Adventures of a Sage—Photography as a Lens for Self-Discovery
As the renowned semi-professional photographer that I am, I shoot RAW format about 95% of the time. (See the previous article for a review of the differences between RAW vs. JPEG image formats.) Because RAW images require post-processing software, (recall that RAW images are blah images) I thought I would dedicate an article to my sage opinions about … post-processing software.
If you’re a JPEG shooter with no intentions of changing, as painful as it is for me to say this, you can just skip this article.
The topic of post-processing software is obviously a personal decision that often elicits strong emotions and passionate opinions. Regarding this article, protesters have already picketed in my driveway. If you currently have a point of view about which software you prefer, I’m not here to change your mind. If you are open for suggestions, however, here are some ideas to consider based on my experience.
If you disagree with my perspective, you can always organize a protest in my driveway. Two warnings: 1) I have video security, and 2) She who is my wife does not take kindly to trespassers—the latter being significantly more of a deterrent than the former. She has a lethal arsenal of cast iron skillets. Multiple gauges. You have been warned.
Starting Point: How Are Your Images Viewed?
Before deciding what kind of photo editing you want to do it will help to consider: 1) who is your audience, and 2) how will your images will be viewed: on-screen or print? Answering those questions will guide your individual approach to what kind of software you’ll want to use and how much editing you might need to do.
Viewing On-Screen via The Net
If you intend to share your images via the Internet, consider these statistics (current as of June, 2021). In the United States:
- 50% access the Internet via a desktop PC. (That could be either a desktop with a large, detached monitor, or a laptop with a smaller screen.)
- 46% access on a mobile phone.
- 4% access via a tablet.
If you have a global audience, mobile devices have taken the lead outside the U.S.:
- 55% access the net via mobile devices.
- 42% via a PC.
- 3% via tablets.
Review the complete stats here.
Point being, if you’re processing an image for the average online viewer, hello, more than half your audience is using a very small screen. No need to do extensive editing because no one will be able to see detail.
If you’re processing for professional use (stock photography, magazine articles, a website selling your images), you’ll obviously need higher resolution. Most professional photo decision makers will view your photos with an ultra-high def monitor (UHD) measuring 3840 x 2160 pixels. Keep in mind that, the higher the resolution of the monitor, the smaller your stuff appears on the screen. Here’s a review of those dynamics.
If you’re not aiming at a professional market, most monitor resolutions are relatively low: Less than 9% of desktop monitors worldwide are 1920 x 1080.
Shooting for print? What substrate? Paper? Canvas? Acrylic? Metal? I won’t even try to cover all those options here. Suffice to say that if you intend to print your images, you’ll need to determine what substrate, what size, and what resolution. Stating the obvious, the larger your final image, the higher the resolution needs to be.
Advantages of Post-Production (RAW format only)
There are several advantages for shooting RAW and therefore entering the world of post-process image editing:
1. Archival Quality
RAW images contain and retain all the original pixels from when you snapped the shutter. (As opposed to JPEG, where pixels are discarded when the photo is taken—and each time you re-save the image.) More data to work with equates to more nuance in post.
2. Correct Image Problems
Fix over-exposed areas, under-exposed areas, as well as healing and cloning blemishes (to a degree).
3. Artistic Expression
You can change the sky in the same image from blue to yellow to lavender to red. Which version best captures your vision? Feel free to explore.
Note: please don’t overdo it. Amateurish retouching where the sky, ocean, and beach are all Easter egg purple are easy to spot. Do bee a subtle re-toucher. Don’t bee Thor’s hammer.
Disadvantages of Post-Production
The three disadvantages for venturing down the post-production rabbit hole are time, money, and know-how.
Each image requires time to process. How much or how little time depends on what you want to accomplish. Repairing blown-out highlights could be done in a few minutes. On the other hand, commercial photographers often hire their own professional re-touchers who don’t think anything about dedicating 30-40 hours to edit a single portrait.
That said, many image editors now automatically adjust RAW files on import, tuning white balance, contrast, exposure, brightness, and dynamic range with a single click. This enables you to make essential adjustments quickly without spending significant editing time. Here’s a 43-second video on how Capture One 21 auto-adjusts images—yielding better than JPEG image quality by simply clicking the import button.
More software to purchase, download, install, update, and upgrade.
There are huge differences in pricing between competitive editing tools. The elephant in the room is Adobe with their Creative Cloud (I call it “Creative Clout”) suite of online applications that you get the privilege to rent. With Adobe, if you’re in for a penny then you’re in for a pound. This is an old British expression based on the Brit’s monetary system of pounds, pences, fivers, teners, quids, and smackers—don’t ask.
(A side note: why is it that British pound notes have images of Queen Elizabeth dating to 1956 when she was about 30-years old? To our friends across The Pond: time for a smacker update. Seriously.)
Back to Adobe pricing: If you use Photoshop, then likely you use Lightroom. OK and then probably Illustrator. And maybe InDesign. Then throw in Premier, After Effects, Dreamweaver, Bridge, Acrobat, and before you know it, “you’re in for a pound.”
Except, the cost is significantly more than one pound sterling. Recognizing the compelling interoperability of their products, and the fact that, initially they were the only game in town, Adobe killed their packaged product in 2013 and ‘Adobe Creative Cloud’ became the only path to using their software—for small monthly subscription of $50, or $600 annually.
Many loyal Adobe customers immediately followed. Many others—over 50,000—signed a petition in protest. 50,000 dissatisfied customers is a considerable force to be reckoned with.
Not to be deterred, Adobe’s annual cost of Creative Cloud today is $53 a month. Want to go month-to-month without the annual plan? That would be $79.49 smacks, or $953.88 annually if you get snookered into forgetting that you’re on the monthly plan.
Who rents that stuff at those prices? Turns out, millions of people. Adobe’s revenue for its fiscal year ending November 27, 2020 was $12.87 billion—an increase of 15% vs. 2019. A lot of closet covid creative work going on in the past year to the tune of $50 a month (or more).
When Adobe converted to the cloud subscription, I immediately got off the Adobe bus. How a freelancer can fork over those kinds of bangers and bacon is beyond me. Therefore, today, I refuse to use Adobe software of any kind based on the principle that, I don’t want to be a voluntary victim of extortion.
And as it turns out, compelling Adobe alternatives have developed. More about that below.
Most people hate software because it always comes with a relatively steep learning curve. An associate of mine, an investment banker in New York, talks about the “aggravation to reward” ratio. I understand that for most people, the aggravation of learning and maintaining proficiency with software is high, and the reward at the end of the rainbow is low. And so most people either don’t start, or they start and then give up. In for a pound, out for a penny. There are ways to beat the software aggravation factor. Sage Tips about that below.
Software unquestionably requires time and expertise—my analogy is that software is like a musical instrument: practice makes perfect.
Which reminds me about the absent-minded maestro who was racing up New York’s Seventh Avenue to a rehearsal, when a stranger stopped him. “Pardon me,” the stranger said, “can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Yes,” answered the maestro breathlessly. “Practice!”
The same principle holds true for software. Practice enough, and before you know it you’ll be on stage at Carnegie Hall doing software demos with Satya Nadella.
Having spent a few years in the software industry, here are a few Sage Tips on how to get up the software learning curve faster and more expediently:
- Just learn what you need to know at the moment
Using my instrument analogy, you’re not going to sit at a piano for the first time and play a Chopin Polonaise. Instead, you’ll learn where the notes are. After that you’ll learn how to play a scale. Software is the same. You don’t need to learn every tool in every piece of software. If you need to crop an image, then learn how to crop an image. Don’t stress out at the fact that there are 8,000 more tools that you don’t know how to use. Focus on learning one task at a time vs. stressing over your software phobia.
- Learning Resources
OK, so now, how do I crop something in XYZ software? Start with the application’s help file, which will likely have links to more resources and video tutorials. After that, next turn to The Oracle. There are hundreds of thousands of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ across the Internet who have created You Tube or Vimeo channels with the goal of building 100,000 followers by pumping out an infinite number of tutorials. Some of these videos are even recorded in English. So much easier to learn! There are probably at least 50 videos dedicated to cropping in XYZ software—demonstrating where the tools are and what to click, step-by-step. It’s all out there, and it’s easy to find.
Sage Tip: filter the tutorials by date so that you’re not watching advice about a 10-year-old version with a now-obsolete interface.
- Make Notes
After you have learned how to crop in XYZ software, capture your newfound knowledge so you don’t need to hunt for it again. I create a Word document titled ‘XYZ Software.’ Then I’ll add a paragraph heading: “Cropping.” Under that heading I’ll make notes and add relevant links to various help files and videos. Thus, if you forget how to crop, open your own help file, search for “cropping,” and review your notes. After looking up your cropping notes several thousand times, you’ll get to a point where you might even remember it. You can even add inspirational tips, such as, “I can do this,” or “Carnegie Hall in three years!”
Before you know it, you’ll be playing Chopin’s Polonaise in G minor.
About RAW Files
If you think it would behoove all the different camera manufacturers to create inter-operable RAW files, then you would be wrong. Every camera manufacturer has their own RAW file extension—ostensibly to prevent you from converting all your old Nikon images into a competitor’s format. God forbid. Here’s a summary of RAW file extensions for some popular camera manufacturers:
RAW File Extensions
Whether you shoot REF, NEF, ARF, or BARF, you can actually convert any of the above proprietary RAW files to Adobe’s universal (somewhat universal) digital negative (.dng) format. Adobe suggests that their DNG format “can be a safer file format to use for long-term archival purposes … if the camera format that created it becomes obsolete.” In other words, if Canon, Nikon, Pentax go out of business your RAW files are safe with Adobe.
You can download the Adobe DNG Converter for free here. Even if you don’t need it, I urge you to download it anyway because it’s the only thing you will ever get for free from Adobe. You should get while the getting’s good.
Regarding the idea that your camera manufacturer might go out of business, given the huge drop in recent high-end camera sales—due to the fact that almost everyone now carries a high-resolution easy-to-use camera in the form of their mobile phone—this isn’t such a crazy idea. Established in 1919, Olympus sold their camera business to a Japanese private equity company in 2020, after three years without a profit. That caught the industry by surprise. Other high-end camera manufacturers also continue to struggle with declining sales. As of June 2021, Nikon only has 7.5% share of the mirrorless camera market. Indeed, there is Trouble in River City.
Post-Processing Software Categories
There are two distinctly different categories of image editing software. I’ve never seen what I think is a succinct definition of either category, so here are my definitions: single image editing vs. workflow image editing. You need to understand these categorical differences before you decide which one (or maybe both) will work best for what you want to accomplish. While differences between these two categories continue to blur, important distinctions still remain.
When do you use either software category? Here goes:
- If you regularly edit multiple images from many different sessions, then you’ll probably be more interested in what I define as workflow image editing software.
- If you’re more interested in advanced editing of only one image at a time, or if you only edit a few images occasionally, then you’ll be more interested in single image editing software.
Single Image Editors vs. Workflow Image Editors
Single Image Editors
The de facto standard is Adobe Photoshop. Launched in 1988, Photoshop has evolved to the point where new features are, in my opinion, relatively obscure. Do you really need “Perspective Warp”? Probably not.
The flip side of not updating, however, is that at some point your old version will no longer be supported by the company, and eventually it may no longer function with evolving operating systems. Also, most updates fix bugs. Better to stay current.
As an alternative to updates, Adobe invented their Creative Clout subscription, whereby you rent the software every month instead of purchase it. Adobe’s current Photoshop entry rental plan is $10 / month (rounded) or $120 a year. Photoshop with 1TB of storage is $21 / month or $252 annually.
(Note: The above pricing plans do include Lightroom, which is Adobe’s workflow image editor.)
As previously mentioned, Photoshop now has competition—serious competition—from a company called Affinity based in the UK. Affinity Photo performs similarly to Photoshop. It has an almost identical interface. And Affinity Photo directly opens Photoshop files. Launched 2015, Affinity Photo costs $50. And as I am writing this it’s on sale for $25 (through June, 2021). Let me do the math for you: $25 is only 10% of Photoshop’s high-end annual Creative Cloud product. And you own the license. (You never own software. You only own a license.)
If loyal Photoshop-ists (Photoshop-ites?) are struggling with “should I switch?” I am happy to offer a one-time consultation for $100. You will still save $152 after my consultation fee. This is known as a “bargain.” Operators are standing by to take your calls. Or, send an email to: email@example.com (Yes, that email really works.)
You obviously still save a bundle (vs. Photoshop) with Affinity Photo at $50 (vs. $120 for Photoshop basic via Adobe’s Creative Clout subscription).
As an alternative to Photoshop-like applications, most camera manufacturers develop their own RAW editing software, and that software is usually included with your camera purchase, either on CD or as a download.
These are not first-in-class image editors. My opinion of hardware manufacturers developing software is … let’s say there’s a lot to be desired. Hardware companies, generally speaking, don’t understand software. And so their software tends to be built by engineers, for engineers—which means it’s clunky, difficult to use, and often unintelligible.
One example: Sony’s Imaging Edge Mobile. Install IEM on your mobile phone, which then uses phone’s GPS antenna to record GPS data into the metadata of your image when you take the shot on your Sony camera. Significantly less expensive than building a GPS antenna into the camera (which was tried, but never worked), this initially sounds like a great idea. The software actually works if:
- The ionosphere is relatively static-free between the 48th and 52nd parallels.
- The Santa Ana winds aren’t blowing in San Diego.
- You’re facing north.
- While slightly bending your knees (think golf shot).
Then, just maybe, if you’re lucky, you might get the GPS coordinates transferred to your image. Most of the time, probably not.
So relative to camera manufacturer RAW editing software, you’re better off with Affinity Photo, Photoshop, or similar dedicated applications.
Workflow Image Editors
Adobe again has the de facto legacy product in this category: Adobe Lightroom. Launched in 2007, Lightroom includes both database organization as well as image workflow editing.
You can rent Lightroom (stand-alone) for $20 / month. Or, rent the Photoshop + Lightroom entry-level combination for the same $20 / month. Or, get Lightroom in the professional 1TB Photoshop / Lightroom combo for only $21 / month or $252 annually.
Being fundamentally opposed to renting software, several years ago I conducted my own search for Lightroom alternatives. That represented a painful switch because 1) none of my Lightroom image edits would transfer over to another workflow editor. (OK the edited Lightroom images kind-of transfer, but not really.) And, 2) because database architecture is proprietary to each workflow application, all database categorizations and organization would be lost. Meaning, several years of work down the drain.
The principle of self-determination and non-rental won out over the extra work required.
My search led me to Capture One. Located in Denmark, Capture One is a division of Phase One, which designs and manufactures large format digital cameras for photographers who don’t mind paying for cameras that cost more than their vehicle. If you think I’m joking, the 150 MP Phase One XT IQ4 starts at $56,990. That’s without any lenses. (Capture One folks: just price the friggin camera at $57,000. $10 off $57,000 a) is not an incentive, and b) does not persuade anyone that the price is a bargain.)
The good news is that Capture One software is designed for mortals with impressive—albeit less expensive non-God-like cameras such as Canons, Nikons, Fujis, and Sonys.
While Capture One also has rental plans for those of you who like to rent, you can also own the software license as a purchase. Capture One for all camera models is $299. Own the license for specific cameras (Sony, Fuji, Nikon) for $199. Compare to the full Photoshop rental at $252 annually. (My consulting offer applies here as well.)
If the thought of “Danish software” gives you pause, I can assure you the product is first-class. I am a happy camper having made the switch.
Key reasons why I made the switch to Capture One (my opinion):
- Better UI: clean layout and easy to navigate. (I have always found Lightroom’s interface to be a bit simplistic and cartoonish.)
- Layout can be customized.
- Better color grading.
- Layers: every edit can be done in a separate layer (up to 16 per image), which you can individually turn off and on. Each layer has a slider to adjust intensity of the effect.
- Better Sony (and Fuji) RAW image processing.
- New auto-adjust on import. Color grade your photos like a semi-pro by hitting the ‘Import’ button.
There you have photo editing software according to The Sage. Alright, alright, I know it was a bit wordy. But, admit it, the humor does string you along. Thank you for wading through it. Let me know your comments below.
If you forward ‘Adventures of a Sage’ to others, as a Platinum Member, you will qualify for extra, free unlimited soft drinks. Another example of how Platinum Membership gets even better and better.
- Do you use photo editing software? Why or why not?
- If yes, what category of photo editing software do you use: single image or multiple image workflow? Why?
- Within those categories, which software applications do you prefer? Why?
- How do you use your post-processed images? Share with friends? Websites? Print for display?
- Geez, enough with the basics already. When do the adventures start?
- Answer: The adventures begin now!
- Download trial versions of software that are relevant for your style of work.
- Learn one or two tasks such as resizing or cropping.
Interview with photographer Gary Friedman.