Making Your Images Pop: A Guide to Processing Photos Pt. 1

How To Proces Fashion Photos
Several weeks ago I wrote a post regarding how to shoot a runway during Fashion Week.  I quickly realized that many of the comments I received had less to do with shooting the runway than what to do with your photos in the post-processing stage to bring out the best in them.  So, for this week’s tech post, I’ve decided to give you the basics on photo processing techniques and what each element of the develop workflow actually does in plain and simple English.  This will be the first in a several part series that I’ll be writing over the next few weeks.

For this tutorial I’ll be using Adobe Lightroom 3, which I think is far and away the best processing program out there and because its develop workflow is almost identical to that of Adobe Camera RAW’s, which comes packaged with Photoshop and is thus the most popular processing program these days; no Apple Aperture or iPhoto here.


Hold Your Horses

A few disclaimers before I get into it:
1. This will be a description of processing for a RAW file, not a JPEG.  Refer to my reply to the first comment of that runway post for an explanation of why you should be shooting RAW for any images you really care about.  Also check out my reply to Alterations Needed’s comment for an explanation of the best way to expose for digital images.
2.  Lightroom and Camera RAW are not the cheapest of programs, I understand that.  That’s why I have absolutely zero compunction about stealing my software; it’s literally saved me thousands of dollars over the last few years.  As bloggers we need to take it where we can get it.
3.  There is no single proper way to process your photos, it’s all about seasoning to taste and bringing out the elements of the photo that truly matter, so feel free to play.
The Histogram

The histogram is your friend, shake hands with it and say hello.  The histogram is a visual representation of an image’s tonal values, i.e. a sort of topographical map of the brightness and contrast of the image and the image’s colors.


The left side represents darker tones, like shadows, and the right side represents brighter tones, like daylight and whites.  An untouched RAW image’s histogram should technically all be contained within the middle of the histogram, bunched slightly to the right, with no “clipping,” or loss of detail in the shadows (pure black) and highlights (pure white), on either end.  This means that your image’s data is all there, nothing is missing, and you have the most information to play around with; the original file should be relatively flat looking, with very little contrast and saturation, as you can see below.


This flat image is the Play-Doh you’ll be playing with and molding.  I tend to go for a darker overall look and so by the end of processing I usually have a lot of clipped shadow detail and dense, inky blacks in my image and a histogram that’s weighted heavily towards the left side.Here’s an example of how to read a histogram for an unedited RAW image and then for the final image after processing: 

Before:  Note the “clipped” highlights on the right side of the histogram; this represents the extremely bright, blown out highlights on the model’s face, skin, and in the white parts of the dress.  On the left side of the histogram you’ll notice “clipped” data as well; this represents the upper left portion of the image, the shadowy part where the audience sits.  You’ll also notice a high presence of red and yellow, as the runway lights are very warm and the image hasn’t been white balanced yet (which is one of the subjects for next week’s post).



After: Now notice how the histogram has changed to reflect the changes I made to the image.  I brought the exposure down to bring out the detail in her face and skin, see how the right side of the histogram is no longer clipping at all?  I also raised the level of the blacks to cut out the audience and make the model pop more, note that the histogram is now weighted more toward the left side.  Also, after white balancing the image, you can see how there is less red and yellow in the histogram, which really brings out the blues in the dress.


The histogram is not the end-all-be-all, there is no single “correct” histogram.  It is, however, a useful tool to know when you’re processing your images to see how contrasty your image is and to see how much information you really have.  Next week I’ll be going over the basic processing tools, which, I promise, will be way more exciting.

More in This Series:


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21 Responses

  1. Eli

    I’ve been shooting nothing but RAW for a while now, nothing compares! I always tell those shooting with a point and shoot to set it to the largest size (most dont want to because it takes up more memory) because it never compares how much more you can alter the photo to make it look better if you start with a large image!!

    • Nando

      more important than size is shooting RAW over JPEG, as you said. size will only really be a factor if you wanted to make a print of it, in which case it becomes big factor in how large a print you can actually make.

  2. Jayvee Doroteo

    I am SOOO thankful for these tips! This problem of making images pop has been plaguing me for a while. I can’t wait for the next installments! Thanks! 😀

  3. Cassie

    This is great! I can’t wait for the next installments. I am also curious about camera settings when shooting (I am a dslr newbie). Could you tell us about what the camera was set at as well for your example pictures?

  4. Sophy D

    OMG Keep this COMING! I love Photography and I am taking classes called the Darkroom learning Lightroom to help enhance my shots….You did a good job explain things in way that I can understand.

    • Nando

      They’ll most definitely keep coming! I’ve got the develop workflow split up over the next three weeks, there’s plenty for me talk about. let me know if you want help with other areas of the program as well

  5. Cate

    this is an awesome photos. i use lightroom too and i swear by raw files. there’s honestly nothing like having it all there to mould how you want it. you should mention filters and warming and cooling in the next installment.

    • Nando

      Yup, next week’s post is going to be the Basic panel, so WB, exposure, fill light, etc. By filters do you mean on camera filters or filters in photoshop? I actually never use either

  6. Sylvia @ 40PlusStyle

    Look forward to reading more of your tips on Lightroom. Perhaps you can do an article on how to store your images (how you do it) because shooting in raw I’m seriously running out of storage space on my computer. Working with an external drive would be too slow….

    • Nando

      This is a very common problem, one I’m going through right now. Digital Asset Management (DAM) is a series of posts on its own, there are literally entire books written about the subject and the most efficient workflows, a lot of which stuff I don’t always follow (e.g. converting all of your images to DNG from their proprietary RAW format, which is a much safer format).

      First and foremost though, the most important thing to remember here is that it’s not a matter of IF your hard drive will fail, it’s a matter of WHEN. I can speak from a terrifying personal experience on this. My Macbook Pro is about 4 months old and the hard drive literally crapped out on me this past weekend. The guy at the Apple store couldn’t do anything to fix it but wipe my entire computer and put in a new hard drive. I only lost about two days worth of data and a few little things here and there that I’d accidentally imported into the wrong folders (so that’s important too; LR3 is great with saved settings, but when you import photos be sure that they’re always going to the same place, for sanity’s sake), so it wasn’t too horrid.

      My point is, be absolutely certain that you’ve got at least one (but i recommend two) external HD with everything backed up on it, both your photos and, just as importantly, your Lightroom Catalogs, which you should be backing up every time you exit the program. When you import photos in LR you can import to your computer and also to a second destination simultaneously, which would be your external HD; for some reason it’s faster than just going directly onto an HD.

      As of now I actually am importing all of my photos directly to two hard drives, bypassing my computer completely. It is significantly slower, without a doubt. But when my hard drive crashed i had about 50GB free on a 750GB drive, and this was with some seriously ruthless editing and culling of photos almost every day. Between daily shoots, fashion week, events/freelance gigs, and my personal work it’s incredibly hard to keep up with everything. As things are now I’m working with 4 1TB hard drives: my two at home are my personal work, fashion week, freelance stuff; my two at work are everything I shoot for IFB and our blogs, all of them are close to full and I’m getting a little worried about it.

      About the only thing I can think of doing right now is more ruthless culling of photos that you don’t use/want or upgrade to bigger hard drives, which I’m going to need to do, possibly even investing in a RAID drive.

      Digital storage is not a task or single action, it’s a constant, ongoing process that I’ve found I really need to attend to every single day or I’m taking serious risks.

      • Sylvia @ 40PlusStyle

        Hi Nando. Thank you for your reply. Ok will need to get my act together. Am already owning 1 external hard drive, but don’t back up nearly enough. I’ve been lucky enough to never have a hard drive crash on me 🙂 But that makes me less vigilant. Will back up right now. I guess I was hoping that there may be an easier way to manage the files, but as I can tell from your reply, there is not. Will invest in a new computer soon though but waiting for the new year. Thanks!

      • Laura Hueto Puig

        I use Apple’s TimeMachine. It takes some time, but it’s automatic and therefore less troublesome. Thanks so much for your advice as always, Nando! 🙂

  7. Ash Henderson

    Mercedes’ are really expensive, I know. So are Armani suits. That’s why I have zero compunction about stealing them. It’s saved me literally thousands of dollars! Hey, we poor people have to take it where we can get it, right?

    Yes, those programs are expensive, and yes, they can be tough to afford. But stealing them is literally stealing; like walking into a store and putting the box under your coat.

    Try GIMP, an open-source, free alternative.

  8. Theodore Cumberbunch

    These are fantastic tips! You’re so awesome! Those silly software companies should pay YOU to use THEIR software! Thief love!

  9. Zalina

    This was so helpful. I have been reading up on histograms for a while and this is the most direct and comprehensive so far. the photography books do not give enough photographic examples to compare with each other.