Double Processing A RAW Image

Autumnal SunriseCentennial Drive, Palmerston North

Modern day software gives us tools to help us with all kinds of problems. From the software applications that run on our phones to the applications we use to process images, they give us the ability to things easier and faster. But easier and / or faster is not always better.

For images that have lots of very bright areas and very dark areas, it is tempting to use lightroom to open up the shadows and reduce the highlights. The reason we do this is quite simple, we want the final image to make the look like the scene we saw when we created the image. Our human eye brain system sees a huge dynamic range, but our cameras and the display mechanism we have (the monitor and the print) see far less. So to take the scene and print or display it we need to squash (or in geek speak, tone map) all those brightness levels into the range the monitor or printer can display to the viewer. To do it in a realistic and beautiful way is the challenge we face.

So lightroom has provided us with these simple sliders to meet this need. But is this the best way? Sometimes yes this does the job with ease and convenience, particularly if the dynamic range of the scene is not too great for the final print. But when the dynamic range is quite large you can get better results by using a technique known as "double processing". This is the technique I have used to produce the image at the top of the post.

The image below is the same image as the one above, but this time it is processed only with lightroom. Opened up the shadows and dimming the highlights. What do you think of this version compared to the one above.

Reduced highlight and open up shadows

It might not look to different in the small images here, but when you see the larger images the transitions do look more realistic, the edges sharper and overall the image has more detail and contrast. The double processed image is on the left, and the opened up shadows, dimmed highlights version is on the right. Can you see the difference now?

So how does the double processing technique work. First in lightroom you process the image normally, lens corrections, chromatic aberration, etc. Now process the image so that the brighter areas of the image are correctly exposed (whatever you feel correctly exposed looks like to you), essentially this is a dark version of the image that should look something like this one.

Dark Raw

Then you make a virtual copy in lightroom, and for this version you process the image so that the darker areas of the image are correctly exposed, essentially make a brighter image, like this one.

Light Raw

I then send both images to Photoshop using the open as layers in Photoshop option. Once in Photoshop I use Jimmy McIntyres' Raya Pro 2 plugin to blend the two images together and do the sharpening. 

Some background for the image used in this post. It has been a very colourful autumn here in the Manawatu this year. I think this maybe because at the end of summer we had a spell of rain which meant the trees have not needed to drop their leaves early as they do in dryer years. The rows of trees in the image line a street I bike along to work, and they have been getting better and better each day. On Friday we had a lovely clear sky sunrise, combined with a chilly morning. With the sun rising directly behind the trees, the light and contrast of the scene looks stunning. So I took my camera with me and just stopped at the top of the stop bank and captured the image, then continued on to work. I like how the lines of trees zig zag through the image.

This is one of the benefits of our daily commutes, you get the opportunity to see photographic opportunities as they develop, then capture them at their peak. The opportunity to practice and develop your skills and tell the story of the place where you live. What great images lie within one kilometer from your house, two... five? Take the time to explore it, the best images aren't always the ones that lie in far off places.