Some of the best advice I’ve taken to improve my photography was to ask another photographer to critique my portfolio and give me his honest opinions. Last fall, I asked Darryl, one of the senior managers in my firm whom I know to be an accomplished photographer, to review my website. He took my request seriously and spent several hours going through my images, and the comments he provided were brutally honest but also constructive and very helpful in showing me what I needed to do to improve my work.
In the days of film, landscape photographers had to develop two skill sets: the ability to frame and capture a compelling image with the camera and the technique to develop and process the captured image in the darkroom to produce a print. With digital cameras, photographers still need two sets of skills, but the digital darkroom with software tools like Lightroom and Photoshop have replaced the wet darkroom. (And digital has made both much easier as evidenced by the explosion of really good photography all over the Internet.) Darryl’s critique included many comments that addressed both aspects of photography.
On the camera side, the most frequent comment he gave was something to the effect of “wrong time of day” which translates to what is probably the fundamental law of landscape photography: “Capture interesting light.” Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do to improve those boring images in my portfolio other than replacing them with better images captured at the right time of day. That means getting out there for sunrise and sunset when the light is interesting.
As for post-processing, Darryl gave me some excellent suggestions to improve several photos, but he also downloaded and edited several images to illustrate his recommendations. And my eyes were opened! I was absolutely amazed at the difference in some of the images-some photos that I had thought were good looked positively bland when compared to the version that Darryl had edited. Suddenly I realized how very little I understood about developing my digital negatives to their full potential. So I spent a couple of months this winter learning more about post-processing techniques and how to achieve the best results from my software.
The revised photo above of the Sangre de Cristo range really opened my eyes to the power of post-processing. Although not the greatest photo ever, the peaks are so much sharper and clearer than in my original image.
I started by reading Jeff Schewe’s book “The Digital Negative” which explains the fundamentals of how digital cameras capture an image and the steps needed to transform the raw digital information into a photograph. This book was particularly useful for explaining in detail how to properly apply adjustments such as sharpening and noise reduction. If you are a photographer who is unsure of exactly what all of those sliders in Lightroom are doing, this book is for you! The book also explained when and how to apply local adjustments, such as dodging and burning, to an image to enhance the visual impact of the photo.
In addition to reading the book, I bought a video course on retouching in Lightroom from my online photography mentor, Serge Ramelli (<French accent> “A French photographer living in the beautiful city of Paris” </back to Texan> ). I initially learned how to retouch photos in Lightroom by watching Serge’s free Youtube tutorials. Serge has a very dramatic processing style which some may think is over the top, but his prints are sold in upscale galleries around the world so he certainly knows how to produce attractive images. Not everything Serge teaches in his retouching course is necessarily the best technique, and he lacks the technical understanding of Lightroom’s inner workings that Jeff Schewe explains in his book. But, Serge does know how to get the most drama from an image through dodging and burning, what he calls “complexing the light,” and he is truly a master. In the Lightroom course, he spends a lot of time explaining and demonstrating his dodge and burn techniques, and after watching I felt much more confident applying those techniques to my own images.
With Darryl’s examples and a new understanding of post-processing, I then started working on the images in my portfolio to see how they could be improved. Not all of the photos needed to be re-visited, but I think the ones I have re-processed are much stronger for the effort. Based on the examples I’ve shown here, do you agree? In some future posts, I’ll discuss some of the specific techniques that I have been using and show some examples of how those techniques improve the images.