The Digital Darkroom: photos before and after

© Si M'Congaile collection [5 of 8]
Processing of photos has been going on since the dawn of photography. Ansel Adams was 'dodging and burning' in his wet lab many years before digital cameras or Photoshop appeared. All digital cameras process raw sensor data to produce a final JPEG, adjusting exposure, white balance, sharpening, etc.

There are regular discussions in the UKC Photography forum about certain photos, and what post-processing they've had, but you rarely get to see the original photo straight out of the camera. Here we are lucky enough to have 12 examples of before & after photos - both from well known and some less known photographers on UKClimbing.

This isn't a tutorial article - there aren't instructions on how to achieve the same results in your favourite graphics package, but there are many good books & tutorial websites on the subject, and there are some links to get you started at the end of this article.

British Columbia: before developing British Columbia
Fixing contrast/brightness by jam ?

Almost every photo can benefit from a quick adjustment of contrast/brightness, especially when the auto-exposure mode on the camera didn't get it quite right.

"Using Photoshop, I adjusted the Levels (mainly moved the shadow slider up) to increase the contrast and remove the greyness of the original. Then did an Unsharp mask at 350%, 0.3, 2."

Fixing highlights/shadows by Escher ?

"This photo of the Paron Valley in Peru is mostly in shade, with some brilliantly lit mountain peaks. I metered for the brightest parts of the scene, and then used the shadow/highlight adjustment tool in Photoshop to decrease the highlights and increase the shadows. A little sharpening with the unsharp mask, and that was it."

Artesonraju base camp: before developing Artesonraju base camp

Bond Street: before developing Bond Street
Isolating the subject: colour by Marek ?

Slightly more work than simply changing the contrast/levels of the entire picture, some subtle adjustments to the subject of the photograph to lift it away from the background can be effective.

"Not much tweaking required on this one. I thought it was a bit 'flat', so the overall contrast is increased a tiny bit with a slight 'spotlight' effect on the climber. There a small amount of increased saturation just on the climber and after rescaling, there's some local sharpening (unsharp mask) around the climber and the crack."

Isolating the subject: focus by g taylor ?

It can be difficult to isolate the subject of a photograph by bluring the background without using expensive heavy lenses and/or a full-frame SLR. Compact digital cameras especially have a large depth of field, meaning that everything is in focus. However you can simulate a small depth of field using a photo editing package.

On the first pitches of Fabrikkfossen, Rjukan: before developing On the first pitches of Fabrikkfossen, Rjukan
"To achieve this effect I drew a selection isolating the climber and foreground from the background. I then applied a Gaussian blur to the background. I cloned out the distracting pink rope and increased the saturation and brightness. Finally I cropped the image."

Hale Bopp: before developing Hale Bopp
Removing clutter by Ian Hill ?

Clutter in the background of shots distracts from the subject of the photo, and it may be impractical to hide rucksacks, spectators and other clutter before taking the shot. This is very different of course from removing a spotter or a top-rope!

"On this shot of Hale Bopp, I did lots of cloning and healing brush to remove the man, shoes, boots, logos, brush...colour balance to get rid of yellow cast...levels and curves to add contrast...corners darkened to focus attention on the climber...slight cropping to remove distractions...sharpening"

Enhancing the lighting by Marek ?

Summer evening cragging: before developing Summer evening cragging
"This one goes for an enhanced 'evening' effect - again to better match the mood of the occasion. The sunlight on the fields and the rockface has been slightly exaggerated with a bit more contrast in the sky. Final sharpening has focussed on line of the climb and the distant fields. In particular, sharpening has been supressed in the small, middle-distance rocks and the high contrast horizon to avoid over exaggerated contrast (in the former) and halo effect (in the later)."

Bouldering pic: before developing Bouldering pic
Removing clutter & background blur by Paul P ?

This photo shows a combination of several post-processing techniques - removing clutter, throwing the background out of focus and playing with the colour saturation to give a muted tone without it being monochrome.

"Here I have cloned out the background clutter, blurred the background, reduced saturation by 75%, then re-introduced colour to key elements (boots, chalk bag, etc), and finally adjusted the brightness/contrast of the entire image."

Background replacement: before Steve McClure on the 1st ascent of La Signora Con La Falce (F8c+) at Urania, Sardinia
Background replacement by Nick Smith ?

A problem with all cameras is that they don't have the dynamic range of a human eye - so unless your subject is climbing in bright sunshine, you'll either get a perfectly exposed climber with an overexposed sky (blank white), or a perfectly exposed sky with an underexposed climber (black). One solution is to take 2 shots - one of the climber, and one of the background+sky, and combine them.

"Here Steve was doing the 1st ascent of La Signora Con La Falce (F8c+) in Sardinia: a huge overhang that is always in the shade. I've adjusted the brightness + saturation of Steve and the rock which was underexposed, then completely replaced the background from a shot I took a few minutes later. I also cloned out the distracting power lines from the sky, and did a final sharpen action."

Background restoration by Marek ?

You don't always to replace the background with a second photo. With sufficient skill, you can often 'rescue' an overexposed sky.

Summer evening cragging: before developing Summer evening cragging
"When I took this one, the sun was just about setting - glorious light - but I had left the camera on auto exposure and auto white balance. Oops. Also the sky was pretty washed out due to the dynamic range. So back in the 'lab', the whole thing was darkened, particularly away from the climber and the colour balance was modified to make it warmer. As before, final sharpening was masked out in the sky (to avoid increasing the noise), round the edge of therock (to avoid halos) and to some extent round the tree details."

Expert processing: monochrome I by Si O'Conor ?

The striking monochrome bouldering photos of Si O'Conor are immediately recognisable, and very popular. Here he shares a few details of what he does with his "wee digi thing"...

Doctor Pink Foot: before developing Exiting the cruxy roof of stoical hung maxillary lateral cave incisors, & another new one for Traigh na Berigh.

"I often use cropping, black & white contrasting & simple de-cluttering of original photographic versions along with added depth of field, as additional refinements of each composition to draw the viewers eye onto the subject at hand, the movement & the moment; the purpose of the composition without visual distraction. It simplifies the experience & adds a greater feel of movement & direction to the subject. It should make you say 'I'm going to go there & climb that' - If it does, it's a good photo."

Expert processing: monochrome II by Ian Hill ?

For really dramatic results, you can make a lot of adjustments to a photo while still keeping the essence of the shot. Here Ian gives a detailed list of the changes he made to this bouldering shot.

  • "crop to remove unwanted left side and some of base - concentrates attention on the action
  • run noise reduction filter - removes graininess from the sensor
  • select foreground rock. background rock, head, torso, arm and these as channels to enable later work
  • clone out distracting bright spots and dust marks - again concentrates attention on the action
  • convert to B&W - some things just look better in B&W!
  • do basic levels adjustment for each selection - to get contrast basically right
  • use curves adjustment for each selection to tweak to final required contrast...particularly with regard to muscle tone and making the desired focus point of the head and arm stand out, and for the rock where the hand is reaching
Sourton Tor bouldering: before developing Sourton Tor bouldering
  • "burn and dodge to create 'drama'...background rock at the base of the pic has particularly been burned to make climber stand out more
  • lighten the eyes using levels - gives bite to the focal point (probably overdone in this case - oops)
  • clone out distracting bits of the floor, like the mat corner and sharp rock edges - again concentrates attention on the action
  • blur the background and lower leg slightly using Gaussian blur - to add some depth
  • darken the edges of the pic - to concentrate the eye towards the subject
  • add slight sepia tone - because I like it
  • add thin black border - once again concentrates attention on the action
  • finally sharpen the base image
Et voila! "

Grandes Jorasses: before developing
Grandes Jorasses
Expert processing: duotone by Marek ?

The goal of post-processing is sometimes to create a more artistic (clearly non-real) image. Here is a heavily processed mountainscape that caused much discussion when Marek first showed it on UKClimbing, and indeed it is currently No.3 in the Top 200 photos on UKC.

"This was taken at dawn, just as the first light was starting to illuminate the summit clouds. An obvious candidate for cropping, getting rid of the shadowy foregaround and some of the sky, so as to concentrate on the line of the ridge.

"I seem to remember that there was a lot of opinion being expressed on UKC at the time about how photo's should be 'pure' so I though I'd throw in something heavily manipulated to see what the response was.

"This picture seemed ideal material for a duotone job. I used Pantone 3015 CVC to give that cold, moonlit color with a high-transparency heavily blurred layer to add some 'pre-dawn mist' and smooth the sky out a bit. The contrast was enhanced a bit around the ridge line and the whole thing was put through a noise reduction utility (Neat Image I think) to reduce the noise levels in the sky. That's it!"

Hope you found this article interesting! Please email me or post in the forum thread with any corrections, links to good books, websites, etc. and I'll update the article.

Resource links

10 Aug, 2006
Rather disapointed that you seem to endorse removing spotters from bouldering shots This is just as bad as removing a rope from a climbing shot; which you gave me a lot of grief for. ;o)
10 Aug, 2006
No I bloody don't. From the article: "Clutter in the background of shots distracts from the subject of the photo, and it may be impractical to hide rucksacks, spectators and other clutter before taking the shot. This is very different of course from removing a spotter or a top-rope!"
10 Aug, 2006
the inclusion of the spotter is what makes this photo.
10 Aug, 2006
Forgive me for getting a little confused but I am wondering if there are any ethical considerations whan "toutching up" photos in Photoshop. I can't see the problem with messing with tone values, histograms and the such. But is it OK to wipe out entire parts of an image such as bystanders, ropes and clutter in the persuit of an image? Up untill reading a few topics like this I thought that many of the 5 Star images were taken by bloody good photographers and now I am beginning to doubt the validity of the images that are presented on here. If I see a climbing photo I presumed that it was a factual representation of what actually happened, and at times I marvled at the skilled and techneques used. From this I read that people either bystander, spotter or whatever have been pixelled out of existance. If I see somebody soloing an Ice Route, trad route or boulder problem should I first assume that the climber was using a Tope-ropes before considering what is shown infront of me. In effect are there any ethical reasons before I submit any images in the future? Is it OK for me to find somebody with a perfect physique doing a desperate E19 12a and clone my head onto it? This may sound an absurd thing to say but isn't it similar to what is going on with many of the photos that people are voting on? Are people voting on the technical skills of the photo or are they being influenced by the author's skills at pixel manipulation?
10 Aug, 2006
Ah, now I see! It isn't that I can't take a photo to save my life, it is just that I can't use photoshop like that Marek dude. The change from before to after is a revelation, I'm in awe.
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