What Are Your Processing Tips & Tricks?

I'm really enjoying participating in the weekly critique thread, and one of the most interesting aspects for me is how everyone chooses to process their images. One thing that surprises me is that nearly everyone does seem to process their images - there don't seem to be a lot of out-of-camera JPEGs making the rounds. So with that in mind, I thought it would be fun to maybe share a few tips and tricks.

I am by no means an expert at this, so feel free to critique my advice or offer suggestions of your own!

I use Lightroom, and shoot exclusively with RAW, only using the JPEGs (saved on low quality) for pure snapshots that I need to send off quickly. I've been doing a lot of landscape photography in the winter, and I find that knowing I'll be processing the images has changed how I expose the images while I'm shooting to get the best results afterwards.

I have a Panasonic GX1, which has a last-generation 16MP Micro Four Thirds sensor. I find the performance to be really quite good, except that its a little bit limited in terms of dynamic range. So I shoot to compensate for that. Most of the time, I have better luck recovering highlights than pulling up shadows, so I will intentionally over-expose my images a little bit in high-contrast scenes, knowing that I'll be able to pull down the exposure a little bit in Lightroom and still be safe.

I've also been playing with other ways to improve the dynamic range. Here are a few comparison screenshots with the Lightroom sliders I used. These were taken with the Samyang/Bower 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye, which has outstanding resolving power and is great fun to use. I find it captures the way I actually experience the landscape (especially in the woods) much better than a normal lens that feels cluttered with extraneous detail while not showing the big picture.

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You can see the original exposure on the left, and what I've done on the right. Rather than just cranking up the saturation / vibrance to get the colours to pop, I find that I can enhance the micro-contrast in the image a lot more by reducing the exposure and then pulling up the shadows (while further pulling down the deepest blacks to make the image pop). I find this works particularly well in the bark.

Here's the difference between this method and just playing with clarity / vibrance / saturation to achieve similar tonality.

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I hope these imgur links are able to show it (can you click to get the full-size?), but in my opinion, the 2nd example is flatter, despite having at least as large a total dynamic range - the difference is most apparent in the bark, and the micro-contrast visible there.

Here are some full res crops to demonstrate the difference better:

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What do you think? Which do you prefer?

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