Today I thought I’d spend some time introducing you to the very basics of post processing food photographs.
I think it’s very important, especially for beginners, to know that very, very few of the food photographs you see in magazines and on droolworthy blogs came out of the camera looking that way. Very few.
I’d venture to say none.
When you’re first starting out, you just don’t know the post processing tools that are available to you or why you should use them. It can be so discouraging to see these stunning photographs and never see anything close to that come out of your camera. But that’s partly because you’re missing a step in the whole process!
Just as a film photographer develops photos in a darkroom and adds dodging and burning, split toning etc, a digital photographer does many of the same things, albeit with software instead of chemicals. Taking the photograph is just one of the steps in the whole process. One that starts with planning the shot, setting it up, clicking the shutter and then processing it. They don’t call it a workflow for nothing!
Post Processing in Adobe Lightroom
Today, I’m going to run you through the very basics of post processing a RAW image in Lightroom. Don’t shoot RAW? You can still do all of these steps in Lightroom with a JPG. Don’t have Lightroom? You can still do many of these steps in Adobe Camera RAW or Adobe Photoshop. In fact most photo software will let you do most of the steps I’ll show you here – it’s just a matter of knowing your software.
Why Photograph in RAW?
I highly recommend that if you own a DSLR, you shoot in RAW. There is NO reason to be afraid of RAW files!! They are not scary. They’re just a different file type – one that opens up so many more possibilities.
JPG files are what are known as lossy files – meaning they lose pixel information every time alter them. Even the act of the camera compressing the image into a JPG file means you’ve lost valuable pixel data. The camera will also automatically add some of it’s own post processing to the image when it turns it into a JPG.
RAW files can be processed without losing any of the original image data. Essentially, they are a digital negative. And, they are raw – meaning the camera does not apply any processing to the file. By using RAW files, you can alter exposure, saturation, contrast and a host of other options without ever harming the file OR losing any data. Don’t like what you did in post processing? With that digital negative sitting on your hard drive you can go back to the original image any time. Shoot the image in black and white and later decide you want it in colour? The colour data is still there and you can see it any time.
And best of all, if you want to print an image in large format, you have every single pixel sitting there, giving you a much sharper, clearer photograph.
Still scared? Most cameras allow you to shoot in RAW and JPG. Try that out for a while but I’m pretty sure that once you get the hang of RAW, you’ll lose the JPG file completely. (***warning: shooting with both formats will fill up your memory card very quickly)
So, let’s get on with it. This is going to be a very basic tutorial only covering the essentials for post processing in Lightroom. I’ll cover additional techniques in the coming months.
Step 1: Import
The first step is importing the photos from your camera (or hard drive) into Lightroom. LR also acts as a catalogue for your images. Importing can be as simple as plugging your camera in, opening Lightroom and clicking the Import button. It can also be much more complex than that! Lightroom gives you a lot of different options as to how you import your photos and it’s worth learning about them. A great book to check out is The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book for Digital Photographers (Voices That Matter) by Scott Kelby. It’s become my bible lately.
Here is the original image, straight out of the camera:
It’s not a bad image. It was shot in the middle of my backyard, at 12:30 in the afternoon – probably the worst time of day to shoot outdoors. But, I used the shade of my honeysuckle to act as a diffusor. Great bright light, but naturally diffused.
I’m happy with the exposure, focus and composition. Starting with a solid image makes post processing a very quick exercise. However, there are a few minor things that aren’t quite right. Let’s start fixing them.
Step 2: Reading Your Image data
You will make changes to your image in the Develop module of Lightroom and the first thing you’ll see is the histogram in your right hand control panel.
This shows you if you have any clipping or blown out highlights (over exposed or under exposed areas of the photo that mean you’ve lost image details). In this case there is a tiny bit of both. The front rim of the bowl is blown out and there is some clipping in the dark crevices between the blueberries. Neither of these are something I would worry about for an image like this. This is a judgment call, one you’ll learn to make as you practice.
You also get all the camera settings: the ISO, focal length, aperture and shutter speed. Seeing that I shot this with a 320ISO tells me that it’s highly unlikely, given the model of my camera, that I’ll need to worry about image noise. This is camera dependent. With my previous camera, it would have been a real concern. Know your camera.
Step 3: Camera Calibration
One of the first things I do after importing my image is fix the Camera Calibration, way down at the bottom of your right hand control panel. When the image comes out of the camera in RAW, it can look quite flat – unlike a JPG, where the camera has added some post processing to the photo.
Lightroom will default to Adobe Standard which is usually quite dull. In this case, it’s making my blueberries look flat. I decided to choose Camera Landscape, which mimics the Landscape picture style option in your camera (not to be confused with the Landscape shooting mode that entry level DSLRs will have – they’re very different!). Landscape highlights blues and greens, making them more vivid. Perfect for this image!
Here’s where we’re at now:
The blues and greens are a little more saturated and vivid. Good stuff. But I think we can punch it up a little bit more without going over the top.
Step 4: Basic Develop Settings:
The next step is to look at our basic develop settings. These are located right under the histogram in your right hand control panel.
This image shows the default settings. White balance is as shot (which was auto white balance in this case). Exposure can be altered by dragging the slider left to under expose (make it darker) or right to over expose (make it lighter). The Recovery, Fill Light and Blacks are all used to help fix the clipping or blown out highlights I mentioned earlier.
Contrast does exactly as it suggests – increases contrast between light and dark. It often darkens the photo so it’s grouped with Brightness, which can help recover the light you lost when using the Contrast slider.
Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation also do as they suggest but generally only need to be used very sparingly.
I’m going to change my Brightness, Contrast and Clarity and leave everything else alone.
Now we have this:
We can see some real contrast and it’s even made the image seem more vivid, even though I didn’t alter the vibrance or saturation controls. Almost there.
Step 6: Sharpening
Sharpening is the one step you should always do with any digital image as I’ve discussed before. Sharpening can be very complex and scientific and I’ll be blunt, I don’t understand a fraction of it. It’s really it’s own art form and whole books have been written on it.
The amount needed varies from camera to camera and with the lens you use. It also varies with whether or not the image will be used for the web or for print. In this case, I’m going to share what I do for web publishing. Sharpening is done with the Detail panel, located about half way down your right hand control panel. Here are the default settings.
We’re looking at the water droplet on one of the top blueberries. Clicking the little square to the right of the thumbnail and then clicking on an area of the full sized photo will allow you to choose what you see in the thumbnail window. I try to select the part of the image that has the clearest focus. It will magnify it to the point that it’s almost distorted.
For web images I usually drag the Amount slider to between 80 and 100. Again, it depends on the image and your artistic vision. I don’t touch the other sliders unless there is a great deal of noise and then I will adjust the Luminance slider. In this case though, it’s not needed at all.
Here’s what we have now:
It’s a very subtle difference – one that is usually only noticeable at a larger size. Usually, with blog images, this is where I stop. I’ll export the photo to JPG format and leave it at that. I’m going to do that now but I’m also going to show you a second sharpen action.
Step 7: Exporting
Lightroom gives you a lot of options for exporting to a JPG and I’m going to highlight the ones that are important for photos that will mainly live on the web.
1. Changing your colour space to sRGB will help maintain the vibrancy of your photos online. I can’t tell you how many times I’d save a great photo in Photoshop, then post it online only to have it look dull and flat and nothing like the image I’d just saved! Switching your colour space in Photoshop or Lightroom will help with that.
2. Image Sizing. Resize your image down to a safe and manageable size for the web. For most of my blog posts, I host the images on flickr so I make them a little larger: 1800 x 1200 px. Flickr processes them into different sizes and I’ll use the 640 x 427 size for the blog.
If I’m going to use the image directly on the blog, I will resize down to 640 x 427 here as 640px wide is the maximum my blog width can take without breaking the layout.
I made a mistake here though, saving it with a resolution of 300px. I would normally only do that for print. (I was working on print images before this photo!). For web I would save at 72px.
Here’s the reason for resizing: by making it smaller, you take up less storage space on your site’s server, in turn, your blog loads much more quickly and, you make your images much less appealing to thieves. Yes, they can still use your images online but nobody is going to want a 72px resolution file for a print job. It’s not usable.
3. Sharpening. Yes, a little extra sharpening. You can choose here if it’s for web or print (matte or glossy).
4. I didn’t highlight this one but, you can add a watermark here, which is another way to protect your images online.
Step 8: Photoshop Sharpening
After saving the image as a web ready JPG, I decided I still wanted to punch up the sharpening just a tad more in Photoshop. After opening up the image in PS, I went to the Filter menu along the top and chose Sharpen and then the very unintuitive Unsharp Mask.
I bumped the Amount up to 136. Usually when I go this route I hover between 100 and 150, depending on the image. I adjusted the other two sliders as well. They work together to make the sharpening more natural and decrease the halo effect you can get if you’re not careful.
And here we go, the final image!
The water droplets are much clearer now and it makes the blueberries look at little juicier.
Here’s a quick comparison of the three images sharpened:
This seems like a lot of work, but in reality it takes me about 2 minutes without the Photoshop processing. That adds another minute on. And it makes a big difference.
You don’t need Lightroom to accomplish this – there are a lot of post processing programs that will help you achieve the same final look that I got here, both with a RAW or JPG file.
If I was really fussy or using this for print or for a client, I would do much more retouching on some of the blemishes on the blueberries, possibly remove the dirt below the bowl and perhaps a few other changes. Again, that depends on artistic expression or your client. I prefer the dirt and blemishes because it’s real!
The key is to get a good in camera shot: in focus, properly exposed and well composed. That’s what makes post processing a breeze and the icing on what’s already a great cake.
Just remember, this is the way I go about with basic post processing. Software offers so many different ways to achieve the same outcome or to take more artistic license. Play with it and take your photos to the next level!
If you all enjoyed this tutorial or found it helpful, let me know and I’ll start working on some more advanced fixes you can do to your images!