The Power of Curves

This past weekend I attended a great workshop. It was taught by David Nightingale and the topic was dramatic post processing. David shared some great Photoshop techniques for post processing photos with the idea of making them more dramatic so that they stand out from the rest. The techniques he taught are primarily achieved with Photoshop's Curves adjustment layer. Curves are much more powerful than I thought going into the workshop. I learned a great deal about how they can be used to improve a good image or perhaps save an image with lighting or color issues.

One of the most interesting things about David's approach is his belief that it is advantageous to think about capturing an image with post processing in mind. This is in contradiction to the school of thought that I have encountered among a good number of photographers, i.e. if you shoot something "correctly" you shouldn't have to do a lot (if any) post processing. David's approach is rather liberating. I can say that there are number of times when I have walked away from a shot because the lighting conditions weren't right, the sky was too plain, etc. Thinking ahead of time about post processing allows you to visualize what a subject or scene could become. Maybe some strong contrast would bring out some details or a shift in the tones might create a more pleasing image.

David has a very practical and hands-on approach. We spent a lot more time practicing his techniques than just having him talk to us about them. One assignment he gave us was to grab our cameras, go outside, and find something not so exciting to shoot. The idea was to find something plain or a subject in poor, bland lighting, think about what could be done in post processing, and capture the image. The image below is one of the scenes I stumbled upon. It was the patio of a restaurant and I was attracted by the rusty screen that enclosed it. There wasn't anything exciting there to focus on otherwise - just some patio heating lamps that were chained up to prevent theft. Bright daylight from a cloudless sky spilled into the area.

This is how the scene looked straight out of the camera (note that you can click any image for a larger version):

Here is the image I created in post processing:

The final image was cropped to remove the sky and better feature the screen and the chains. Several specific contrast Curves were applied: one overall and several targeted curves for specific areas, which were masked in. The resulting image is cleaner with improved color and bolder detail.

David also asked us to bring some old images to the workshop. One of the images I chose is an HDR shot I captured a while back. I wasn't happy with it because of heavy shadows on the subject. Even with HDR processing, I couldn't pull enough detail out to make the subject look interesting without getting an over processed look. It was a case where I really should have captured another overexposed shot or two for the tonemapping process.

Here is what the middle exposure of a 3 shot bracketed set (-2,0,+2) looked like:

Here is what I ended up after tonemapping and post processing the resulting image:

The final image was treated with noise reduction and sharpening plug-ins in Photoshop. I then used several Curve layers to adjust contrast, color, and brightness. I also added some vignette with Curves.

We were asked to bring some portrait shots as well. I brought one that I was already pretty happy with. I found out some ways that Curves could improve upon my results.

Here is the original:

Here is the Curve modified version:

The difference in this portrait is subtle, but powerful. Can't see a difference? Look closely at her eyes (click the images for larger versions.) I used Curve layers with masks to accentuate the model's eyes and they stand out a lot better now. Separate curves were used on the pupils and white of the eyes to make them stand out better. A slight vignette was added with another Curve layer to better draw the viewer's eyes to the model's face.

I am very pleased with the workshop and can't wait to put David's techniques into more practice. If you ever have the chance to attend one of his workshops, it is definitely worth your time. A lot of the material he presented is also available in his online tutorials.

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