Phew! It’s been a while since I did one of these! To be honest, it all comes down to laziness on my part. Post-processing can be as much a chore as it can be fun. But things have changed a lot since my last walk through, so I wanted to make an updated version.
Here’s a little background about me and my PP technique.
I tend to be very conservative when it comes to saturation and manipulation. I like to make as little changes as possible to the RAW image. Usually, my workflow consists of 5 main elements – adjusting White Balance and eliminating color casts (more on this later), correcting exposure, contrast, shadows and highlights, selective NR, downsizing, and finally, sharpening and applying a watermark.
In the past (actually even until a week ago), I used Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for all of my processing needs and I liked the results. When I photographed a pair of Peregrine Falcons during my trip to Swanage, I could barely contain my excitement when I looked at the back of my camera and saw a sequence of tack-sharp takeoff shots. However, when I returned to my hotel room and downloaded the files onto LR, the application totally destroyed the colors and detail on the files. Still optimistic, I played around with Adobe’s color profiles and even used Nik’s Detail Extractor and Tonal Contrast to try to make the shots useable. But no matter what I did, I hit the limits of what the software was capable of. I needed to change.
Enter Capture 1 Pro.
I did a lot of research on the various post-processing software on the market and concluded that Phase One’s Capture 1 Pro (let’s just call it C1Pro) was the best fit for my needs. Once I transferred my LR catalog to C1Pro, I immediately saw the difference. The colors were richer, the detail was more noticeable, and the files just ‘popped’, there’s no better way to describe it.
The challenge of Noise Reduction.
Noise Reduction (NR for short) was still a hurdle, though. Most of my images are shot in low light and with high ISOs. Here’s where Neat Image comes in. It’s a specialist software that calibrates the noise level of individual pictures. The app, combined with Arash Hazeghi’s NR technique, virtually eliminates noise in the picture while retaining all the fine detail on the subject. Admittedly, my workflow is still a Work-In-Progress, but it’s getting there.
Now that we’ve discussed the software in detail, let’s jump into the processing.
Here’s the unsharpened RAW file exported as a JPEG through C1Pro.
When we open this file in C1Pro, this is the default interface.
This interface is extremely intimidating if you’re new to the software. I’ll do my best to simplify it. The panel that we have open in the above picture is used to correct the White Balance and any color casts to the image. Let’s call it the Color Panel. To correct the White Balance (or at least bring it within an acceptable range), I select the eyedropper tool (top panel, third option from the right, highlighted in orange) and place it on a neutral grey or white area of the image. This can be slightly tricky in an image like this where there is no true grey or white areas. So what I like to do is zoom into the image at 100% as follows.
Now, there are a couple of candidates for selecting the area for color correction. For this image, I chose to place the eyedropper on the bird’s cheek.
As you can see, there’s a massive difference in the color. The Peregrine Falcon’s plumage is grey as it should be and the water in the background has turned into a beautiful, deep blue compared to the sickly yellow-green it was before the change in White Balance. Zooming in has also given us an indication of the sharpness of the file. Thankfully, this image is very sharp which gives us a good base to work on. Before we move on to the next panel, I decided to crop the photo a bit for composition.
After cropping the image, we head to the fun part of the entire post-processing experience. The panel right next to the Color Panel is used to adjust exposure, brightness and saturation. Here, you can study the histogram and make changes as necessary. The clarity section at the bottom of the panel is C1Pro’s secret sauce – more on that in the ‘layers’ part of this walkthrough.
As you can see, I’ve only made tiny changes to the different parameters, but they all add up and make the image pop. Remember, it’s not about making the image something it can’t be, it’s just correction. The next step requires some care and attention.
Using the brush tool (top panel, fourth from right, highlighted in orange), we’ll draw a Layer Mask (Press ‘M’ on the keyboard to show a red overlay) over the falcon. To erase any parts of the mask, press ‘E’ and go over the areas to be removed. To revert to the brush tool, press ‘B’. Any adjustments you make to this layer will only affect the areas painted in red (in this case, the falcon). Normally, I’d spend some time to ensure that I’ve painted the layer mask properly and haven’t included any unwanted elements in the mask (such as the background). For the purposes of this walkthrough, the mask is quite rough but still very much useable.
Once we’re done painting the mask, hit ‘M’ again to hide the overlay. Zoom into 100% to clearly see any changes that you make at this stage. In this case, I reduced the highlights and raised the shadows on the falcon just a touch. Now we get to the Clarity section at the bottom. This is where C1Pro really comes into its own. What Clarity and Structure actually do is explained really well on Capture One’s website.
Consider an image of a tree and you have the option of using Clarity, Structure and Sharpening.
Clarity will enhance the tree trunk and the large branches
Structure will enhance the smaller branches and leaves.
Sharpening will enhance the structures on a leaf itself.
When you’re new to this software, it’s very easy to overdo the clarity and structure. Be careful with these sliders as they can very easily render your images unnatural and crunchy. Again, it’s about correction, not over-enhancement. Once this step’s complete and you’re satisfied with what you have in C1Pro, it’s time to move on to the next big portion of this walk through – NR using Neat Image Pro in Photoshop.
Edit > Edit With > Adobe Photoshop will prompt a dialogue box. Here you can choose the format and quality of your exported file. I leave it on TIFF and 16-bits. I embed my color-calibrated laptop’s ICC profile.
The completion of the last step should lead you into the familiar sight of Photoshop’s interface. While I’m not a fan of Adobe’s handling of Nikon files, their software somehow just feels right. Anyways, no time for nostalgia when we have processing to do (lol). Press Ctrl+J to duplicate the Background layer. This ensures that any editing you do to this image is non-destructive. After you’ve duplicated the layer, create a layer mask by pressing the third button from the left on the panel in the lower right corner.
In this image, the prominent background colors are blue, so go to Select > Color Range to select all the blue areas in the picture. this ensures that the falcon is excluded from the selection. You could alternatively use Select > Focus Area or Select > Subject to make the selection. You’ll have to refine this selection by painting in the mask using the brush tool until the falcon is sufficiently separated from the background (similar to how we applied the mask in C1Pro but more refined). Duplicate this layer and invert this selection because we’ll use it in a later step. At this point, you should have 3 layers – the Background layer, Layer 1 with a layer mask that only includes the falcon, Layer 2 with a mask that only includes the background.
Now, here comes the tedious part. Open Neat Image Pro while selecting Layer 1.
This leads us to yet another highly complex and intimidating interface. In summary, what we’ll be doing in Neat Image is apply a dose of NR to the bird at a low setting, and then a couple of stronger runs on the background.
To calibrate the noise level for this image, we’ll draw a square and place it on the noisiest uniform area of the image – basically, an area with no detail but high noise. The higher the noise level of your selection, the better. Click Auto-Profile once you’re happy with your selection.
Heading to the heart of the NR process, we are faced with a plethora of options on reducing noise. There’s no point in proceeding further without understanding what these mean. It’ll only cause further stress and confusion. Trust me, I speak from experience 😀
I’ll start off by admitting that I don’t completely understand what each option means either. However, I’ll share whatever information I’ve gathered so far (and I’ll probably update this section in the future as I learn more about Neat Image and its capabilities).
Let’s talk about Luminance, Cr, and Cb.
Luminance channel (Y) – This is the type of noise that the human eye is highly sensitive to. Any changes to the noise in this area is easily noticeable
Chrominance Channels (Cr and Cb) – These are color noise channels that the human eye is less sensitive to. Reducing noise in these channels effectively removes color noise.
High – Very fine grain structure and most of the visible noise and detail (eg. feathers) in an image.
Mid – Slightly bigger structure compared to High frequency noise. Medium scale details such as wrinkles.
Low, Very low and Ultra low – Progressively bigger grain structure compared to high and mid frequency noise. Larger details such as clarity and strength of under-wing stripes.
Now if you’re ready to progress into the NR part, here’s what I’ve done to this image. I’ve zoomed in on the part of the bird that shows the most visible noise and optimized the NR for that part. With some trial and error, you should be able to settle on a setting that reduces noise to an acceptable level while maintaining fine detail. Remember that this image was shot at ISO 4000, so a certain degree of noise is to be expected in the shadows. Also, as a general rule, it’s better to err on the side of lower NR than to compromise fine detail which can’t be recovered. You can also use the sharpening tool that Neat Image provides as it’s quite powerful (EDIT: After extensive testing, I wouldn’t recommend using the sharpening tool in Neat Image. It reduces detail and quality. You’d be much better off sharpening the image using Smart Sharpen in PS).
Once this step’s complete, apply the NR. You’re almost at the finish line! Now in Photoshop, select Layer 2 (the mask that affects the background of the image). Open Neat Image and instead of applying a lower level of NR, turn it up a couple of notches. Apply this stronger dose to the background. Once you do that, go to Filter > Neat Image (it should be the first item on the list) and apply the same NR again.
At this point, you’ll find that the background shows absolutely no visible noise, while the bird remains nice and detailed with all the fine details intact. It’s time to really nitpick and correct any minor flaws in the image before moving on the final steps.
In this image, I noticed a blue cast under the bird’s wing, so I used the sponge tool at a desaturation setting of 100% to remove the color cast. That was the only flaw I could find. I wasn’t inclined to do any manipulation such as removing the tiny grass at the bottom of the frame. I opted to keep it as natural as possible.
Now that the processing is, for the most part, complete, it’s time to save your work as a TIFF file. It ensures that you always have a master file to go back to make any changes or export for web or print.
To save for web use, go to Image > Image size and this dialogue box will pop up. I tend to save my files 1920px or 2048px on the wide end for use on most websites. I saved this image at 2048px. Now it’s time to sharpen the picture.
I sharpen my images using Smart Sharpen at an amount of ~100% and a radius of ~0.5px (varies between images). I think it does a great job of sharpening the images without making them seem unnatural or crunchy.
The final step of this long and tedious process is applying the watermark and attaching copyright data to the image. Save the result as a JPEG and that’s it! Finally, all that hard work bears a pretty sweet result.
Here’s a comparison between the RAW file and the final edit.
And another slide just to show a comparison between my old LR and PS workflow compared to the new C1Pro and Neat Image set up.
I hope you found this walk through useful and informative. Comment down below if have any queries and please share this article with your friends 😀 See you in the next one!