar workflow to yours (but, of course, my photos are nowhere near as good as yours). One thing that differs significantly from my process was this particular step:
    I often find myself going back-and-forth between adjusting contrast, blackness, and tonal curve to get the look that I like...
    • Like Like x 1
  8. entropicremnants

    entropicremnants Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 16, 2012
    John Griggs
    There are without a doubt a number of paths that do probably the same thing!
  9. EasyEd

    EasyEd Mu-43 Regular

    Feb 16, 2010
    Hey All,

    I too looked at your photos and yes they do have a "look" to them and yes I would kinda characterize "it" as ektachrome.

    I bought my only 35mm film camera in 79 and it was - after trying OM1, AE1 and I have no idea what the equivalent Nikon was - I bought a Minolta XD5 - I loved and still love that camera - so perfect in my hands and while I remember trying a couple films I too settled on ektachrome and because I was doing my graduate degrees it was all slide - I've a lot of slides to someday scan. Mostly I used Ektachrome 200. I love the ektachrome "look" and always thought kodachrome fans "wacko" which of course is true! :biggrin: Since Minolta and that wonderful Minolta handling disappeared the only camera I've found that gets "in the ballpark" is the XE-1 a camera I am fast growing to love the handling of. That said I would love to get that ektachrome slide "look" back. It just suits me and many of your images "take me there".

    I do wish I had spent some time with Fuji films back then just to see what they would have been like. And as they are what the XE-1 "simulates". I've much more to figure out and maybe I'll "get there" in terms of getting ektachrome "looks" and liking the Fuji film "look".

    • Like Like x 1
  10. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    I think I'd say that "PP and the initial capture MAY BE tightly coupled and part of a strategy to really get what you want out of a photo".

    My reason for making that change is simple. Doing it the way you said it will certainly give you the result you visualised at the time of capture and that's fine, but it's possible to have second thoughts afterwards about what you do with the image. There are always alternatives and sometimes we do experiment with them, and sometimes the initial capture may not be the ideal exposure, or composition, for your alternative vision, and sometimes at the end of the day it's the alternative that we choose over our original vision.

    Let's face it, sometimes we don't "get it right" where "it" can be one or more of exposure, framing, and/or concept. We're not perfect.

    And it's worth noting that Ansel Adams reprinted many of his images several times over the years, with the final image changing sometimes quite strongly over time. He kept working with his negatives, his initial visualisation was not always the same as the final rendition. He once compared the negative to a musical score and the print to a performance of the score, and performances of the same score can often vary greatly. Adams definitely varied his performances.

    I'm not suggesting that capture and vision should be disconnected, I do think it's best to have some kind of idea of why you're photographing what it is you're photographing and also of what kind of result you'd like to try for but I don't think we should be restricted to our original visualisation. Sometimes the "alternative performance" comes to us as a result of working with the original idea and seeing/discovering something in the image that we didn't see at the time of capture.
    • Like Like x 1
  11. entropicremnants

    entropicremnants Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 16, 2012
    John Griggs
    David, thanks for chiming in! Your comments about changing your mind later certainly apply, lol. For the record though, I did mention that very concept of Ansel's (score/performance) you mention. Where we still might disagree, although perhaps I'm misinterpreting, is here:

    I'm afraid I still maintain it isn't a "may". If your capture doesn't contain the information you need to create an image of whatever "visualization" you may conceive later -- then you can't create it. Totally blocked shadows or blown highlights are simply gone and can't be recreated from nothing... unless you want to composite in from another photo and I simply won't do that -- not that Lightroom can do that anyway, lol.

    So, overexpose or underexpose too much and what you've done is limited what you can do -- now or later -- with that capture. Since we're not applying any kind of treatment when we're shooting RAW, exposure is always important. The less dynamic range you have in your capture medium, the more important it becomes -- latitude simply isn't the same in the digital world as it was in negatives.

    In fact, Ansel developed his Zone System to ensure he got a negative he could "perform" with later. It the "score" isn't there, you can't "perform" it! In the digital world especially: exposure is key.

    But you just contradicted yourself I think -- or at least that's how I see it so come back to me on this and explain if you would as I may be understanding you incorrectly. Perhaps you skimmed the headlines but didn't get the gist below it. I go back to what I just said: if you don't capture it in the first place, you can't SEE it later to do something with it.

    Maybe you read me as some kind of purist about getting everything right in the camera? Not once in my article did I mention that you have to totally visualize your shot in advance -- few of us are that talented and I am certainly not. My final product often deviates from my original idea so I'm with you there.

    I am simply saying this: if you don't get a good exposure, then you won't have as many options to "perform" the "score" that you wrote when you pressed the shutter button.

    And I still say that applies no matter what PP you may use. I am resolved, David! lol :biggrin:
  12. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    I suspect we're both on exactly the same page.

    As you point out, every capture is tightly coupled to what you do in PP. You can only work with what you've got in PP and what you have is the original capture. It's quite possible I did read too much of the purist, as you put it, into your original post but ultimately I think I was responding to the thread as it stood at the moment I started typing, and I suspect I may have read some of the later responses as being more purist than your original post. You did, however, provide the nicest quote for me to hang my hat on :) 

    Ultimately I think I'm endlessly fascinated by the concept of "a good exposure" or "the right exposure". Same scene, same moment, different photographers and I sometimes think that the number of different versions of what a good, or the right exposure, would be is at least 1 greater than the number of photographers debating the question (I figure at least one of the photographers has to have at least 2 different ideas on what it should be). I'm fascinated by the tendency (I share it also) to think of exposure in terms of the light coming towards us much more than we tend to think of it in terms of how we want the image to look, and I think a big part of anyone's evolution towards becoming a better photographer is shifting their view of exposure away from the light coming towards them and more toward the image they want to make, and some of my best photos have resulted from actually seeing an image rather than trying to capture a scene. Still, there are times when what I want to do is simply capture the scene. Hell, there are times when I find it hard enough just to try to capture the scene without even worrying about having a vision for the photograph.

    As for your comment that " Not once in my article did I mention that you have to totally visualize your shot in advance -- few of us are that talented …" I think I would add only one thing. There are times (only a few) when I've managed to do that, and I think Adams managed it more than a few times, but even when someone does manage it what I think still gets ignored is what happens to our vision of the scene/image over time. It changes, and that's why Adams kept reworking images. It's not always a matter of getting it wrong at the time, there's also the issue of seeing it differently over time and a lot contributes to that, including experiences gained after we make the initial capture. We really can't plan for that and we certainly can't expose for every possibility we may see in an image in a few years' time.

    There's the old adage that "the best camera is the one you have with you". Ultimately I wonder whether the "right exposure" is whichever one we make, provided of course that it's "right enough" for us to make something of it.
    • Like Like x 2
  13. I tend to think that there is one optimum exposure that will give you the most room to move in processing, which to me is to push the highlights as far to the right as possible. However this needn't be the exposure of the final, processed image i.e. what you eventually deem to be the "right exposure". Part of the ETTR workflow is that the original image that you capture might look quite different from the one that you end up with.
    • Like Like x 1
  14. entropicremnants

    entropicremnants Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 16, 2012
    John Griggs
    David, I so wish I did have the eye of an Adams. Landscapes used to be my weakest area, but I'm learning and getting better now. I STILL suck at street photography, lol.

    Thanks everyone for a spirited discussion. It shows that everybody is thinking about their work and pushing ahead in their own way.
    • Like Like x 1
  15. sinclair

    sinclair Mu-43 Veteran

    I'm new to digital photography, taking the dive with mFT (so I could make use of my old Canon FL/FD glass). I've read over and over to always shoot in RAW, but never what to do with the files once you had them. Only mainly for the ability to correct things if needed. Never having had the honor of doing any darkroom work, I always took photos with my AE-1 (Fuji Film ISO400 was my choice. It was priced better than Kodak, and I liked the results.) then sent it off to be developed. So I've been wondering why I bother shooting in RAW. Thanks for this thread as it has illuminated this subject to me finally. Shooting in RAW is done so that you can "develop" your photos your way, not just to correct issues (like red eyes or skin blemishes and such). Now I just have to figure out what I want for a look out of my photos. I wouldn't mind getting that Fuji Film look. But then perhaps there may be a look I like better now that I can have control over it. Now I need to pick a software package and start using it. Either way I still have tons to learn.

    Thank you.
    • Like Like x 1
  16. entropicremnants

    entropicremnants Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 16, 2012
    John Griggs
    Hi, Sinclair, and thanks for your comments.

    I do want to say though, lest I seem a purist, that there is nothing wrong with shooting in JPG if you can get what you want from it.

    Many, many professionals shoot JPG but often that's because they are controlling their light when they make the photo. If one can control one's light, RAW may be unnecessary -- or one may simply like the JPG and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    I got in the habit of RAW when I started doing urbex and industrial with digital more and the light is from difficult to just plain nuts, lol. RAW shooting and sometimes HDR techniques allow me to get my photo in situations where controlling my light is not an option.

    That evolved to what I wrote here: going from simply making a photo usable to trying to target a particular look to begin with.

    What that look is -- that's a journey I think we all make over time. And, it may become a new journey as we change what we want, lol.

    One thing I like about photography is I will never master it so the fun of always pushing into a new area will always be there.
  17. Judderman62

    Judderman62 Mu-43 Regular

    Mar 24, 2013
    Greater Manchester
    Excellent post - thank you John.

    I also am 100% on the same page as you with wanting to get my images as "real" as possible and especially in the area of HDR.

    Will re read this several times - excellent post and thanks very much for sharing your approach :) 
    • Like Like x 1
  18. mh2000

    mh2000 Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 3, 2010
    Agree with this. Went to your site, some excellent work! Especially like the industrial urbex stuff.

    • Like Like x 1
  19. entropicremnants

    entropicremnants Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jul 16, 2012
    John Griggs
    A little followup on this.

    Although I've switched to Fuji from micro four thirds, the same things apply. I've found that there are times I can shortcut a lot of this by using DXO Film Pack (I have version 3 standard) whose selection of transparency film looks is very nice.

    However, I'm not one who longs for grain, so I always turn it off. I think the DXO slide film simulations are great and there's quite a few "looks" that can suit different material and I've used a good number of the film sims in the pack now. I use it with Lightroom. My favorites are the various Velvia, Kodochrome and Ektachrome simulations they have as I've used those films in the past.
  20. barbosas

    barbosas Mu-43 Veteran

    May 7, 2013
    Just followed you on flickr, great work you have there. Thank you for taking time to write this.
    • Like Like x 1
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