Post Processing Software

"Everything has beauty, not everyone sees it."

One of the chief differences between film photography and digital photography is what goes on after the shutter button is pressed.

In film photography images are recorded in the emulsion layer on plastic film, which has to be developed before you can see if what youive shot is what you wanted to shoot.

In digital photography you can see the results of your efforts almost immediately; nearly every digital camera sold today has a screen which allows you to examine your shots, some cameras will even let you tweak those photos (but I wouldnit do that until you get them on a larger screen).

In both cases, however, thereis one thing that hasnit changed, thatis the ability of the photographer to see the potential images in photos he or she has taken.

No matter what you shoot or how good your equipment is, you will always need to tweak the images to make them the best they can be, and thatis where post processing software comes in.

What is post processing software? In general, it is any software that you use to manipulate a photo once youive downloaded it onto your computer. That definition covers a lot of software, from the apps camera makers include with their cameras that remove red-eye and make basic color adjustments to packages costing hundreds, even thousands of dollars that can manipulate each bit of the photographs data. Every application has one goal, to help you make the images youive taken better.

What done I mean by ibetteri? Well, better is subjective, what looks great coming out of the camera to one person may require a lot of work in the eyes of another. Post processing software will help you get the most out of your photos and is just as important to the digital photographer as the darkroom is to the film photographer.

In this installment of The Postulant Photographer, Iill take a look at several post processing applications, including Adobeis Photoshop Elements and The GIMP, the open source and very capable imaging app.

Weive got a lot of information to cover so letis get started.

Post Processing: Why We Need To
As I mention earlier, the photos that come out of your camera are likely not the photos that you intended to put in it. As good as many digital and film cameras are, they do not have the ability to capture images they way see them. Thatis because a camera is just a recorder: A collection of lenses, sensors, and processors that record light in an instance of time. Humans, however, see with our minds. The images that our eyes capture are immediately interpreted into something meaningful by our minds. We canit help it, it is extremely difficult for us to purposefully look at something (what the camera does) without seeing it (what our mind does with what we look at). So every image we record must be interpreted into something that our minds can understand and, hopefully, appreciate.

To accomplish this the film photographer turns to his darkroom, where he practices arcane magic, mixing mysterious chemical soups, performing strange rituals and dances, and fiddling with exotic machinery in an effort to produce a meaningful photograph.

Digital photographers have it somewhat easier, but no less mysterious. Through the magic of computers, we have at our disposal a seemingly endless list of tools we can use to do things to photos that no film photographer ever could. All we need to do is learn how to use these tools, which, unfortunately, is no easy task.

Iive divided the post processing applications Iill be talking about into three categories:

  • Light Weight - These tools can perform basic photo tweaking tasks like red-eye removal and minor color adjustments. They can also help with organizing and sharing your photos. These tools require little training and take hardly anytime to understand and use.
  • Medium Weight - These tools can do a lot more to your photos like allow refined exposure adjustment, basic photo blending, and the use of filters which can do all sorts of interesting things to you pictures. These tools can take a bit of effort to understand and use effectively, but they are designed so that newbies can get some real use out of the tools with little effort.
  • Heavy Weight - These tools are used by pros and can do darn near anything to a digital photo. These applications require the most training to understand and use properly. Some folks have based their entire careers on effectively using these high-end applications, and can command a fairly decent salary for their efforts. Be prepared to take some type of training if you intend to use these heavy hitters, and I can guaranty that what ever training you take wonit cover everything youill need to know.

The Light Weights
If you use a Mac you have one of the best light weight photo applications on the market: iPhoto. Apple has done a wonderful job in making iPhoto an easy to use tool. Plug a camera or memory card into your Mac and iPhoto downloads the images so you can organize and tweak them. iPhoto also has some basic adjustment tools such as cropping, red-eye removal, and color enhancing, which lets the casual photographer make his or her good photos look great.

iPhoto (photo Courtesy of Apple)

Windows user have Microsoftis Photo Story 3 which accomplishes the same tasks as iPhoto does on the Mac and adds a few extra features as well.

Both applications are a cinch to use and come free with the computer you buy. However, if you are not satisfied with either of these tools, other applications are available. For instance, Olympus gives buyers of its cameras a suite of tools that offer some impressive features: Olympus Master lets you download and organize your photos and includes some basic tweaking tools as well. Further, Olympus Master will help you make slide shows for CDs or DVDs, calendars, and backgrounds for your desktop. Other camera makers provide similar software as well.

Olympus Master

Iill also lump web-based applications, like those found on many photo print service sites, into this category. The tools these sites offers tend to be basic, but very useful in a pinch.

Windows users also have two other free applications that offer the budding photographer the basic tools he or she needs to tweak images, Googleis Picassa (Windows XP and Vista) and Adobeis Photoshop Album Starter Edition 3.0.

Picassa has been getting rave reviews because of its iPhoto-like ease of use and its integration with other Google apps.

Adobe Photoshop Album Starter Edition 3.0 offer similarly simple user experience and you canit argue the price; itis free.

Another application that you might consider is Snapfire Plus from Corel. This PC-only app can perform many advanced functions while holding your hand through the process. If you are using a consumer camera and have taken video clips, Snapfire Plus can help you with those as well. (Mac users know they have a comprehensive list of creative tools in iLife, Appleis multimedia tool suite, which come free with each new Mac or can be purchased for US$79.)

Snapfire Plus (and the iLife Suite) blurs the line between light and medium weight applications because they can do so much, however, since we are dealing strictly with photo post-processing, I will leave these tools firmly in the light-weight camp.

The Medium Weights
If you are taking more than the occasional snapshot then youill quickly outgrow the capabilities of the light weight photo apps. Adding interesting filter effects, combining photos to make a panorama, and many other advanced techniques will require advanced software and some time on your part to learn how to use the software effectively. Donit worry, these applications have been created with the consumer in mind; you wonit need to sacrifice farm animals to gain the necessary knowledge to become a whiz with the medium weight app, but you will want to "play" with these apps to learn the best techniques that work for you and produce the results you want.

Chief among the medium weight photo apps is Photoshop Elements (PE). Describing what is possible with PE could fill volumes, and in fact, it does; you can find all sorts of how-to books, instructional CDs, magazines, and web sites all dedicated to exposing the subtle secrets of this extremely capable application. Adobe also hosts tutorials, both within PE and on the Adobe website, and the user community is phenomenal. If you need to know how to do something you can be sure that someone some where had the same need and has the answer just waiting for you to ask.

The current version of PE is 5.0, Iim using 4.0. There are differences between the two versions, however, any technique that I reveal (discover) in this series should be doable regardless of which version of PE (4 or 5) you have.

If Photoshop Elements is the top dog in the medium weight category, then The GIMP is the cost leader, thatis because The GIMP is free.

THE GIMP is an Open Source application that performs many of the functions PE does, and does them very well, and it does it on a variety of platforms. The learning curve may be a bit longer with The GIMP as compared to PE, but you can get very good results with this application.

Mac users should be aware that The GIMP is not an Aqua native application, it runs in Darwin, OS Xis UNIX underbelly, and requires X11 for the user interface. Even so, the Open Source developers working on the Mac version have made starting The GIMP one-click easy. There is also a strong active community behind The GIMP.

One problem that I found with The GIMP, however, is that it is hard to find plug-ins, and some that I did find didnit work on my Mac version. Still, if you stick with the plug-ins that come with the packages youill likely find a lot to like about The GIMP.

Another application that I believe is essential for any Mac (only) photographers is Graphic Converter (GC), by Lemke Software. GC has all sorts to great functions that help to make your shots look great, but GCis trump card is its ability to read and save in just about any graphic file format. Think of it as a Swiss Army Knife for digital photos. I use GC in nearly all of my post-processing sessions, and I highly recommend you at least give it a look.

Graphic Converter

The Heavy Weights
The applications that occupy this category can be found on any professional photographeris computer, they require a large investment in time and money to make the best use of them, but once youive done the leg work youill be rewarded with a skill set that not only lets you produce remarkable photos, it is also marketable.

Again the champ in this category comes from Adobe; Photoshop is tops not just because people like it, but because it can do so much that whole college curriculums have been developed around this one application. It is nearly impossible to know every little facet of Photoshop and all of its plug-ins and add-ons, but that should not dissuade you from learning to use this tool if you are serious about becoming a pro photographer.

Adobe has released a whole suite of integrated tools that center on Photoshop including Lightroom - a workflow management tool. While these tools can be a large investment in time and money, the rewards can far outweigh the cost.

Apple touts its high-end photo management tool, Aperture, as being designed for the professional photographer, and a brief scan of the list of features and functions Aperture offers and youid have to agree.

Aperture (photo courtesy of Apple)

Aperture isnit a Photoshop competitor per se, the two applications actually compliment each other, providing features the other may lack or execute poorly. Where Photoshop directly manipulates the photo, Aperture lets you work with your photos more easily, allowing you to define a workflow that suits your needs.

It would be reasonable to say that pros who use Macs likely use both Photoshop and Aperture.

PC users have a few other choices in this category: Paint Shop Pro Photo XI from Corel (the makers of Wordperfect) is a well regarded post processing app. Its key point is its price; at US$79.99, it sells for a fraction of the cost of Photoshop and reviewers claim that it is nearly as capable.

Another PC only app is Picture Window from Digital Light & Color. There is a standard and pro version of Picture Window and from what I can tell, you probably be better off with the pro version, which support RAW images (These are photos taken by your camera that are not processed and turned into JPEGs. More on RAW in another article.) and includes a workflow system. The price is nice too, just US$89.95.

Again, I canit speak to how good this program is, but some of the reviews Iive seen rate it fairly high.

Other Applications
Youill also find a bevy of other specialized applications that perform a host of different, exclusive functions.

For instance, there are many photo management applications available such as Portfolio 8 from Extensis, and Bibble. I guess Appleis Aperture falls in with this group as well since they all accomplish the same tasks more or less. Each of these tools are available for both Macs and Windows, except for Aperture, which is Mac only, and they help you manage your photos via a workflow.

One interesting feature about Bibble is its ability to tweak RAW photo files. Photoshop and other apps can work with RAW files, but Bibble integrates RAW into its workflow, thus making RAW easier to work with. As mentioned earlier, Iim going to talk more about RAW files in another article, Iim also going to look at Bibble in-depth, so watch for it.

Art Studio Pro lets you play with your photos in interesting ways; you can make them look as they were painted in watercolors, oils, pastels or pens. Think of ArtStudio Pro as another way to add interest to photos.

There are also plug-ins; Photoshop and other applications use these specialized bits of code to enhance the feature set. On the Mac, one of the best sources of Photoshop plug-ins is Alien Skin, theyive got plug-ins that do just about everything.

A Word About Workflows
Iive mention work flows before, but I thought Iid worry the subject a bit more before closing this installment.

Establishing a good work flow can make the chore of post-processing your photos MUCH more enjoyable, youill be able to work quicker, and get a lot more done, and the quality of your work might also improve. The quality of your pix will definitely get more consistent when you start using a defined work flow.

So, whatis a good work flow?

That depends on a lot of things, primarily the tools you use and your preference in how you use them.

For instance, if you shoot JPEGS you might minimize the the color correction, preferring to crop your photos first.

I shoot primarily in RAW format (Thereis that word again. I promise to talk about RAW in my next article), and I use Photoshop Elements version 4.0. My work flow looks like this:

  1. Download using Olympus Master (instead of iPhoto)
  2. Browse and select my photos using Adobe Bridge (part of the Photoshop Elements package)
  3. Make any initial adjustments to color, exposure, contrast, brightness and other settings
  4. Open photo in Photoshop Elements
  5. Convert to 8 bit color (RAW is in 16 bit color)
  6. Crop
  7. Straighten (if necessary)
  8. Tweak color, contrast brightness, etc
  9. Remove artifacts (anything I donit want in the photo)
  10. Convert to black and white, if thatis what I want
  11. Save copy as JPEG (This leaves the RAW in the original file untouched)

My workflow is subject to change. Iim still working out the kinks, but you should decide on a workflow of your own and stick with it. It doesnit have to be anything formal just so long as you define it and use it. Your post processing chores will go a lot faster once you do.

OK thatis it for now. In my next installment Iill be talking about accessories; what you really do need and what you can do without.

Until next time, go shoot digital.