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Before And After – An Ode To Photo Editing And Photoshop

The “Before” shot of the Bryce Amphitheater detail at Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)
The “After” shot of the same scene at Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)

Ok, this is not so much of an “ode” but it is an appreciation of what photo editing can bring out in a composition. Whether you believe it or not, and whether you even like it or not – most images really do need some sort of editing done to them after downloading them to your computer. Digital and mirrorless cameras capture all the detail of a scene, but they don’t necessarily present it quite like we saw it. Our eyes – our wonderful, delicate eyes – are still the best at defining detail within the light and shadow of a landscape. To get that image to match what our eyes have seen (and the memory recorded in our heads), some editing using a favorite piece of software, like Lightroom or Photoshop or some other program is really necessary.

It was my first-ever visit to this particular national park. An April birthday gift I gave to myself several years ago – that, plus one of the last paid vacations I’d be able to get out of the company before my subsequent retirement and out-of-state move some three months after this shot was captured. I wanted to photograph the detail of the amphitheater wall, so I used my Canon 100-400mm lens for a “telephoto landscape.” Unfortunately, I didn’t pay much attention to the camera settings, and the resulting image was washed out, a little overexposed, and downright “blah.”

Recently, I’ve been brushing up on my editing skills, learning all sorts of cool stuff through the video tutorials purchased from one of my favorite photographers, Sean Bagshaw. I wanted to test my newly-learned skills and returned to this image. The result is not half bad, imo.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Truth And Honesty In Photography

The View From Emmons Vista, Sunrise Area of Mount Rainier National Park
The View From Glacier Overlook, Sunrise Area, Mount Rainier National Park

Yesterday, I happened to look at the National Parks Traveler’s Facebook post about my latest article on glaciers, titled “Searching For Glaciers In National Parks.” There were 5 comments for that post, one of which (a guy) accused me by name of photoshopping lakes in the two images above. Two or three others (guys) were all quick to enforce this guy’s comment that yeah, they could see it themselves. I’d photoshopped that lake into a photo. Insert exaggerated eyeroll.

I replied to that guy (who claims he knows Mount Rainier intimately, so that’s why he would see I’d photoshopped lakes into these images) that if he looked closer at the top first image, he’d see that’s not a lake but a large shadowed area since the image was captured shortly after sunrise. He’d also see the squiggly line of the river running through that shadowed area.

In the second image, there actually, truly, really is a lovely glacier-fed turquoise-blue lake there below the mountain. You can see it if you hike to Glacier Overlook in the Sunrise Area. If you go to Flickr.com and type the words “Glacier Overlook Mount Rainier” into Flickr’s search field, you’ll pull up all sorts of images – many of that same area, where you’ll see the lake there.

I stand by my photography, and so does the Traveler. I’m a pretty damned good photographer (yes, I’m tooting my own horn here), and I have no need to do something stupid like photoshop into an image something that wasn’t originally there. I don’t want my street cred ruined. If I ever did change my original image in any way – like clone out (remove) something, like a tracking collar from wildlife, then I would definitely indicate that. An honest photographer will do that.

Here’s another example for you. How many of you have seen awesome star images of the Watchman over the Virgin River in Zion National Park? You can see so clearly the mountain and the river and these amazing stars overhead. I’m here to tell you that what you are looking at is a blended image. One (or more) image(s) was/were captured of the mountain and river at an earlier time, when there was more sunlight, and then blended with the dark, starry image. Go back to Flickr.com and type in the words “night photography zion utah” and see what pulls up. Then, see how many photographers will actually tell you whether or not that star shot is a blended one. Does it make the image less lovely? No, it’s still beautiful, but the photographer should, at least, indicate that the image is a composite of one or more shots taken at different times of the day. The really good photographers do that (well, at least one of them that I happen to admire who is honest about his shots). The image below is what the place actually looks like at 2 a.m. on a February morning, when the atmospheric conditions are at their clearest.

A Starry Winter Sky Over The Watchman, Zion National Park

To that guy’s credit, he did apologize, once I replied to his comment, defending my images, he did take a look at them on a bigger monitor (I get the gist he was bragging he has a 30-inch monitor, so what, he’s a better photographer than I? I dunno.) and realized that yes, I was right about my images and no, I had not photoshopped anything into my already beautiful images (the “beautiful images” part are my words, not his). He then went on to tell me how he was intimately familiar with Mount Rainier because yadda yadda yadda. At least he apologized, so that’s something.

Another photographer with whom I am acquainted once noted that, if you are photographing for journalistic work, then you should be honest and leave your image as-is. If you are photographing for fine art purposes, then knock yourself out. I agree, to a point. Yes, you should absolutely be honest with those journalistic images. Since my imagery is used for the National Parks Traveler, you can sure bet that I not only use my best images, but I also don’t photoshop anything into or out of them. I do sharpen and use other editing tools to bring out the texture or add more color saturation or more brightness. Standard stuff. The camera captures the data, but sometimes, you have to pull the data details out with a little editing tool help.

As for fine art imagery, it’s the same thing. I’m not going to add that new sky feature Photoshop now has, where you can add a beautiful sky to your images in case the sky in your photo was blah on the day you captured the photo (as you can tell, I’m not a fan of something like that). If I photograph a beautiful close-up of wildlife, then I probably would remove the tracking collar, and would indicate I’d done that, in addition to saying the close-up was made with a telephoto lens.

It’s all about honesty and truth, and photographers who adhere to that policy fare much better than those that do not, in the end. So, if someone challenges you or accuses you of doing something fake to your image when you know you did not, you should stand up and fight back. You’ll still have plenty of naysayers just because they think they know better and are jerks about it – can’t fix that, unfortunately, but you’ll have championed your images and your talent as a photographer. Don’t stay silent and let the dickheads think they are right.

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The Poker Game: Multiple Shots of the Same Person in A Single Image

Aces Up My Sleeves

This idea has been bubbling around in my head for a few weeks, but I had to get all of my western gear together first; my company is having its annual employee appreciation party and the theme is “Denim and Diamonds” (cocktail attire or upscale western wear).

I got all dressed up and decided to play a poker game….just me and my selves with the cards I ordered from SmugMug with my pretty face on the card cover (my sister says it’s difficult to distinguish that it’s my face on the cards – oh well).

The multiple-image-in-a-single-composition premise is easy. With a caveat.

1. Pick a scene where the background and lighting are not going to change and there will not be any movement. I used my mother’s dining room. I really wanted to find someplace with a poker table and poker room ambience – like the game room in the basement of the San Luis Hotel in Galveston where I photographed the groomsmen for a wedding – but I figured someplace like that would have charged me for the room use. Mom’s dining room was fine.

2. Set up your camera and tripod and frame the area. If you are the subject of the photo, then either have someone else push the shutter button for you, or use a wireless remote (or a shutter release with a very long cord). For the image of me standing, the wireless remote was in my pocket; for the rest of the me’s you see, the remote lay on the floor and I triggered it with my big toe (yeah, seriously).

3. Once you have the images you want, download them to your computer. I opened up the images in Lightroom first and applied the same exact settings to all of them (it helps to have created a Preset), then, I saved them as TIF files.

4. Now, there are several ways to do this next step in Photoshop; I just opened up each file one at a time rather than use the File-Scripts-Load Files Into Stack. The idea is to have all of your image files open at once. You need a background image that you can use as an anchor. That image could be a photo of the room with nobody in it or it could be one of the multiple images captured. That is the option I chose.

Note:  to see larger versions of the images below, click on the image.

The Anchor Image

5. I then went to each of the other photos of me, selected the Rectangular Marquee Tool and drew a box around the image.

Copy the photo

6. I copied that image (Ctrl-C).

7. I went back to my anchor photo and pasted (Ctrl-V) the copied image.

8. That pasted image is the one that shows up. If you look at your Layers Panel to the right of your screen, you will see that the pasted image is a Layer.

Your Layer

9. At the bottom of the Layers Panel, select that little icon that kind of looks like a camera (the Create New Layer Mask).

10. Now, look at the Layers Panel and note that beside your newly-pasted photo Layer is a white box; that’s the layer mask.

Add Layer Mask

11. Over on your Tools Panel (the left side of your screen), switch your Foreground and Background so that the black square is on top and the white square is on the bottom.

Switch Foreground and Background

12. Alt-Backspace.

13. You will see your original anchor photo; your newly-pasted photo is  hidden underneath (“masked”).

14. To bring forth just that part of you in the pasted photo, select the Paint Brush from your Tools Panel and start “painting” over the empty space where the next image of you is supposed to show up. Note: you can make the “paint brush” larger or smaller by hitting the bracket keys.

Painting

15. Do the same steps above for however many images you took of you, that you want incorporated into a single composition.

All Painted In

Here’s the Caveat:

To allow for an easy process, make sure that each image of you is not overlapping a previous image of you. Notice that the image of me sitting on the right is in front of and a little to the side of the image of me standing against the curtain. I didn’t realized that I was overlapping myself. That caused some difficulty. You see, whenever I “painted” in that image of me standing, I accidentally painted over the image of me sitting. Remember, each photo I took of myself was just a single image with the rest of the room empty. So, by accidentally getting a little too generous with the paint brush, I would paint over an already-existing image, and get a blank spot where I was sitting previously.

After you have all of the players in that one photo, then you can start editing the overall look of the image. To get the kind of old-timey look I wanted, I applied a number of presets from OnOne’s Perfect Effects.

The Winner and Losers

This is an easy, fun process that opens up a lot of creative avenues.

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A More Creative Way To Add A Watermark To Your Photos

1530_Common Sunflower_200mm-teleconverter_CROP

I was going to post my thoughts on my new Canon 1.4x Mk III teleconverter (will do that later) but decided instead to publish this watermark post because I am so tickled with the new thing I have learned that some of you might want to try out for yourselves.

I subscribe to the Daily Peta Pixel.  It’s an online magazine dedicated to photography. One of the recent editions ran a story with a link to a  watermarking tutorial published by farbspiel photography.  After looking at this tutorial and its screenprints, I thought wow, I can do this too!

Farbspiel photography is correct in stating a watermark can deter some viewers from looking further.  I myself don’t necessarily care if those viewers get disgusted when they see a watermark on my photos because they apparently don’t have issues with photo theft and copyright infringement.  For me, there is always room for improvement, and this watermarking method can be used for places where your uploaded photo cannot be linked to your photo website when a viewer clicks on said photo.

Note #1: farbspiel photography’s tutorial uses Photoshop, as do I.  I am going to assume – however erroneously – that most other decent photo editing applications have similar commands/methods.

It took me a freaking hour to figure everything out based upon the tutorial.  I’m not really familiar with layers and masks, and there were parts of the instructions that – even with farbspiel photography’s screenprints – were not clear to me .  I created this post with additional bits and pieces here and there to help clarify some of those issues.  I’m a spell-it-out-for-me kind of gal, and I know many of you reading this may be the same (guy or gal).

OK, here we go.

  • In Photoshop:  File-New

I copied my settings after the settings in farbspiel photography’s tutorial:

Beginning

  • Using the Text tool, I created my watermark, formatting the font type, font size and text color.   If you are in Photoshop, look to the right of your screen and you will now see your text listed as a layer.

Originally, I deviated from the tutorial in that I simply created a single layer for the entire copyright watermark, rather than creating a separate layer for each segment.

1

Then, I realized the value of creating separate layers, because I can return to my original watermark file and change it up, simply by deleting or re-doing a specific layer (like the copyright year).  Duh.

2_Rev

Now that you have created the look you want for your watermark:

  • Click on Layer – New Fill Layer – Solid
  • Give this layer the same name as what you have given your new watermark (I called mine “Signature”).

3

  • Leave everything else as-is, and click on OK
  • You will be shown the Color Picker
  • Choose black

4

  • Click OK
  • Hold down the Ctrl (on a PC) key and click on the first (or last) layer you have created.  You need to click on that little white layer icon thumbnail beside your layer name in order to see that particular layer outlined in blinking white dashed lines.
  • Release your hold on the Ctrl key, and then right-click on the next layer  icon and choose Add Transparency Mask .  You will now see that next layer highlighted in blinking white dashed lines.
  • Continue to do the right click thing on your other text layers until you see all of your text watermark outlined in blinking white dashed lines.

5

  • Click on the white box next to the little locking icon in your Fill Layer
  • Right click and choose Delete Layer Mask
  • The Fill Layer will remain, but the white box will be gone.
  • Now, click on that icon (the highlighted yellow one) at the bottom of the Layers screen, which is the Add New Layer Mask icon

addnewlayermask

  • Once you have clicked on that, you will see your signature watermark  with a black background in the thumbnail of the Fill Layer.
  • While your Fill Layer is still selected, choose Color Dodge from the drop-down box.
  • Double-click to the right of your Fill Layer name and you will see the Blending Options box.  You can play around with the options, but for this post, which follows farbspiel photography’s tutorial, choose Drop Shadow and Bevel and Emboss.

7

  • Click OK
  • Save your new watermark as a .psd and keep this file open
  • Open up the photo you wish to watermark
  • Go back to your watermark file, click on the Fill Layer (the one that has the thumbnail of your watermark signature), then right click and select Duplicate Layer.
  • On the pop-up screen, make sure you have your destination photo chosen:

9

  • Click OK
  • Go to your destination photo and you will see your watermark signature as a new layer.  You will also see the watermark on your photo.

10

Here’s where I veered off of the remainder of farbspiel photography’s tutorial because I already liked the look of my watermark and am pretty good at “eyeballing it”.

  • Edit-Transform-Distort
  • Your watermark is now boxed in

12

Each of those little square “markers” (or whatever they are called) can be used to move/distort your watermark.  I just chose to arrange the corner markers as you see in the screenprints below to get to the finished product.

13

14

Once you are finished with your watermark arrangement, hit Enter

You may now choose to keep your original photo and your watermark layers separate, or merge the layers by selecting Layer-Merge Layers

As you can see from the photos, I decided I didn’t like the look of the watermark in this particular image.  I returned to the original signature.psd file and removed that www.rebeccalatsonphotography.me layer.  I saved the file as a new psd file (so now I have two nifty watermarks).

Voila!  You now know how to create a workable watermark that you can move/distort and blend in with your photo which, at the same time, indicates the copyright and ownership of the photo without too much of a distraction to the viewer.

Thanks farbspiel photography and Daily Peta Pixel!

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Blown-Out Highlights: Waterfalls (and the Silky Water Effect)

Blown-out highlights.  No, I am not referring to a bad hair color.  I’m talking (writing) about photos you have seen or taken where the lighter colors of a photo (in particular the whites) are so blinding/glaring that you see no detail at all, even though you know there was detail within those light colors when you looked at the scene you ultimately photographed.

In this post, I’m going to show you what I do when attempting to recover some of the detail in a photo with blown-out (over-exposed) highlights.  Sometimes, these procedures work really well for me, sometimes not so much.  I know there are other methods out there I haven’t yet mastered (which is why I someday want to take one of those week-long Photoshop courses offered by Rocky Mountain School of Photography http://www.rmsp.com/ or Santa Fe Photographic Workshops http://www.santafeworkshops.com/ ).

In 2008, I went on my very first organized photo workshop – to Glacier National Park, MT.  In future posts, I’ll discuss my photo tour experiences (and post photos). One day during the workshop, we hiked the short trail from the road to a place called St. Mary Falls.  I’d never really photographed running (rushing) water before.  There are others out there who have water photography down to a fine art:  Darren White Photography, for one  http://www.flickr.com/photos/drwhite75/sets/72157610515657296/  I was definitely not one of those people.

Most people, when photographing waterfalls, are aiming toward what is called “silky water”.  Basically, the camera shutter speed is set to “slow” (for example: 1 second instead of 1/500 of a second) to capture more than just a passing glance of the rushing water.  The longer the shutter speed, the more “silky” the effect…and the more potentially blown-out (over-exposed) the image may become.

Here’s a (un-edited) non-silky water shot – well, relatively non-silky.

Versus a silky water (way un-edited) photo (an example of silky water and blown-out highlights):

At the time of the workshop, I didn’t quite know enough about photographing water to realize that I did not even own what I really needed, which was a dedicated neutral density (ND) filter (this is why you take workshops – to reach beyond your comfort zone and learn about stuff like this).  I’m not referring to a graduated (split) ND filter, but an actual “all-over” ND filter, which is a round or square piece of gray glass or resin compound that fits over (or in front of) the lens.  The gray comes in varying shades or “densities” or “stops” (1-stop, 2-stop, 4-stop – meaning that’s how much the camera’s exposure is “stopped” down or lowered when capturing a scene with that filter attached).  ND filters are great for long shutter speeds to slow down motion such as running water in order to create that “silky” effect, while keeping the light colors of a scene from being blown-out.

If you are going to purchase a ND filter, then remember: you get what you pay for.  When it comes to camera equipment, get the best that your budget will allow.  Don’t short-change yourself or your photos.  I’m not advocating that you break the bank or starve yourself (or your family) in order to purchase the higher-end stuff (I know it’s difficult to maintain priorities, but sometimes camera gear doesn’t come first).  I’m just recommending that you get the best you can afford and not go onto ebay to pay $3 for something that you will ultimately trash upon viewing the results.  BH Photo  www.bhphotovideo.com and Adorama  www.adorama.com carry a wide range of ND filters and pricing to fit all budgets – and really, these photo sites I have listed carry good stuff.  It’s where I do all of my shopping for photo gear.

All I had with me at the time was a graduated (split) 2-stop ND filter and a polarizing filter.  So I screwed on both filters (watch out when doing this and trying to use your wide-angle lens because you will definitely get vignetting). Below is the original shot as it came out of the camera:

Attractive, right?  Well, it has the potential to be attractive after a little post-processing.

For one thing – I definitely remember standing at this spot, marveling at the lovely dark turquoise hue in the waterfall itself.  You don’t see much of that in the shot above.  Following are the procedures I took to eliminate as much of the blown-out highlights as possible and bring out the colors to achieve the end result pictured below:

Better, yes?

I am sure I will say this in almost every “how to” post I write, in case you don’t read any of my previous posts.  First and foremost, I am not an expert – by any means.  I am simply writing about what I know and how I do it.

Regarding photo editing applications – there are a ton of them out there and everybody uses something different: Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Aperture, Picasa, Picnik, Lightoom, etc.  What I tell you here can pretty much be applied to whatever post-processing software you use – different commands, different tools in the virtual toolbox, but the result will essentially be the same.  I personally use two programs:  Lightroom 3 (LR3) and Adobe Photoshop CS5.  I do some things in LR3 because they are easier for me to utilize, and I do other things in CS5.  I don’t know the total ins and outs of either of these very complicated programs like Scott Kelby  http://www.scottkelby.com/  or Rick Sammon http://www.ricksammon.com/Rick_Sammon/Home.html do, but what I do know, works for me, and I’m constantly learning new stuff in both of these programs.

So, I upload the photos to LR3.

I choose a photo (that first one highlighted) and click on the “Develop” link at the top right.

One of the first steps I always take is to scroll down to the Lens Correction panel on the right side of the screen and click on the “Enable Profile Corrections”.  This corrects distortions inherent in whatever particular lens you may be using on your SLR (I’ve noticed that this option doesn’t appear to make any difference on photos I upload from my point & shoot – a Canon G11).

Once that is done, I start to play around with the photo.  Since there are plenty of blown out highlights in the whiteness of the water, the next thing I want to do is bring back a little detail wtihin those whites.  I scroll up to the top right side of the screen and play around with the Recovery slider.  It’s an awesome little tool that works really well to bring back detail, although it tends to darken the rest of the photo.  I also utilize the Clarity, Vibrancy, and Saturation sliders to bring back the “oomph” to the photo and to add saturation to the colors.

FYI, Vibrancy and Saturation are oftentimes confusing.  Saturation boosts the color saturation of the entire photo.  Vibrancy is more selective (don’t ask me how it knows) and boosts only those colors in the photo that are undersaturated.  So, why not use just the Vibrancy slider and ditch the Saturation altogether?  It all depends on what you are after – what you want to see in your photo and what you want your photo to show you (and others).  I usually play around with both sliders, then either keep both, or set one or the other back to zero.  Be careful when using these two tools, as it’s quite easy to over-do.  You don’t want a fakey or fantastical-looking photo….unless that is your aim, of course.

The photo above still looks a little blown-out to me, so I use one of my very favorite tools in LR3: the Gradient Tool.

I use this awesome little tool mainly for exposure control for parts of a photo.  However, as you see from the panel that opens up when the gradient tool is clicked, there are other slider options which may also be used with this tool.  All you have to do is drag the little plus-sign (which turns into lines as pictured above) through the areas you wish lightened/darkened/saturated/etc.

Note:  if you are going to drag a straight line horizon from top toward the bottom or from the bottom toward the top, remember to hold down the Ctrl key (on a Windows PC) as you hold down the left mouse button and drag the gradient up or down – otherwise, those lines will go every which way.  Just test it out for yourself to see what I mean, since I don’t think I am explaining that aspect very well.

I fiddle around with the blacks, contrast, and brightness sliders, too.

When I’ve achieved what I want in LR3, I do one last thing:  scroll down to the Tone Curve panel and use the Light slider.  This slider is more subtle than the Exposure or Brightness tools – it adds a nice glow to the entire photo.  CS5 also has a Curves tool, but I find I have more control using those sliders in LR3 and I understand them a little better in this program than in the more complicated CS5 – that’s just me, of course – you may find it easier to work with Curves in some other program.

I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do in LR3.  So I compare the before-after views before finally exporting the photo as a TIF which I will then open up in CS5 for further tweaking (because it still does need further work IMO).

I’ve saved the TIF file and now open it up in CS5.

One of the first things I do to a photo in CS5 is go to the menu bar, select Images – Auto Tone and take a look at what CS5 would do to the photo.

Some of the whites look a little to harsh to me, so I go to Edit – Undo Auto Tone.

I next choose Images – Adjustments – Brightness/Contrast and fiddle around with those sliders.

I’m still not sure I like what I see, so I go to Edit – Undo Brightness/Contrast and move on to the Images-Adjustments-Levels panel.

Sometimes I use one or a combination of the three tools I’ve listed above to achieve my results.

I noticed that my image, while looking good, has a bit more of an aqua cast to the entire photo than I really want.  I decide maybe I need to do a little color balancing.

Image-Adjustments-Color Balance.  I tweak the Red slider a little bit to eliminate some of that aqua (cyan) cast to my photo.

Much better.

As I work on this image, I see little spots here and there in the white: they might be water spots or dust particles on the image sensor.

I definitely wish to get rid of those, so I use one (or both) of the following:

The Content Aware tool, which is accessed by selecting that little lasso icon on the left side of the screen.

Use that lasso to outline the item you wish eliminated, right click, select Fill and make sure Content Aware is shown.

Click OK and voila!  Most of the time, this works like magic – sometimes, though, it does not, and you have to do a manual clone job.  Note: this Content Aware tool is only on CS5 and now on the latest iteration of Photoshop Elements.  So in all probability, if you don’t have either of those programs, you must use whatever clone tool is available in your program’s arsenol.

You will see a little empty circle on your screen.  You can adjust the circle size.  For CS5, you need to place the circle in an area of the photo which you would like to “clone” over to the part(s) of the image that need to have those spots eliminated, Ctrl-Alt to capture that area, then place the circle over the spot and click on the left mouse key.  Voila! spot(s) all gone!

My final act before I apply a little sharpening to this image is to use a bit of selective dodging and burning (lightening and darkening).  In CS5, you can switch between the two tools by left-clicking and then highlighting the option you wish.

I finllally apply a subtle bit of sharpening: Filters-Sharpen-Unsharp Mask and I’ve vastly improved upon the original photo.

You can take these instructions and apply them to any images with blown-out highlights: skies, horizons where it’s dark on the bottom and light on top (like mountain photos), any other photo with alot of light-dark areas in the shot.

Of course, the instructions above are not the only methods to achieve these results; many photographers more experienced with Photoshop use Layers for this purpose.  I don’t know a thing about Layers, in all honesty, which is why I never mentioned them in this post and won’t mention them in any other post until I myself am proficient enough to ponderously expound upon this issue 😉

I see this is another looonnng post.  Sorry.  As I attempted to describe my editing processes, I came to the realization that post-processing is not always simple or straight-forward.  I don’t think about it because I happen to LOVE photo editing.  Photography is an art, I’m an artist, the photo is the canvas and the editing software contains my box of paint  brushes. Oftentimes, it takes more than a single editorial”brush stroke” to create a Masterpiece.  It all depends upon how well your in-camera settings captured the shot (about which many photographers will brag online) and how much time you wish to devote to an image.

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