Using a Flat Picture Style for Better Finished Images

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During my career in photography, I’ve continued to evolve, both my shooting and editing styles, to achieve the results I wanted. Several years ago, while working with film editors on a cinema project, I came across a concept that I decided to apply to my own photography, and I have to say, it has improved my final images a great deal. Let me explain about using flat picture styles.

Finished-Image

When Hollywood studios film a movie using a digital cinema camera, many times the camera will be set to record what is known as Log Gamma. This is similar to the picture styles that we DSLR and camera users have come to know and love. But while picture styles or picture controls are for the most part intended to provide a finished look, Log Gamma does just the opposite. A video file shot using Log Gamma will be very flat, with little contrast and color saturation. The purpose of shooting video this way, is so that it retains as much information as possible about the range of tones in the image, so the colorists who work on the video later can bring out that detail, and create a visual look to the film. This process is called color grading.

As I began to understand what the colorists were doing, I adjusted my workflow to allow me to take advantage of the same concepts. I find that by using a flat, low contrast, low saturation picture style, when I process the RAW file I can bring out better detail and contrast, and avoid clipping in the highlights and shadows.

Choosing a Flat Picture Style

Before Image With Histogram

A flat or neutral picture style will give you an image with the least contrast, maintaining better highlight and shadow detail. This allows you to bring out those details in processing. The histogram on your camera, and later in Photoshop or Lightroom, allows you to see where your highlight and shadow tones fall, to avoid clipping.

I had been shooting RAW for some time, but have left the Picture Style set to Standard or Landscape, for the most part. Once I saw this technique, I decided to change my picture style on my camera to Neutral (for Canon cameras) or Flat (on newer Nikons).

Canon Picture Style

Canon Picture Style

The reason is that the histogram shown on the back of the camera, as well as the image preview, reflect the selected picture style. The result is that if the picture style selected is a more contrasty one, such as Landscape, the histogram will reflect that, and may indicate clipping of highlights or shadows, especially in a contrasty scene.

Clipped Histogram

This histogram shows clipped highlights, meaning detail is lost in the brightest areas of the image.

On my Nikon D810, I use the Flat picture control, because it is the best choice for capturing the full range of tones in the scene, and those tones are reflected on the histogram on the back of the camera when I review the shots. This is important because I need an accurate indication of where the highlights and shadows in a scene fall in my histogram.

Nikon 810 Flat Picture Control

Nikon 810 Flat Picture Control

Nikon picture control

Nikon picture control – if you do not have Flat, choose Neutral or Faithful

The histogram on your camera is a graphed indication of where the pixels in your image fall in relation to highlights and shadows. The left edge represents blacks, the mid-left represents shadows, the middle is midtones, the mid-right is highlights, and the far right is whites. While not all cameras have a Flat picture control or style, most have a Neutral or Faithful picture style or control, that works similarly. Also, most cameras give you the ability to edit the picture styles, so you can turn down the contrast if you like, ensuring that you capture more highlight and shadow detail, and reducing the chances of clipping highlights or shadows.

When you clip highlights, objects in the scene that are clipped will show as pure white with no detail. When shadows are clipped, objects in those areas will show as pure black in the scene, also with no detail. When viewing the histogram, if the squiggly lines that make up the graph are pushed up against either the left or the right side, that is called clipping. When that happens, you are losing detail in the shadows if it’s pushed against the left, and in the highlights if the graph is pushed against the right. By reducing the contrast in the picture style, you’ll reduce the chances of losing detail in the scene.

Shooting RAW, and knowing I’ll be making adjustments in post, it doesn’t really matter what picture style I use, because I can change that when processing the RAW file. But it’s essential to be able to see an accurate histogram on my camera, to ensure I’ve captured as much tonal range as possible.

Processing the RAW File

Image photographed using flat picture control

This image was shot using the Flat picture control, and then the highlight and shadow sliders in Adobe Camera RAW were adjusted to further reduce contrast.

Once I begin processing the RAW file, I’ll do even more, if necessary, to flatten the image and compress the range of tones within the histogram. This includes using the Highlights and Shadows sliders in Adobe Camera RAW to bring out details on both ends of the histogram.  You can watch the histogram change in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom as you do so, to be sure you don’t go too far. If the highlights begin to look muddy, you’ve gone too far. By the same token, if the shadows start to look washed out, that’s probably too far as well. You want to maintain detail in each, but not lose the depth of tone completely. It’s important to note that this adjustment will vary for different images, depending on where the highlights and shadows fall in the images.

In addition to adjusting the highlights, shadows, and contrast here, I will use the Dehaze slider, Lens Correction, and Spot Removal brush in Adobe Camera RAW. If you prefer, you can use the Vibrance, Saturation, and Adjustment Brush to complete the image in Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom, but my preference is to work in Photoshop. There I can use a Layers workflow along with masking and Adjustment Layers and with various plugins, to achieve my final image.

Building Up Color and Contrast

Using Adjustment Layers

Using Adjustment Layers in Photoshop, I built up the color saturation and contrast to achieve the final image.

Once I have the image at the desired level of flatness, I then go about building up color saturation and contrast, or in Hollywood terms, color grading my image. After bringing the image into Photoshop, there are a number of ways you can go about this. The first is to use adjustment layers so that you can continually adjust each layer as desired, until you flatten the image for your final output. In addition, if you’re making an adjustment that you only want to apply in certain areas, you can use layer masks to hide or reveal it as desired.

Many of these adjustments will be to personal taste. I personally prefer my images to have punchy color and contrast. So a set of adjustment layers I might use would be Vibrance, Exposure, Hue/Saturation, Curves, and Exposure.  The flexibility of using adjustment layers allows me to direct adjustments where I need them, rather than being forced to make them globally.

Image processed with Nik Color Efex Pro

This is the same image, but I used Nik Color Efex Pro to achieve the final image instead of adjustment layers.

If adjustment layers aren’t your thing, perhaps using a plugin such as Google’s Nik Efex Pro. It’s now available at no cost, and is a software package I highly recommend. I’ve created several presets in Color Efex Pro, and will also use Viveza and its control points to further adjust my image. For landscapes, in Color Efex I have created a preset using Brilliance/Warmth, Pro Contrast, Skylight Filter, Detail Extractor, and Vignette:Lens, that I find to be pleasing for a majority of my landscape images. Depending on the image, I will tweak these settings to meet my vision.

Summing Up

Before and After

On the left is the image with its tones flattened and desaturated, using a Flat picture control and adjusting highlights and shadows as needed. On the right is the image fully processed building contrast and color saturation.

By starting with a flattened file, you give yourself room in the range of tones to build contrast and saturation, without clipping highlights, shadows, or any of the color channels. While shooting with a more finished picture style may look more pleasing on the camera’s LCD screen, or upon import into Lightroom or Photoshop, the contrast has already been adjusted to give it a pleasing look. Any adjustments to Saturation or color may result in a file that at the very least looks overcooked, and at worst, shows evidence of clipping highlights, shadows, or color channels.

An image showing before and after color grading.

On the right is the image with the flat picture style, while the left has been “color graded” in Photoshop.

Building-contrast-2

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

  • Lyn Hungerford

    Great article… it comes at the right moment for me as I had been working in the same direction instinctively for about a month now, but this gives a logic to it. I am new to Color Efex Pro and wonder if you could indicate some introduction reading – one thing that I become frustrated with is timing – it takes a long time to open and process, but it opens new opportunities for creative photography so I have been experimenting some. Many thanks, Lyn

  • “Shooting RAW, and knowing I’ll be making adjustments in post, it doesn’t really matter what picture style I use, because I can change that when processing the RAW file.” No, because the picture style is only ever applied by the camera when it outputs a jpeg. If your camera is set to only save a raw image then the picture style is never used. Even if that picture style is recorded in the raw file, your raw processor won’t use the information. Nice article otherwise, and it’s a decision many of us made near the start of our photography career but one that’s not often passed on to newcomers.

    Oh, and you don’t have to shout about RAW files. They’re just raw files. Very few cameras use the .RAW filename extension these days, and in any case, it’s OK to use lower case in filename extensions.

  • Mike Schaffner

    I believe the key sentence is actually the one following the one you quoted. “But it’s essential to be able to see an accurate histogram on my camera, to ensure I’ve captured as much tonal range as possible.” Since you should adjust your camera settings based on the histogram rather than the JPEG in the LCD screen getting an accurate histogram is highly desirable.

    Although off topic, the RAW/raw debate is interesting. As RAW is not a file extension or an acronym so technically capitalization isn’t warranted. However it has been argued that it is warranted for clarity with a RAW image (a collection of device-specific and mostly proprietary formats) being different from a raw image (straight from the camera, not altered using image manipulation software). Many point and shoots don’t give you a RAW image but do give a raw image (a raw JPEG). Perhaps in the end this is a matter of little consequence

  • JvW

    If you use Canon’s Digital Photo Professional to process your .cr2 raw files, the picture style you used in camera is used as a starting point for the processing, so in principle the first sight of the image you get on your computer screen is the same as on your camera screen.
    The picture style is also used for the jpeg image that’s stored in the raw file. That’s what you view on your camera screen and as a quick view of the raw file in many external image viewers. That’s what’s interpreted for the on camera histogram.

  • Thanks Mike, you nailed it as far as the key sentence. The camera’s preview and histogram reflects the picture style, so you need to choose the picture style you want to start from in order to have an accurate representation of the tones.
    Agree with you on the RAW vs raw thing as well.

  • Hi Lyn, thanks! There are several good tutorials floating around YouTube, and on DPS I know there are at least a few articles on the Nik collection.

  • Thanks. I use Lightroom and that throws away everything except the raw image.

  • I agree about the histogram and I don’t know of any camera shooting raw that would base its histogram on anything but the raw information.

    As for the RAW/raw debate, it’s just that all this shouting is giving me a headache! 😉

  • JvW

    Again, the histogram is based on the jpeg thumbnail that’s embedded in the raw file. I do not know of any camera make that does not embed a converted (jpeg) image into the raw file. Maybe you do, I’d like to know. Most third party photo viewers grab the embedded jpeg image for the first view/film roll view/thumbnail view. That’s also why many people new to raw processing wonder why the raw photo thumbnail can look different from the image loaded into the editor to edit: external editors don’t use the picture style used to “edit” the thumbnail.
    The jpeg is based on the picture style you choose (all cameras use them, explicitly or implicitly) – contrast, saturation etc. all affect the histogram. That’s why using a picture style that does little more than converting the raw data to RGB jpeg, (or tiff for that matter) and not doing too much adjustment of contrast etc. gives the best possible histogram for judging the image.
    Having to compute the histogram from raw data every time you look at a photo on your screen would cost more computing power, battery power, and speed. The histogram is based on RGB, and the raw data isn’t RGB, it’s just a pile of voltages or so.

  • Perhaps we’re talking at cross purposes here. On reading this part of the article: “The reason is that the histogram shown on the back of the camera, as well as the image preview, reflect the selected picture style”, I realise that while I’ve been talking about the live histogram, you might be talking solely about the one that’s calculated from the preview image. Or did you mean both?

    The live histogram has to be taken from the live data, ie from the sensor. Perhaps the camera creates an RGB image but doesn’t save it. If it does, and bases that on the chosen picture style, then I’ve been misinformed.

    Perhaps you or Rick could clarify.

  • Both Canon and Nikon use the picture style in the Live View preview, so the preview will reflect the picture style selected, even before the image has been taken, so it will reflect the Jpeg output that is recorded. There is image processing going between the time the live view image is recorded at the sensor and the time it is projected on your screen. The picture style tells the camera how to render the color and contrast of the preview.

  • So in other words, the histogram reflects the colour and contrast after the picture style is applied. All the time I shot Canon (40D) and Nikon (D5100) I distrusted the on-screen histogram as I knew I could get a lot more leeway in post-processing than it seemed to suggest. I learned to use the preview picture simply to ensure that framing was OK, and even that was mostly useless when shooting street since, by the time you check the preview, the scene and the light have changed, the people have moved on, and so on.

    And now, with my Samsung NX-2000, I can check the live LCD image for framing and – under most light conditions – use Aperture Priority and exposure compensation to get the light right. Lightroom’s histogram is far more useful than the camera’s, in my opinion.

    In any case, my confusion notwithstanding, it’s a good article with a valid point.

  • Thanks Garry. Yes, you were able to get more leeway in post because, if you’re shooting raw, the pic style is simply a preview. I find most of the in camera styles are too contrasty and clip the highlights and shadows needlessly, and bias saturation towards blues. And the histogram with those styles reflects this. Choose the Flat or Neutral style, and for good measure you can even turn the contrast down an extra notch or two, and while the preview will look ugly, the histogram will accurately show you the spread of tones so you can ensure you have the leeway you expect.

  • Lyn Hungerford

    Thanks Rick

  • robert anderson

    I don’t really intend this to be a criticism but i am curious as to why you’d spend so much time post processing an image using multiple layers etc and present it publicly as a sample of your work, without taking time to level the horizon

  • Nissan Lev-Ran

    Very good article, no doubt color grading is a MUST in many photographic workflows.
    My question is what is, if there is real big difference between NEUTRAL and FAITHFULL styles?
    I am using Canon 1Dx MKII and keep using Faithfull as I did with my other cameras, shooting RAW & JPG but always run the ACR on each and every picture.

  • purchase ku

    thats rigtht

    thank
    you

    very
    much

  • Steve Walker

    This is an interesting topic, and I guess it’s a way I’ve been shooting for years, now, as I always shoot RAW (or raw, don’t mind 😉 ) and post-process. There’s one aspect that I’d like to highlight, and that is the importance of “shooting to the right”, as the first of your examples shows a histogram that’s somewhat what I would call underexposed.

    Now, I realise that in all the following, the limitations of the histogram, in being a representation of the jpeg and not of the raw file, apply. But the histogram is actually a good guide to getting the most out of a shot in raw.

    I believe that it’s important to get the histogram as far over to the right as possible without clipping anything. This is explained in http://www.lightstalking.com/why-shooting-to-the-right-gives-you-better-final-images/, but “Put very simply, the CCD or CMOS sensors found in digital cameras are more efficient at capturing the light at the brighter end of the exposure and less efficient at capturing the darker end and therefore by getting the exposure more to the highlight end, we are maximizing the use of the sensor.”

    When shooting to the right, post-processing will allow maximum retrieval of the relevant areas, light or shade, to give the best chance of a good image.

    And use the highlight flashing setting on your camera to understand where, if anywhere, your shot is overexposed. Then you can take a judgement as to whether you want any detail in that area, and retake the shot if need be.

  • According to Canon, the difference is a minor color adjustment being made. Neutral will attempt to adjust the color and contrast for a pleasing look, and faithful will attempt to replicate color and contrast as is. Visually, it’s questionable whether most people notice the difference.

  • Are you referring to the lead image? The horizon is straight. There are a series of sandbars that intersect the water and thus skew the way the horizon looks. There is a thin stretch of water at top left behind the last strip of land and from left to right, it is level.

  • Normally I’d agree but different imaging sensors handle this differently. For the Nikon D810, which I used above, I’ve found there is a a tremendous amount of recoverability in the shadow areas and I prefer to ensure the highlights remain within the range I want. When I was shooting a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, I found that it was more beneficial to expose to the right because Canon’s sensors are not as good at recovering shadow detail. In any case, It’s a bit of a nitpick, once you’ve avoided clipping the shadows or highlights in this case, as realistically, I maybe have 1/3 to 1/2 stop to move further to the right before clipping highlights, which I’m trying to avoid.

  • Luigi Trevisi

    Interesting article, thank you!
    What’s the camera calibration I should set in Lightroom in order to have a similar behaviour of the Nikon Flat picture control?

  • Vernon

    Thanks for the helpful article. Do you turn off active D-Lighting as well?

  • Philnick

    I’ve
    recently made an important discovery about metering modes on my cameras. After a decade or more of using Aperture Priority (“Av” on my Canons), and tweaking it with Exposure compensation when necessary, particularly when I re-frame a shot, I discovered the liberating effect of setting the metering mode to Manual.

    In Manual mode, I can set the exposure with the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so that my highlights are not blown out, and then shoot without worrying about the camera’s opinion of the proper exposure changing when I reframe. There’s no need to bother with “exposure lock” since, although the camera may *tell* me that it thinks the exposure is too high or too low (with its needle on the exposure scale), it won’t actually *do* anything about it.

    This is particularly intuitive on a camera that has Live View so I don’t have to rely on imagining what I’ll get from looking at the histogram. This is now how I run both my EOS 70D and my PowerShot G5 X – both of which I keep set to shoot RAW. On each of them, I’ve dedicated physical controls for the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. (The G5 X actually has Live View through its electronic viewfinder as well as its rear display screen.)

    Based on this article, I’ll add to my toolkit setting the picture style to Faithful or Neutral to make the Live View (and post shot) display as accurate as possible.

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