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Importance of proper processing

Young man in spa

In 2009 I had a studio session with a handsome blond man – most of it was a spa theme. (It was done during the photographers meeting in Yuri Arcurs studio in Denmark in August 2009).

I was expecting the pictures to sell well – good subject, handsome blond man, positive emotions…. However the sales were not impressive during several months.

Usually I don’t go back to the photographs already processed and submitted, but in this case I was really curious. So I looked at similar photos from the other authors that were selling well and tried to analyze what was wrong with mine.

I noticed that the skin tone on my pictures was too red though the white balance was technically correct. It was very hot in the studio, so the model was truly sweat and red. So I selected several un-processed photos from that sessionĀ  and edited them differently than the first time – made them higher contrast and different skin tone.

I also re-did the keywords as a noticed some difference between my pictures and other ones.

My original batch included several tens pictures. Newly edited was 5 or 6. However the trick worked well. When I submitted the new pictures, not only they started to sell well, but the original ones started to sell better too. Now, a year later I see the man in spa selling several times a week.

Photo editing – how to reduce artifacts

Artifacting is a native issue of digital photography. It appears on nearly all digital photos – sometimes a little, sometimes strong. Microstock agencies don’t like artifacts, istockphoto is particularly known for that.

Artifacts is something quite easy to address if you apply a systematic approach. I am getting nearly 0 rejects for artifacts for the last +/- 12 months if not longer:

  • shoot exclusively in RAW , not too high ISO
  • good exposure, particularly no underexposure, and no pulling shadows up
  • very little or no sharpening when processing RAW
  • if converting RAW to separate file before opening in photoshop use TIF not jpeg

in result you should see very little artifacting (BTW check on the edge of shadows at 400%-500% zoom).

What I am doing next with 100% of my pictures is applying TopazLabs DeJPEG filter (photoshop plugin). There is an old free version and there is up to date commercial one (which isn’t expensive). The “official” purpose of the plugin is different, but it helps very nicely to remove that little artifacting. The key is to apply DeJPEG at very low settings, don’t overdo it. I made several presets for different degree of artifacting/noise; and I am thinking about making a tutorial about that when I have some time.

When applied at minimal settings, DeJPEG filter smooths areas without detail while keeping details sharp, and adds a very little noise. This is an example (crop enlarged to 300%):


the version “more DeJpeg” not only smoothened stronger, but also has more noise added.

16bit vs 8bit editing in photoshop

The question discussed many times and still often asked – whether to process RAW files in 16 bit or in 8 bit mode?

The answer depends on quality of the source file and the intended use of the image. When you work with well exposed photograph and don’t edit it intensively, the difference between 8bit and 16bit isn’t significant. However in case you need best possible quality there is a difference.

Even if you save the final result in 8-bit file (e.g. JPG only supports 8-bit mode), there is a difference depending how you edit your file.

Whether it’s a big deal or not is rather subjective…. but the difference is pretty obvious.

I made a simple example – took a well exposed image, didn’t apply very much editing, didn’t have too many layers. There are 2 frames in the animated gif: one is the result of 16 bit editing, converted to 8 bit at the end; the other frame is result of 8-bit editing – i.e. same file was first converted to 8 bit, then editing applied. It enlarged to 400% to make the difference more visible.

16bit vs 8bit

In case you have underexposed image, in case you have higher ISO, in case you apply intensive editing – you will see much bigger difference between 8 and 16 bit. But even this example above is sufficient for me to do my editing in 16 bit.

Blond girl from an uncomon angle

I took this photo 1.5 years ago. Something attracts me in this picture, and I am not sure what. Perhaps the angle that is not so common, or may be something else…
You can see here two versions of the same picture (click to enlarge):
Blond girl above photographer - original Blond girl above photographer - re-edited
The one of the left is the original edit I made 1.5 years ago. The one on the right was re-worked recently. Not only I decided that it will work better after the turn, but I made the color warmer and used some dodging and burning. I tried not to overdo with the editing (which is my habit with most of my photos). I like the new version better than the original one – and what about you?

Alternative to Photoshop

I was wondering for a while whether there is a decent alternative to Adobe Photoshop. I mean a serious photographer shooting always in RAW, who doesn’t want to loose any of the data captured by the camera – i.e. processing the files in 16-bit until the last save.

Remark: To outline my photo editing needs:

  • minimum: Full 16-bit editing, including layers, noise removal plugin, curves/levels, blurring, cloning, color adjustment;
  • optional: Support of Canon EOS 40D RAW format;
  • important: easy to use interface suitable for intensive workflow

Recent version of Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 looked promising, so I decided to give it a try.

Unfortunately it isn’t suitable for people like me. I will list the limitations in the order I experienced them, not in the order of importance:

  • PSP X2 can’t open RAW files from my Canon EOS 40D – not critical;
  • PSP X2 can’t properly handle TIF files saved with ZIP compression – not critical;
  • PSP X2 can only save 8-bit and/or flattened files in common formats (TIF, PSD), and can only save multi-layer 16-bit picture in it’s own format – not critical;
  • Most filters/effects only work in 8-bit mode as it was with photoshop several years ago. – not critical, as long as layers, curves, levels and blur work in 16-bit mode;
  • Some tools only work in 8-bit mode, e.g. clone – this is critical for retouch;
  • Using on the same PC, PSP X2 works much slower than Photoshop CS2 or CS3 – may be critical, but probably can be addressed by a faster PC with more memory.

Overall functionality of PSP X2 is quite impressive; and many (most?) of Photoshop plugins work with PSP. The price of PSP X2 is much more attractive comparing with Photoshop. Also, some workarounds are possible to overcome the above listed issues.

However, considering limitations altogether, and considering intensive workflow my conclusion is that Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 is not a decent replacement of Adobe Photoshop CS+ for serious photographers. Perhaps one of the next versions will make it suitable…

Other alternatives?

  • GIMP isn’t – not only it is very uncomfortable to use but it still doesn’t support 16-bit editing.
  • Photoshop Elements 6 isn’t an alternative either because of very limited 16-bit support – only a few filters supported in 16-bit; and adjustment layers don’t work in 16-bit mode.
  • Googling for 16-bit programs I found Picture Window Pro 4.0. Tried that one – yes, it supports full 16-bit editing, but the interface isn’t convenient and no layers supported at all.

Conclusion: At the moment there seem to be no other software than Adobe Photoshop CS3 that can suite my needs. It is priced high, but not without a reason. And, despite it’s high price there are options available to obtain it cheaper than a standard price (I mean, legally). Checking on eBay I found quite a few offers in a range of 250-350 USD for a full-boxed-retail-version.

GIMP isn’t too bad, but lacks 16-bit support and has non-friendly interface
PSP X2 is actually quite good, the only serious missing point is lack 16-bit editing.

Remark: 16-bit editing is very important in case of intensive digital manipulation. Editing in 8-bit will result very quickly a non-continuous color representation. You can easily see that effect as a comb when executing Levels command. This might not be an issue for personal photographs or for minor editing, but this is not acceptable in most professional use.

Remark #2: I’ve got impression that PSP X2 beats Photoshop Elements 6 if you compare them. Actually PSP X2 is positioned in the same market area as PS Elements and isn’t competing with the “real” photoshop. However, adding 16-bit support and keeping it low-price would make it a serious alternative to Photoshop itself rather than just Elements.