Natasha Calzatti: Getting The Most Out Of Your Images

Natasha Calzatti

Photographer and post-production guru Natasha Calzatti  teaches photographers how to get the most out of their digital captures through classes at Samy’s Camera and Santa Monica College in Southern California. In addition to efficient workflow and learning the tools available to us through state-of-the-art software, Calzatti emphasizes the importance of proper color management, being able to reproduce accurate and consistent color from capture to completion.

DigitalPhoto Pro: Before we process an image made up of millions of light sensitive photosites – aka pixels – we first have to capture it. What would you suggest as camera settings for the highest possible output?

Natasha Calzatti: Since you typically don’t know all the final output possibilities, why not try to capture all the possible information in your digital negative? You can always downsize. Upsizing is another story. A journalist or a sports photographer who is just shooting JPEGs because of speed, buffer issues, or publication or agency requirements, might someday want to create large prints for a gallery show. They can’t go past a certain point without losing detail in the highlights or building up noise in the shadows becoming an issue. Pixelation becomes an issue as well. Remember that JPEGs discard information in order to make a compressed file. They could shoot in both JPEG and RAW then send off the JPEGs needed to illustrate a story. They’ll have that RAW available for that time down the line when they need to make an amazing exhibition print. You can never go wrong shooting in RAW. Data cards are cheap and can be reused.

When you take a photo in the JPEG mode, the camera’s internal processor takes the information recorded on the sensor and processes it as an 8-bit JPEG file according to the camera settings such as white balance and picture style. The “extra” information gathered by the sensor is discarded and not retrievable. It’s a one-way ticket. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

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Left: A beach scene in Tulum, Mexico, shows an example of 8-Bit banding in the sky.
Right: The beach in Tulum, Mexico, shows how working in 16-bits shows no banding in the sky.

DPP: The word “bit” is short for binary digit and means a single digit in a binary number which is a series of 1s and 0s. But how does bit depth come into the equation in photography?

NC: We get a lot more tones if we shoot with the larger bit depths. The bits refer to the number of possible tonal values available to each color channel – red, green, blue.  An image shot in 8-bit has 256 possible values/tones in each channel which total 16.78 million possible tones (256x256x256). If you’re shooting in JPEG, you’re shooting in 8-bit, that’s your limit. RAW files dedicate more bits to each pixel—most DSLR cameras have 12-or 14-bit processors. More bits mean more tones per channel. When those are interpolated to 16-bit for post-processing, you get tones multiplying into the trillions. Even though you’re increasing your file size, the benefit of the extra bit-depth of the RAW file becomes obvious in post-processing. Banding/posterization in the subtle transitions of color, often an issue in images with clear blue skies, disappears and we’re left with smooth, continuous tonal gradations. That’s a lot of subtle color shades in each channel. The higher the bit depth, the smoother the transitions.

DPP: So banding…

NC: If you have 8-bit data and you push it, let’s say you make your colors substantially brighter and your shadows substantially darker, there is not enough information in that transition scale to make it smooth because of that bit depth. So you start seeing linearization or banding. We are viewing these on a monitor and monitors have categories as well. An IMac is an 8-bit monitor in sRGB color scale whereas an Eizo monitor is a 14-bit monitor with an Adobe RGB color space so you see more transitions.  But our printers are even better than our monitors. Our printers can actually perceive the ProPhoto RGB color scale and the 16-bit data.

DPP: So the banding you see on your monitor might not appear in a print?

NC: Correct. The way you know if you have banding or not is by zooming into your image on a monitor at 100 percent. If you zoom in for a 1:1 view and you’re still seeing banding, most likely you’ll be seeing that in a printed version.

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A Barbershop in Havana, Cuba (top image) converted and adjusted in Lightroom to increase the contrast, balance the tones and highlight fine details. (bottom image) processed using Nik Silver Efex Pro, creating a warm tone look.

DPP: When processing images, what color spaces are recommended?

NC: It depends on the usage – sRGB is a very small color space which is perfect for the web, Adobe RGB is somewhat middle ground and is the industry standard for printing, then ProPhoto RGB for high-end printing. In the camera settings you can change the color space from sRGB to Adobe RGB which is a bigger color gamut—the range of colors a device can reproduce. The smaller the gamut the more likely the rich saturated colors will start clipping. A JPEG file can be Adobe RGB or sRGB but it cannot be ProPhoto RGB. If you’re shooting only JPEG you could set your camera to Adobe RGB to have a larger color palette. RAW can be processed in any color space you want.

DPP: Does setting a Picture Style matter when shooting in RAW?

NC: One of the benefits of RAW is that, unlike a JPEG, because it contains all the data captured by the camera’s sensor during image capture, you can change the picture styles, color temperature and so on with much more latitude. The camera’s parameters for those settings are superseded by the RAW conversion software. With less information per pixel, JPEGs fall apart much easier. With a RAW file, you can make much greater changes to brightness, contrast and color tone before you see any breakdown in the image quality. When you process a RAW file using a RAW conversion software, the program is carrying out a similar conversion to that of the camera’s internal processor when you shoot JPEG. The difference is that you set the parameters within the program you’re using, and the ones set in your camera’s menu are ignored.

DPP: Since you can work in either 8- or 16-bit in Photoshop, why choose one over the other?

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Olympic synchronized diver Jose Antonio Guerra Oliva in Havana, Cuba portrayed. Processed in Lightroom and retouched in Photoshop.

NC: The only downside is that 16-bit is double the file size of an 8-bit file.  Some printers recognize 16-bit files and can render better results. If you’re going to do extensive post-processing and retouching in Photoshop, saving the image as a 16-bit file is the best way to obtain maximum quality. When sending images out for publication or for stock they usually have to be saved as an 8-bit file after all the digital post is done.

Because ProPhoto RGB has so many different gradients of color you should be working in 16-bit. Your camera cannot be set to ProPhoto RGB in 16-bit but the software  interpolates/converts it – it analyzes the colors of the original pixels and makes additional ones.

DPP: What’s your computer setup?

NC:  I work on a Mac Pro with a14-bit Eizo ColorEdge CG277 monitor. I would also recommend the NEC 27” Color Critical Desktop Monitor with SpectraViewII.

Whichever monitor you use it’s vital to calibrate it using a colorimeter or spectrophotometer such as an x-rite ColorMunki Photo or their i1Display Pro or a Spyder5ELITE which are colorimeters. Spectrophotometers are also very good for creating custom paper profiles. I also calibrate my MacBook Pro. If your monitors aren’t calibrated your results are a crapshoot, you’re editing to hypotheticals. You can’t rely on your eyes which can easily be fooled.

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A waitress at the Brite Spot in Echo Park for an editorial story for the Norwegian magazine VG, was shot under tungsten light, giving it a yellow cast. The adjustment (bottom) corrects the white balance for a more neutral-toned image.

DPP: Which printer and what papers do you use?

NC: I work with a number of printers including the Epson 4900, 7900, 9900 and the Epson SureColor800 as well as the Canon 17” imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer. The last two are smaller and particularly good for home use.  Ideally, you should work with a printer that uses multiple black inks for neutral black and white and print in 16-bit ProPhoto RGB.

My favorite papers are Hahnemuhle’s Photo Rag Pearl and Bamboo and Ilford Prestige Gold Silk. The Photo Rag Pearl and Gold Silk remind me of the traditional fiber base papers I used in the darkroom. If you’re printing on a cotton paper you have to take into account that the ink is going to soak up and spread a bit more than on a glossy, shiny surface so you have to do a little extra sharpening. People that are starting out in processing images, especially those that have never worked in film and in a darkroom, tend to over exaggerate everything, especially with saturation. They’re heavy-handed with the sliders and crank everything up. They haven’t learned to look at subtly yet. I suggest to my students that they study the work of photographers that came before them – not to copy them but to become better informed and aware when processing their own files.  Also, I recommend that they learn the color wheel. Learn the opposite colors. If your image is too green or too yellow know what sliders to adjust. As Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

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A test shoot with Rachele Schank was processed in Lightroom and retouched in Photoshop.

DPP: How do you create black and white images in your digital workflow?

NC: For one thing, I like to shoot for the purpose of black and white. Like in the old days, you bought Tri-x because you wanted black and white. I’ll change my picture style to Monochrome and crank up my contrast and sharpness a bit. I like rich tones. I still have all the color information because I’m shooting in RAW but I can see how the tones are translating on the LCD screen of the camera…my new Polaroid!

I like to adjust my RAW processing images in color in Lightroom or Capture One then use the Nik Collection Silver Efex Pro. It’s a very powerful program with lots of great presets. A lot of people click on a preset and then they’re done. I prefer to use a preset that will get me close to what I want and then go in and make further adjustments to enhance the image.

When shooting, setting your picture style is only for a visual reference in RAW but it does matter in JPEG. In RAW you can always change it. Of course, even in JPEG, let’s say you’re set for Vivid, you can desaturate after the fact but you’re working on a file that’s been processed. I recommend to my students that they just shoot in RAW and get out of the habit of shooting RAW + JPEG unless they have a very specific and immediate need for those smaller, processed files such as shooting an event or uploading to Instagram. It takes two seconds to create a JPEG in Lightroom or Capture One or ACR – Adobe Camera RAW.

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A farmer walking his pig in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba shot with the Hasselblad Xpan loaded with Kodak Portra 160NC, scanned with the Imacon 48-bit RGB scanner, and adjusted in Photoshop.

Lightroom is set by default to a picture style they developed called Adobe Standard. If you look inside your camera you won’t see it. You have Portrait, Vivid, Landscape, Neutral, Monochrome and so forth. After importing your RAW data into Lightroom you can change it to the picture style you like.

DPP: Is there a reason for a photographer to use both Capture One and Lightroom?

NC: Sometimes.  Capture One Pro 9 is a lot more stable for tethered capture, Lightroom freezes more often. Also, Capture One has customizable user interface which digital techs love and the file looks a bit beefier for a lack of a better term, richer in tone quality.  Lightroom is very much integrated with Photoshop and its user interface is easier to use. If you are planning on using both LR and CO I suggest not to convert to DNG format on the Lightroom side since it embeds the “Adobe Standard” camera style as its default at which point Capture One does not apply the correct camera preset but I need to test this out a bit more.

Years ago Photoshop was the only photo editing software we had available to us as photographers. There was something called Live Picture but they went away fairly quickly and we didn’t work with RAW data back then, we scanned our film.  We had a choice to scan our film in either 24-bit, 8-bits per channel, or 48-bit which was 16-bits per channel.

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Olympic synchronized diver Jose Antonio Guerra Oliva in Havana, Cuba. Before and After adjustments.

Once digital capture made its way into the industry with all these DSLRs capable of  shooting in RAW, Adobe came out with Camera Raw. As that evolved Apple came out with Aperture which was the first software that was built from the ground up with the photographer in mind. Adobe realized that they better do something about it so they developed Lightroom with the advantage that it’s very much integrated into Photoshop. Photoshop was originally developed for graphic artists and illustrators, but since photographers had nothing else available we all gravitated toward it. They then started developing better and better tools specifically for photography.  Adobe designed Lightroom with a hub to organize and edit images, as well as to keyword images which is vital for searching your archives and stock photography. Lightroom, in my opinion, should have been called Darkroom because in the darkroom you were able to burn and dodge and adjust contrast and use filters for color and contrast. Now, of course, you can do so many more incredible things in Lightroom including your own “looks” or presets.

Once you’re done with the capabilities of Lightroom you may want to take it into Photoshop because that program can do very high-end retouching techniques such beauty skin retouching and compositing. Once you’re done with what was back in the day called airbrushing, you come right back into Lightroom for organization and output.

DPP: What’s the protocol for Lightroom catalogs?

Olympic synchronized diver Jose Antonio Guerra Oliva in Havana, Cuba.
Olympic synchronized diver Jose Antonio Guerra Oliva in Havana, Cuba. (Right image) processed using Nik Silver Efex Pro, creating a warm tone look. (Left image) converted and adjusted in Lightroom to increase the contrast, balance the tones and highlight fine details.

NC: I used to separate my catalogs but now it opens up really fast with a lot of images. When I’m on a location shoot, I have my laptop, a small portable hard drive and I’m downloading to that drive through a Lightroom catalog. I have my Lightroom catalog either on my external hard drive or on my internal laptop drive since it’s a temporary catalog anyway. Once I get back to my home base, I take that catalog and merge it with my master catalog. All the additions and changes I made while I was traveling transfer over.  So before I get on the plane – I set up a “Cuba” catalog with smart previews for instance.  I have an external hard drive – that’s where my images are going to live until they get back home. Sometimes I’ll download my images to my internal hard drive just to be sure and back them up to the external hard drive. As an extra precaution, I keep my cards as a third backup at least until I get back home. If I have time while I’m on the road I might keyword some images while the specifics are fresh in my mind. Keywording is essential for organizational purposes and for stock photography. That’s how art buyers are able to wade through the millions of images that are out there to illustrate their ideas and stories. Maybe I’ll do some quick edits to give images to the people that I photographed. Since I created a “Smart” preview catalog while I was importing my images, I don’t have to have my hard drive connected when I’m working on them. It’s basically a small version of a RAW file. For travel it’s great. On my studio computer, I don’t, because all my hard drives are connected to it. I use the 12TB G-SPEED Studio which is a 4-Bay RAID. Once I’m back in my studio I plug into the source material and it updates everything.

DPP: What size do you recommend for the previews when you import into Lightroom?

NC: I suggest 1:1.   It takes longer on the front end but then when you look through your images later, you don’t have to wait for the preview to be generated on the screen – that time it takes to pop into focus. It’s a good time to get a cup of coffee or play with your dog – it makes your catalog bigger but your workflow will be quicker on the backend.

DPP: Why a PSD versus a TIFF or vice versa?

NC: The PSDs are a little smaller in size and they open up faster in Adobe products. If you’re using Nik software it automatically generates a TIFF because PSD is a Photoshop Document. A TIFF is a universal type of file.

DPP: Where does DNG fit in?

NC: DNG stands for Digital Negative. It’s something that was developed by Adobe. They strongly recommend converting to DNG because it’s a smaller file size but it’s not compressed and it’s an open source. It saves you 30-50 percent space and embeds the sidecar – the recipe file – the changes you’ve made to your RAW file. If it’s a RAW file from Nikon or Canon or other manufacturers you always have a sidecar,  an .xmp (Extensible Metadata Platform). DNG files also open up a little bit faster within Adobe RAW or Lightroom.  Capture One doesn’t like DNG files because it assigns an Adobe “Standard” picture style to it.  DNG is a good thing if you’re using Adobe products. LEICA cameras shoot natively in DNG which is a universal raw file format that can be opened by almost any software whereas Nikon’s NEF and Canon’s CR2 are proprietary RAW formats.

DPP: What’s your file-naming protocol?

NC:  I name my files like this – calzattifoto_subject or place_the last four digits of my camera filename suffix.cr2. The reason I keep the four digit original number is because I always do a second backup using Lightroom and it keeps all the original file names from the camera. This makes it easier if I need to re-locate that original RAW file. And while we live in an amazing technological era, things can go wrong and backing up files is a key element in a proper workflow.

To see more of the photography and post-production work of Natasha Calzatti, visit her website at calzattifoto.com.

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