Capturing landscape images can be a challenge when using many cameras with smaller sensors like the Nikon 1 system or M4/3. Rather than go into specific details with a step-by-step approach this article is intended to provide some general thoughts on post-processing of landscape images taken with small sensor cameras.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
As with all landscape photography using polarizing filters and graduated neutral density filters can help capture better initial files. This obviously creates more potential for better downstream post-processing results as the use of these filters can help compensate for the limited dynamic range often associated with cameras that utilize smaller sensors.
If you’re like me, most of my landscape images tend to be spontaneous rather than planned and are often travel related. I must confess that I am a rather lazy landscape photographer. I can count on one hand the number of times over the past 40 years that I’ve set the alarm early so I could capture a ‘magic hour’ image at sunrise or waited patiently for the ideal sunset.
Most of the time I’m simply ‘in the moment’ shooting hand-held with no filters during the worst time of the day – from mid-morning to late afternoon. It’s likely that many of you probably are as well.
I use an eclectic mix of software when processing my RAW files (DxO OpticsPro 10, CS6, Nik Suite). I will reference some specific functions in the software programs I use as that may be of some help to a number of readers. You may have a different set of software than I use, or you are focused on using a single program so you’ll have to determine where a similar adjustment is found in the software you use.
So, what follows are some general thoughts about how I tackle landscape images taken with small sensor cameras like my Nikon 1 V2 in post. Hopefully this will allow you to consider how this could apply to the software you use.
It is important to remember that how we individually choose to interpret one of our landscape images is purely subjective. What I like, or what you like, can be completely different. Neither one of us is wrong – we just see the world around us differently.
The first thing that I always do is use my primary RAW processor to adjust my RAW files to match the camera/lens combination that I used to capture the image. These auto-type corrections save a lot of time as they make adjustments for vignetting, distortion, and chromatic aberrations. In some programs you will need to do some manual clicks to engage these corrections. Other programs like OpticsPro 10 will automatically do them as soon as you open a RAW file. Regardless of how these initial corrections are done, they are always a great first step.
I need to state right up front that my approach processing files from smaller sensor cameras is not one based on incrementally adjusting an image and slowly working it towards a visual goal. I’d be the first to admit that my approach is rather unorthodox. I regularly push my RAW files ‘over the edge’ and then bring them back again during my post processing.
I tend to be very aggressive with many of my adjustments, especially early on in my process when dealing with dynamic range issues, then use other adjustments to bring the image back into a better overall alignment visually. I purposely push my Nikon 1 files beyond where most folks likely go.
This is not something that I did when shooting with full frame cameras like the D800. ‘Incrementalism’ seemed to work really well with those files since there was so much dynamic range and colour depth with which to work. To my eye, taking an incremental approach with my Nikon 1 files always led to less-than-optimal results.
Adjust for Dynamic Range
Physics being as they are, the smaller sized sensors in cameras like M4/3 and the Nikon 1 system simply can’t compete with the performance of full frame and many APS-C sensors in terms of dynamic range.
When initially capturing landscape images we all do our best to try to avoid clipping highlights, since once they’re blown out they can’t be recovered. Even if we’ve done a credible job maintaining as many highlights as possible we’re still dealing with files with less overall latitude than those shot with larger sensors.
As a result I tend to be fairly aggressive when adjusting my files in terms of highlight and shadows. For example, I almost always take highlights in OpticsPro 10 to -10 or -20. Depending on the file I may take black to -5 or -10. I seldom adjust shadows in OpticsPro 10 and if I do it is very minor – perhaps +5 or +10.
After exporting a DNG file into CS6 I take a very aggressive approach with highlights and shadows. I often will take highlights to -100 immediately in CS6 and adjust shadows to +50 – sometimes even to +100. Then I will use the black and white sliders to get the colours and overall balance looking close to what I want in terms of ‘density’. I’ll then typically use CS6 to adjust the overall levels until I arrive at something that I find pleasing.
Adjusting for Colour Depth
Since I have typically been very aggressive with highlights and blacks this can have a negative effect on saturation levels. I quite often need to reduce the overall saturation of the image to tone everything down. If needed I have no hesitation reducing saturation at both the CS6 and Viveza 2 stages of my process. Then, depending on the image I may go in and adjust individual hues in the image with CS6 to put some ‘zip’ back in. I find that I most often do this with images captured in the fall when the range of colours is at their peak.
With fall images I typically increase saturation with reds and yellows, and reduce it slightly with greens until I get the colour pallet I like in the image.
Throughout the entire process I may tweak contrast a bit at various stages. I very seldom use any contrast in OpticsPro 10 with landscape images as I find I prefer using both CS6 and Viveza 2 for this type of adjustment. And, while I always use micro-contrast in OpticsPro 10 with bird images I almost never use it for landscape images as I find it can make them look at bit too ‘crisp’ for my liking.
Sharpness and Clarity
Other than applying a bit of Global and Detail sharpness in OpticsPro 10 (maximum of 1.20 with Global and 70 with detail) I never use any additional sharpness adjustments with landscape images. Some programs like CS6 have a clarity adjustment, or something similar, that can also help create the perception of additional visual sharpness and I do use these from time to time.
Polarization and Dynamic Contrast
I’m not sure which other software programs have got adjustments for polarization and dynamic contrast, but these do exist in Color Efex Pro 4. I use these to do some final tweaks with my landscape images, especially with the overall look of the sky. Dynamic contrast can also help improve overall balance with an image.
While landscape images taken with small sensor cameras do not have the dynamic range and colour depth of those taken with full frame and many APS-C cameras being a bit creative with post-processing can help produce very pleasing final results. And, this need not take very much time. I typically spend less than 3 minutes on one of my Nikon 1 landscape images.
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