Getting Started With Post-Production

One of the hardest things about editing images is that there’s no obvious finish point – after spending hours zoomed into different areas of the image, pulling back to look at the whole once again may reveal that you’ve gone too far and the shot no longer looks realistic. To avoid this, rather than just sitting down to start editing, consider how you want the final shot to look, so you begin with the end in mind. Generally, the aim is to gently enhance each portrait, keeping it believable, rather than drawing attention to the postproduction stage by overdoing the manipulation.

To help you get a sense of the look and feel you want to achieve through postproduction, spend time looking at the work of others’, collecting together examples you like. This is easily done using social media platforms like Pinterest, which make finding and tagging inspirational photography easy. Then, start to consider how you can use editing software to head towards a similar end product for your own images. Look at online video tutorials, download some free software trials and invest in books that focus on technical postproduction skills.

These tips will help you get started:

– Screens display colour differently to printed images, so calibrate your monitor before you begin otherwise you may find the colour adjustments you’ve made look completely different once printed. Most Macs and PCs have free, in-built wizards that explain the colour calibration process step-by-step and there are free or low cost online options, too. For flawless calibration, however, you’ll need to invest in some specialist calibration hardware. These small devices plug into a USB port and attach to your screen, with pre-loaded software that takes you through the process.

– Where possible, ensure any makeup is flawlessly applied before shooting, to save hours of time trying to fix it later. Remove snot, sleep dust, drool on babies and any other marks before you begin, too.

– For best results, work on Raw files, as JPEGs are compressed when they are saved, losing quality and detail each time. Raw files contain all the image information, enabling you to make more decisions at the postproduction stage and retain maximum detail in extreme highlight and shadow areas.

– Get the exposure right in-camera: postproduction is easier and more convincing when the image colours and skin of your subject are light and bright before the file is edited, rather than dull and muddy.

– Apply different categories of adjustments on different layers, e.g. use one layer for smoothing the skin, another for editing the eyes. This means you can go back and tweak each layer individually, and adjust how it affects the image in combination with your other layers.

– Save Photoshop files as .PSD files to retain all the layer information, or TIFF files to compress the layers without losing quality and detail.

– Apply the ‘two week’ rule when editing out blemishes: if it wouldn’t be there in two weeks’ time, take it out. Leave permanent features such as moles as they are unless your subject specifically requests their removal, otherwise you risk causing offence.

– Use the golden ratio or rule of thirds overlays when cropping images to achieve the most visually pleasing compositions.

– Look into ‘actions’, which are a bunch of postproduction adjustments packaged together to give a shot a specific look and feel. Many are free, some have a small charge.

Software options

Adobe Photoshop is the most well-known editing software option, and is undoubtedly powerful. It is expensive, however, and doesn’t help you to manage your images; this is where Adobe Lightroom comes in. Lightroom enables you to tag, store and easily find thousands of photos, as well as make significant postproduction edits, including handling Raw files. Some professionals find that Lightroom meets all their postproduction needs; others switch into Photoshop for fine-tuning and more involved editing. Adobe currently offers free trials for both programmes, so it’s well worth experimenting before you make a decision.

It would be easy to believe Adobe products are your only option for postproduction, but there are alternatives. Top of the list is GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Programme), a free Mac- and PC-compatible programme which offers many of the same capabilities and features as Photoshop. There’s also Aperture, made by Apple specifically for Macs, and the free-of-charge, made by Microsoft for use with the Windows operating system.

You can also get automated postproduction software, in which you only need to click on different areas of the image to select where the subject’s features are. The software then adjusts the image towards pre-set ideals – smooth skin, white teeth, bright eyes, for example – giving you sliding bars to tweak the level of adjustment for each of the different fixes on offer. They are a quick and easy solution that can produce surprisingly good results, and many offer free trials. However, like using your camera on automatic mode, you’ll be giving away creative control of the editing process, limiting your options and producing what is essential someone else’s idea of what your portraits should look like.