The other day at Light and Land at The Mall I was asked by a member of the public, looking at my prints, whether my photos were processed. I told them that yes, all photos which originate from digital files need to be processed to make them look their best. This is true for almost every photo I've taken and certainly for all those that I'd print. The message I was trying to convey was that processed doesn't mean unnatural, despite photographers' ability to do that very easily in software if they wanted to. There are umpteen sources on the web showing post-processing methods and examples, so I won't bore you with technical details but I thought I'd show how two of the photos I've exhibited have been processed, for your interest. One is at the lowest end of the (my) processing spectrum and the other towards the higher end. First, the lower end:
As you can see, there were minimal changes made to this image, because it didn't need any. I wanted to preserve the delicate colours in the sky and hence my tonal changes were very slight - you can't 'pump up' the white/black/midtone balance without also exaggerating colours to some extent. So I made both tone and colour just a touch stronger. Some sharpness is added, as is almost always needed, although not much due to the very still conditions it was taken in. The main change to note is subtly bringing out the frost on the foreground rock by a local brightness increase - this was to help it become a more 3D element, rather than just a big black shape, and to mirror what I was actually seeing in real life at the time. You should note that it's unusual for an image to have this little editing - it's down to the particular photo and my choice of subject (i.e. a low-contrast one with silhouettes) rather than anything to do with the camera, lens, settings or software etc. Now onto a more typical example:
'Wild Mountain River', above, is more typical of how much processing I would do on a photo. The key differences before & after here are the colour balance, the contrast and the sky-land brightness balance. This shot was taken with a polariser, which helps make the moorland colours stronger and the water clearer - something impossible to simulate afterwards in software - although this may not be too obvious from the unprocessed file. As I always shoot in RAW, the very cold-looking image straight-out-of-camera is of no worry to me. It didn't look like that in real life, so a simple white balance adjustment later warms it up nicely by shifting it back to the yellow side and bringing the Scottish moorland back to life. The lighting on most of this scene looks fairly flat, and it was indeed cloudy overhead although it was quite a low sun angle at the time, which gives the grass a good inherent texture (as opposed to if the sun was directly overhead). It just needed the natural contrast bringing out with a combination of tone curve and white/black point balancing in Lightroom (or equivalent - your favourite software will probably achieve the same). This makes the light areas a bit lighter and the darks a bit darker, to remove the slightly hazy 'veil' that you often see in RAW images. You may not even realise how much tone and texture can be (subtly) revealed by a few simple adjustments if you often get images like the left one from your camera.
The final change is to darken the sky slightly to bring out the cloud texture. The sky was already actually darkened in the field by a 2-stop ND graduated filter over the lens but I added some more later using a simple graduated filter in Lightroom. This is easy to overdo but hopefully the image above respects the reality of the scene. The overall result is faithful to what I saw at the time - stronger and more impactful, with the right mood, but still real.
I hope this is a useful reference point for some people in terms of what it takes (or not!) to get from a good shot on the back of the camera to a print-ready image. It may take very little or quite a lot of mouse-clicking but the important thing is to develop your ability to see what needs changing and be able to judge what needs pushing more and when it has gone too far. Referencing against other photos you see is a really good way of doing this. I've heard it said that if you can't get a good image after 60 seconds of adjustment then the shot is just no good - I wouldn't quite go that far but I do agree that if it's not coming together after a few simple adjustments then it may be time to leave it to one side and reflect on whether the lighting and composition are as good as you first thought. It's a horrible realisation, when you were probably excited about how it would turn out back home, but we have all been there, trust me!
Happy snapping :)