The 4-Step Framework To Creative Image Post-Processing

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I once read:

Photography is 25% camera, 70% post-processing and 5% of luck.

Whether or not you’re familiar with image editing software or like to spend time in front of computer editing, image post-processing will always be a major part in the photography workflow.

There was a time when I didn’t believe photographs need to be post-processed. Heck, there was a time I didn’t even know post-processing exists and what it means. Little did I know that developing prints from a negative is image post-processing.

I begun editing images when I bought Apple’s Aperture. I had just started shooting with my first DSLR and wanted a software to help me organize my images. All I knew at that time was applying contrast and saturation adjustment.

I didn’t think about post-processing workflow until I upgraded to Lightroom. After years of self-education and experimenting with image post-processing techniques, I’ve developed my own workflow that works well for me.

In this post, I'm going to share my four step approach with you.

The Four-Step Framework To Image Post-Processing

The framework serves as a guide to help me focus on what I want to get out of the image.

What I'm sharing here is not about what software to use or how to post-process your image.

It's about helping you setting a goal orientated mindset. The framework is designed to help you (and me) to think about what you want to achieve in post-processing and how to achieve it.

Let’s check out the four-step framework to image post-processing.

  1. What do you want to convey?
  2. How do you want to convey it?
  3. Applying adjustments
  4. Review the image

It’s All About The Presentation

Like a job interview, first impression is crucial.

How are you going to catch someone’s attention in the first few seconds they lay their eyes on your image?

It's down to one simple thing:

The presentation.

The four-step framework to image post-processing is a systematic approach I developed over the years to help me present my images. Obviously it’s not the only way to approach image post-processing, it's just the way I do it.

On a different note, do you know who’s good at presentation?


Check out this video to see what happens when you apply Apple’s presentation style to McDonalds.

I bet you want to grab some french fries after watching this!

Step 1: What Do You Want To Convey?

image post-processing step 1

I like to shoot landscape and buildings, occasionally I shoot candids and portraits when I feel I’m in the moment.

I was traveling with a couple of friends to Iran and we visited Yazd - a charming small village by the desert. I like Yazd because it has some old buildings with beautiful ancient architecture.

Now I can’t remember what this place was, but we went in for a visit. When we came out, one of my friends did a little dance move as she step out of the wooden door. I was right in front of her, had my camera in hand and I took a shot.

Every image has a story, mood or emotion attached to it - the very reason that made you press the shutter release.

image post-processing abstract icm

ICM, abstract - I was fascinated by the colorful pattern of the ceiling

When you’re sitting at your desk, looking at the image on the computer screen, try to remember what made you take that picture. Were you mesmerized by the incredibly beautiful scene? Did you feel elated when you took that picture? Did you take the shot because you want to document the story and the emotion you experienced?

My first step in image post-processing is to recall the reason I took it, followed by identifying the main subject. Both often come together because the main subject is almost always the reason you took the shot.

This is like setting goals when you’re embarking on a project. Without a defined purpose, you’re just paddling aimlessly in the ocean.

Step 2: How Do You Want To Convey It?

In painting, most artists start with a sketch which serves as a framework for them to work on. The lines they sketched are not definite but act as a guide. They can still change their mind anytime they want.

Without the sketch, some artists, particularly beginner will find it more difficult to paint what they have in mind. It will also take them much longer to paint and they may not paint as well with a sketch on.

This concept is similar in image post-processing. If you have no idea how you want to transform your image then you’re not going to know where to start to make the transformation.

Once you know what you want to convey with your image, the next step is consider how you want it to be conveyed?

What is it in your image that you want viewers to see? Is it the river that winds its way into the mountain? Is it the beautiful clouds lit up by the soft light from the rising sun?

cloister at university of glasgow

Take this image for example (I’ve talked about it in this post). The subject is the architecture - the arches and the space within the cloister. I want viewers to feel the space and appreciate the beautiful curves of the structure.

To present my vision to the viewers, I have to make these features of the cloister more prominent. I need to make the lights and shadows more pronounced so that the arches really stand out. I also need to enhance the source of the light to create a sense of airy and spaciousness.

Step 3: Applying Adjustments

This is where the fun begins.

Once you have pre-visualized what you’re aiming to achieve, it’s time to use the tools you have to create what you have in mind.

I won’t go into the specifics of post-processing for two reasons. (1) Every image is different, there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, and (2) Image post-processing is a huge topic, there’s simply no way we can cover everything in this article.

Instead, I’m going to share with you the principles, which you can apply it to any image and in any image editing software.

Using the same image as the example:

The arches - I can make it more prominent by enhancing the contrast between the lights and shadows. Just to name a few: Curves, Levels, Contrast adjustment, etc. There is no right or wrong as to which one you choose.

image post-processing burn layer

Dodge and burn layer with luminosity mask

Personally, I chose to use dodge and burn. It’s a bit tedious and old school but it gives me a lot more control on where I want the effect to be subtle or stronger. I applied a luminosity mask so I don’t dodge or burn out of zone and I did it using a Wacom tablet with the brush set to pressure sensitive.

The light - few techniques came into my mind when it comes to accentuating existing light. Linear filter, Radial filter, Curves, name it! At the end of the day, I painted white with the Brush tool in the direction of the light rays and applied Radial and Gaussian blur several times until the effect is diffusely soft. Then, I masked out the areas I didn't want to be affected.

The idea of Step 3 is to take whatever you’ve decided in Step 2 and work on the adjustments. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, don’t be afraid to experiment with new techniques to see if the result is different and better.

This step is where your time spent learning post-processing techniques pays off. If you haven’t got much editing tricks up your sleeve, you can either check out my blog post where I talk about my image, the tutorial section or simple go to YouTube.

Step 4: Review The Image

The idea of the last step is to give you a chance to fine-tune the image before you publish it to the world.

Why is this necessary?

I don’t have a logical explanation for this. When I’m editing an image, I often find myself being absorbed into the process that it becomes difficult for me to realize if I’ve under or overdone any of the adjustments.

What I tend to do now is to export a JPEG copy of the image on to my desktop and leave it there for a few days. Then, I come back to that image to see if I still like the way it looks.

More often that I thought, I ended up going back to Lightroom or even Photoshop to tune the adjustments. Sometimes I do this more than once for a single image.

Again, this is something I’ve learned over the years and I thought it’s just me. To my surprise, I found that some photographers are also doing the same thing!

What Works For You?

As mentioned, this is my approach to image post-processing. I use it as a guide only, not something I follow strictly for every single image.

I think the key to a productive post-processing workflow is to have a vision of how you like your image to look and feel before you start. Once you have an aim, the workflow becomes more targeted and you’ll find yourself wasting less time in front of the computer.

What’s your approach to post-processing? Let’s share it in the comment below.

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