This isn’t going to be a “step-by-step” guide to editing your photos for Instagram, because that greatly depends on your vision. Rather, this is something that I hope will push you to get outside your comfort zone and explore what it means to post-process your work with a comprehensive artistic vision in mind.
When we think about post-processing, there’s an infinite amount of styles and techniques that can be found online nowadays. Most of this is broken down into little tips and tricks you can use to get quick results without spending too much time in any given application. And thanks to modern app development, there isn’t a lot of technical knowledge needed to dive into Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom and come up with a decent-looking edit. Now add in presets and there’s no end to how easy it gets, which there really isn’t anything wrong with, depending on what kind of photographer you want to be.
I know tons of photographers who prefer to not push past what they capture in-camera, but I, on the other hand, approach it from more of a fine art standpoint. As a photographer and graphic designer who’s been using various tools since before Lightroom existed, my approach to editing is more methodical and nuanced; some may even say excessive. Yet my goal as an artist has always been to carry out my own personal vision. I never set out to have a “style.” Of course, I digested a lot of the aforementioned “tips and tricks,” but rather than doing it for a quick end result, I did it to gain an understanding of the tools in order to pave my own way and discover which processes work best for me.
That said, my post-processing begins before I even click the shutter button. I’m a cloud junkie, and most of my work is centralized around finding unique light or weather conditions in hopes of elevating the mundane imagery of the Midwest into something worthy of sharing with the world. I take everything into account, such as the dynamic range of the scene, how fast the clouds are moving, whether or not to bracket my exposures, or if I want to add ND filters to capture cloud movement. I’ve also been working in Photoshop long enough to have a color palette I gravitate toward so there’s consistency in my work. Again, some people may find this excessive, but there is little that I don’t tweak in post to get the look I want.
A lot of my style is derived from years of trial and error—a lot of terrible edits and over-edits. After a while, you start to understand that the more subdued and subtle you are, the better it gets. I try to inject as much of my vision as possible into my shots, making them completely unique to me without overdoing it. Believe me, I still overdue it at times, but the important thing is to be continually learning and evolving. Photoshop has a lovely opacity slider that I utilize frequently to dial back something after-the-fact.
I also try to sit on my edits for a few days so I have time to digest them and make any final changes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rushed to post something I was really excited about, only to look back at some glaring error later on. Maybe it’s my mindset, or how I run my Instagram feed, but I hate posting anything that’s similar over and over again—I aim for a consistency that also has an ebb and flow to it.
When it comes to processing in Adobe Camera Raw, I like to keep my images as natural as possible when it comes to exposure, but with an atmospheric twist. I don’t like to “HDR” my stuff so that every detail is bright and crisp. Instead, I play with shadow and hide things. Just because our cameras have the ability to portray massive amounts of dynamic range that doesn’t mean we should. In my work, I like to push the limits of my highlights and shadows while still retaining a bit of detail in them. The easiest way to try this is to pull back on the contrast slider and use the blacks slider to really dial in the darkness while simultaneously pushing the shadows a bit. I love heavy contrast in my images and this is a great way to achieve it.
As for color, between playing with curves, the HSL sliders, and the RGB Primary sliders, my colors are about as custom as custom can be. These tools can be daunting to learn, but properly learning what they can do really allows you to dial in your own flavor. In fact, the only way to learn them is to experiment and see what you can come up with. As a Fujifilm X-shooter, I also have the Fujifilm film simulations at my disposal, and I use them frequently. To be honest, using these simulations is one of the things that really pushed me into developing my own style. The colors you can achieve with them are far above and beyond anything I ever got when I was shooting with Canon, which is what sent me down the path of experimenting with color in the first place.
With Instagram in mind, I always finish off my edits on my phone; sometimes the color space can seem totally different from one device to another. And although you’ll never have the luxury of controlling the look of the finished product like you would with prints in a gallery, it’s important to fine-tune your work for display on mobile. I use apps like VSCO, Darkroom and Afterlight to finalize my shots before posting, and also add a hefty dose of sharpening. If you come from the world of printing, it’s going to seem like you’re over sharpening everything, but attaining the same level of sharpness on a screen is a different monster.
Above all, my goal is to portray my vision as an artist. If we were in this to make the same images as someone else, what would be the point? So get out there with your camera and find out who you are. Then use your editing to lock that down and Instagram to showcase it to the world.
See more of Bryan’s work on his website.
This story was originally published in “The Fitness Issue” of Resource Magazine. Visit the Resource Shop to pick up a copy.