Basic Edits

In this section we will cover the basic tools you will use to process your image.

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Workflow describes the overall processes you use between retrieving the image from your camera to your finished image. It includes:

  • camera setup and image capture (in particular whether you capture in RAW or JPEG or both
  • file management including storage strategies and the importance of backup
  • indexing and cataloging (so you can easily find your beautiful images again in your ever-growing image collection)
  • basic editing
  • advanced editing
  • display including printing and mounting, web galleries etc. (though I probably will not be going into these areas in this post-processing training site)
  • Backing up your images (OK I know I mentioned this earlier… it is important and usually neglected. You’ll only value it after your disk drive dies. Look at this post)

How you set up your workflow is a very personal thing, but if you do it right your work will be more efficient and it will save you hours and hours of time and frustration. The links below will discuss some of these aspects in greater detail.

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A commonly asked question is what subjects are best for monochrome?  I have been casting my mind over this and I cannot give an answer. Thinking back over the last year, I have made monochrome landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes, portraits, photojournalism, nature … I don’t think I have made any monochrome abstracts lately, but then I haven’t made many abstracts of any sort recently , but swirling patterns of smoke might be good in monochrome, for example. So, I’m not sure it’s a question of what subjects should be in monochrome, as when would I make a captured image into a monochrome.  Colour is powerful. We see the world in colour, and colour dominates many of the images we see. However colour can also distract our attention. A simple monochrome conversion is just a button click away, so it is easy to get a quick preview… for example in Lightroom I can create a virtual copy, convert to B&W (LR has a standard B&W, but also a suite of monochrome presets you can apply at the click of a button). Here are a couple of versions of a photo I took in Spain. In this case I thought the blue of the sky drew the eye away from the rest, so I thought the mono was a good option. I had a play on the mono version – selectively darkened the sky and strengthened the contrast (easy to do in mono), and lightened some of the detail in the canopy. I think the mono worked out quite well.

OK, that’s an architectural example. How about something different.

Here I think the skin colour warms the image; the mono version is harder, more gritty, better suited to conveying the hard life of the homeless man in New York.

Here is another reason to convert to mono:

In the colour version the bright colours in the background distract the attention from the story – the chainsaw racing competition. The blue marquee roof and bag in the background, the orange helmet, the red cowling on the saw and the red flash on the pants don’t add to the story. By converting to monochrome (and cloning out the other competitor on the right margin, I remove the distractions so you can focus on the story. You see better the spray of sawdust and the falling disk of wood.

Here is another, on a photojournalism theme – Sam Bell waterskiing at the Moomba festival in Melbourne in 2019.

Again, I don’t feel the colours in the colour version add to the story. By converting to monochrome (and cloning out the other tow rope) I think the story conveyed is at least as powerful, though in this case I think it works in colour too.

OK, just for variety, here is another

In this case, the brightly coloured costumes are central to the story. Whilst the monochrome version depicts the scene, I don’t think it coveys the narrative as powerfully. Maybe I should try a version where I select everything except the dancers, and desaturate the colours in the background. This might help to focus the eye more on the dancers, removing the crowd as a background distraction.

Here is a landscape

It’s a scene with virtually no useful colour – the tones and lines are the story. Monochrome is a perfect choice.

Whilst I have given a few examples here, I am not sure if there is an easy answer to what images make the best monochrome. But here are some rules of thumb to consider:

  • Does colour add to the story?
  • Are there colourful distractions that need diminishing?
  • Is the story of the image in the lines and tones?
  • Could a monochrome conversion add drama to an image?

These examples have all used conversion to Black and White. You can also make monochrome with different tones – sepia (warm tones) and cyanotype (cold tones) are two examples. These tinted conversions can convey a mood or tone, perhaps, better than plain B&W. Again, experiment and see what you like. Also look at other people’s images – what monochrome conversions have they used? what toning? Learn from examples.

As with many such questions, there is no one answer. The best bet is to experiment with your own images and see what you like in Mono vs colour.

Additional Resources:

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Links to some creative photography online magazines

Here are a couple of creative photography magazines that Paul Spence directed us to in the Creative SIG in Feb 2021

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Photography: Legal Issues

It is worthwhile for photographers to acquaint themselves with some legal issues that pertain to photographic activities. The Arts Law Centre of Australia has compiled a number of information sheets that give relevant advice. In particular:

Note that the links above are specifically made for the laws in Australia, and may not be as relevant in foreign countries. If you are planning to travel, it might be worth investigating some issues that are relevant to your destinations.

In some places photography may be restricted – take care near military or police establishments as well as major infrastructure and travel/transit facilities. Recently, in Rome I was forced to delete some images I had made of historic buildings – there were paramilitary/police in the square in front of it, and such people and their gear should not be photographed. One day I was photographing squirrels bouncing around the roadside trees in Leicester, only to be accosted by a military person requiring me do stop and remove the images. Apparently the trees were an avenue outside the walls of a military base. Neither I nor the squirrels were aware of the sensitivities of the area over the 4 metre high brick wall. Travel in India and it is hard not to be assailed by children wanting you to take their photo. Take photos of children in some other countries and you may find yourself arousing suspicion and attracting unwanted attention.

Most places restrict use of cameras in places like airports and railway stations. Photography rights may be restricted in museums, galleries, churches and the like. If you are unsure, it does not harm to ask the locals what is allowed.

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Blend If

Blend if is a powerful tool in the layer properties in Photoshop (other software may have similar functionality – explore your documentation). Open the layer properties and you find an Advanced Blending block and Blend If block in the central column. You can use this to selectively define which parts of a layer are “blended” with underlying layers.

You can apply Blend-If to image layers. With Blend If can, for example, replace a blue sky with another layer without having to make complex selections or turn a green-screen transparent so you can see an underlying image where the green screen shows on the top layer.

You can apply Blend-If to adjustment layers so the adjustment selectively applies to parts of the underlying image (for example to darken a sky with an exposure adjustment that applies only for blue areas, or to bring up the shadows by applying an adjustment only over the darker areas.

Here is an example. Here I have an image of the Carillon in Canberra against a cloudless blue sky (layer 0). I have added a layer with a cloudy sky (layer 1). I opened the layer style dialog for Layer 1 (double click on the layer thumbnail). I have set the Blend-If to act on Blue colours, and on the underlying layer (the carillon) I have dragged the lower control triangle on the “underlying Layer” control to limit the range of blues where the blending occurs. OK, there is a wedge of blue sky showing through at the top. This can be easily fixed by duplicating a section of Layer 1 (clouds) that covers this blue – just one quick selection; we let Blend If do all the fiddly bits of selection around the trees and the structure.

Blend if can also be used when making more creative composite images and in applying textures selectively… have a play with the controls and see what they can do for you

Rather than more-inventing of the wheel, here are some resources on the web that give instructions on how to use Blend If:


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Select and Mask

Contents to come

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Creating realistic shadows

When compositing it is not enough to simply paste an object onto a background. If you do, it will look artificial and pasted. Shadows are what link the pasted object to the background. Creating realistic shadows requires some technical skills, but also a keen eye for what shadows look like.

Here is an example. The image below of a whiteboard marker illuminated with a large light source. The original photo shows soft shadows, darker close to the marker, and darker in the core. Now, clone out the shadow and we have the image on the right, that looks like the marker is floating and not in any way connected to the background.

Here are some things to think about when you are making shadows to anchor your cut-and-paste objects:

  • What sort of light do you have. Point sources (eg sunshine/moonshine/single light globe etc) give sharp shadows; broad sources (eg light coming in through a window from the sky on the shady side of the house; something in a shaded area; an overcast day etc) give soft, diffuse shadows.
  • What colour is the shadow? diffuse light from a blue sky tends to be bluish; Light bouncing from a coloured surface will be coloured by the surface; light under tree shade tends to be greenish; flash light from a soft-box tends to be whiter.
  • Shadows are seldom pure black. Usually there is some light in the shadowed area. Look at the shadow example above. The shadowed area is far from black. Some light from the softbox goes around the marker to illuminate the background. Some light also bounces off other objects and adds light to the shadowed area. The texture of the background is visible. If you just paint black to make a shadow, it won’t look realistic unless you have some transparency to let the texture show. If some of the light bounces off coloured objects to fill in the shadow area, the bounced light will take a colour cast from the surfaces it bounces off. If you have two light sources with different colour balance, the shadows will take different colour balances depending on which light is filling in the shadow.
  • Is there more than one source of light? For example, someone standing in a street at night might have hard shadows from the street lamp, and soft shadows from the light from a cafe window. Depending on the brightness, the shadows will be different densities and colour balance (eg orangish light from the cafe window will paint an orange glow on the pavement; where there is shadow, the orange light is absent, so the shadow will look slightly bluish.
  • How far or near are the lights – this affects the brightness as well and the hardness of the shadow edges.
  • What direction are the light sources. The shadows need to extend in a direction that is consistent with the direction(s) light source(s). Take care where different subjects are added in different positions relative to the light source. For example consider a night scene with people on a street with a single street light. For people between the camera and the light, the shadow will fall towards the camera. For a person underneath the street light, the shadow will be spread around their feet. For a person further away than the light, the shadow will fall to the rear of the image.
  • The size of a shadow changes depending on the orientation of the light, the subject and the surface the shadow falls on. Your shadow near midday is a small puddle of dark around your feet. Approaching sunset, with the sun just over the horizon, your shadow on flat ground will be very long.
  • Think about the surface onto which the shadow is cast. The shadow of a person falling on the ground will be a different shape to the shadow of that person that falls on a wall. A shadow falling on a textured surface needs to retain the texture.

Consider the image below. Note the complicated lighting – 3 different side lights in the tunnel (and another behind the camera), plus light from the tunnel end; but the dominant light is the one at the top left of the frame. Lining up the objects, the shadow from the head needs to be hitting the lowest point on the right side wall; the cyclist’s body is shadowed to fill the whole side wall; the cycle wheels are shadowed on the roof. The lights further along the tunnel cast a shadow forward but much fainter, as they are further away. OK, this isn’t perfect (it was a quick play for amusement), but thinking about the imperfections will help you think about what I should have done with the shadows.

Rather than try to explain the mechanics driving photoshop (or your favourite software), I refer you in the Resources section to some useful guides online.


Here are some useful links:

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Twirl Effect

Twirl, found under Filters>>Distort in the Photoshop menu can be used to make some interesting effects. Consider the simple crossed lines image below. Activate the Twirl dialog, and adjust the Angle slider to achieve your desired degree of twirl.

I’ll step through how I made one of the twirled image at the top of this post. First I started with a simple, unexciting, daisy photo (all sorts of things make a good starting point – try some different images with colour and luminosity variations that might make interesting twirls – experiment, because the end result will bear little resemblance to the original). I usually start with a square cropped image, but rectangles will work too. Convert the image to a smart object This allows you to tweak the filters you create to adjust the final output without having to start from scratch each time. More importantly, you can resize the image without losing pixels. If you start with a large image (say 4000×4000 pixels, you have to process 16 million pixels through each filter for each change which can be time consuming. If you reduce this (after converting to a smart object) to say 800×800, you only have 640 thousand pixels to process (Photoshop works on an internal copy with reduced size). Later you can resize back to the original, and Photoshop will recalculate with all the original pixels (it may take a while to rebuild to a large size).

To make the image a bit blocky/pixelated, I used a Mezzotint filter. There’s a selection of similar filters in Filter>>Pixelate.

Next, use a radial filter to spread out the pixels from the centre.

If you want even more radial smearing, apply the filter more than once. I used 3 radial filter steps to get a smoother radial smear.

I then applied a twirl filter, then applied it a second time to get a nice spiral. Note that applying the twirl once with a higher angle of twist probably gets you a similar effect – experiment and see.

So far, so good, but not too exciting yet. Here comes the magic. Duplicate the smart layer with its filters (right click on the layer label and select duplicate). The smart object is duplicated and you should see the twirl, radial blur and mezzotint filters in the layers panel. Edit the twirls (double click on the filter label in the layers panel – see my layers panel to the right of this paragraph) and slide the angle slider to reverse the direction of spiral. You may choose the same angles in reverse, or try different spirals – time to experiment. The final step is to change the blending mode – this is where the real magic happens. Here are some variants. Once you have chosen the desired look, it is time to resize the image back to the original size… go get a cup of coffee. After your coffee and cake session, if you are lucky, Photoshop may have finished rendering the image (if not, have another coffee, go weed the garden, go shopping for milk and bread, go for a walk or a cycle, take the dog to the park…. eventually Photoshop will finish).

The captions indicate which blending mode was used in the upper twirl layer.

darker colour
difference (with an added brightness adjustment on top)
difference – this is a crop of central part after I resized back to 4000×4000 pixels (note: with increased brightness adjustment)
difference, with a third twirl layer with different twirl angle added on top. Probably needs some tweaking with brightness and contrast, but you can experiment.

If you want to make bilaterally symmetrical twirl images, a useful trick is to start off with a bilaterally symmetrical image. Usually your images are not symmetrical, but you can make a symmetrical image by selecting the left half of the image using the rectangular marquee (use Image>Image size to determine the width in pixels, halve that. As you drag the rectangular marquee it shows the size of the selected rectangle on an overlay, so you can easily make an exact half-width selection). Duplicate the selection into a new layer (Ctrl-J). Flip the new layer horizontally (Edit>transform>flip horizontal) and move to the right side of the image. You now have symmetrical image where the left half is mirrored on the right half.

Below is an asymmetric image and a resulting twirl. Below that I have made a symmetrical image from the same image, and then the twirl that results (same settings).

I hope this is of use as a basis to get you started. The trick is to experiment with your own images and tweak the settings on the filters (or even try different filters) to see what you can create. If you have any comments, please let me know.

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The making of “At Home with the Mouse Family” by Bob Thomas

Bob has kindly shared a short video to show how he made his award winning entry “At Home with the Mouse Family”. Enjoy.

The making of At home with the mouse family, by Bob Thomas

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Local adjustment tools in Lightroom

Lightroom has three local adjustment tools (excluding the red-eye reduction tool), the linear gradient tool, the radial gradient tool and the paintbrush tool.

The right three icons are the gradient, radial and brush local adjustment tools

Gradient tool and Radial gradient tool

Clicking the gradient or radial adjustment icon brings up the adjustment dialog. You can have many individual local adjustments on your image, each with its own selection of settings and position. The top row of the dialog has which adjustment mask you want to edit – A new one, Edit and existing one (look for an edit pin (small circle overlaid on the image, assuming the Show Edit Pins control (see below image) is set appropriately. To edit the settings defined for an existing adjustment, click its pin. The current settings will be loaded under the Effect list. Click and drag on the image to apply the local adjustment mask. If you want to see the adjustment mask, click the Show Selected Mask Overlay checkbox below the image (the area where the currently selected local adjustment will be applied is overlaid in red, similar to a quick mask mode in Photoshop.

The local adjustment dialogues remember the previously used settings when you create a new adjustment. You might want to double click the word Effect below the mask section, to reset all the adjustments to no effect, so you can set the desired settings for the new adjustment starting from scratch, before you create the next local adjustment.

If you want to change the settings on any previous adjustment, select its pin, and change the settings as desired (including position, size and feathering). For radial masks you can also use the Invert check box to switch the mask from on in the centre to on everywhere outside the centre. So to make a vignette, you might turn off Invert, choose an adjustment that is a drop in exposure, then draw from the centre of the image outwards to generate the vignetting you desire. Alternatively, say to brighten someone’s face, you might set exposure up 0.5 stops, click on the Invert control and draw a radial gradient with a large feather over the face.

Sometimes you may want to tweak the mask for such an adjustment. for example you might use a linear gradient from the horizon up to darken the sky. However, you don’t want to darken the promontory that juts out into the sea crossing the horizon. There are a couple of ways to exclude this promontory from the local adjustment. First, you could paint out that area from the mask – whilst editing the adjustment, click the Brush word in the top line (Mask:) of the dialog. Make sure you have clicked Show Selected Mask Overlay, so you can see the extent of the gradient mask. Move the cursor over the image and it shows two concentric circles representing the size and feather of the brush. Hold down ALT and the central plus symbol changes to a minus symbol. Now, whilst holding down Alt, paint over the bits you want to exclude from the adjustment (ie the promontory). Use the scroll wheel to adjust brush size, and shift-scroll wheel to adjust the feather, and zoom in at 1:1 or greater to allow greater precision in your selection. You can also add to the mask by releasing Alt, so your linear gradient can be extended if needed. Radial gradients can be modified in a similar way.

The second way, is to use a Range Mask (see the control at the bottom of the local adjustment panel). In the example we are discussing, you could use a luminance range mask since the sky is brighter than the land. Or a colour range mask since the sky is blue and the land is green. Select a colour range mask, then click the colour sampler tool on the sky. Since the pesky promontory is a different colour it will be excluded from the adjustment by the Range Mask.

The luminance Range Mask is also very powerful. Here you set the limits on luminance on the underlying image where the mask is to apply. Drag the left slider to the right to exclude darker parts of the image from the mask, or drag the right slider to the left to exclude brighter areas. The Smoothness control adjusts the blending at the edges. Have a play and see what it does on your images.

Brush Adjustment Tool

This has similar adjustment settings available as the linear and radial gradients, but in this case you use a paintbrush tool to paint in the mask. Below the settings is a section defining the brush – here you can set the size, and the feather (or use scroll-wheel/Shift-scroll) and the flow (how rapidly the brush strokes build up – with a low flow, you can use multiple strokes to gradually build up the adjustment mask, for subtle effects). You can define two brushes: A and B with different sizes and feather and flow (and the Erase brush also has its own size/feather/flow setting). For example you might have one large for the expanses, and one small for fine detail around edges. Once you have started a mask, you can click the Erase to switch to erase mode, for example if you painted past an edge in error. The Auto Mask setting can be useful to help automatically end the mask when you get to a contrasty edge. Often it will leave quite a speckled mask over the areas painted, but you can turn off Auto Mask and paint over these areas away from the edges you want to define the mask to fill in the missing flecks. The Density control allows you to tone down the overall effect of your adjustments (sometimes it is easy to set an extreme set of adjustments, making it easy to see where the adjustment changes the image, then dial back the effect to a more reasonable level later. There is also a Range Mask control that works in the same way as it does with linear and radial gradient local adjustments.

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Split Toning

Think about the light on an image. Consider an image with end of day sunshine casting shadows across a landscape/cityscape. The sunlit areas get warm, orangish light, whilst the shadows will be colder, with light from the blue sky. You can exagerate or reduce this effect with split toning, by selectively tweaking the colour balance in the shadows and highlights. This can give your images a cinematic feel (cinematographers regularly use split-toning effects) or selectively bring out colours for added impact.

You can use split toning more creatively. For example you may want to add a sunset sky to a landscape you took at midday. Using split toning, you can add warm sunset tones to the highlights and cool the shadows for a more end-of-day look. Perhaps you want to make a street scene you took in the day look like the night. Dial down the exposure, boost the exposure round the street-lights. Use split toning to cool the shadows and add warmth to the highlights you added for the fake street-lighting.

Whatever you use it for, remember that split toning usually works best to make subtle adjustments.

Here is an image of the Carrillon in Canberra, comparing before and after a rather inexpert and heavy handed split toning treatment.

Split toning is built into most image editing packages and generally works in a similar way. Look up instructions for your particular package.

Here are some web-resources that might get you started.

Further reading

Split toning in Lightroom:

Here is a video based one

A more advanced approach

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