Noise reduction: I go very easy here and only make very small changes. I just don’t like the smooth, vagueness that noise reduction makes. You can make small changes with positive benefits without visible adverse effects, but as soon as you get heavy handed, you’ll end up with very digital and artificial looking images in my view. I do not see a bit of noise as a problem and often introduce grain into my image anyway. The Leica Monochrom produces lovely ‘grain’ by the way.
Lens corrections: By default, I tend to leave these off, although I will routinely remove Chromatic Aberration, under the Color tab of the lens Corrections panel. I find images often look odd when all vignetting is removed, but in some cases I will go back in here and allow profile adjustments (to remove distortion etc) and then decide whether to accept full reduction of vignetting, or scale it back somewhat. I normally leave a portion or all of the vignetting. After all, with film, you could only remove it in the darkroom and I never seemed to do that…
Effects: I leave grain out of things until the printing stage, normally. I wrote a small piece a while ago about whether images gain from grain, which expands on what the benefits are (in my view). As I explain in that article, it is not about making images look like they were shot on film, but enjoying the organic look of an image that more accurately reflects the imperfections of the imperfect and organic world. It helps images look less synthetic and can add structure and ‘tooth’ to smooth areas of tone, when this is desirable.
Toning: This is very difficult to get right on screen, IMO and easier to get right with multiple test prints. I try to limit the amount of toning to a couple of points and Always aim to get a B&W image that works well in neutral form first. Toning can become a crutch for poor processing, just as with silver prints. Split toning is an easy way of solving problems in tonal separation, but getting to the root of the problem is preferable IMHO. I often prefer subtle tones that would replicate the slight tone I would get with different paper base hues and developers n the darkroom. I did very little toning in the darkroom other than a bit of selenium, or possibly gold.
Step Away: This is critical. I will have worked through an image to this point and do my best to avoid overworking it. If you keep going you tend to get stuck in a limited tunnel of thinking based on what got you to this point. By leaving it a day or two and having a few looks at the images over time, I find I come back to them with a clear sense of what I feel needs to be improved. Having forgotten what I did in the first place I am able to look upon them with fresh eyes with fresh ideas. Sometimes this involves starting again. More often it just takes a rebalancing and perhaps the use of a slightly reworked ‘route’ from an early to middle point in the development process. Another aspect is that time allows the images to sink into us, so our emotional response to them become more stable. This will govern how we see their final presentation. As other images are processed, we may need to tweak earlier images to ensure they still work alongside their siblings.
It will have taken far longer to read this than it will have taken me to do my first proper process of a file. I am estimating anything from 2-10 mins. After a break, the second processing can range from ‘nothing more required’, to a tweak, to 30 plus mins of trying to tease out that last bit of quality. Sometimes I come back a third time and maybe I will start again. It just depends.
So what about Silver Efex and the like? Well, I tend to use these for one of three purposes:
- I just cannot get what I want from the file: I will import an unworked file into Silver Efex, or Film Pack and try a bunch of presets just to see what happens. Sometimes I find something I like. If I do, I will generally figure out what I like and what has happened to the file and go back to LR and work on the files there, so I am still working with a DNG. Rarely, I will find the 3rd party program is just making life easier and stick with the TIFF, which will be saved and imported to sit alongside the original DNGs.
- LR grain is not that good IMO. The algorithm appears cruder and does not vary grain distribution as much from throughout the tonal range as the film dedicated software packages do. The addition of grain is enough reason to own these programs for the dedicated B&W user.
- I have no time and absolute quality is not important. I can run a bunch of files through the program and have something to work with quickly.
What else do I do when thing are not working out? I use a big mallet. I will sometimes use extreme changes in exposure or contrast to force myself outside the constraints of what I think the image should look like. There is no honest photographer alive who has not accidentally over or under-printed an image and ended up changing their printing approach with that negatve as a result of that accident… a happy accident. Probably the best example I can think of is a Magnum photographer whose entire B&W film processing technique was derived from a terrible mistake. I am talking about Trent Parke, whose work I find distinctive, original and very. Accidents are part of learning. Deliberate careless experimentation is no less critical. I also found then when Robin Bell used to print some of my negatives, I would learn a lot from his different interpretation and I now try to push myself outside myself at times, when it is clear that my conscious mind is limiting my freedom.
That was a lot more typing than I had expected, but please ask away if you have any questions!