Photoshop Post Production Techniques

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from photographers is how I get my images to look the way they do. The answer is deceptively simple. Vision, previsualization, technique and artistry using any tool at my disposal.

It’s hard now to imagine a time when there were no digital cameras and Photoshop. Long before I became a professional photographer, I spent much of my life in a darkroom. Starting in 6th grade with a darkroom in a basement and later becoming a professional printer specializing in hand crafted, custom fine art black and white prints.

My printing technique involved a lot of dodging and burning by hand. Selectively darkening and lightening areas of the print using my hand in various shapes. Think shadow puppets. I also created a set of tools, various shapes cut out of black art board and taped onto pieces of coat hangers. Sometimes, I would add texture to my prints by exposing through a piece of dry mount tissue or other objects. I could change the focus by tilting the easel during exposure. I even had a processing method that used two different developers. All of this was the technique of printing. The look was achieved through experienced post production techniques.

None of this has changed aside from the tools of the trade. Now, instead of a traditional darkroom, we have a digital darkroom. The advantages are mind boggling. Gone are the health related issues associated with the chemicals of a traditional darkroom. The modern darkroom offers tools to create repeatable results. These tools can be altered to fit your vision and style and saved. With Photoshop, the steps taken to create a particular look can be saved as an action. This saves a tremendous amount of time and allows me to bring a fine art feel to nearly everything I do.

The problem with many photographers starting out is they are looking to cut corners. Trying to bypass the vision, previsualization and technique. Looking to create art by purchasing a Photoshop action and pressing a button. Sure, you can quickly mimic the look and feel of everyone else out there that you admire, but it’s not as simple as that.

Compelling images begin with good exposure, composition and light. A moment worth capturing that can hold the attention of the viewer. While shooting, I have a vision for the image I’m creating. In addition to the technique of lighting and framing and capturing my image, in my mind, I already know what I want to do in post production. I have a vision. That vision is tempered with a technique I’ve developed from knowing my tools. Knowing what to reach for to achieve the look I’m wanting to create in my image.

Here is an image from a senior session. The first one is straight out of the camera with no post production other than processing the RAW camera file to a working production file. The second image has been retouched, cropped and enhanced with Photoshop. The image I had in my mind when I was shooting.

Portrait straight out of the camera unretouched

Portrait after retouching in Photoshop

Over the past 10 years, I have created a set of tools, Photoshop actions that are the foundation of my work. Many photographers have approached me, asking if I’d ever sell them. I decided to put together a set of my actions, called the Foundation Set and started selling them earlier this year. It’s been a word of mouth, labor of love and if you are interested, let me know. As someone who is very particular about his images, I’ve never been impressed with any of the creative action sets that are available, with one exception. Totally Rad Actions or TRA.

Created by Doug Boutwell, these Photoshop actions are truly innovative and hip. They’re fun and as the name says, totally RAD dude! If you are looking for a creative jump start or a fresh look to your images, you would be hard pressed to find a more well rounded or more creative set of actions. Never press play and expect art. A true artist rolls up their sleeves and gets dirty. These actions are best used with vision. They are fun and that’s what creativity is all about.

Last, but not least are textures. Digital textures are photos of anything from a concrete wall to a faded, yellowing piece of paper. These are brought into Photoshop and layered over an image. Using the same tools of a traditional darkroom, such as selective dodging and burning, masking and varying opacities and blending modes, you can transform an image into a work of art. I use them sparingly, but haven’t fully utilized their potential yet.

One of the problems with textures is they don’t always work. A lot of hit and miss. Doug Boutwell, in a true moment of inspired genius is poised to once again transform post production workflow for photographers. His soon to be released TRA Dirty Texture Plugin for Photoshop will offer a visual tool to quickly assess any texture file with your image. I can only shake my head in amazement at the brilliance of this new tool.

Here are a set of before and after images to help illustrate how an image is transformed, with vision and technique utilizing every tool possible. What are your thoughts? Favorite recipes? Take a moment and share. Thanks for stopping by!

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Great post Randy! I love TRA and use them on all my images. One question….what was your recipe on the image with the bride and groom in the vineyard?

    1. Dennis…glad you like that image! That particular image was actually pretty straightforward. Part of what I was trying to say about getting it right “in camera”. I started by setting up my RAW file conversion in Lightroom to give me all the detail that I wanted in the image. Make sure I had good shadow detail and that I retained detail information in my highlights. I’m kind of old school that way. It was the way I was trained to shoot and process my images.

      When I brought the image into Photoshop, the first thing I did was a curves adjustment. This snaps in my color and gives me a slight contrast boost. The final contrast adjustments will come later. The next thing I did was retouch any blemishes on their faces and any skin that was showing. Then I used a wonderful plug-in for Photoshop called Portraiture to smooth out the skin without removing the details, such as pores. We don’t want a bride and groom who look like they are barbie dolls!

      Once the skin is finished, I usually go back one step in the history palette and set my history brush to sample from the portraiture step that just finished. Setting the history brush opacity to 60%, I start to paint in the retouched skin until I’m happy with the way it looks. The next step is to use the Warp tool and Liquify to shape and correct things in the image. In this particular image, one of the things I did (at the request of the bride) was to reduce the size of her arm facing the camera. This is an easy thing to do and the groom had a little double chin action going since he as looking down at the bride.

      Next, to boost the color and contrast a bit, I used one of my custom actions called Urban Color. This increases the saturation without distorting the color tones. I selectively painted this in using layer masks. Next is one of my favorite TRA actions, Oh Snap!, which adds a nice final boost of contrast. I usually create a layer mask for the Oh Snap! layer group and paint it in as well. It’s a great action, but nothing is as simple as pushing a button. I always season to taste! I think that’s important to note.

      The final step is to size the image (in this case, it was a 20×30 wall canvas) and sharpen AFTER sizing. Sharpening is always the final step as you should sharpen your print for the media. I sharpen web images differently than wall prints. TRA has a wonderful set of sharpening actions in the TRA set. I also use Nik Sharpener Pro. The new Smart Sharpen in Photoshop is a wonderful tool as you can adjust the sharpening differently for highlights AND shadows. Independent of each other. A very nice tool that’s relatively new to the Photoshop suite of tools.

      Hope that helps! 🙂

  2. Thanks for all that detail Randy. I would love more information on your Foundation Set. Thanks again!

  3. Love the post, the last image is great. How did you do it, if you don’t mind me asking?

  4. Hey Randy, love this post, and the thoroughness of your comment as well. I’m new to doing family shoots and needing to hand over many images versus a select few. My biggest personal challenge right now is coming up with a workflow balance of what images to process in Lightroom, and which ones to process in Photoshop.

    I’ve got recipes in photoshop that I am very happy with, but it seems that for a family portrait / lifestyle session where I could potentially be editing 100ish photos, photoshopping each and every image is just not that practical.

    I want to provide the best images possible, but doing it all in PS doesn’t seem to be very realistic for me due to the time involved. Any suggestions on a healthy Lightroom to Photoshop balance and workflow.


  5. David,

    Thanks for your comment and thoughtful questions. I’ll try and answer them quickly here, but if you want to contact me directly, feel free to do that as well.

    First of all, your comment “I’m new to doing family shoots and needing to hand over MANY images versus a select few.” I disagree. One of the hardest things for me to discover and one of the hardest things for photographers just starting out is getting over this very issue.

    Presenting a LOT of similar images actually dilutes the impact of your work. Ask any photo editor for a newspaper or magazine. Their job is to pick the absolute best and show that ONE image. Showing a number of variations just means that you don’t have the confidence to pick what you feel is the best image and stick with it.

    I used to show 800+ images from a 7 hour wedding coverage. Two years ago, I decided to take that down to 400+. Why? Because I discovered that showing so many images actually dilutes the impact and value of my work. It was also overwhelming to my clients. They are not trained professional photographers. They had an even harder time picking out their favorites than I did getting rid of them.

    A tight edit helps unify your work and strengthen the power of each individual shot. When you go to view the Mona Lisa, you don’t see 3 versions! A cross processed version, a black and white version, one where her expression is just a little different. You see the one, finished and selected Mona Lisa that Leonardo da Vinci wanted you to see. Period.

    Secondly. Most post production actually happens when you shoot. What does this mean? Take the EXTRA time to slow down and manually set your exposure. Do custom white balances, make sure you are controlling your lighting. This will significantly speed up your post production and eliminate the need to Photoshop everything. Take the time to move things, pick up debris or use your legs and walk in closer and change your position. Don’t get into the habit of thinking you can fix things in post production. You’ll be a better shooter and have less back end time.

    Lastly, I completely agree with you about workflow. I hope to post more about my personal workflow this winter when I have the time to compose a thoughtful post.

    I rarely open images in Photoshop anymore. I have developed a workflow that gets me 98% there in Lightroom or Canon Digital Photo Professional. When a customer orders an album or a gallery wrap canvas print for display in their home—that’s when I’ll open the image in Photoshop and do a fine level of retouching and artistic enhancement. Not at the “proof” level of production.

    The image should be about what you are shooting. The moment, the connection, the emotion… not about your post production technique.

    Hope that helps!

  6. Hi there 🙂 i really enjoyed this ! thanks so much! I would love more information on your Foundation Set if possible that would be much appreciated! Go well

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