I’ve mentioned before that I don’t often write about post-processing. While I’m comfortable with Photoshop I’m no Miracle Max- I can’t create something out of nothing, and sometimes I can’t even save a mostly-dead photo. My philospophy on post-processing is that it’s truly the “digital darkroom,” analogous to the stinky, chemical-filled caves of yore.

Photographic darkroom - photographic print developing in chemistry

But lately I’ve been on a bit of a quest to brush up my skills. Nobody told me they were slipping, but I’ve been looking at a lot of photography lately, and I had the unsettling impression that many of the things I was seeing went beyond “getting it right in camera;” it’s also a matter of getting it right in post.

Luckily at the same time I was forming a mental list of questions to pursue, I stumbled across a few hints in a forum, and then struck real gold with a recent Moose Peterson post. It was an unlikely source, as Moose’s philosophy on editing – the parts that he’s shared online, at least – differs quite a bit from my own. But the fact is, the guy knows his way around the software.

In his video post, Moose essentially does a complete edit to a photo in ACR (Adobe Camera Raw). Maybe that doesn’t sound very amazing, but let me put it in perspective: up until now, about 1% of my photos have ever been edited solely in ACR. Really just the few that I absolutely nail every aspect of in-camera.

The sad truth is, when using ACR, I worked primarily in the first tab, the one where you can adjust the white balance, exposure, contrast, etc. The other tabs…mostly off the map. I could handle the grayscale/color channel tab, I’d played a bit with the lens correction tab, but mostly I didn’t really understand much that was there.

Editing in Adobe Camera RAW - main panel

This is the down side to the School of Hard Knocks. You go along in your bliss, thinking you’re doing okay, until suddenly someone turns on the lights and you realize just how dumb you are. That’s how I felt after watching the video the first time. By the third time, however, it was soaking in.

I’m not really advocating doing all of your editing in ACR. Photoshop exists for a reason – hell, you bought it for a reason. It’d be silly not to use it. What I am advocating is making your post-processing as efficient as possible. If you can do much/most of it in ACR, why not do so?

Editing in Adobe Camera RAW - Graduated ND filter

ACR's Graduated ND filter in use

Using some of Moose’s settings as a starting point, I’m getting the hang of ACR sharpening and noise reduction (both impressive). I’m playing around with luminance-type color correction. And with a bit more practice, I think that the Graduated ND filter tool could be a huge help. (On the other hand, I’m not digging ACR’s curves tab – I still think Photoshop’s is easier to fine-tune.)

The point is, getting it right in-camera is only part of the game – if you want to be serious about photography, then you have to take post-processing seriously, too. Sitting at the computer isn’t as much fun as shooting, but it’s necessary. Sure, Photoshop is overwhelming, even for the computer-savvy. That’s why it’s important to tap into the incredible resources of the online photography community. If you can form the question, someone out there has probably posted the answer.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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