Let’s turn from technique to what happens after you’ve taken the shot. Once you’ve transferred the photos to your computer and sorted through them, do you take the time to retouch them?
This stage, which involves making changes with a dedicated software program, is often limited to changing the dimensions of the image, or reframing it. That’s really just the beginning, and it’s far from being enough.
This stage is just as important as framing the shot, focus, and settings on the camera. I consider this the final step in taking photographs because it will allow you to reveal the full potential of your photos.
If you’re not fully sold by this stage, I will offer you some examples of images that I took. On the left, you can see the raw photo, and on the right the photo that was retouched.
These are just some examples among so many others. The corrections made here include adding luminosity, contrast, correcting balance of whites, and image colorimetry.
This retouching has allowed me to show off the visual qualities of the dishes, take care of minor errors in the ambient lighting at the time the shot was taken, while maintaining honesty and authenticity.
To do this, I just moved some cursors around and changed some curves using a retouch software program. This may seem complicated, but rest assured, I will explain all of this below.
These improvements would not have been possible without specific software. There are many, both free and for purchase, some very powerful and others less so, and with different levels of functionality. From one program to another the setting names can vary, so I recommend that you consult the user’s manual that comes with the program so you can figure out its equivalents.
This setting allows you to add or reduce the light of an image. When you increase the image’s light, whites will be brighter, colors lighter, and blacks will be grayer. On the other hand, by reducing light, whites become grayer, colors darker, and blacks more intense.
To correct luminosity, you have generally 3 choices: the “levels” cursor, the “luminosity” cursor, and the curve.
So you can better understand these tools, it is essential to understand the notion of light tones (highlights), intermediate tones, and somber tones (lowlights) you will work on.
We call light tones (or highlights) the brightest parts of the image that go from light/pale colors up to white.
On the other hand, somber tones (lowlights) correspond to all the very somber parts of the image all the way to total black.
And between these two tones, there is a whole range of intermediate tones that you’ll get when the light is neither too strong nor too weak.
On the left, the image is very luminous. So, all of the bright tones are particularly significant (the whole background is plunged into white, as is the reflection on the drink). The somber tones are the minority on the level of the plate. As for intermediate tones, you’ll find them on the glass, the paper boat, and the striped cloth.
On the right, the image is much darker. There are practically no lighter tones (white dots on the cloth). The darker tones are in the glass, as well as the grooves in the wooden board. All of the rest can be considered intermediate tones (blue cloth, slices of cake).
I’m working generally speaking with levels and the curve. The luminosity cursor is certainly quite easy to use, but it’s less useful because it works across the board on all the tones. Really, what’s most advantageous with levels and the curve is to be able to work on some tones and not on others so you can get the right balance of light.
There are 3 cursors to the level setting. There’s one on the left, one in the center, and one on the right. Each of these cursors works on different tones. I’ll explain this to you using the image below.
Surrounded by red, the left cursor works on dark tones by darkening them. To do this, you need to move it toward the right.
Surrounded by yellow, the central cursor works on intermediate tones. Move toward the left to lighten them. Move it to the right to darken the image.
Surrounded by blue, the right cursor works on light tones. To lighten them, you just need to move it to the left.
The curve will let you achieve a precise refinement and better control as you manage the various tones.
To work with the curve, you just need to click on the right line and pull it lower or higher to get the result you’re looking for. I’ll explain how it works below.
Surrounded by red, this area of the curve enables you to work on dark tones. Click on the curve to create a point and pull it downward to intensify the blacks (1), and upward to lighten them.
Surrounded by yellow, the central area of the curve lets you work on the intermediate tones. Create a point in the center and pull it downward to darken the image or upward to lighten it (2).
Surrounded by blue, the upper part of the curve corresponds to light tones. By pulling the curve upward, you will overexpose the image (3). On the other hand, by pulling it downward, whites will become more gray.
Contrast is characterized by a difference between the density of light and dark tones. On a black and white image, blacks will be deep, whites luminous, and intermediate tones will be less present.
An image lacking in contrast appears veiled. The whites are somewhat gray, the blacks lack in intensity and colors have lost their sparkle. You can’t always see that an image is lacking in contrast. But as soon as you work on this setting, you’ll quickly see the difference because it adds more relief to the image. Photographs that come right out of the camera usually lack in contrast.
To manage this issue, you have three possible approaches: the contrast adjuster, levels, and the curve. I’m not going to talk about the curve here because if I did, this would be a very long article. You’ll already work with the curve to adjust luminosity, and that’s a good start for learning how to use it. However, you should still that know that you can place the other points on the curve in order to give the curve an S (or an inverted S) shape that is more or less pronounced, so you’ll have contrast results that are more or less pronounced as well. So try it out. 🙂
Just like the luminosity adjuster, I’m going to put the contrast adjuster on the shelf for now. Usually the results you get with it are too sharp and lack in harmony. I prefer using the levels to play with the densities of the image with more accuracy.
I mentioned the 3 level cursors. You can move just one of them in order to play only with luminosity or you can use them simultaneously to adjust contrast. To do this, you just have to bring two cursors closer together.
To give your image contrast, usually you will need to move the left cursor toward the right (dark tones) and move the intermediate tone cursor toward the left (the central cursor).
According to the photo effects you want, other combinations are possible:
– the left cursor (somber tones) moved to the right and the right cursor (light tones) toward the left: you will darken and overexpose the image at the same time.
– the central cursor (intermediate tones) toward the right and the right cursor (light tones) toward the left: you’ll darken the intermediate tones and overexpose the light tones.
But sometimes, a simple darkening of somber tones may be all you need to get a better result for your image.
On these two images, you can easily tell that contrast was added by simply moving the left and central level cursors. Now blue is more pronounced, black more intense, and the reflections of light achieve brightness. Adding contrast brought some vibrancy to the image and gave the waffle more gourmet refinement.
– Balancing whites and colorimetry
The balance of whites and the colorimetry of an image are rarely what you want, and this is even more often the case when you’re working with natural lighting that is constantly changing. In sunny conditions, the scene can come out too yellow; in cloudy conditions, it might come out too blue. It varies according to the conditions when you take the shot.
When I started out, I generally omitted this stage in the touch-up process, and I very often realize that my first photos are more harmonious and appetizing with a correction to the colorimetry. So you should definitely take some time for this post-processing step so you always achieve a result that is neutral and natural.
The tool that lets you correct image color is called either white balance or color balance depending on the software. It can be done by an adjuster, cursors, or a color wheel.
From left to right, management of color balance in the form of a cursor, in the form of a color wheel, in the form of an adjuster.
A color wheel and adjusters are easy to use. To correct a dominating color, you simply have to choose that color’s opposite. For example, to get more balance into a photo that’s too blue, you’ll add some yellow to it. To get more balance in a photo that is too green, you’ll add some pink, etc.
Balancing colors with a cursor is a bit more complex because you’ll need to select on which tone you’ll adjust the color. There are therefore lots of possibilities and they have the advantage of allowing you to work with a lot more precision.
On the left, the raw image. On the right, the image after color balance correction. I added blue to the darker tones, yellowed the bright tones, and adjusted the medium tones by adding yellow and pink. When you’re trying it out, you’ll see that simply changing the balance of colors will allow you to add contrast and luminosity to the image.
Keep in mind that there are two other possibilities for correcting color balance using levels and the curve. These are powerful tools that allow you to make a lot of finishing touches (luminosity, color contrast).
The curve will allow you to adjust dominating colors.
The red curve lets you work on the red (concave curve) in the image and on cyan (convex curve).
The blue curve lets you adjust the blue (concave curve) and on the yellow (convex curve).
The green curve lets you adjust the green (concave curve) and the pink (convex curve).
Therefore, you can work on the colorimetry of each tone depending on whether you click high, low, or in the middle of the curve, moving up or down.
Just as with curves, levels allow you to adjust the colors of the various tones.
Levels of red: by moving the central cursor toward the left and the right cursor toward the left, you’ll add red to your intermediate and light tones.
By moving your left or central cursor toward the right, you’ll be bring cyan into the image.
Green levels: By moving the right and central cursor to the left, you’ll be bringing green to your intermediate and light tones.
By moving the left and the central cursors toward the right, you’ll be adding pink to the image.
Blue levels: By moving the central and right cursors to the left, you’ll be adding blue to your intermediate and light tones.
By moving the left and central cursors to the right, you’ll be adding yellow to your picture.
In practice: a step by step to post-processing.
To conclude this article, I would like to demonstrate my post-processing procedure.
I work with two software programs: Digital Photo Professional (DPP) included with my camera, which I use to do an initial processing of my RAW image before I convert it to a TIFF.
Next, I work on my TIFF in Photoshop before saving it in JPEG for the blog.
Here is a raw image of a plate of gnudis (Italian ravioli without pasta). You could say that there’s a lot of work done on this image to get a luminous, natural, and tempting effect. I’ll explain everything!
In DPP, first I work on luminosity and the colorimetry of my image.
Here, I yellowed the image to counter-balance the ambient blue. I added more light and created a light contrast by using the histogram. Then, all I have to do is save the image in TIFF format by resizing it for my blog.
Once the file is saved in TIFF format, I open it in Photoshop.
First I start by adjusting luminosity with the curve. I lighten the intermediate tones by pulling the curve upward.
Next, I move on to color balance, which I adjust very precisely by working on dark and light tones.
I decided to add a little contrast by slightly darkening the dark tones.
Finally, as a finishing touch to this photo, I used two specific tools: the Density + and Density – tool. They are shown as a paintbrush icon so you can do precise retouches directly onto the image.
You choose a brush size, a percentage of intensity, and the tone you’ll work on.
The Density + tool is used to darken images. Here I used it on the light tones in order to soften the overly bright white of the cloth.
On the other hand, the Density – tool is used to lighten the image. It lets me give more brightness to the spinach sprouts and the bottle of oil.
And here are the before and after shots.
I hope I have convinced you that post-processing is the final stage in the photography process. And for those who were already convinced, I hope this article has allowed you to learn a bit more about the use of the various tools you have at your disposal.
Get better by fiddling around with the software, trying things out and go ahead and go back to the beginning if you don’t like the correction. That’s the best way to get the best results with your tools.
I’ll see you again soon with a final article on the subject of managing natural light. It will be a full program! 🙂
Under the pseudonym of chefNini, Virginie has kept a culinary blog by the same name since February, 2008. It features her creations, her inspirations, and her tips presented through instructive articles.
Autodidact and passionate about her interests, she decided to quit her job as a web developer to devote herself exclusively to her blog. In September, 2011, she became an entrepreneur, offering her services as a creator, photographer, and culinary writer.
She is also the author of a book on culinary photography published by Pearson.