Chapter 18: A Shortcut

Many photographers will come up with their own solutions to image processing, but they will inevitably have to decide what software and what order to use along the way (fig. 18.1). There are three possibilities here:

  1. Everything is done in a raw converter.
  2. Some work is done in a raw converter, while some is done in Adobe Photoshop.
  3. With the defaults set at 0, conversion is done in Adobe Photoshop.

LIFELIKE book: A Shortcut
Figure 18.1

Which way should we choose? I always ask this question in my seminars and always get “it depends” as an answer. If you prioritize speed over quality, you can choose to only use a raw converter. If you can spare more time on post-processing and if the quality is important, you should do more work in Adobe Photoshop. A default raw converter for many photographers is Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop’s own Adobe Camera Raw. Remember, 2/3 of the 1,700 photographers I have polled, said they were using these tools.

“If I have to quickly render a batch of photographs, I go for Lightroom. If I need prettier pictures, time allowing, I work in Photoshop” is almost a cliché phrase at this point. It also reflects those fundamental issues that photographers encounter in their work with either of the commonly used converters: nobody ever mentions being able to achieve fast, high-quality results through raw conversion only. Most photographers do acknowledge the very problems we have been discussing – or at least pick up on the imperfections of the conversion results. While not all users will speak about it in as many words, they will still understand that something is slightly off with the resulting image.

Before we go and look for alternative ways of dealing with raw conversion and processing digital images, I have to say that there are quite a few advantages to utilizing standard tools. It would have been unfair not to speak about those, especially when it comes to Lightroom. First of all, this popular software is a great photo library organization solution. After all, most of us work with batches of images, and you cannot become a photographer if, throughout your entire career, you only take one image (even if it is perfect in every possible way). Every photo shoot will yield a few frames, some of them turning out better than others. Next, you might want to connect a number of images shot at different times into one story. You may have models whom you have been working with for a period of time – from shoot to shoot and from one series to another. Photographers can also have families and kids; they often travel and make photos to keep as mementos. Finally, there are those for whom making series is a professional requirement: photojournalists, wedding and travel photographers, etc. As you can see, there are a number of reasons for sorting and cataloging the images that you have made before you go on post-processing them. Adobe Lightroom was conceived as a universal tool, a quick fix to most of the problems a photographer might have, raw conversion being one of them, cataloguing being the other. To many of my colleagues, Lightroom is a convenient database first and a raw converter second. Moreover, while there are quite a lot of critics of the program’s functionality as a raw converter, very few people will actually say that they are unhappy with the way Lightroom’s cataloguing is organized.

Lightroom’s usability and versatility generates a lot of appeal for its user base. Having little or no real understanding of the origin of their color-related issues, most of the program’s fans will blame themselves for any instance where the colors go wrong, to the point of saying that they should learn how to use the tools they already have to achieve better results. There is, therefore, a widespread belief in the omnipotence of Lightroom. “Anything is possible,” its users say, “and more – if you add a little Photoshop to the mix. You just have to know how to use the tools.” There is some truth in that: if you understand the principles of dealing with the aesthetic side of color, you can achieve good results with almost any software. What is more, understanding the basics of color is the condition sine qua non for any kind of interpretative photo processing. But what if, having passed that threshold, we are suddenly landed with a tool that is not only imperfect, but also quite damaging? You will have spent years experimenting, you will have studied the fine nuances of more and more presets… and all you will get is the same result, over and over again.

And then, there is Photoshop. Its functionality is greater than that of Lightroom. With enough concentration and skill, you can use it to get any color you want. But, unfortunately, Photoshop does not solve the problems outlined in the previous chapter either. Even if you have a lot of free time on your hands, it proves quite difficult to make Photoshop “do your bidding”. With its extensive array of available tools, Photoshop offers very little in the way of the aesthetic support we have been talking about and, in the end, the technical issues one encounters while working with Photoshop remain similar to those of raw conversion – only multiplied by the number of additional tools. Adobe Photoshop is the most powerful raster graphics editor in the world, yet it is important to understand that neither its initial tasks nor functionality have been designed to suit photographers’ needs. We do use it, and it is indispensible, but as a photo processing tool rather than a full-cycle solution.

However, there is always a way of making things work for you. You can, of course, continue utilizing the traditional tools. The process might be labor-intensive and time-consuming, the result may not always be perfect, yet a lot of photographers choose this path. I used to be one of them, but, at the same time, I was always on the lookout for new solutions, where I could concentrate on the creative side of things and wouldn’t have to navigate around so many technical shortcomings.

At some point I realized that something was fundamentally wrong with the “digital” color, and I spent the next three years studying Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Photoshop in depth. I wrote numerous articles on the topic, which turned out to be popular enough for the Russian Photoshop office to reward me for popularizing their product by giving me several free Adobe Photoshop licenses. I still appreciate the gesture and feel nothing but gratitude towards the Photoshop team. Considering this, I cannot say it was a particularly comfortable experience, discussing their products’ disadvantages, but I had to be objective. In my quest to find alternative tools and software solutions, I have tried countless other raw converters and Photoshop plug-ins. Unfortunately, I have not found my “miracle cure”, but I do have to say one thing about software developers: far from resting on their laurels, they are constantly working on improving their product and, ultimately, making photographers’ lives easier.

Another thing that I have discovered along the way was not really software-related. In my search for more efficient photo processing tools, I have gained a lot of visual experience, studied masterpieces of both fine art and photography, read books on the subject written for aspiring artists, etc. The deeper I went, the more I took in and the more apparent were my own shortcomings as a photographer. Color imbalances that I had once deemed passable or negligible now screamed disharmony and seemed downright offensive to good taste. My disappointment with the once adequate tools kept growing, not in the least because using those tools in the first place had partly been the cause of the problems I was trying to fix.

Having spent quite a number of years working with Adobe Camera Raw (Lightroom), I suddenly realized that neither the software logic and its performance nor the results were satisfactory. My experiments with other popular converters led to nothing, and I had to look for fundamentally new ways of treating raw files. The answer came in the form of a then-little-known RPP (Raw Photo Processor) converter developed by our former compatriots-turned-US-citizens Andrey Tverdokhleb and Iliah Borg. They had clearly shared my disappointment and, having decided to take matters into their own hands, developed “a raw converter of our own”, after a fashion. In the following chapters, I will talk more about working with this tool and about other, more traditional methods of solving digital color issues.

Coming back to the beginning of the chapter and the question I posed… My answer is still “it depends”. The photographer’s agenda, understanding of aesthetics in photography and software preferences are all equally important factors contributing to the choice of the photo processing strategy. Personally, I prefer Adobe Bridge for working with photo libraries (Adobe Lightroom or other cataloging tools would also do the job nicely) and RPP for converting raw-files, mostly coming out with the final image as a result. If I still need post-processing (retouching, adjusting layer masks or tonality, etc.) after RPP, I turn to Adobe Photoshop.

LIFELIKE: A book on color in digital photography

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