Everyone starts here. At one point in time, we were all in the “Straight Out Of the Camera” phase. Fascinated by the ability to capture a moment in time and share it with others, we go around snapping pictures of everything in sight.
This is perhaps the happiest phase. There is no barrier between shutter actuation and publication. No agonizing for hours or days (or weeks) in Photoshop. Just click and share.
When you look at the work of more accomplished photographers, you assume that if only you could stand exactly where they stood, you could have captured the same image. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.
Eventually though, you start to recognize the limitations of the camera’s sensor. The human eye can perceive far more dynamic range than a camera’s sensor.
When we look at a scene, we have the luxury of being able to look at different parts of a scene at different times. In fact, we have to, but this is a good thing. It allows our eyes to adjust to the brightness levels of the part of the scene we’re looking at.
When you look into the bright sky, your eyes adjust so you can see detail in the clouds. When you turn to look into a shadow, your eyes then adjust to see into the darkness. A camera does not have this luxury.
When a camera looks at a scene, it must take in the whole scene at once. That means it must try and look into the bright sky and deep shadows without making any adjustments. This results in one of two things. Either lost shadows or blown highlights (or both if the scene is that extreme).
Or, at the other end of the spectrum, your eyes will perceive far more contrast and detail than actually exists in the scene. Either way, what the camera sensor can see is less impressive than what our eyes can see. This becomes the impetus to move into Phase II.
Phase II begins the moment we import an image into a photo editor. There is a lot of power in Lightroom’s sliders. Significant improvement can be had simply by dropping the highlights and raising the shadows. It’s a great first step in getting an image closer to what we saw when we took the picture.
It can take years to learn what all of the sliders in Lightroom do. Eventually though, you’ll reach the limits of what they can do. It’s at this point that most will turn to plugins like Nik or Topaz. This will at first feel like progress. It is unarguably true that Nik can do things that Lightroom simply can not. But, even with the infinite combinations that are possible between Lightroom and Nik, there’s still only so much you can do. That’s because sliders can only make global edits.
A global edit is one that affects the entire image. When you drag the exposure slider to the right, you make the entire image brighter. When you shift the contrast slider, you change the contrast of the entire image. When you manipulate a slider in one of Nik’s many filters, you’re making changes to the entire image.
Even the nonlinear sliders are global. The shadows and highlights sliders are nonlinear in that they do not affect every pixel by the same amount. But, when you adjust the shadows slider, all shadows across the entire image are affected. What if you want to make one shadow darker than another? What you’ll come to realize is that there isn’t a slider on the planet that can make the changes you’re trying to make. That’s when you’ll grudgingly make the trek into Phase III.
Phase III begins when you are no longer satisfied with what is possible by dragging sliders around endlessly. It begins when you start to really see what needs to happen to an image to convey what you are trying to express. This expression goes beyond sliders. It requires local edits.
Local edits are, as the name implies, when you change only part of an image. For example, darkening the sky or highlighting part of a mountain range.
You have to start looking at your images more analytically. When you’re thinking about what is it you want your images to say, what you’re really thinking about is: what is it you want your viewer to see and think when they look at your work? To answer this question, you have to know how a viewer perceives your work. You have to dive into the mind of your audience and figure out how to direct their thoughts.
While everyone thinks differently and you’ll never be able to express the same message to everyone, there are a few generalities we can use to get the message across to most people. First, the human eye is drawn to highlights. When your viewer first looks at your image, their eye will naturally go to the brightest area(s) first. It will then hunt around the image for other bright areas before finally exploring the shadows. The same is true for contrast. The brighter and more contrastive an area of your image is, the more attention it will get from your viewer. The darker and flatter areas will be looked at later and less, if at all.
How do you take advantage of this? Simple: if there’s something you want your viewer to see, make it brighter and more contrasty than everything else. If there’s something you want to hide, make it darker and flatten out the tonality.