Preparing for screen vs. print are two very different things. Firstly, I will aim to produce files that look good onscreen, but are not perfected for screen (and certainly not for print). This normally means setting my screen (Mac) about three or four bars short of maximum brightness. Once finished, images are further adjusted for either web use or print. That’s a process I won’t cover here.
I do not adjust individual images in the Library panel. I find it too opaque and unrefined and just don’t feel comfortable doing so. Instead, I use it for managing the image library, generating virtual copies, creating collections, rating images etc. All individual editing is done in the ‘Develop’ panel, where I can make smaller adjustments and see what has actually been adjusted. I may go back into Library if I wish to ‘synchronise settings’ to transpose adjustments on one image onto another. This is a feature I used a lot, because once I have cracked certain basic characteristics of an image, if I hve related images, then transferring settings saves a lot of work. I often make further tweaks, but there is no point reinventing the wheel if it is not needed. At times, the synchronization does not result in the very best image one could make, but it can help to ensure a common feel to the image. I do believe that it is often better to pursue harmony amongst images than individual perfection, if the latter means that they don’t sit alongside each other nicely. If the images are not part of a series and truly stand alone, then one can afford to ignore that and start from scratch aiming only for the best you can make.
Before I edit an image, I create a virtual copy and then work on that. Sometimes I make multiple copies and see where different approaches take me, but more often than not I use virtual copies for comparing different finishes i.e. toning, grain, subtle highlight changes etc.
I will invariably go straight to the Basic panel and under ‘Treatment’ I will select B&W. This does an auto conversion to B&W.
I will then look at what sort of tonal separation I am getting, as well as the basic image parameters of density (exposure) and contrast. If I have any concerns about these, I will make some quick adjustments. If it is obvious that I need to change exposure, I make this change first. I will see how this affects the perception of the tones and then decide on contrast and the overall tone curve. Normally I default to a medium contrast curve at the beginning and then make custom curves if I am not happy with how it is looking. Often, I will stretch out the toe a little (flatten off the bottom left of the curve a touch) and give a slightly more pronounced shoulder. The end result of these two is usually to slightly steepen the middle zone contrast as well. Once I am happy with the meat of the image (everything but the highlights and shadows), I will revisit exposure again and make any required tweaks to rebalance the image. I prefer to work on curves early and the actual ‘contrast slider later on. Curves are more fundamental and I feel they need attention first.
Next I work on the following and usually in the following order:
- Highlights & Whites
If you are shooting a scene without strong shadows, one will often have to sink the black level a fair amount to lay down a decent black, which will re-frame the rest of the tonal scale. Once I have done this, I will consider what impact it has had a little higher up the scale. Are the shadows now blocked up? Do they need a shadow lift, or would it be better to raise the overall exposure again? Lowering the black level does of course darken the image overall, so it is a matter of judgment as to whether shadow or exposure should be adjusted too (or neither).
Highlights and Whites are both tricky, because one has to decide whether to adjust these globally, or to do local changes i.e. burning in highlights. While the same could be said for the paragraph above (blacks and shadows), I tend to find it easier to determine, because you need to achieve a good black first (for many images). Once you have that, you can see how it has impacted the remainder of the image and do a global shadow lift or local exposure changes, or both.
I will normally adjust the white level first and then tweak the highlights to bring highlights to within an acceptable range, without killing the light in the rest of the image. To help with this, I always, absolutely religiously use a white ‘black out’ option, so when I hit the L key, I get a white surround to the image. This helps me to gauge where my whites are relative to this border. I know a lot of people default to black or grey, but think for B&W work this is a bad idea. A personal perspective? Yes; however, its one I feel strongly about. White, or off white is the reference you have in the mount of a framed and mounted image, as well as the white border of a print, so why would you use black of grey? Using the L key for ‘lights out’ is something I probably do dozens of times for each image. You have to keep checking how your overall (global) and local tones are changing in relation to a reference and for me that will always be ‘paper base white’. More on this later. I also think it is crucial to bear in mind that highlights are often not best placed as high up the brightness scale as you might think, because they can appear insubstantial and weak. If you have good blacks and dark tones, you can afford to lower your highlights and get good detail and tonal variance in clouds, for example. Clearly, you do not want the image to appear dark and dead, but with decent print illumination, which is crucial to allowing a framed print to sing, it can be surprising how much highlight density you need. The same goes for computer screens. If you have very weak/bright highlights, if someone views them on a computer with a very bright screen, they will vanish altogether.
So, I adjust global white levels then highlight levels and will use the go back shortcuts (or go into history and jump back in time) to go back and forth over these changes to see whether I am losing image sparkle. I want to get to the point of bringing highlights within printable range and to look nice on screen but stop short of creating dullness. Once I am at this point, I will then look at what local changes need to be made. I make the majority of these changes using the ‘Brush’ adjustments. I do use graduated filters sometimes, but find them much less flexible as they always have a straight edge and you cannot control the gradient very precisely. Even if I have a regular straight skyline, I normally use brushes to burn in. This allows me to change brush radius, feathering, density and flow and of course apply it in an uneven way. When I do use grads, I will often use a series of them at different angles, strengths and depths, just as I would burn in in the darkroom.
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