Category Archives: Software

Ode to Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom 5 allows you to manage, edit and archive your photo and image library

Adobe Lightroom 5 allows you to manage, edit and archive your photo and image library. (Screen capture courtesy Bill Ferris)

I’m exhausted and my brain is numb. Numb like your lower lip after a visit to the dentist, like your foot when it falls asleep, like, well…like I’m feeling after finishting a two-month long project to archive a photographic collection dating back more than half a century.

I don’t even have a large collection of images. Some photographers shoot hundreds of thousands of exposures a year. My image library tips the scale at a relatively small 40,883 images. Not all are photo’s I’ve taken. The oldest dates back to 1962. It’s a shot of me–probably taken by my father–sitting in a high chair wearing a big grin and Hershey’s chocolate all over my face. The most recent were taken last week when I went up to Lowell Observatory to shoot the removal of the historic Clark Refractor from its dome on Mars Hill. The 120-year-old telescope will be fully refurbished and return to service in 2015.

So, what in the name of rational thought possessed me to take on this project? Hmm, that’s a good question.

Clicking on an image folder in the Lightroom 5 Library displays previews or thumbnails of the images in that library. The panel to the left of the preview window lists the directories and sub-folders in your library. The panel to the right is where keywords are assigned.

Let me begin the answer by asking another question: of what value is a 40,000-image collection? In simplest terms, it depends on the value of those images to other people. Of course, that answer is predicated on one huge assumption: that you can easily locate an image in a timely manner. If you’ve inherited a million dollars but it’s locked in a trunk at the bottom of the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean, of what real value is that inheritance? In other words, if you can’t find anything in a 40,000-image library, of what real value are the images?

Now, in fairness, my archive wasn’t a complete disaster. All the photos were collected on my computer’s hard drive in directories labelled by the year in which the photos were taken. Each directory contained a collection of sub-folders identified by the subject matter of the photos within. For example, the 2007 directory contained folders for the family vacation to Disney World, my spring backpacking trip in Grand Canyon and so on. All the photos were there but the amount of time it would take me to track down a specific image was substantial…if I could find the image at all.

So late in 2013, I decided to get my photo archive in order.  A 40,000 image collection may not be sizable by some standards, but it was all I had.

Think of Lightroom as a photographic version of a library catalog. Most people, when looking for a specific book at a library, don’t just wander the aisles hoping to catch a glimpse of the author’s name or the book title. The smart ones head straight for the computer catalog system. They enter the title and maybe the author’s name, then click the “Search” button. This produces a list of actual books stored in the library along with their respective locations. It may take a few minutes to track down the specific aisle, shelf and section. But it’s pretty easy to find the book you seek, even in a library housing tens of thousands of volumes.

Lightroom 5 features a powerful search tool. A search for the keyword, Yosemite, displays all photos assigned that keyword. So, whether an image is tagged by location, subject, weather conditions, people shown or other factors, keywording is central to taking full advantage of Lightroom’s capabilities.

Lightroom is your photo archive’s catalog system…and so much more. To begin the archiving process, I first imported all my photos into Lightroom, There is no physical moving of images involved. Ligthroom simply built a list of 40,000+ image file names, and the directories and sub-folders in which they are stored on my computer. The Lightroom library is basically a data file identifying where images can be found. Next, I worked in Lightroom to assign keywords to each image in the archive. With 40,000 images to keyword, I figured it would be simplest to start with the oldest and work forward in time to the most recent.

The 1962 directory contains one sub-folder titled, “1962 Bill Baby.” This sub-folder contains one image. In the Lightroom keyword window, I typed my name, the word “baby,” the city and state where the photo was taken and the name of the street where we lived. A more recent folder might contain a hundred photos from a day hike at Grand Canyon. Lightroom allowed me to select a group of images that will share the same keyword, and type that word just once to apply it to all one hundred photos. Lightroom even builds a keyword collection, automatically adding each word the first time it is used. If the word is, sunset, typing the letter “s” prompts Lightroom to display all the keywords in its collection starting with that letter. To select, click on the word or keep typing until it moves to the top of the list. Then, hit “Enter.”

Keywording photos in Lightroom is relatively easy. This is one user-intuitive application. The volume of images to be keyworded will determine the sheer volume of time required to complete the task. After all the images in a sub-folder had been keyworded, I reviewed the images to identify the selects. Lightroom allows you to rate images by flagging them, assigning a color code or giving a rating of one-through-five stars to a photo, To keep things simple, I assigned a five-star rating to any image i consider to have potential commercial value.

Lightroom also includes a “Collections” tool. A Collection contains photos sharing the same trait. For example, one of the default collections is for images given a five-star rating. Any image given that rating is automatically added to the collection. And here’s the brilliance of Lightroom: it doesn’t make a duplicate copy of the original image. It simply includes the data for all five-star images in that collection. Think of it as a national park with multiple pathways leading to the same view.

Lightroom 5 comes with a full-featured suite of image editing tools. Much of what you currently do in Photoshop and other image editing aps can be done both easily and quickly in Lightroom 5.

Lightroom also features a suite of image editing tools. When you double-click on the thumbnail for an image, the image expands to fill its window. Click on the “Develop” tab to begin editing the image. There are adjustments for white balance, exposure and contrast; noise reduction; tools to correct for lens distortion; masks and healing brushes allowing specific areas within an image to be tweaked; straightening and cropping of images. These are just some of the image editing features and, oh by the way, Lightroom is non-destructive. The original RAW file remains fully preserved.

Another of the default Collections in Lightroom is for images assigned a red color. I apply red only to the best of the best. All are five-star images that have been polished in post. At present, of the 4,699 five-star images, just 46 have been colored red. Eventually, I’ll work through the full collection of five-star images and add more selects from that group to this special collection. When an image is ready to be shown to the world, Lightroom’s publishing tools that allow it to be sent directly to Facebook, Flickr and other social media sites.

I’ve only touched on a handful of the features and capabilities of Adobe Lightroom 5. It would be difficult to overstate how impressed I am by this product. As I continue to explore its capabilities, I will share the good and bad of what I find. But for the present, suffice it to say that I enthusiastically recommend Adobe Lightroom as an image management, editing and archiving tool.

Now, get out there and shoot!

Bill Ferris | February 2014

After the Shutter Clicks

For many photographers, pushing the shutter release button ends the process of taking a picture. They hear that satisfying, “click,” check the image on the camera’s LCD display, smile approvingly and move on to the next photo op. Later, the image gets uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, Google+ or another social network so friends and family can share in the moment. The photo, however, was done when the shutter closed. Pushing the button and hearing the click completed the image-making process.

I’d like to encourage you to adopt a new approach, one where the process of creating a photo is just getting started when you push that button. After the shutter clicks, there are simple tools you can use to transform a good photograph into something special.

What makes a photograph special? Well, it begins with good composition. Everything visible within the frame should help tell the story of the photograph. Since stories typically have beginnings and endings, a good photograph will often lead the eye from one area to another. Exposure is another critical element of good photography. Lighting creates the mood of the scene you’re trying to capture. Proper exposure conveys that mood through the photo to the viewer. Investing a few minutes of your time to work with a raw exposure in image editing software to enhance these important qualities can rescue marginal photos and transform good photos into great ones.

A web search will reveal a host of good options for free and reasonably-priced image editing software. GIMP, Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery are some of the free apps you’ll encounter. Adobe offers a diverse suite of excellent image management and editing software. I happen to use Photoshop Elements, which is a stripped down version of their well-regarded Photoshop product. Apple, Microsoft and others also offer excellent image editing apps. I’m not going to advocate for one over another. I will suggest you choose an app able to perform, at a minimum, the following functions: brightness/contrast adjustment, hue/saturation adjustment, crop and unsharp mask.

This JPEG is an unedited conversion of the original RAW exposure from which the below photograph was created. Comparing the two, look for modest brightness/contrast, color saturation, crop and unsharp mask adjustments.

This JPEG is an unedited conversion of the original RAW exposure from which the below photograph was created. Comparing the two, look for modest brightness/contrast, color saturation, crop and unsharp mask adjustments. (Bill Ferris)

Brightness/contrast adjustment is the first tool I use to help an image pop! One of the benefits of shooting landscapes early in the morning or late in the day is the way light from a low-hanging sun sculpts a scene. Shadows create contrast. They separate the foreground from the background and define an image. Well, if you’re on vacation and take a lunch break at a scenic overlook, the sun will be high overhead and the landscape before you will be almost devoid of shadows. A raw image of this scene won’t have the pleasing level of contrast and detail you desire. Opening the exposure in your app of choice, decreasing the brightness and increasing the contrast will enhance what little contrast there is in the image.

After making modest adjustments to brightness and contrast, the next tool I reach for is hue/saturation adjustment. Very rarely will I make any change to the hue of an image. Most digital cameras do a pretty good job of rendering colors accurately. If whites look white, skin tones look natural and the sky looks blue, the hue is good and can be left as is. Saturation is another matter. Think of saturation as the depth or intensity of color in an image. I also think of saturation as the it factor.

When standing on the rim of Grand Canyon or at the edge of another spectacular vista, there is something about being present in that place which makes colors feel more intense. It’s difficult to convey that feeling with a photo that renders colors merely as they are. By enhancing the saturation, you help the photo convey the way the scene felt to you, the way you experienced that moment. To those of you thinking, “There he goes again, getting all abstract and mushy,” I can respect that. Rich colors may not be your thing and that’s OK. Photography is a big tent hobby with plenty of room for disparate views on what works. Pushing the color saturation works for me and, if you give it a try, I think you’ll find it makes your photos more powerful, more memorable.

Crop, is the next tool up in my image editing kit. You should know, I invest considerable time studying and adjusting composition prior to taking the raw exposure. As a result, I don’t often use the crop tool during processing. However, this isn’t because composition isn’t important to me. It’s because I try to get composition right, before pushing the shutter release. I’m not always successful in this regard and, when I do get a photo with extraneous space or odd framing, I have no reluctance to make a correction. That’s when the crop tool gets used.

Crop is useful for removing distractions that prevent the viewer from seeing the subject of your photo and understanding the story you’re trying to tell. If you see a brilliant waterfall and think, “Ooh, there’s a great photo,” do all that you can to fill the frame with the waterfall. If the subject is a family member, let that person fill the frame. If the story you’re telling with the image is about the relationship between a person and the vista they’re amidst, crop the image so that the person and the landmark they’re admiring define the frame.

This is the processed final version of the above RAW exposure. Brightness/contrast and color saturation adjustments make this image pop more than the original. The applied crop removes my distracting shadow and emphasizes the relationship between the hiker and the distant butte. Finally, a modest unsharp mask gives this image a bit more impact by helping fine details stand out.

This is the processed final version of the above RAW exposure. Brightness/contrast and color saturation adjustments make this image pop more than the original. The applied crop removes my distracting shadow and emphasizes the relationship between the hiker and the distant butte. Finally, a modest unsharp mask gives this image a bit more impact by helping fine details stand out. (Bill Ferris)

To put the finishing touches on my photo processing, I reach for the unsharp mask. A light touch with unsharp mask will enhance fine detail in your photo in subtle but impactful ways. Again, the net result of a modest unsharp mask is an image that seems to pop just a bit. It’s similar to that moment when the focus is just right in pair of binoculars. You turn and turn the focus knob until, pop, the image is crisp and clear. That’s what unsharp mask delivers when applied with subtlety and discretion.

Using image editing software and these simple tools, you can elevate your photography to a new level. And in so doing, the images you create will do a better job of conveying the dynamic nature of a scene which inspired you to reach for your camera.

So, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | August 2013