Effective post-processing can be challenging to learn.
If you take photos in RAW format, you need to post process your photos to get them looking good.
Here are seven steps I take in Lightroom and Photoshop with most of the photos I take.
Typically, the photos I take are documentary-style, and I don’t change them with much post-processing. I have developed a workflow to enhance and tweak my photos with the aim of rendering a result similar to how I saw the picture in reality.
Technicalities and alternative variations are kept to a minimum in this article to avoid causing confusion and discouragement. This article is written for beginners starting on their post-processing journey.
Intention When Post-Processing RAW files
Post-processing software has become very complex and powerful. It is possible to manipulate photos, so they become entirely different from the original. There are dozens of tools and multitudes of ways of achieving the same or similar results.
My intention most for most photographs I post process is to make them look as natural as possible. I believe this is an excellent place to start, even when you want to go on and create more surreal looking images.
Tone range in a photo is one of my primary concerns. Your eyes can usually see a broader range of tone than your camera can record. How to post-process a RAW file to appear as close as possible to what you saw, in reality, is what I want to share with you.
Seven Post Processing Steps
- Step 1: Process The RAW File
- Step 2: Open in Photoshop (PS) and Create Two Layer Copies
- Step 3: Balance the tone range
- Step 4: Remove Distractions
- Step 5: Dodge and Burn to Refine
- Step 6: Crop (if you need to)
- Step 7: Save a TIFF and a JPG
Step 1: Process The RAW File
Choose the photo you want to work with and open it in the ‘Develop Module’ in Lightroom. Take a look at the shadow areas, mid tones, and highlights. Choose what you consider to be an essential part of your photo and pay attention to that when making your adjustments.
For this article, I am using a landscape photo of the view I see from my home. Within it, there are no real extremes or any outstanding main subject. The photo has a pleasing range of tone and color, and I want to see detail in each area – the sky, mountains, and the rice. As an unprocessed RAW file, it looks flat and dull.
Make use of the sliders in the ‘Basic’ panel on the right to begin making adjustments. For my image, I move the ‘Blacks’ slider to the left, darkening the black areas and take the ‘Contrast’ slider to the right up increase the contrast a little. Then move the ‘Shadows’ slider to the right a fraction to bring back detail in the dark areas that I may have lost while moving the previous two sliders. Lastly, I push the ‘Clarity’ slider to the right a bit.
It’s good practice to avoid moving any slider to its extremity because the image quality deteriorates. It’s better to use a combination of the various sliders to achieve the look you want and keep the quality.
The ‘Color Temp’ slider has also been moved towards the blue as the photo is a little too yellow.
I’ve made a Preset in Lightroom with these adjustments, using it on most of my photos, and then tweaking the sliders if need be.
Step 2: Open in Photoshop and Create Two Layer Copies
About 90% of the photos I post-process go through this step. I have an Action set up in Photoshop that is applied first-up on any photo I process. Make two layer copies and set the Blend Mode of the top layer photo to ‘Screen’ and the middle layer blend mode to ‘Soft Light’.
Creating two additional layers of your photos allows you to add extra punch to them. This extra punch happens by manipulating the top ‘Screen’ layer.
Step 3: Balance the Screen Layer
Adjust the ‘Opacity’ of the layer until the darkest area you want to retain detail in is looking good. In my photo, it is the forest on the mountain that’s in shadow. I adjusted my screen layer to 40%.
You can turn off the top to layers to see the changes you have made. The bottom layer is still as you imported it.
Now select the ‘Eraser’ tool and give it an Opacity setting of around 30%. Begin to gently erase the areas of your photo you want to darken. The sky is the area I worked on the most because I wanted to bring out more detail in the clouds.
Having the Opacity set at 30% allows you to be more precise in the way you manipulate your photo. I use a pen and tablet which is pressure sensitive and gives me more control than a mouse.
Turn off the other layers and temporarily bring the ‘Screen’ layer opacity back to 100%. Doing so makes it easier to see the changes you are making. Turn the layers back on and set the ‘Screen’ layer to the opacity level you chose.
Once you are happy, flatten the image.
Step 4: Remove Distractions
Use the clone tool or the ‘Patch’ tool to remove distractions from your photo. There’s not too much distracting in my photo, but even taking out the few bright elements enhances the photo. I have used the ‘Patch’ tool to fill in the small section of road that was visible, the electricity poles, a person and a water tower in the distance.
Step 5: Dodge and Burn to Refine
Zoom your photo to fill your monitor and take a good look at it. Are there still areas which are too dark or too bright? If so, use the ‘Dodge’ and ‘Burn’ tools to fix them. You also may need to use the ‘Burn’ tool on areas you used the ‘Patch’ tool to help them blend in better.
In my photo, I have set the ‘Burn’ tool to an Exposure value of 11% and chosen to work on the ‘Mid-tone’ Range. I have darkened the clouds more and also some of the rice. The clouds now look more natural. The rice in the foreground is a little darker and helps draw your eye into the photo. I have used the ‘Dodge’ tool also on 11% Exposure, to lighten the palm tree.
Step 6: Crop If You Need To
Take a look at your photo and consider whether cropping it somehow would make it a stronger image. Try it and see if you are not sure. Make a copy to crop and compare with your original. Alternatively, crop it and then use Ctrl+z (cmd+z on Mac) to see the comparison.
Step 7: Save a TIFF File and a JPG File
Saving two files gives you one of full quality and one you can use on the internet. I have a lot of different Photoshop ‘Actions’ set up to resize and save my photos depending on their usage.
Not Every Image is Created Equal
Apply these steps with a good dose of flexibility and creativity. Experiment with them to discover alternative ways you can make your photos look.
Based on these, I have alternative steps I apply to some photos to achieve a certain look. As you work your way through these steps, remember the scene you photographed to keep your photos looking as natural as possible.
If you have any other helpful tips, please put them in the comments below.