Post production often seems like a dirty little secret. I know some photographers that don’t like to talk about it. Others swear it is the devils work, and only for those photographers that cannot take good shots.
I call bullshit to that last statement.
Post Production should be considered any work you do to a photograph after you take it. Some call it “Photoshopping”, but that is rather package specific, and often implies some gross adjustment or head/body replacements that we all love to do to those photos of friends.. It isn’t the devil’s work. It isn’t for photographers that cannot take good shots. It isn’t only for people that don’t know how to setup lighting properly.
Pretty much every photograph you see today has gone through some post production work. Some might be very slight, others might be very severe (thinking about those before/after shots of Madonna that went round the web a while back..). Back when I worked in the film industry, every shot went through post production – and that had many stages to it including color grading and so on. It is the same with photography.
We can argue that digital photography has made us sloppy photographers, that modern day cameras lack the contrast and color grade of film, and that now we need post production more than ever. I am not the one to say whether this is true or not. What I can say is that I utilize every tool available to me to get the best shot I personally can. That includes post production software.
Post production can seem overly complex and like some odd black art. It really shouldn’t be seen that way. There should be a good personal process behind it (more on that later) and it shouldn’t be seen as stabbing away in the dark until you get something you like.
What I want to do in this post is outline some tips on how to approach food photography post production, as well as give a full video demo of how I personally develop a tricky shot. So lets start by a list of suggestions for getting the best out of post production:
1) Get it right “on camera”
I am sure it seems strange to talk about post production but then the best piece of advice I can give is to get the shot right before post production. The artistic term “polishing turds” meaning to give some sparkle to an otherwise badly done scene, comes to mind. Something that is never going to look fantastic, because no matter how much make-up you apply you are still dealing with a swamp donkey.
(does that make sense?)
So the best piece of advice I can give is to spend time getting a shot perfect through the lens, before it hits post production. Work hard on composition and lighting. Make the food look as beautiful as possible on the plate. It looks more natural when you don’t have to tweak so much later. It sure as heck is easier later on too when you sit down in front of that shiny computer. I also believe it makes you a far better photographer and helps develop “your eye” for a good shot – which is money in the bank.
2) Know your process
This might seem like a strange one too, but one that is absolutely critical. It is often something that people don’t think about, but everyone has a process to everything – from washing dishes to developing photographs. Once you know and understand your process you will start developing a personal style to your work. Your post production will look better, your shots will have a similar feel. The work also goes by much faster. Which gives more time for reading blogs, and twitter….
Even if you think you don’t have a process, you do. It can be hard to think about at first, but once you really get it down, it makes post production a breeze.
To help – here is a rough outline of my post production process. Depending on the shot it might not need all these stages, but this is the way I work – I start with large, gross changes and end with small detail work (if required).
crop/straighten. white balance/color grade if required. whole image exposure work. individual color saturation control. local area exposure work (boosting/reducing exposure in some areas of an image). spot removal, image cleanup.
So give some thought to your post production process (as well as your photography process).
3) stay away from store bought “actions” or “presets”
Sure those actions that make your shot look like an old Polaroid camera are fun, but in the end they can make your work look generic and at worst gimmicky. Personally I like shots with true to life colors. I would prefer to spend my time working on a color palette for a shot (linen colors, wood colors etc) rather than giving some strange color shift in post production.
There is nothing wrong with some color work in images however – but make it your own. If your work has a naturally desaturated style, perfect! Make YOUR OWN presets to get your images half way there, then work the individual shots further.
4) Know the look you want to achieve before you even break out your camera
When I start a shot I try to plan out in that large hairy noggin of mine the look I am going for. That doesn’t mean that your plans cannot change and evolve, but start out with an idea in mind. This helps keep your process focused, and actually aids in creativity – you have a starting point to develop from.
The shot of the hanging lamb prosciutto that I am demoing in this post for example – I knew that I wanted strong wide bright light on one side, and dark, soft shadows on the other. I had been looking at some Caravaggio books that Danika has, and these gave me inspiration for this one. So that is how I started. I knew that the garage was going to give me pretty much the light that I wanted – since it is a dark room, with a lot of light just at one end.
5. Think Natural
This is personal preference really, but I like to try and let my colors be accurate and true to life in my photography. I am not a huge fan of large hue shifts in images, funking around with split toning and all that jazz. Personally I think it can do food a great disservice unless you wield those tools with a very, very gentle hand. So when I develop my images I try to do what I can to make the colors as spot on to real life as I can, and any color adjustment I do on an image is just to get it looking real.
So as promised here is the video.. It is a little long, but apparently that isn’t a bad thing. It covers my process of taking a RAW image from a camera, and developing it in to a final shot for my blog (or where ever).