Copyrights Ganesh H Shankar, June 2007.
Thanks to digital era and high capacity memory cards the number of images we make on a photography
trip has increased many folds. During last couple of years I made more images compared to previous
7-8 years of photography using slide films. This of course increased time spent sitting in front of
the terminal for processing those loads of images. Most of the time we seem to use some standard
workflow - crop, resize, levels/curves, sharpness etc. Often we routinely process those
images based on a flow which we are comfortable with. Some of us may even have photoshop actions
to accomplish some of those steps together in one click. How much time do we spend in cropping, levels,
sharpness adjustments ? Interestingly with slide/film photography, an image is mostly made when we released
the shutter. The resulting slide or negative is considered original
. People relied on scanning and printing service
to do a fairly good job of faithful reproduction of what was captured on either slide or film.
Interestingly time has changed. With digital photograhy steps upto releasing shutter is probably about 60-70%
of making an image. Rest of about 30-40% of the image making is still responsibility of the photographer.
Unlike slide/film days there is no
original here which an image processing house/or service can process and duplicate for your medium of expression (print/web) for you.
The original is only in your own mind !
Did you realize this subtle shift that happened ? If you had started with slide/film then you might have.
Some of us are still not comfortable with this shift where in we lost full control over the image making process
without the knowledge of processing.
If we depend on an image processing service for processing, then about 60-70% of the image is made
by us and remaining
by the service house!! 30-40% of the image is simply not ours
I strongly think an image portrays one's personality. In this case part of our image's personality
belongs to those who processed it for us. We may not like it - but that is what it is.
One way to circumvent this is to sit with the person and
get the image processed for your taste. Which is not at all practical when we have large number of images to process.
Fortunately, even a novice starter can learn these skills without
With that note, let me share some of my thoughts on 30-40% of the image making process.
Purpose of this write up is not
to talk about how to use curves,levels etc to process an image but it
is about trying to understand the mood and do the matching processing instead of formula based processing. So I assume
some familarity with image processing.
Let me attempt at talking about this complex topic using an example.
I made the above (first image at top) sunset image at Bharatpur. Beautiful December evening, a moody sunset.
The image above (again the first image) is re-sized, un-processed, un-cropped scan from a
Before we start processing the image we get a sense for kind of image. Rest of the process depends
on it. At the outset this image above appears to have subtle mood in it. Now let us go through some of
the processing decisions.
First step normally that we take is cropping the image. It hated cropping at one point when I was using slides.
Thanks to todays digital technology, we get lot more quality and cropping has become the part of processing of
every image !
Should I crop this ?
Lot of it may be personal. Yet, these are my views. This is a moody image. The feeling is caused by merged
water and sky (no horizon line) , muted tones, expanse
, subtle reflections in the foreground etc
(difficult to clearly express). If I have to crop I have to do it for a better composition or to bring
out details. I am comfortable with the composition above. More than that cropping will show up details
in the image. In this case we may start seeing grass blades, birds etc. This results in viewers eye going
over all of them. Looking at the cropped image above (the second image), I satisfied the rule of thirds but managed to kill
the subtle mood totally.
So I decided against cropping.
Next step - levels or curves.
I mostly use levels. This first histogram below corresponds to the original unprocessed
image. One of the lesson we have learnt while tweaking the levels of an image is to pull those three sliders.
Pull highlight slider to where the curve ends, pull dark one to where it starts and adjust the mid tone slightly -
or something similar along those lines.
Ok, let us adjust the levels using the formula. Pulling the level sliders -
And the resulting image -
How does this look like ? For my taste buds, the image got transformed. Calmness vanished - vibrancy increased.
It is no more a moody image - comes very close to yet another typical sunset image. We just did what is
generally accepted levelling procedure
. Let us see how the actual levels looks like now -
Comparing this one with the original levels of the unmodified image, in the original image intensity levels are
mostly spread across mid tone region. In this though we see most of it still in the mid-tone we also see it
stretching to both ends. Human eyes now need to process far more different intensity levels while in the original
image a viewer spent less time. In the original image after quickly processing our mind tried to relate it to
some experince in life. In the latter, processing seem
to go on in a loop - we did not get to the point of relating the image to our experience. In my view this levels
adjustment is a failure.
While trying to understand why some images are more moody compared to some others
I was looking at a few of my images. Most of the images I have seen in my files which had a moody feeling seem to
have intensity levels distributed mostly around mid-tones. Another important characteristics of such images being
rate of change
within the frame is very minimal. The lesson I learnt is for such images any processing that
increases the rate of change may spoil the mood. Let me show you another such image and its levels -
And its levels -
Here is another image which is not moody and its associated levels after processing -
In this image as you can see rate of change
experienced by human eye as it goes over the
image is very large. Mind spends all the time in deciphering and understanding the image and appreciating
the beauty. If I can say the act of viewing an image consists of two parts - first, eyes goes over it,
mind decihers it and probably at the end appreciates with an expression (beautiful, wow! etc) and then the second part
which is very crucial - mind tries to relate the image to something that is stored in the long term memory
- when possible
. It is this latter ability of an image where in viewers' mind can relate the image
to what is stored in her/his long term memory makes it long lasting - lest images like this
flower above for example gets buried quickly in viewers' mind. Very few images have this second quality.
Ok, let me get back to levels and the sunset image. As we can see it is important to carefully adjust levels to enhance
the mood portrayed in the image. As far as the sunset image goes, decision I took was not to touch levels.
Next step - sharpening
Now let us see how sharpening affects the sunset mood.
Compare this with the original image at the top. What you think ?
It may become very personal at this point but this is what I think.
Sun looks a bit more pleasing, better defined, so are rest of the elements in the image which is
not very desirable. My eyes now spend more time going through the image (I get more curious about
those dots and twigs) and I some how feel the
abstract mood got weakened. My eyes could quickly look at the original sunset image and relate some how
to a devine night raga
(tune) of Hundustani classical music. That calmness seem to have got lost. The image
became more materialistic in some sense.
Or in other words, some undefined connection the original image had for what is stored in my long term memory
seem to have got lost or weakened. So the decision - not to sharpen it. But as we know sharpening is very essential
for most of the images. For example, without right amount of sharpening the image of the flower above will totally
look charmless. But, it is important to know when to sharp, when to blur (how often do we blur our images intead of
sharpening ?), amount to sharpen etc. All these steps can very subtly impact mood of an image. Let me not go through
other tools like, brightness, contrast, shadow/highlight etc. We should use them to go with the mood that we would like
To sum-up, post processing is part of making an image if you are using digital. About 30-40% of image
making is still remaining even after shutter release. If you take help from a service house for processing your
images then do sit with them and get remaining part of your vision imparted to your image. Every step
in post processing has to be a conscious decision on your part - not definitely a formula/action based to pull up or down a few
levers in Photoshop or any other imge processing software.
Learning post processing is not a rocket science
- everyone of us can learn this skill - just a matter of time. Last but not least, listen to your heart and process
Good luck to you all in making long lasting images!!
If you have a view on this article please write to me at
Thanks in advance
- Ganesh H Shankar