A Step-By-Step Look at Post-Production: Little Red Riding Hood

I am often asked how it is that professional photographers sometimes spend several hours editing a single shot. When you consider the amount of work that goes into pre-production – casting, scouting locations, selecting props, costume design, hair and makeup, making sure you have the right photo equipment, etc. – it’s only natural that an equal amount of effort goes into editing the final image. To shed some light on the topic of post-production and to explain just what it involves, I am going to walk you through the step-by-step editing process on one of my favourite shots: the lovely Penelope Phillips as Little Red Riding Hood. 

This portrait was shot using natural light and a collapsible, circular, silver reflector disc. I used the AF-S Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8 G lens, which is ideal for portraits, and my settings were: ISO 200, 1/100, f2.8. It was shot in a beautiful forest in Avon, Connecticut, on a summer afternoon. As always, I shot in RAW format, which is the digital photography equivalent of a negative in film photography. Essentially, a RAW file is an uncompressed, unprocessed image file that records the data directly from your camera’s sensor.  Rather than letting the camera process the image for you – by turning it into a JPEG image – shooting in RAW gives you more control, allowing you to process the image to your liking. 


Step 1 – Processing in Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom is not only the processing software I use for RAW files, it is also the library where I store, retrieve and search for all my images. The Develop Module in Lightroom allows you to adjust the colour and tone of your RAW files as well as crop them, and make other corrections to the unprocessed file.

Pictured above is a screenshot of the RAW image before and after processing in Lightroom. For this particular shot, I increased the exposure slightly, fine-tuned the highlights and shadows, adjusted the clarity and vibrance and added a medium contrast curve. Once I was satisfied with the results, I opened the file in Adobe Photoshop.

Step 2 – Retouching 

Retouching is often the most time consuming aspect of post-production. It is the painstaking process of tasks such as: taming flyaway hair, removing blemishes, diminishing wrinkles, fading dark circles, balancing skin tone, brightening eyes, smoothing out wrinkles in clothing, removing unwanted objects, etc. The amount of retouching that you choose to do is entirely up to you, but the most important thing is to keep your retouching as natural-looking as possible. Of course, you want to do as much as you can to reduce the amount of retouching before you actually start shooting. For instance, it’s much easier to simply remove a water bottle that’s in your shot in ‘real life’ than it is to remove it in post-production. This seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how many times I’ve heard, “Well, you can just Photoshop it out, right?”


Step 3 – Colour Correction 

Colour correction takes processing a step further by adding a particular mood to your image through the use of adjustment layers and/or by adding textures. There are many different ways of colour correcting an image, from very subtle effects to more dramatic ones. These are the steps that I took to create the mood for Little Red Riding Hood.

First, I added a custom curves layer in order to diminish some of the green tones caused by the reflection of the forest leaves on the subject...

Then, I added a subtle vignette by using a gradient fill layer. I switched the blend mode from normal to soft light and lowered the layer opacity to 35% to soften the effect...


Next, I muted the tone of the image somewhat through the use of a levels layer. I inverted the layer mask and then painted some of the effect off the subject using a soft, white brush at 75% opacity. I later reduced the opacity of this layer to 50%...


Then, I added a photo filter layer (warming filter 85 at a density of 35%) and lowered the opacity of the layer to 75%...

Next, I desaturated the image somewhat by adjusting red, green and white using a selective colour layer...


Then, I added another gradient fill layer, to add even more warmth to the image. I switched the blend mode from normal to soft light and lowered the layer opacity to 60% to soften the effect...

Finally, I added one more gradient fill layer, to create a hazy, ethereal effect. I used a soft, white brush at 100% opacity to remove the effect from the subject and lowered the opacity of the layer to 60%...


So, there you have it. I hope that this explains, to a certain degree, how it is that professional photographers often spend several hours – and in some cases several days – editing a single image.