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SnapShots – Post-Processing Tutorial

SnapShots – Post-Processing Tutorial

Hey InGoal readers, I’m Nick Ulivieri, and I’m a newly-minted InGoal Magazine contributor.  I’m a professional photographer who calls Chicago home.   I’ve come to InGoal to share my photography tips and tutorials so you can nail some shots when you’re at the rink! I hope to have a few posts in the series detailing how to shoot in NHL rinks, your local rink, and some advanced post-processing techniques to make your photos really stand out.  With some luck, I also hope to shoot some games for InGoal.  A dream come true? Absolutely!

Since the regular season is still a week or two away, and some of you hockey photogs may have some shots from last season, my first post is going to teach you how to post-process the shots you already have to achieve a more realistic and professional look.

If you’re already happy with the shots you have, great. But if you’re a bit more serious about sports photography and creating better photos, this tutorial is for you!

What is post-processing?

Call it what you will; post-processing, editing, enhancing, etc., it is simply the act of altering your photos to achieve a specific appearance different than what came out of the camera. By manipulating settings such as exposure, brightness, contrast, color, etc. we can create the picture we were really hoping to get.

I’ll be walking you through processing an example image using the Adobe’s “Lightroom” program. If you don’t use Lightroom, it’s OK. A lot of the ideas, terms, and techniques are compatible with other programs (iphoto, Aperture, Photoshop, etc.), and future posts will focus on discussing how to use the fundamentals and techniques discussed in this tutorial with those programs.

Consider that photo processing is more of an art-form than it is a science.  The shooting conditions and camera settings/capabilities of one of my shot will vary wildly compared to the shooting conditions camera settings/capabilities
of one of your shots. In turn, the exact settings you will need to apply to your photos may drastically vary from the settings discussed below.  So please, take the following tutorial as a guideline for developing your own personal processing style, and not as an exact step-by-step settings guide. Also note that post-processing isn’t a cure-all for a poorly exposed image.  The closer you can get to a great SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) image, the less work you will have to do in your post-processing software.

Adobe Lightroom:

Adobe Lightroom is a powerful photo-editing tool which I use almost daily.  Think of it as Photoshop with everything you need and nothing you don’t.   If you consider yourself a hobbyist photographer, I strongly recommend giving this software a try.  It takes some time to learn and master, but you will be amazed at what you can create once you know what you’re doing. On we go…

When Hutch first discovered some of my hockey photos on Flickr, he asked if I’d take a shot at editing a photo he took of Roberto Luongo crouched in front of his net. Of course, I obliged. The photo Hutch rovided is sharp and in focus, of a high resolution, with plenty of detail, and close-up.  The problem was that it is underexposed, dark, and generally didn’t pop off the screen. I gave it a spin in Lightroom, and ended up with this:

**Note: The photo Hutch provided me to work on was a high-resolution JPEG. For those of you that shoot/process in RAW format, a fair amount of “extra” processing would have to be done to achieve the same look.  But I’m going to assume that if you can/do shoot in RAW you already have a good idea as to how to adequately process photos and realize the preceding settings will be even less relevant, though the ideas will not.

Hutch's Luongo Shot - Before & After post-processing

To start, we have to open and import the photos into Lightroom.  If you’re just learning this program, check out this video tutorial on how to import photos – then make sure to come right back here! Once I have all my photos imported, the first thing I do is go through them all to determine which photos I want to process.  Picking out the best quality images (in focus, sharp, good composition, etc.) will generally result in a better viewing experience for you and anyone you may share the photos with later – 10 great photos is better than 10 great photos mixed in with 75  decent or bad ones.

Alright, now it’s time to process.  In order to do this, you must be in the Develop module. To enter the develop module, if you aren’t already, click the Develop tab in the upper right-hand corned of the Lightroom window.  You should be looking at something like this…

Lightroom's "Develop" Module with unedited photo

On the left hand side, you’ll see a preview of your image, as well as functions for organizing and navigating your various photo folders and Lightroom catalogs.  All of you editing tools will be found on the right-hand side of the screen.  I generally edit photo by working  from the top of the settings menu and work down – Adobe designed it that way. We’ll first start off with the Basic settings.

The Basic Settings:

The "Basic" settings of Lightroom as they are in the processed, final, photo

On the right-hand side we have a close-up view of how the basic settings menu appears. The settings shown are of the final processed photo.  I’ll go through each slider to give you a better idea of what they are, and how they relate to post-processing for hockey.

1.  Crop and Straighten tool: We know how fast and frantic the game of hockey can be, and in an attempt to catch the action your camera might not always be correctly oriented. Because of this, I always straighten my photo, if necessary, before moving on.  To do this, click on the little box with the grid inside of it (left side, under ISO).   You should then see a grid appear over your photo.  To rotate, hover near the corner anchors, don’t click directly on them, and pull/push to adjust the rotation.  Knowing the board stanchions are vertical, I will try to align them with the grid to achieve a perfectly straight image.  I realize you may take some creative license and tilt the camera for artistic effect, and that’s fine, but if you didn’t do it on purpose, a tilted image can immediately make even a great photo look amateur.

2. White Balance: Getting the correct white balance is imperative to a great final shot. This setting aims to render colors correctly.  In this case, we can achieve this by making sure the ice in the photo is white. By so doing, all other colors should be near identical to their real life appearance.  Digital cameras are usually pretty good at determining what it should be, but different lights produce different color casts and the camera can make a mistake. Luckily, the brilliantly white ice surface is a perfect subject to base the white balance off of.  There are 3 options to do this.  First, you can select from the various function under the “WB:” drop down menu.  Second, you can use the eye dropper tool to pick your neutral, in our case it will be the ice. Third, you can do it manually by using the “Temp” & “Tint” sliders.  I tend to start off with the drop down menu’s “Auto” or “As Shot” function and adjust the sliders accordingly.  The key here is to carefully look at the ice surface.  Is it white, or does it have too much blue in it? Maybe it looks a little yellow or has a tinge of green.  If it’s not quite right, adjust the sliders in small increments until you get an ice-surface that looks as pure white as possible.   That said, I tend to err on the warm side – but just a bit.  Personally, I like a slightly warmer (yellow) image than I do a cool (blue) image.

3. Exposure: This setting is one that you will find in all post-processing software, and its goal is to brighten the entire image but usually focuses it power on adjusting the brighter tones of the image.  Every photo will vary, but in general, most indoor action shots are underexposed due to the nature of a cameras optics.  To “freeze” the action you need a fast shutter speed, but fast shutter speeds in relatively low-light conditions aren’t good settings for  a well exposed photo.  Hence, we have to bump up the exposure. But by how much? Lightroom has a great tool to help you discover how much exposure is too much.

If you hit the “J” key on your keyboard you may see blue/red patches. This is called a “Clipping Mask” (can also be found under the View menu as Show Clipping).  In areas where there you see blue, you have pure blacks and no detail. The red areas are overexposed and have no detail.  The key is to up your exposure enough so that the photo appears brighter, but not so much that you have large over-exposed  areas in your photo – especially on your main subject.  Personally, I feel it’s OK to have small overexposed areas as long as your main subject looks good, but that is open to interpretation.

4. Recovery: The Recovery slider aims to reel in those overexposed areas you may have created when upping the exposure slider. It literally recovers the detail that may have been lost due to overexposure.  I use it, but sparingly.  If you use too much recovery, the areas you want to be bright will loose some of their luster and become dull.  Not enough recovery will still leave you with overexposed areas.  If you’re referring to your Clipping Mask (the J key) you should notice your red areas shrink as you increase recovery.  Your goal should be to recover as much detail as you can (shrink the red spots) without dulling the overall image.

5. Fill Light: The Fill Light slider is the opposite of recovery.  It’s goal is to increase brightness/detail in areas that are pure black (blue patches in the Clipping Mask).  Similar to recovery, too much can be a bad thing.  Adding excess fill light will knock your contrast out of whack and can lead to some freakishly fake looking photos.  You will want to bump the fill light up just enough, if needed, so that you can begin to make out details in the pure black areas. Again, refer to the clipping mask (J key) to see what areas need fill light (blue patches).

**Note: Don’t get too bogged down in making sure you get rid of all traces of your clipping mask.  Some areas may be inherently black and devoid of most light (deep inside folds of a jersey, mask vent holes, etc.).  While other areas might really be blown out highlights (stadium light reflections on a highly polished mask or cage, reflection on the far side glass, etc.).  

6. Blacks: The “Blacks” slider is as simple as it sounds.  Up the blacks, and you’ll notice your dark areas get darker.  In most interior-sport photography applications, limited blacks will need to be added since your photo may be inherently dark already.  If you do experiment with the Blacks slider you need to pay attention your Clipping Mask (J key).  Adding blacks can undo what you may have done with fill light and exposure.

7. Brightness: I have a hard time separating brightness from exposure, but it is said that brightness brings up the mid-tones in a photo, whereas Exposure focuses on the high-tones.  I tend to use exposure and brightness interchangeably, hopping back and forth until I’m left with a well-exposed image I’m happy with.

8. Contrast:  The contrast slider increases the tonal range of a photo.  To put it another way, it makes the darks darker, and the lights lighter. If you get to this slider, and your photo still looks a bit flat, you can up the contrast.  Conversely, if your blacks are too dark, and your bright too bright, walk the contrast slider down a bit until you see a more realistic looking image.

9. Presence/Clarity: I am a huge fan of the clarity slider in Lightroom.  It has a way of making subtle details really pop.  It works by increasing contrast, adding edge detail, and some general sharpening to give your photo a more pronounced look. It’s great for teasing out details on the ice, bringing out more details on the pads (such as scuffs and stitching) as well as punching up details in the mask. Like all settings, too much can be a bad thing, and if you take the slider to the extreme you will see what I’m talking about.  I typically like to add between 15-40 “points” of clarity in my hockey shots.

10 Presence/Vibrance:  Vibrance is a great setting for boosting the color of your image without making the colors appear garishly over-saturated.  The vibrance slider increases the saturation on the less saturated pixels, and only slightly increases, if at all, the saturation on already saturated pixels.  In essence it increase saturation proportionally depending on how saturated any given pixel may be.

11. Presence/Saturation:  I tend not to use the saturation slider too much for hockey shots.  A slightly underexposed image tends to have pretty saturated colors already, and most of what I want to change can be achieved through the vibrance slider.

**Note: Before we continue, I want to remind you that all of these settings work in concert with one another – they are each effected by the application of others.  It is entirely possible to achieve virtually the same final image with similar, yet different settings. Post-processing is all about making the various settings work in harmony. When you are editing your photos, don’t focus too much on the actual number/setting.  Instead, constantly look at your image.  Pay attention to how it changes when different setting are applied, and periodically go through a mental checklist; is the exposure still OK, did my clipping change, what areas are now over/under-exposed, do I need to add brightness, did I loose contrast, etc.  While you’re learning, practice moving the sliders from one extreme to the other to get an idea of what each setting is fully capable of.  Sometimes it helps to go to an extreme and work the slider back until you find the look you are going for. Like anything, the more you practice, the better you will get at noticing changes, and more importantly, identifying what settings and tools need to be applied to achieve the look you want.

Advanced Settings:

If you’re overwhelmed by the amount of information I just threw at you, stop here.  Learning the basics is more than enough to get you on your way to producing some really great hockey shots.  But, if you’re more adventurous, stick around and we’ll delve deeper into some of the tools preceding the “Basic” toolbox.

 1.  Tone Curve: Think of the tone curve as a customizable contrast slider.  With the tone curve you have control over the brightness/darkness of the 4 “light” regions of your photo (highlights, lights, darks, shadows). Moving any slider to the right will increase the brightness for that particular region. Moving it to the left will decrease the brightness.  Again, like all other settings, these too work in concert with the previously mentioned “Basic” settings.  In this particular instance, I added Highlights to make the ice really pop (In most cases the highlights slider will affect the bright ice surface and boards).  You’ll also noticed I made the shadows “brighter”.  Could this same effect have been achieved by adding fill light? Probably.  I can’t always explain why I choose to do it one way vs. another, but I let the photo tell me what needs to be done when I am at a particular setting.  In the case of the “shadows” slider, I felt like I still needed to tease out some detail from the darker areas of the photo, so I brightened the shadows until I was happy.  Again, too much brightness in the shadows may decrease overall contrast so always refer back to your, now long, list of mental checkpoints when review your image after making tone curve changes.


2.  (H/S/L) Hue, Saturation, Luminance: These sliders are advanced color settings.  The “Hue” slider allows you to change specific colors.  Though not often used if you’ve nailed your white balance, there are times where a color in your photo doesn’t quite match how you remember seeing it.  Perhaps the red of a Blackhawks jersey seems a bit orange, or the blue Canucks jersey looks a bit teal.  With these sliders, you can change only that color to better match the actual appearance.

I discussed the “Saturation” slider earlier, and mentioned that I don’t often use it.  That said, I will use the targeted saturation sliders for specific colors.  In most cases I use it to make a teams jersey pop a bit more.  In this photo I upped the saturation of Luongo’s jersey
without over-saturating every thing else.  You’ll also notice I decreased the magentas. Overall I was happy with the White Balance, but on portions of the photos, mainly the ice, a magenta cast was present.  To mitigate that problem, I slightly de-saturated those colors to bring them back to a more neutral tone.

Lastly, the “Luminance” slider. Imagine this is a brightness slider for individual colors. For example:  I was happy with the overall look of the image thus far, but the blue jersey was a bit too bright. Simply adjusting the brightness slider to fit how I wanted the jersey to appear would have changed the overall image – but I didn’t want that.  To fix this, I lightly darkened the blues.  Since most of blues in this image were centered on the jersey, the luminance slider was the perfect option.  Often times I adjust  the luminance opposite of the saturation. Upping saturation and decreasing luminance is a great way to add richness and prominence to any one color.  On the other hand, decreasing saturation and increasing luminance is a great way to make unwanted colors much less noticeable.

  3. Detail: The “Detail” tools are really important in the overall quality of your final image.  Sharpening and Noise Reduction are subtle, but can make a big difference when you export the final image.

Sharpening simply makes the edges better defined.  However, simply cranking up the Sharpen Amount won’t do you much good. The key to well executed sharpening in Lightroom is using the Masking slider.

When you sharpen an image it adds noise and a rough texture.  Too much sharpening and it makes the whole photo look grainy and rough.  The Masking tool allows you to sharpen more, while keeping the integrity/quality of the image high.  What the Masking slider does is hones in on only sharpening the edges, as opposed to everything in the image.  The more Masking you add, the more the sharpening is relegated to only the well defined edges.  You can see what is being masked by holding down the option key while moving your Masking slider.  This will show you where the sharpening is being applied via a white overlay.  You want to get it to a point where only the edges are highlighted and there is little to no sharpening being applied to flat/edgeless surfaces – like the ice. I generally find that a setting of 85-90 on masking does a perfect job of sharpening the well defined edges while leaving the smooth portions of the image as is.

Noise Reduction is another very important aspect of producing clean looking final images.  The biggest struggle in camera manufacturing is how to economically decrease noise at high ISO levels.  Since we’re shooting indoors, in relatively poor light, and at fast shutter speeds, out ISO usually needs to be high in order to capture a decently exposed shot.  Lightroom’s noise reduction is pretty superb, and in some cases, too superb. I generally find that a Luminance setting between 10-25 does the trick well enough.  If you add too much Luminance, you’ll be left with an image that looks strikingly similar to an oil painting.  The “Color” slider is also important.  Often times when your shooting at high ISO, and increasing exposure/brightness in post-processing, some of the darker areas of a photo can be left with colorful noise.  If you notice many small specks color in your darkened areas, using the “Color” slider in the Details menu can help reign them in.  That said, too much color reduction can decrease details, so like any setting, there is a tradeoff, and you need to find the happy medium that works best for that particular photo.

Conclusion:

Well, If you made it this far, I congratulate you! I’m not even quite sure how I got to this point. I really hope this obnoxiously long tutorial on photo-processing  gives you some insight into creating your own finished pieces.  In the future, I hope to do InGoal post-processing posts featuring other more widely available software using the fundamentals and ideas discussed above.  

So, here’s the final shot on goal:

Roberto Luongo crouches in his net - Photo Credit: David Hutchinson

 

Have specific questions? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll be glad to help!  You can also direct them to me on Twitter @ChiPhotoGuy

About The Author

Nick Ulivieri

I'm a photographer with Chicago as my backdrop. Architecture, food, weather, and sports are some of the subjects I love shooting.

2 Comments

  1. Joe Drennan

    Great piece. It is easy to find articles on sports photography that talk about what lenses to use or how to anticipate a shot. But there are not too many in-depth articles on post-production.

    Reply
    • NickU

      Thanks for the comment, Joe. I’m drafting a detailed post on shooting hockey at your “local rink”, and it should be ready soon. Arguably more detailed than this one!

      Reply

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