Quality Control (Part 1)

Posted on March 28, 2012

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What many new photographers and quite a few not so new photographers probably do not realise, is that in the old days of black and white photography, half the work of the photographer was done in the darkroom, usually by his assistant. I don’t mean just run of the mill processing, but skilful manipulation of the final print quality.

Many years ago, when I was at the time an unemployed photographer’s assistant (for 24 hours), I called on the then famous London fashion photographer John Cowan and showed him my portfolio in the hope of getting a job as an assistant.
“Did you print these?” said John eying up the prints in my box of pictures. I confirmed that I did.
“Fantastic!” said John. “Hey Frank, come and look at these prints!” he said calling his assistant. Thus I got a job as second assistant where my duties would be mainly in the darkroom, an area where I was highly skilled.

The point of this story is that the quality of the visual impact of photography takes place long after the picture has been shot. It was true then and is just as true today, except that we now use a digital darkroom. No wet chemicals and use of spare room required. At least 50% of the final quality of your photograph can be achieved by post processing, as it always was. If you don’t carefully post process your pictures then you are losing 50% of their impact.

Viewing and posting your pictures without any post processing is akin to leaving your old film prints to the mercy of the amateur film lab, that processed everything by machine, often using exhausted chemicals to produce dull lifeless prints. The good news is that you no longer need a darkened room, enlargers, dishes and chemicals to do your own processing – you can do the whole thing in broad daylight sitting in front of your computer. What’s more, you have far greater control of the process than in a wet darkroom, and you don’t have any wastage. All this for the price of some inexpensive software that cost about a tenth of what a professional enlarger used to cost 30 years ago. Remember, 50% of the visual impact of your photographs can be obtained through quality control so what is quality, and what tools do we need to achieve it?

Quality:

This is the word I choose to describe a result that is technically perfect in terms of colour, contrast, depth of colour, sharpness, shadow detail, highlight detail and overall pleasing effect. It is what gives the wow factor to a good photograph. Believe me, even in a lifetime of taking pictures, I can only count on one hand those I have ever printed ‘straight’. In other words, straight from camera without any technical darkroom adjustment.

The Software:
Personally I prefer to use Adobe products, simply because Adobe sets the industry standard in terms of colour control, so why use something that might give colour profiles that are slightly ‘off’ from the industry standard. We need a starting point or a standard and for me that means Adobe. There are three products that Adobe make specifically for photography. They are Lightroom 4, Photoshop Elements 10 and Photoshop CS6 (at present in Beta form.) Lightroom 4 and Elements are both very reasonably priced and for 95% of photographers are more than adequate with most of the powerful features of Photoshop. Photoshop itself is much more that a photo processing tool, encompassing drawing tools as well colour separation tools and the like for making commercial print separations. The price of Photoshop reflects this, costing ten times more than the other two, so unless you have a specific need for a complete graphics package or money is no problem(!), I would recommend Photoshop Elements which contains the entire same photo editing tools as Photoshop and is just as powerful for photo editing.

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Straight from camera before post processing

Lightroom 4:
This program was designed by photographers for photographers. A light room or light box, was a daylight balanced flat illuminated Perspex table for viewing and editing transparencies (slides). Processed colour film was sheathed in acetate sheets that could be laid out on the viewing light box, examined with a Lupe magnifier, and marked on the acetate with a yellow Chinagraph pencil for cropping or starred as one of the possible shots that could be used. Lightroom 4 lays out your photos in a similar fashion, simulating the traditional workflow pattern. It is a very powerful editing tool; you can make all sorts of adjustments to your photos yet it is non-destructive, preserving your originals on hard disk. Most adjustments are made with simple intuitive sliders; you don’t need to be a technical genius to operate Lightroom. However, there is much more to the program. You can create and post web galleries with just a few clicks, you can print ‘contact sheets’ – strips of small photos all on one sheet of paper for selection of choice, just like when contact sheets were made with film under an enlarger. You can create a slideshow with a single click and save it as a movie for posting or mailing to friends. You can now create a book directly from Lightroom 4, I produced my book about the Croydon Riots in this way. You can add map co-ordinates for posting to Google and you can masterfully control printing and quality through Lightroom. It really is a fantastic tool and my favourite amongst the Adobe line-up. Everything I shoot is imported into Lightroom which forms a complete catalogue of your work that is fully searchable and organised. It used to cost around £240 but is now available for less than £100 as Adobe wants a wider audience to appreciate their products. It is a real bargain.

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After processing in Lightroom 4

Above: Even a simple photograph can be improved by adjusting the unfavourable natural lighting, filling shadows, slight cropping, improved colour saturation and evening out of the overall lighting. All achieved in Lightroom 4 using simple sliders in about five minutes.

Adobe Elements:
This is a simplified version of Photoshop with all the photo relevant features, but don’t be fooled, it can do just about everything to a photo that Photoshop can do but at a tenth of the price. It includes all the main tools of Photoshop like the selection tools and cloning stamp. You can do some very sophisticated editing with Elements, such as substituting someone’s head in a group shot to show that person with a broader smile. You can move objects, change backgrounds, sharpen or blur and it contains many ready-made ‘effect’ filters.

Photoshop:
This is the industry standard tool used by professional graphics designers, retouchers and the like. However, it is not very intuitive and involves a long learning curve to appreciate its intricacies. You can do a lot with Photoshop, but you only have to view a few tutorials on YouTube to discover that the processes can involve multiple steps and can be very complex to achieve what visually might seem fairly straightforward effects. It really is for advanced users. If you have strong powers of concentration and are a good learner then go ahead. It is particularly good for making complex illustrations from multiple image sources. However, to just improve existing photos it really is overkill and you can use the Lightroom or Elements much more effectively. Lightroom also has the ability to simply batch process a photo series which actually puts it ahead in my book.

Summary:
Lightroom 4: This is the organise and do it all tool for photographers as far as optimising for top quality is concerned. It is easy to use and intuitive and for that reason alone it is top of my list.
Photoshop Elements 10: This has a simple and more intuitive interface than Photoshop but is still quite complex to learn. You will still need a book or two. However, you can do some complex editing with it like adding text that may not be possible within Lightroom 4.
Photoshop CS6: This is the bee’s knees with a price tag to match. If you are considering a career in commercial art or design then it will be part of your course. Be prepared for a long learning curve to appreciate its full strength.

All Adobe products can be downloaded on a ‘try before you buy’ basis usually for up to 60 days.
Here are the download links:
Lightroom 4:
Photoshop Elements 10:
Photoshop CS6

When you buy, you can sometimes get better boxed deals from reliable retailers such as Amazon, you don’t need to reinstall, just use the serial number. Don’t be tempted by ‘discount sites’ or spammed offers. You will either end up paying money for nothing, or will have a serial number that won’t work or update your product. Worse still, some ‘ripped off’ software can contain viruses to control your computer. It just isn’t worth it. Get the genuine product which you can register with Adobe for free minor updates and support. Stick to reputable dealers who have a returns policy.

In Part 2 of Quality Control, I’ll talk about some of the techniques used and show some examples.

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