4 Essential post-processing tips for your landscape photos
Love it or hate it, post-processing is a big part of digital photography nowadays and you can’t deny it. I know there's a lot of debate on the inter web about the right and wrong of post-processing, but we can all agree that the right set of post-processing skills and taste can really do miracles to your photos. Though this is no excuse to photograph your subjects in shitty light and say: “I’ll just fix it later in Photoshop”. As some photographers would say: “You can’t polish a turd” and this is an absolute truth. Also, being on location during good light is half the fun of landscape photography. The way I see it is that post-processing allows you to enhance and make your images pop (as RAW files are usually flat) as much as you want and to add that personal touch/style to it. The other important thing about post-processing is also ethic and honesty (I know…big words, right?!). That means if you replace the sky of your flat and gray mid-day shot at the Wanaka tree with an exploding fiery sunset sky taken over the Dolomites 2 years before, don’t caption it as “the best sunset I’ve ever witnessed in NZ”. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense, right?! The same goes if you clone in a random mountain into a foggy shot at Lago Antorno and sell it for your workshops to that location. That, instead, is just disgusting (not the cloning part, the commercial part). All I’m saying is: be honest to yourself and to others when it comes down to post-processing and say: “Hey, here’s a composite from the Wanaka tree, unfortunately when I was there I wasn’t blessed with the weather and couldn’t get the shot I had in mind, so I had to get creative” or “I have to revisit Lago Antorno and take other images if I want to sell a workshop there”. There’s no shame in saying so. Just to wrap up this rant/digression/lecture, I am not against compositing, I am super-dooperly fine with them as long as you don’t try to pass them as real. I do a fair amount of digital manipulation myself, like warping, blending, RAW torturing and it never crossed my mind to say that my photos are 100% real or straight out of camera. I don’t replace skies, I don’t add mountains, sticks, boulders, unicorns, rainbows or inverted Milky Ways, but if I’ll do this in the future, rest assure you’ll be the first to know. To prove my sincerity, here's a before and after of one my images and yes, I usually go heavy with post-processing to achieve my images. Since this is out of the way, let’s get back to the tips, shall we?
Post-processing isn’t an exact science and that means there isn’t a correct workflow or combination of sliders that you must follow like a dogma to get the best result possible. In order to really comprehend post-processing, you need to study what each sliders/effects and how, when and where to use it locally or globally on your images to complete your personal final result (easier said than done). It’s a slow process that requires tiny local changes one-by-one to ultimately achieve your vision; there are no magic sliders. While most effects in post-processing can be achieved in more than one way (since it isn’t an exact science), there are few essential tips that you should always check or do to almost every landscape image. These tips are vital to step up your photography game from beginner to advanced.
1-Get your horizon straight:
I think a wonky horizon is a classic and recurring beginners mistake. Getting your horizon straight starts from the field. Most cameras now can display a virtual horizon when in Live View Mode and this can greatly help you to adjust your shot. Whenever I find a composition that I like, I set up my camera on the tripod and turn on the Live View Mode to lock the composition. Once that’s done I switch on the virtual horizon to see if my camera is correctly aligned. I usually need a bit of tweaking to the left or right to get the green bar that tells me that the horizon is indeed straight. If your camera doesn’t have a virtual horizon mode you can always refer to the spirit level on your tripod or mount a spirit level on your camera’s hot shoe (they are usually pretty cheap).
I am personally really annoyed by slanted horizons and I always double check them on the computer. Since I sometimes warp my images, it can happen that the straight horizon I originally had isn’t straight anymore (although I am usually cautious with the warp tool). To check if your horizon is straight after warping you can either visualise the grid in PS (View>Show>Grid) to see if the horizon is aligned with the horizontal lines. If you're not happy with the default Photoshop grid, just go to Photoshop>Preferences>Guides, Grid & Slices and then customise your grid. Another way to check the horizon in Photoshop is by dragging the horizontal ruler guide close to your horizon, just click and hold the ruler at the edge of the image and then drag the guide line close to your horizon to check.
For Lightroom user, the best way to check if the horizon is straight is to select the Crop Overlay mode. A grid will appear as you click on this mode, which is already very helpful. If you really want to be sure, click on the spirit level tool. Position the cursor at one end of the horizon and click and hold the first end point. Drag a line along your horizon and place the second end point. Make sure the virtual white line is aligned with your horizon. Once you release, Lightroom will automatically check and rotate the image so that the virtual white line (hence your horizon) is perfectly horizontal. In the picture on the right, Lightroom rotated my image of +0.11 to straight my slightly wonky horizon. If you want to adjust the angle a bit more, you can also use the Angle slider to correct the horizon. Always use the grid lines to help you straighten the horizon.
2-Clean the dust spots:
Dust spots on your sensor are another very annoying thing. Especially landscape and nature photographers have always to deal with these tiny buggers as we usually change our lenses outdoors at the mercy of the natural elements. Even if you are the quickest and most careful person to swap lenses (I am not), dust will inevitably accumulate on your sensor. In the end, we all know that dust is everywhere and everywhere is dust, right?! While it is important to keep your sensor as clean as possible, there will be times (very often) where you just can’t clean it on the spot. Dust spots appear on your pictures as grayish/black specks and they are especially visible with narrow aperture (i.e.f/11-f/22). Sometimes these spots are not even visible when you are viewing your pictures on a laptop, but sure as hell they’ll pop up if you zoom in a bit (see pictures below) or when you print the image in a large format. And believe me when I say that there’s nothing more annoying than finding out that your perfectly printed picture cannot be sent to the customer because there are 2/3 very freaking visible dust spots. For these reasons, one of the first thing I check during my workflow is dust spots.
You can check and remove these specks using both Lightroom and Photoshop, although in this case I prefer Lightroom. The quickest way to get rid of the dust spots in Photoshop is to copy your layer (Cmd+J) or merge the visible layers (Cmd+Shift+E) and zoom into your picture. Get the Lasso tool and draw a selection circling one of those tiny little buggers (it doesn’t have to be a perfect selection). Once selected (the marching ants will appear), right-click with the trackpad/mouse and select Fill. In the pop-up window select Content-aware and click ok or press Enter. Et voilà!!! Photoshop will clone the speck out in a seamless way and the bugger is gone. Repeat these steps for every dust spot you see.
Sometimes is quite hard to spot these specks especially if you have some texture in the sky such as glowing or stormy clouds. Lightroom has an additional feature that makes it easier to find hard-to-see dust spots. That’s why I prefer to use Lightroom to get rid of all dust spots before moving onto Photoshop. In Lightroom, click on the Dust Spots Removal tool and tick the Visualise Spots option in the bottom bar. This will transform your image in a super-contrasty black and white version where all the edges are highlighted in white. Zoom in to 1:4 or 1:3 and start scouting for those tiny bastards. This Lightroom feature allows to clearly see all the dust spots in your image even the very faint ones that’s easy to miss. Whenever you find a speck, adjust the size of your cursor to include the speck and click to clone it out. Remember to set the feather to 100 and to select the heal option for a seamlessly removal. Once you have gotten rid of all your dust specks just press Done and keep editing. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
3-Correct lens profile and chromatic aberrations:
Correcting the lens profile and the chromatic aberrations are essential steps for any photos, not only landscape photos. Every lens, even the 15’000 USD ones, suffers from distortion; of course, some lenses are more subjected to distortion (i.e. ultra-wide and wide angle lenses), while some are less affected (i.e. mid-range and tele-photo lenses). While it used to be very difficult and time-consuming to properly correct every shot from lens distortion, it is now as simple as ever. Both Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw have an option in the Lens Correction Panel, where you just have to tick the Correct Lens Profile box. Once you tick that box, the software will automatically detect which type of lens you have used and will apply a correction algorithm specifically for your lens and for that focal length. Amazing, right?! I highly recommend ticking this box EVERY TIME. It is especially recommended for ultra-wide angle shots as this feature will also automatically correct the corners fallout of the wide angle, getting rid of that horrible native vignette in the corners (as you can see from the picture below). Occasionally though, there will be times where ticking the box isn’t enough and a bit of warping will be needed to correct slanted lines into straight lines, especially with ultra-wide angle lenses. But these are very rare cases.
Getting rid of chromatic aberrations is as important as correcting the lens profile. Chromatic aberrations are a phenomenon that affects high contrasty areas and especially hard edges, which will appear as magenta/green edges instead of their natural colour. The amount of aberrations depends from the lighting conditions and from the quality of your lens, but don’t despair yet as it’s very easy to correct them. All you have to do is to tick the box named Chromatic Aberrations in the Lens Correction Panel, which usually sits above the Correct Lens Profile box. And that’s it. Aberrations gone. In very very few cases, this box might fail to get rid of certain magenta/green edges especially in super contrasty situations. For this reason, I always recommend ticking the Chromatic Aberrations box while zoomed in to really assess that Lightroom has done its job properly. If you still notice some aberrations after ticking the box, just select the Manual module in the Lens Correction Panel and with the eyedropper click on the magenta/green aberration. This helps Lightroom to find the faulty edge and to correct it.
I’m sure most of you associate sharpening with the end of the workflow and that would be absolutely correct as it is always useful to sharpen your pictures at the end for different purposes such as web sharpening or print sharpening. So what the hell is capture sharpening?! Well, capture sharpening is a general sharpening process applied directly to your unedited RAW files before your workflow and it’s usually done in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. I always inject some capture sharpening in my RAW files in Lightroom before switching to Photoshop for the real editing. Capture sharpening allows your images to retain a good degree of sharpness and noise throughout your entire workflow and it also corrects any colour artefacts (green/magenta banding) which might be present in the straight out of the camera RAW files. All you have to do to apply some capture sharpening is to zoom into your image at 100% and then focus your attention on the Details Panel in Lightroom. Before jump into this technical mumbo-jumbo, I’d like to point out that sharpening in general is only an “optical illusion”: your photo isn’t actually getting sharper, but you are just injecting some sort of Lightroom/Photoshop filter which gives you the illusion of increased sharpness. Basically, your photo looks sharper, but it isn’t. But let’s get back to the Details Panel in Lightroom.
The first group of sliders are the Sharpening sliders. Depending on the image, I usually add between +30 and +50 for the sharpening slider, which is the real sharpening filter in this group. This amount makes the image look sharper without introducing unwanted artefacts nor too much grain. I then slide the Radius slider to the minimum (0.5). This slider controls the pixel radius of the sharpening filter, which in real words means that it lets you decide the dimension of the pixels injected during the sharpening process and, of course, the finer the pixels the better the illusion of sharpening. Hence, I slide the Radius all the way to the left to set the sharpening filter to the finest pixel radius possible. Moving downward, I set the Details slider to around +50, which helps you retaining some finer details in your image. +50 is a good compromise as too much of this slider can actually inject some artefacts and unwanted smudginess. When you finish to play around with these 3 first sliders, you might have noticed that your image has gotten grainier than before and this is completely normal as the sharpening process naturally introduces noise into your image. This is why the last slider (Masking) of this group is probably the most important one. This Masking slider allows you to apply your capture sharpening settings selectively in the image. If you leave this slider to 0, it means that capture sharpening will affect every single pixel of your image, but if you start sliding it to the right, Lightroom will apply a selective mask to affect only the edges of the elements present in your pictures. For example, Lightroom will immediately mask out part of the sky and it will only focus on the edges of the clouds (if present of course). To see this mask, you just need to hold the Alt key while sliding the Masking slider. Your image will turn into a black and white preview, which will get more selective as you slide the slider to the right. Of course, the white parts will be affected by the sharpening process, while the black parts won’t be affected. Since the whole sharpening filter is an “optical illusion”, it is usually good practice to apply capture sharpening selectively to the edges of your main elements and this really depends on the picture you are processing. If you really want a number also for this slider, I usually slide the Masking slider between +15 to +50, but this greatly varies from image to image.
The second group of sliders is the Noise Reduction sliders. In here, I only touch the Luminance slider, which helps to get rid of additional noise caused by the sharpening filter. This slider is a great tool, but you must use it carefully as too much Luminance can really add a lot of smudginess to your photos. I usually increase the Luminance slider between +7 and +10 and I don’t go over +10 to avoid the aforementioned smudginess, which results in loss of resolution and sharpness itself. I don’t really play around with the Details and the Contrast sliders in this group.
The third group of sliders is the Colour Correction sliders. The most important slider here is the Colour slider, which corrects colour aberrations and artefacts. Even if you don’t have any visible colour artefacts in your RAW file, just slide this sliders to +100 and Lightroom will get rid of any unwanted and hardly visible colour anomalies. I have never had the chance to understand the other sliders in this group; therefore, I don’t touch them as well.