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How I Edited a Photo of my Muse. Again.

I have a photographic muse. Don't worry Sharon (if you're reading this) - it´s not a she, it's a thing. And it's a thing that I keep coming back to. I don't have all that many of my own prints hanging in the house, but the one that I do is of the iconic Cinque Torri in the Dolomites. In fact, the last time I did an editing blog was for an image of this rock formation, which you can read here. I am fascinated by the 'Five Towers', a crumbling outcrop of rocks that sit on a grassy ridge just below Passo di Falzarego near Cortina d'Ampezzo.

Cinque Torri From Afar || Olympus 15 mm, f/11, 1/125", ISO 200

I'm going to include here the previous photo from 2019 (in case you're not inclined to click the link above) and a subsequent shot from 2021 to give you some closer views.

Cinque Torri Autumn 2019 || Olympus 18 mm, f/6.3, 1/400", ISO 200
Cinque Torri August 2021 || Olympus 11 mm, f/22, 1/50", ISO 800

Some Myths about Post-Processing

Some people are rabidly against digital post processing; they think it's cheating and not real photography. These people are ignorant and/or too lazy to learn digital darkroom skills. Now I'm normally diplomatic to a fault and make all the allowances I can. This is my line in the sand. Good (digital) darkroom skills are an essential part of (digital) photography. Ansel Adam's images were perfected in the darkroom and digital photography is no different, in fact this even more true in the digital age. Why do I think that it's ignorant to denigrate post processing? Because all images are processed! The pure camera sensor data - the RAW file - is not the same as the Jpeg that comes out of your camera. The latter is an automatically processed image according to pre-programmed parameters in your camera's (or smartphone's) processor. Complaining that editing a photo on a computer is cheating is like saying that it's cheating to hand-make a pizza instead of using a shop-bought frozen pizza to heat up in the oven!

But back to the edit. I don't use Lightroom or Photoshop, not because I have anything against the products per se, but back when I started getting serious about my photography a couple of years ago, Adobe had just started going over to a subscription model - you can't buy the software any more, you have to pay for it on a monthly basis. Something about this sticks in my craw. I'd rather pay for a product and then have it in perpetuity than be chained to a product that could, for example, suddenly increase the monthly rent from ~€10 per month to, say, €100, or Adobe could go broke. No, I know they'll never do that, but they could. When looking around for alternatives, I ended up with ON1 Photo Raw, a photo editor that combines many of the functions of LR and PS. Despite a few technical difficulties with the software over the years, I have now found a hardware setup that plays extremely well with ON1 (you can check out the specs here) and it does play very well with Olympus raw files.

The one thing that ON1 does not do well is edit Olympus Hi-Res images. I noticed this last year - funnily enough when editing photos of - you guessed it - Cinque Torri. Images of cumulus clouds were losing a lot of highlight details in the Hi-Res files when compared with the standard ORF files. The other thing that ON1 doesn't yet do is edit the RAW files of the new OMDS OM-1 (my new camera), so I have to first export to Tif - which are really memory hungry; the Olympus Jpeg for a 20 MP image is 12 MB, the ORF RAW file 17 MB and the 16-bit TIF 115 MB (!). Taking this up to the 50 MP Hi-Res files, this gives 19 MB, 38 MB and 285 MB per image. Sure, I've got a 6 TB hard-drive, but still...

Now I'm the first to admit that this isn't going to be an image that appeals to everyone. It's not a 'blue skies and sunny slopes' photo. It's gloomy, moody and atmospheric. But it is another image that I could imagine hanging on a wall somewhere. So, into the edit:

Step-by-Step Edit

The initial photo is rather dark. This is because I exposed for the highlights to avoid having any part of the image (cloud highlights) be overexposed. This allows me to keep all the details in the clouds - the brightest part of the picture. The rest of the image can be exposure-boosted in post-processing without losing such detail.

Straight out of camera

Pro Tip: If you find yourself repeatedly using the same Effects and Local Adjustments in ON1 Photo Raw, to avoid giving yourself RSI selecting the same Effects and Sub-Effects again and again, create a global preset with all of these Effects clearly labeled and pre-loaded but not yet selected. This will let you apply each of these standard effects simply at the click of the radial button. The Mask and Opacity can then be applied individually, but you'll have saved yourself a lot of time (and mouse clicks) by preloading them. You can even employ them then at import!

Global Edit

I then applied a minimal Global Edit; most of my ON1 editing takes place on the Effects or Local levels combined with masks, something that ON1 solves much more elegantly than Photoshop IMHO. The global edit was to increase the exposure by a 1/3 stop and saturation by 15 points. Normally I wouldn't touch global saturation, but as it was so overcast the colours were really muted.

Exposure and saturation boosted
Effects-Level Edits

The next step was to apply a global effect Colo(u)r Enhancer: Colo(u)r Increase, which I often apply to my photos to enhance the natural colours.

In order to raise the exposure of the forest, I used the Tone Enhancer: Shadows Lighter followed by Tone Enhancer: Tonal Contrast. This is my go-to sharpening tool, especially for forest scenes like this; it brings back a level of detail into the image. Like any sharpening tool, however, do not over-use it - no-one likes a crunchy image. For my Olympus files I have it set to 50% opacity by default. Because I didn't want to enhance the sharpening on the clouds or the rocks, I first inverted the mask and then brushed in the Tonal Contrast to the forest.

Colour boosted (Increase Colo(u)r) and Tonal Contrast

Dodging and Burning

The penultimate step on this edit was a quick dodge and burn. These are carryover terms from the darkrooms of yesteryear, where it was common to reduce the light in over-exposed areas (burning) and increase the light in deeper shadows to re-introduce details (dodging). My pre-loaded Local brushes are a little more sophisticated than this; the dodge brush increases exposure by 0.5 stops and additionally increases Shadows by 50%, conversely the burn brush decreases exposure by 0.5 stops and highlights by 75%. Rather than a brush, I applied the burn adjustment as a gradient filter from the top down to bring some more detail to the sky. I boosted contrast by about 25% as well to bring out more detail. I used burn to emphasise the light on the light spots (it's not just about controlling excess light, but enhancing details to bring even more attention to them.

Foreground shadows boosted and highlights emphasised

Clouds made more moody

Almost done now; the pass road was a bit of an eyesore. Using the Healing Brush in ON1 Photo Raw I cloned out the road to remove the distraction.

Lastly, I decided that the image would benefit from cropping; I'm a huge fan of the 16:9 aspect ratio for landscapes, but here I used a 2:3 crop; there's not much in the bottom and top 1/6 and I found the rocks bottom left to be a little distracting, so here's the final image (as well as the unedited version for comparison). I try not to be too heavy-handed in my editing; my goal is always to emphasise what caught my attention when I took the image and re-create the impression I had at the time rather than create a covertly obvious digital work of art.

Final Edit
Starting Point

Here are some more before/afters from by all-too-brief excursion to the Dolomites in May. It was supposed to be a four day trip, but I fell ill less than 48 h in and decided to come home early rather than expose Matthias to unnecessary to my germs.

I don't think I've ever presented my images like this before - unedited vs. final edits, so enjoy.

Click on one of the images to launch the gallery view which will allow you to view the larger images.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on post-processing, I'd be interested to hear what your processes are.

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