Autumn colour: A Lightroom workflow (part 1 of 2)

Autumn Colour
Autumn Colour

Bigger image here (opens in new browser window).

The source image is technically bad (but)… this image has something I really like going for it. It has a good central composition. A good way to see this in an image is to reduce the image to its basic tones.

The image above was taken with a Nokia N95 cell phone, and I used Adobe Lightroom extensively for image editing. In this post and the next, I will go through how I arrived at this final image.

In this first part, I don’t want to discuss the post production editing processes but will instead center on something often overlooked. I want to talk about what we are trying to achieve in terms of two very important issues; composition and ambiance.

Part 2 is available here (opens in a new window/tab).

Composition

One of the best features of digital photography over film is the ability to take literally hundreds of images quickly and at no cost, and then cherry pick the best one or two as a starting point. How do we know that one image is a better starting point over another?

Many people look at technical issues; focus, exposure, etc. Such analysis has its place, but I first consider non technical issues such as composition and ambiance because when you are in a digital workflow, this is the only issue that cannot be fixed in post: composition has to be on your mind when you take the shot.

It can, however, be difficult to see a good composition. See the image below. This is the original, unedited source image.

Unedited source (Nokia N95 camera phone)
Unedited source (Nokia N95 camera phone)

The source image is technically bad. The exposure is poor (sky blown out, figure’s face overexposed, figure’s clothes underexposed), the colours are off (blue/cyan colour cast across the image), contrast is low, and the image is not even straight!  Worse still, the image seems to lack any real warmth and has little obvious graphical intention or implied narrative… it all looks a bit random.

Although it is a little hidden, this image has something I really like going for it. It has a good central composition. A good way to see this in an image is to reduce the image to its basic tones. To do this in Lightroom, go to the Develop module and select one of the B&W Creative presets, typically High contrast.

Source image (high contrast)
Source image (high contrast)

Here, I’ve selected the high contrast preset, then increased the blacks. The image is now seen in terms of its underlying shapes and tones. From this image, I can see the following;

Composition is good, and actually works in a number of different ways;

  • Horizontal rule of thirds. The image is horizontally separated into three portions; left third (figure), middle third (wall) and right third (wood and second wall).
  • Perspective. The image has a well defined and strong perspective, with a vanishing point that is in the exact centre of the image.
  • Separation of distances. The foreground, middle distance and background are well defined.
  • The image reads well. The eye is drawn left to centre right.
Horizontal rule of thirds
Horizontal rule of thirds

Some of the technical failings of the original image are now beginning to look like advantages and/or open to quick fixes. In particular;

  • The fact that the figure’s face is overexposed and the clothes are underexposed will create a nice look for us in post production.
  • The overexposed sky is a good thing; we don’t actually need it! In particular, if you look at the final image you will perhaps believe that the picture was taken during a crisp early morning. It was actually taken on a warm afternoon. By removing the sky, we have been able to set the time of day.
  • Although we can see that the image reads in a left-right direction, something is not right. There is a lot of top-bottom deadspace and up-down lines (trees, centre wall) that are competing with the left-right scan. Although this is the biggest problem with the composition, the solution looks very easy. We simply have to crop top and bottom.  Compare the uncropped image above with the final image (first image in this post) to see what I have removed

Ambiance

The image shows my partner standing next to a road in Judy woods, Yorkshire, England. The road in question is very old (at least mid 18th Century) and was used to transport iron and coal that was excavated locally.  Although it is covered by leaves, the road is actually strewn with the original cobbles.

Why am I telling you this?

One of the best – and worst – features of digital post production is that your possibilities are almost limitless. It is easy to edit an image with many different procedures and end up with a technically good, but ultimately soulless final work. We need to filter our toolbox of procedures, and one of the best filters is to think about the sense of the original image itself; we want to extend the backstory rather than add something new. For me, the best post production occurs when the retoucher does not try to make an image look ‘better’ but tries to increase the ‘sense’ or ambiance of the image. You can usually describe the ambiance of an image in a couple of words. For this image, the words I see are ‘antiquity/old’ and ‘Englishness’.

I want to get a sense of antiquity and Englishness in my final image, but without resorting to ‘Victorian sepia photograph’ or ‘aged exposure’. My checklist of possible techniques and an overall route includes;

  • Reduced palette (but not split tone – too obvious), possibly hand colored with one key colour (red).
  • Very high or very low contrast (but not both).
  • Dark edges, significant amounts of repetition, and the feeling of ‘something amiss’ to give a distinct  ‘American Gothic’ feel.

Of course, the fact that I am simulating Britishness via American Gothic may be the ‘something amiss’ bit (!), but hopefully it is more the fact that In the final image, the treatment is my best non-clichéd attempt to make the figure look vaguely supernatural (she’s not touching the floor, her clothes and face have minimal texture and no color, etc).

Conclusion

Looking at the final image, I hope you can see

  • my broad-brush goals for editing the source image, arriving at the final work using a loose road map based on the initial image’s backstory.
  • how I have tried to avoid the cliché of ‘antique photo’ whilst at the same time expanding on the sense and backstory/tension of the original image by imagining a more interesting story of my own.

Most importantly, note that my post processing is driven by my imagined backstory rather than trying to make the image fit a certain style. It is always better to make up a story and follow the implied style of your story, rather than just lift a photographic style from someone else and apply it to your own image. The difference between the two is that the former gives your image an intent, whereas the latter is just copying.

In part 2, I will move on from the intent of the piece, and look at the detailed steps I took in Lightroom.

Sources

American Gothic: An anthology (free to read, Google books).

A history of Judy woods (from the Friends of Judy Woods website)