raw file

Make over your portfolio

When I first started to use Lightroom to post-process my images, I described its non-destructive capability as being able to go back to your teacher and ask for a new sheet of drawing paper when you'd messed up your finger-painting by adding a few too many red splodges. When you're editing your work first time around, this is marvellous, wondrous, and often absolutely heaven-sent. But what about second time around? Third time around? A few years down the road? You change, you learn more, fashions change, and suites are upgraded. You can still go back, dig out that original Raw file, and edit it all over again. Gareth is here to tell precisely why you should be doing this.

Today, we're going to look at some photos with horrible processing and make fun of them. You might think that is harsh, cruel, or even downright bad form, but I don't care: I'm here to kick the ever-loving shingles out of these images because they're bad. Compositionally and conceptually, they're fine, but the processing on them is horrible. So we're going to tear them apart (semi-constructively) and tell you what's bad about them, and how bad or unnecessary processing can lead to an inferior portfolio, and what you can do to improve your existing work without leaving your computer.


Easy on the clarity slider, buddy – I can only imagine this chap thought 'Maybe if I keep hitting "sharpen", the image will get better and better every single time! I've seen Manny Librodo's stuff – everyone loves that guy. Let's copy it!'

Add to that the weird yellow glow which I can only imagine is coming from a nearby burning Lancaster Bomber and you have an introspective moment ruined by gaudy, overblown highlights and a shirt that STANDS OUT like a neon, strobe-lit fifty foot long thumb. Ugh.


Someone get some ice on that guy's cheek, it appears to be approaching 1,000 degrees Celsius. Not only that, but I'm pretty sure that's a wig: nobody's hair is THAT shiny.


Now this is an absolute cracker. What better way to draw attention away from the background than to put a massive, gaudy vignette around your image? I mean he might as well have put a large, red arrow pointing at the subject, accompanied by the words 'HERE! THE THING YOU SHOULD BE LOOKING AT IS THE DUDE IN THE MIDDLE. OK? GLAD I COULD HELP, DUDE.'

As for the headshot, I see the Germans took down another one of our brave pilots. Better move away from that burning wreckage, my friend – it looks like you're within about a metre of it.

The Not-at-all-obvious Reveal

These photos all have something in common: they're all my photos. 'Crikey O'Reilly of the First Degree!' I hear you exclaim, as your monocle pings out and shoots across the room, ricocheting off your cat, Mr Plot Twist, and sends him screeching and careering out of the room.

We all know it's very easy to allow your online portfolio to go stale: we diligently replace our old images with new, better work, ensuring only a representative and varied handful of our best work is on display at all times. Don't we? Admittedly sometimes we forget, and we all probably need to update, replace and trim the deadwood more often than we do. However, there is another way a portfolio can go stale, something that is much harder to detect: I'm talking about our processing.

My process of keeping my online portfolio up to date usually goes as follows: look over recent shoots and pick some of my absolute favourite images, look at my existing online work, hold a sort of faux television talent show where I print out all the photos, consider each one intently, and then pause for a ludicrously long time–giving everyone involved the collywobbles, or just sending them catatonic with boredom–before announcing who's made the cut and is still in with an opportunity of landing themselves a Christmas number one and first album deal that everyone will promptly ignore after the next series. Oh, sorry, no, just a place on my website. But anyway, the point is, I clean out the deadwood and ensure that only my best work is on display... except there's something I've missed.

With every portfolio update, there are always a couple of images that never get cut. This usually is either down to them having a particularly interesting quality or because they are notable in some other way, such as being a portrait of someone well known (or well known in the videogame world, in my case). The problem is, these images tend to evade scrutiny with each portfolio update. Well it hit me the other day when looking at some of my images that survive the cut every time, just how rough the processing was and how much I had learned since I'd first taken them, processed them, and uploaded them with a glowing sense of pride to my website.

I decided to pull the original files off my backup external hard drive (you are all backing up your images, right?) and reprocess some from scratch. Not only did they look better, thanks to a more careful post-processing approach than my previous, ham-fisted attempts, the reprocessed images actually helped my portfolio look stronger as a whole, as these new images now fitted into to the overall aesthetic a lot better. What I ended up with was a more consistent look which reflects my current style, instead of a fairly consistent style punctuated by nasty little poorly processed shots.

It's a really great, uplifting thing to do: I was happy with what I had captured in these images but shocked at how I had treated them in post. In addition, it allowed me to reflect on what lessons I had learned from my days as a naive, wet-behind-the-ears but terribly enthusiastic post-processor to where I am today.

One of my biggest lessons? You don't need to over-process everything. Sometimes a shot benefits from an aggressive filter. Sometimes a vignette is appropriate: it depends on your customer, the target audience, and the theme.

For example, although I reprocessed a couple of the photos of game designer and artist Keita Takahashi, I retained the aggressive processing, because the images are intended to reflect Takahashi's wild and bizarre imagination. Seeing as the background is a mural painted by Takahashi himself, I wanted the images to feel like we were inside his imagination.


More often than not, however, filtering and gaudy effects are unnecessary and often detract from the final image. Keep your eye on what's interesting in the original image and draw out that; if there's nothing of interest there, then it's probably not the photo for your portfolio.

Another lesson learned was the importance of good cropping, an understanding and respect of the power of composition and how it can can draw out a lot more from an image than a gaudy filter. 


I looked at the image of Peter Molyneux sat at a table with the counters properly for the first time in a long time and wanted to crawl into a very tiny space, never to emerge, feeding on moss and small insects that were unlucky enough to scuttle into my awful, fauxtographic gobhole. What was I thinking adding that horrendous vignette?! If I wanted to draw attention to the subject, a good crop would do a significantly better job than a vignette on a whiteboard.

And just for completeness, here are the re-edited versions of the other two originals:




It will hurt and it will force you to critically tear your own work apart but it's a bit like doing the vacuuming: the longer you leave it, the worse it will get, but you'll feel so much better afterwards.


The illustration is by the talented James of Sweet Meats Illusttration.


Two steps closer to the perfect photo

Breaking the rule of thirds works well often - especially in scenes like this

Few things confuse me more than someone asking me what camera I use. I understand the question, but I can't help but wonder why the answer would tell them anything about me as a photographer. After all - a painter is rarely asked about what brand of brushes she uses, nor do people care much about which word processor a novelist used.

Great photographs aren't made by a camera-and-lens combination; the equipment you hold in your hands and the tools you use to take the image from RAW file to final JPEG are completely irrelevant to most discussions about photography as an art form. Why? Because none of these things are the wall that stands between you and your yet-to-be-taken masterpieces.

A great photograph needs two things: It needs a creative vision, backed up by a solid set of technical skills. A photo that has one of these two things nailed can be good - but it won't be great.

Step 1: The technical side

The technical side of photography has myriad different elements to it, and a good photographer has to juggle all of them to create the perfect photograph. Getting a photograph is an equation of lighting, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focal length, depth of field, focus, blurring (or the absence thereof), and a whole boatload of other variables. As a photographer, you are akin to a scientist using a sophisticated optical instrument, measuring the world around you, one fraction of a second at the time.

Photographers who are just starting out tend to have the biggest problems with the technical side of photography: Over- or under-exposure were the arch-nemeses of many a fledgling snapper. The challenges of avoiding focus blur, camera blur, and subject motion blur... You name it, we've all been there.

Most photography classes (forgive the pun) focus on photography as a technical challenge. In a way, that makes sense: It's the first hurdle that causes many to stumble out of the starting blocks. Sadly, by making photography into science, many new photographers are turned off - there are only so many diatribes about f-stops a right-minded human being can take before they wander off and reach for the Playstation controller.

More depressingly, many photography teachers stop when their students have finally figured out how to get a classroom printer to vomit up a reasonably well-exposed, moderately in-focus image, forgetting what photography was meant to be all about. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Over time, people learn their tools and what can be done with them. They'll pick up rules, tips and tricks that help them compose well-exposed, correctly white-balanced images that are tack-sharp, well lit, and generally attractive-looking, realistic and accurate depictions of the world.

As you become a more experienced photographer, it's likely that the technical side of photography becomes second nature. Your camera and lens become extensions of your brain, your fingers glide effortlessly over the buttons, and you find yourself tickling the settings to perfection every time. When the time comes to buy a new camera body, you feel that sinking, forlorn feeling of having to re-adjust after the manufacturer moved the buttons around by a fraction of a centimetre on the new version of the camera.

Whilst being able to take technically perfect photos is a surprisingly rare skill, a technically proficient photographer is still merely a technician. Granted, there are places where photographic technicians have a place (archeology, to pick an example at random), but in most cases, merely getting a photo in focus and correctly exposed is not enough.

Step 2: The creative side

Personally, I got started in photography because the technical side of it was interesting to me. Freezing motion with fast shutter speeds - or the exact opposite - was a thrill. Gradually, as I started getting better at the science side of things, I started realising there was more to photography. I started looking at masterpieces by well-known photographers, and after an embarrassingly long time, it dawned on me why their photography was so much better than mine: They had a story to tell.

You've probably been at a party where someone is telling a story and it seems as if everybody is clinging on to the storyteller's every word. The onlookers are practically cheering the narrator on to continue with the incredible tale. I'm willing to bet that this particular raconteur could make any mundane, trivial topic come to life.

If the technical side of photography is the 'how', then the creative side is the 'why'. A great photograph isn't the absence of blur or the perfect exposure: It is telling a visual story, and telling it in such a way that the viewer can't tear themselves away.

Whereas the technical discipline of photography has shutter speeds and ISO choices in its war chest, the creative camp has an impressive array of weapons tucked away, too. The crop of an image, angle, choice of colours, taking the photograph at the decisive moment, being in the right place at the right time, patience, persistence, and the ability to pre-visualise the perfect shot are all aspects of capturing the perfect creative shot.

If a technically proficient photographer without creative insight is a technician, the opposite - a creative snapper without technical skills - would be a whiney art student. You know the type: They'll have an extensive portfolio of 'artfully out of focus' shots that have been photoshopped, textured and filtered to within an inch of their miserable photographic lives.

Don't get me wrong - I don't have a problem with people who bend the 'rules' of photography for creative effect. Quite the opposite, in fact. I do, however, encourage people to understand the photographic principles they are flaunting. Break all the rules you like, but as a creative photographer, you have to know why and how you are throwing convention to the wind.

When I am teaching, I am secretly more excited about students who come brimming with ideas but no photography skills, than the ones who know a lot about photography but haven't had an original thought in their skulls: The challenge with the creative perspective of the photographic quandary is that creativity is bone-cursingly difficult to teach. Which is a shame, because whilst most photographers eventually become proficient with their equipment, only a few go on to use those technical skills with amazing outcome - and all of that is down to creativity. 

Putting it all together: Becoming a better photographer.

Picasso, it is said, once drew a sketch on a piece of paper for someone, and then charged them a lot of money for it. "Hey, that only took you 10 minutes", the potential buyer reportedly said. "No, that drawing took me 30 years", was the retort. If we assume for a moment that this anecdote is true, I'm completely with Picasso on this one: A photo can less than a thousandth of a second to make, but nobody learns photography in a day.

To improve your photography, the key is to know where your weakness lies. Easier said than done, but I found that adding an extra step to my photographic workflow has been of immense value: For every photo (even if I'm about to bin it for any reason), I make a mental note of two things: A technical, and a creative thing I could do to improve that particular photograph. If, at the end of the photo editing session, it turns out I have made a lot of mental notes about focus, then perhaps the time is ripe to pencil in a practice session. If I seem to forget to leverage the angles of my photography to the best effect, then - guess what - perhaps that's what needs to be worked on.

The great thing about self-evaluation is that this technique works well to improve both your creative process and the technical side of your photography. For every shot you're looking at, the question is simple: What could I have done to make this better? Especially for the photos you are most happy with, the answers are going to be valuable additions to your mental checklist the next time you're out and about with your photography kit. Baby-step by baby-step, you'll get closer to that ever-elusive Perfect Photo.