In this article, I’m going to demystify photo processing. Then I will show you my easy and quick routine for processing photos, by introducing you to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, the reference for image processing.
Photography perfectly complements travel in the sense that it allows to capture the moments we want to remember forever. Personally, I would find it regretful if I didn’t have beautiful pictures to show my children to remind them of the incredible world tour they accomplished at a very young age.
Of course, to have beautiful images, it is important to invest in a good camera and learn how to use it. However, there is one element that is often overlooked when it comes to photography, but which will help you achieve the full potential of your camera. It’s post-processing, which has the power to transform a beautiful image into an exceptional image. Unfortunately, it is an activity too often underestimated among ordinary people.
That’s why, through this article, I want to plunge you into my photographic universe by telling you about Lightroom. And when you will realize how easy and accessible it is to obtain extraordinary photos thanks to this software, you will never want to live without it anymore.
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The basic concepts of photo processing
#nofilter hashtag, what does that mean?
We’ve all seen it, maybe we’ve all done it: take one photo of a gorgeous sunset with a smartphone, post it on Facebook with the #nofilter hashtag to look cool. This hashtag allows people to express the idea that their photo shows exactly what they see with their eyes, at the moment it was taken, without any editing, no processing, no effect… no filter whatsoever.
The original purpose of using #nofilter was simply to indicate that no particular Instagram filter was used. But its usage has been repeatedly applied in every way possible, and it eventually became absurd.
The problem is this: #nofilter means absolutely nothing in digital photography.
In fact, all the photos that come out of our cameras and smart phones go through a variety of transformations, processing and filtering operations. The parameters of these operations are predefined in the settings menus of our devices. And even the so-called “neutral” or “standard” settings are predefined by the manufacturers of our devices.
Among the possible settings are the best-known: white balance, dynamic range, shadows, highlights, contrast, color, saturation, temperature, sharpness, noise reduction, texture, not to mention the many color profiles (natural, vivid, black and white, sepia, etc…) provided by the manufacturers.
Some of these settings are built-in with the camera, others can be configured by the user. This is when you realize that your camera or smartphone acts like a small computer running a small program that processes the pictures captured by the lens.
Thus, two cameras from two different manufacturers capturing the same point of view at the same time will not render the same output.
The end result is never representative of the perception we have of the moment we pushed the trigger. But those who know how to use these settings to bring their audience to perceive the magic around the immortalized moment, have already succeeded in bringing their photography to the level of an artistic discipline… even if, in real life, photography can embellish reality in many ways. 😊
JPEG or RAW, what difference?
You’ve probably already seen the words RAW or JPEG. They refer to photographic file formats.
JPEG is the most popular because it has become the universal format for images that most of the world manipulates, shares or prints. It is compressed and therefore takes up less space. But for true photography enthusiasts, compression, which is one image processing operation among others, also means irreversible destruction of information. The image thus becomes more difficult to edit.
A Straight Out Of Camera JPEG file is therefore an image that has already been processed and compressed by the camera.
RAW, on the other hand, stands for what it is : raw, or unprocessed. The advantage of this format is that it stores all the information collected by the camera’s sensor. It allows the photographer to post-process the image himself on his computer, thus allowing him to adjust the settings of the photo in the comfort of his home. By the same token, he is more likely to recover a miss-shot due to, for example, a wrong exposure setting. And when he is satisfied with the processing, he can generate his own JPEG file by compressing it and eliminating the information he no longer needs.
Thus, you can consider RAW as the film negative and JPEG as the print. Not shooting in RAW would be like throwing away your negatives after you’ve developed them.
It is important to point out that the RAW format also has its flaws. The photo takes up more space, typically more than 30 MB per file, the difference with the size of a JPEG file reflects the information lost during compression. Moreover, there is nothing that can be achieved with a RAW file, so the photo has to be developed in order to obtain a JPEG file.
I personally record two copies of my photos – one in RAW and one in JPEG – because my camera allows it. When I sort my photos, I only keep the JPEGs that I find acceptable and the RAWs that I want to process. This greatly simplifies my photo selection process.
So usually, instead of letting my camera generate a 10 MB JPEG photo that I’m unlikely to be satisfied with, I have it generate a 30 MB RAW file, which I process, compress and resize to have a 2048px JPEG of just 1 MB that I can easily share.
Below are the RAW and JPEG files generated by my camera. As you can see, the image in RAW format looks blurry and this is quite normal! This image is comparable to a raw diamond. It needs to be processed in order to extract its true beauty.
And this is what this raw image will look like after processing.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for processing RAW files
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (commonly known as Lightroom) – not to be confused with its sibling Adobe Photoshop (or Photoshop) – is the most popular photo processing software for professional photographers.
Although they are both excellent software programs capable of converting RAW files, they each have their own strengths and possess a multitude of unique features and functionality.
In general, Photoshop is a tool that can perform very advanced editing. It can cover every imaginable photographic task. Because of this versatility, it has a steep learning curve.
On the other hand, Lightroom helps photographers make quick changes. Its interface is easy to use, intuitive, refined and efficient for handling, organizing and processing photos. With Lightroom, a wide array of filters and presets can be applied to hundreds/thousands of images simultaneously for optimal results in just a few clicks.
Another aspect that somewhat annoys me in photography is the idea of editing, which sounds “artificial” to my ears. I’m not a big fan of photo editing because I prefer my photos to look natural, so that they reflect reality as much as possible. And even though Lightroom allows photo editing, I hardly ever use it for this purpose. That’s why I prefer to talk about processing – or developing – rather than photo editing.
Available in a desktop version, or as an iPhone and tablet application, Lightroom fits the needs of most photographers. It has quickly established itself as the professional authority on photo editing and image processing.
The step by step workflow of my photo processing
During my world tour in 444 days, I took 152,000 pictures. Of these, I processed 25,000, an average of 56 per day. You will agree that without an efficient routine, I would never have been able to get through all my photos.
So I’m going to show you, step by step, the photo processing workflow that I personally use, which makes my job easy and fast.
A sunset to illustrate the procedure
We all know that one of the most magical moments of the day is the sunset. However, it is often difficult to capture the beauty of the moment using photography, as the high contrast of light in a sunset scene requires a perfect exposure management. Without it, you’ll burn bright areas and your foreground subjects will form dark silhouettes.
Before the digital era, to overcome this problem, photographers used neutral density gradient filters and other techniques to reduce the brightness of the sun and thus reduce the contrast between the sky and the earth.
Nowadays, if you are not a photography maniac, you will certainly prefer, like me, to photograph a sunset in RAW and take advantage of the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor to retrieve the dark areas of the image with Lightroom.
To illustrate my photo processing workflow, I’m going to use this emblematic photo of the Wonderlusters, which I managed to capture on a beautiful summer evening in 2015, in the heights of the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica in Marseille.
This image, which is nonetheless beautiful, is the RAW file without any processing applied. I will now show you how to make it exceptional! To do so, I will explain the different steps.
Crop and straighten an image
Cropping is a must in the photo workflow because it ensures the correct composition of the photo in many ways:
- By removing embarrassing areas from a photo;
- By zooming in on a picture to make a subject stand out;
- By straightening the image to line up the horizon.
As my camera has a fixed lens and is not adjustable, I cannot zoom in. But since my sensor is 24 megapixels, I can easily “zoom in” on my images by cropping fairly small without losing quality.
When cropping, I always align my horizon by straightening my image, as you can see on this scene.
Tone parameter control
You don’t need to be a lighting specialist or a professional photographer to get the perfect tone. In automatic mode, your camera will often do a great job in this regard. But sometimes, perhaps too often for my taste, the image will benefit from a little extra adjustment in Lightroom.
In the Lightroom Develop Module, under the Basic panel, you will find the sliders for six standard tone parameters: exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks. They can be adjusted between -100 and +100, their default value being 0.
These adjustment sliders are the ones you will use the most, as they will likely cover 75% of the adjustment that you will need to make on your images.
Here are their functions:
- Exposure: adds or subtracts light. It can correct an image that is too bright (overexposed) or too dark (underexposed).
- Contrast: regulates the difference in brightness between the lighter and darker parts, to give the image more depth or make it more dull.
- Highlights: softens the exposure of the brightest areas without affecting the entire image.
- Shadows: lightens or darkens the darkest areas. Eliminates unwanted details or makes details more visible.
- Blacks and Whites: sets the brightness above (or below) which pixels become overexposed (underexposed). Outside of these two boundaries, the colors start losing their detail..
Although there is an “Auto” button that automatically corrects these six tone parameters at the same time, I prefer to “automate” them to my liking in the following way:
- Exposure: I very rarely adjust the exposure because my camera already does an excellent job at this level.
- Contrast: I hardly ever or very rarely touch it. Only when I want to work on black and white photos, which is almost never.
- Highlights: 99% of the time, I decrease the value in the negative because I don’t like photos that are too contrasted. Usually I set the value between -90 and -60.
- Shadows: 99% of the time, I increase the value in the positive since I prefer seeing more details. Usually I set the value between +30 and +70.
- White and Black: I always adjust these two settings last, by letting Lightroom calibrate these sliders automatically. To do so, here’s my secret: hold down the SHIFT key and double-click on each of these two sliders.
The picture below illustrates how it is possible to dim lights and brighten shadows with Lightroom. Of course, this example is a bit extreme, but it is a good representation of the dynamic range that your camera can capture and the amount of information that a RAW file is capable of storing.
Adjusting the other basic settings
Also, under the Basic panel, you will find parameters to fine-tune the chromatic – i.e. color – management of your images: temperature, hue, clarity, vibrance and saturation.
I will not elaborate too much on these parameters, first of all in order to simplify the process, and also because too much color can destroy the natural rendering of the photo. Therefore, I will introduce you a little further down to the color profiles that have the power to make your life even easier.
Nevertheless, in my processing process, I always like to add a little dash of clarity, which gives my photos a little bit of depth and sharpness.
Adjusting the details
Since I’m a detail freak, I want my photos to be as sharp as possible and with as little noise as possible. But since I don’t like to waste my time on details, I have found the optimal settings that I apply to all my photos, without exception.
These adjustments are carried out in the “Detail” panel:
- Sharpening Amount: 70;
- Noise Reduction Luminance: 40;
- Leave the other sliders as they are by default.
Lens distortion and chromatic aberrations are common problems in photography. Fortunately, Lightroom can correct them for you.
As for the details, there’ s nothing for you to understand. Do as I do and always apply the same formula:
- Select the “Remove Chromatic Aberration” check box;
- Check the “Enable Profile Correction” box;
- Select the profile that applies to your camera and lens.
Here’s one aspect of Lightroom that might make your life easier and save you precious time, and that alone (to me) is a good enough reason to shoot your images in RAW format.
This is the Profile Browser tab, which contains color profiles emulating camera manufacturers’ film simulations, in addition to the profiles provided by Adobe.
Because you see, I’m a Fuji aficionado. Before the brand became a leader in digital cameras, it was known for its science of color – this is when the company used to supply photographic rolls of film.
As a result, Fuji’s color profiles are more nuanced and subtle than those of other manufacturers. Fuji’s “Film Simulation Modes” include Provia, Astia, Velvia, Classic Chrome (my favorite), PRO Neg STD, PRO Neg HI, as well as the fabulous black and white ACROS simulation.
The equivalent for Canon would be the “Picture Styles” named Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome
Nikon’s “Picture Control” profiles are Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape, Flat.
Sony delivers “Creative Style” with names such as Standard, Neutral, Clear, Deep.
Choosing one color profile over another can dramatically change the style of a photo. And at this game, Fuji’s crushing all their rivals. That’s one of the many reasons I chose Fuji.
Here are some more examples to illustrate that with color profiles, there is no limit to your creativity!
How to automate photo processing with Lightroom
Do you believe me if I tell you that it takes me less than 10 seconds to process each of my photos? Don’t be puzzled anymore. Just read on.
Lightroom is great for many reasons. One of them is to give you the ability to process your images in record time. This is made possible with presets, or predefined settings that allow you to change the look of your photos with just one click. Therefore, you can consider a preset as a shortcut to apply different settings at the same time.
Unlike color profiles, which completely remap the colors of your photos, a preset acts as a set of filters applied on top of the photo, each of these filters consisting of a different setting. The difference may be minimal to a newbie, but it can make a huge difference when it comes to performance in processing hundreds of images.
So I created a preset that I apply on all my photos and which consists in automating all the settings I just described. If you want to reproduce my preset, you just have to make the following settings from a photo that has not yet been processed:
- Highlights: -80
- Shadows: +50
- Whites: 0
- Blacks: 0
- Clarity: +15
- Sharpness amount: 70;
- Noise reduction luminance: 40;
- Remove chromatic aberration;
- Enable Profile Correction for your camera and lens;
- Select the Classic Chrome color profile if you have a Fuji camera.
Once you have made these adjustments, do not touch any other settings and create a preset with all these settings using the Ctrl + Shift + N shortcut. The new preset will appear in your custom preset list in the Presets panel.
Now that your preset is created, all you have to do is use it.
Personally, in order to save time, I automate my photo processing routine as much as possible. Instead of editing my images one by one, I process them in bulk.
In the Library module, after importing the photos you want to process, select all of them and then choose your favorite preset in the Quick Develop panel. By doing so, the software will apply your preset to all the photos with a single click.
The final adjustment
Unfortunately, although it is possible to automate photo processing to a certain point, there is however no magic formula. Some manual operations remain mandatory and you must do them individually on each photo.
But fortunately, it usually takes me less than 10 seconds per frame as there are only three adjustments left to make.
The first adjustment to be made is cropping. Unless you have an eagle eye and the reflexes of a ping pong player, more often than not, your photo will be poorly framed. This is especially true if you don’t exclusively shoot landscapes with a tripod.
You may have noticed that in my preset, I have set the white and black to 0. This is due to the fact that the lighting conditions change with each shot. These two parameters will therefore also change. As I previously mentioned, I always adjust the white and black sliders last. To let Lightroom calibrate them automatically, hold down the SHIFT key and double-click on each of the two sliders.
And that’s my photo processing workflow!
My photo processing workflow at a glance
In short, here are the operations I perform to process my photos:
- Import of photos to be processed in RAW format into Lightroom;
- Batch process with my favorite preset;
- For each photo: crop/align, auto-adjust white and black;
- Export of photos in JPEG format.
In the end, it takes me more time to decide which photos I want to process. Once I have selected my photos, I only need 15 minutes to process 100 photos, from the beginning of the import to the end of the export.
The weaknesses of my workflow
To save time, nothing beats automation. However, this process is not without flaws. You may notice that my preset won’t look good on all the pictures. That’ s normal because this preset fits my habits and my photography style.
90% of the time, I shoot during the day, which means strong natural outdoors light. On the other hand, for night, sunset or indoor photos, this preset is not always appropriate. In other lighting circumstances, in order to make the scene look more natural, I might prefer to reduce shadows, add more clarity and vibrance or even change the color profile if I find the Classic Chrome too dull.
In addition, my settings may not be suitable for you, which is quite understandable. In the end, it is up to you to adjust the sliders so that the rendering comes as close as possible to reality, according to your perception, or to your taste. Preferences are by definition subjective.
I therefore suggest that you adapt your presets to your own style according to the lighting conditions and by using different color profiles.
One thing you should know is that you won’t need many presets because you’ll probably reuse the same ones quite often. Knowing how to create a preset and saving it means that you have it handy when you need it. And in just a few clicks, your images will be ready to be shared or printed.
How to buy Lightroom?
Lightroom is available in 2 versions:
Lightroom CC, which is in a cloud environment, offers multiple ways to view and work with your photos, including on your computers, mobile phones and tablets, on the web and on Apple TV. This version costs US$ 9.99 per month, with 1TB of online storage space.
Lightroom Classic CC is the software to be installed on your computer. It also costs US$ 9.99 per month. However, the offer includes Adobe Photoshop but only 20 GB of online storage space. The storage is on your computer anyway.
Equip yourself with a Fuji camera
If there’s one thing that helps me maintain my passion for photography, it’s the fact that I own a Fujifilm camera.
For many years, I have been using Fuji’s X100 camera series, first of all with the Fuji X100T (3rd generation) and now the Fuji X100F (4th generation). The Fuji X100V (5th generation) came out in 2020 and there’s no indication that I won’t be buying it in the near future. My X100F is the ideal camera for my travels.
Unlike the Sony, Olympus, Canon and Nikon cameras I’ve previously owned, I never get tired of shooting with my Fuji. Because the X100 series was designed to be fun to handle. In addition to the stunning colors that Fuji provides, the series offers perfect ergonomics and incredible image quality while remaining compact.
It is true that its fixed 35mm equivalent lens limits somewhat the possibilities of shooting. With the Fujinon WCL lens which opens at 28mm, it becomes more versatile in almost all conditions.
If having a fixed lens is an issue for you, I would recommend the Fuji X-Pro2 which is the equivalent of the Fuji X100F but with interchangeable lens. The newer Fuji X-Pro3 is the counterpart of the newer Fuji X100V.
Lightroom is the ultimate processing software. It’s easy to see why most photographers, professional and amateur alike, have adopted it. It is more than enough to meet the basic needs of many photographers.
If like me you are seeking to obtain exceptional photos of your travels, don’t wait any longer and start getting familiar with Lightroom. Your photos will no longer be just pretty, they will become absolutely gorgeous!