A Spot of Bother – Beware The Blob!

I’m quite convinced that when I talk to some clients about post production, they think I’m just a con artist trying to make life difficult, complicated and expensive for them. Perhaps they put me in the same category as a car mechanic, who stands there sucking his teeth, telling you all the expensive things he’ll have to do to your car to make it run properly. Like emptying the ashtray, or fitting a new phalange.

Why can’t I just shoot the photos and hand over a CD of everything and let the client go on their merry way? Well I could, but before I let my pictures go, one of the most important tasks I carry out is to ensure the images are clean.

I don’t mean I check them for naughty lady bits. Hopefully on an average corporate shoot there isn’t even the remotest risk of that. What I mean is the fuzzy blobs that show up on a photo when dust attaches to the camera sensor*.

This is a common problem for digital SLR cameras. Every time I change a lens, I’m letting dust into the gaping mouth of the camera, and the next time the shutter is fired the dust gets attracted by static charge onto the sensor which shows up as a grey mark on the image.

Some SLRs have special cleaning settings which shake the sensor down on startup, in the hope that the dust can be vibrated off. But these systems are only effective up to a point. I regularly clean my sensor manually, but I have to change lenses on most shoots, letting more Hoffman – sorry, I mean Dustin.

dust spot on digital photo sensor.

Top and bottom-left, blobs tend to show up more against blue.

So when I get the images onto my computer, in addition to the setting of resolution for print or web use, colour and exposure tweaks, captioning etc ad infinitum, I check each and every frame for those dreaded blobs. If not viewed at the right percentage (size) on screen, they can easily be missed, but they’ll manage to show up nicely on your website, and even more so in print.

To the extent that they’ll look ugly on a photo, they can wreck an expensive print run of brochures, so tell me, do you feel lucky? Do you think you can spot and eliminate The Blob? Apart from anything else, do you really have the time to sit there and take blobs off every photo you use? And what if you miss one?

Next time you think the photographer resembles a shark with the scruples of a politician, just remember the alternative could be worse; a photographer who doesn’t care enough about your project to do proper post-production.

*To be pedantic, it isn’t the imaging sensor which gets the dust on it, but a filter which sits directly in front of the imaging chip. This filter, known as a high-pass filter, is there to reduce the amount of infrared light getting to the sensor, as this gives photos a strange colour cast. Digital camera sensors are very sensitive to infrared light, so the filter is necessary to counteract it.

Post Production? ’tis the Devil’s work!

Post production is the process that dare not speak its name. It is surely some manner of witchcraft; the sort of thing only the Devil’s nerdy brother would be into. So what is it? And why should you care?

The concept is simple, the practice less so. Post production is what happens to the photos after the shoot, and before they’re delivered. And though you don’t necessarily¬†need to know what post production is, it is helpful if you have an idea of the basics.

The image file that comes straight from a digital camera isn’t matched to any particular use, and is therefore not matched to any use. To explain that a little better; the camera file will normally be the right resolution for web (72dpi) but will be too large a file to upload. At the same time, it will be physically large enough to produce a print, but needs to be converted to around 300dpi for good quality print output. So the file needs to be resized to suit the end use.

Other things need to happen too. Often the photo will need some tweaking to get the colour, brightness and contrast perfect for the intended use. Also, while the image will be perfectly in focus (because I don’t take out-of-focus photos – no sniggering at the back!) it will need a little digital sharpening to make it appear really crisp in print or on the web. That’s just a characteristic of digital.

Digital SLR cameras tend to have a problem with dust getting in through the lens mount (normally when changing lenses) and adhering to the imaging chip. These then show up as grey blobs and hairs on the image which need to be cloned out in Photoshop or they’ll show up in the published image.

jpeg showing dust on highpass dslr filter

Play Spot the Dust! I've highlighted some. Click the pic to find more.

Adding captions, applying the relevant colour profile and conversion from RAW to jpeg format are also part of post production.

While some of these processes can be done in batches, some have to be carried out on each individual file. This can add considerable time to the overall process of shooting and supplying images to clients, and that time has to be factored into the assignment fee or charged separately, at which point my client might be wondering what they’re paying for. If I’ve factored it in, where another photographer hasn’t, it can make me look expensive, but then I’m not a “dump and runner”.

A dump-and-run photographer is one who simply writes the image files straight from camera to disk with little or no post production, dumps the files on the client, takes the money and runs. They may look like a cheaper option, but the truth is you’re not getting a professional service or top quality images, and this will be reflected in the final project.

Post production can be tricky and incredibly dull work, but I pride myself in the quality of work I deliver. And while you don’t need to know all the technical details, it’s at least worth understanding that it is a necessary process. And the Devil’s nerdy brother doesn’t charge as much as he used to…