X-Equals XeL – Best Practices in Workflow

Fri, Jul 26, 2013

Best Practices, Lightroom, Workflow

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One major misconception regarding our XeL presets is that they are a one click fix, much like Silver Efex and Alien Skin. XeL is not even an image finishing solution as VSCO Film purports itself to be. XeL is different, it is a workflow tool, not a magic brush for your images.

XeL, when used properly, requires you to view presets as tools to develop your image, not a final destination. Using XeL is much like shooting real film. You choose your film based on its color palette, tailored to your shooting needs. A secondary consideration when choosing film is understanding the inherent grain that will be present with your choice of film and processing. When you shoot, you compensate for the contrast conditions and when you print it out you adjust the contrast to suit your final needs.

XeL brings that process to the back side of the shooting process. When processing your images in Lightroom, you will choose your film emulation you desire based on the color palette provided by the Mix preset. You choose the Low Contrast or High Contrast curve that mates with the Mix preset by choosing the appropriate Tone preset. Finally, you can approximate the grain density of the original stock using the Grain preset if desired.

Using XeL is much like shooting real film. You choose your film based on its color palette, tailored to your shooting needs.

From there it is up to you to use you Lightroom skills to develop this “film” negative into your final image. We don’t adjust your Exposure or Global Contrast. In fact, XeL does not touch any of the Basic Tone adjustments. Those are you you, the artist to use to finesse your image. We don’t mess with White Balance, unless you use our B&W Color Filter presets. Split Toning is only altered if you apply one of our Toning presets. Sharpening, Noise Reduction and Lens Corrections, that is your department. The only other things XeL forces on you is Process Version 2012 and the Adobe Standard profile.

We believe it is you that makes the image. We are just trying to provide tools to give you the ability to give your images a touch of the film look, and as unobtrusively as possible. We like to keep it simple and a touch traditional.

While there are a varied assortment of workflows that work great with XeL, both for batch editing and single images, today I am going to share with you my personal workflow for single images leveraging some best practices for using XeL directly within Lightroom.

1) Prepare the Image

Our first step will be to prepare the image for actual editing. In this step, we simply choose the image, correct the White Balance and apply the XeL Mix and XeL Tone presets. Adjust the White Balance first to correct any color balance issues before we make any other adjustments.

XeL 1

Then apply the desired Mix preset, feel free to try a few before you settle on one, all Mix presets overwrite each other.

XeL 2

Once you find your working color palette, it is time to apply the desired Tone preset. XeL 2.0 offers two Tone presets for each emulation, a Tone HC (High Contrast) and a Tone LC (Low Contrast). Try both, as they will overwrite each other and choose the one that better suits your image.

XeL 3

If working on a Black and White image, you may want to experiment more with the White Balance, using it to selectively adjust your image rendition. Alternately, you can use the XeL Color Filters from XeL: Black and White, which adjust White Balance to simulate the use of a color filter on black and white film.

If the emulation you are applying has a Toning or Halation preset, go ahead and apply it now as well. If the effect is not what you want, a quick Ctrl/Cmd+Z will undo it.

Another thing to do at this time is to apply any lens perspective correction you may need. Try to detect and correct any Chromatic Aberration at this time as well.

This will give us our image’s starting point, our “negative” if you will. Often the image may look unappealing at his point, as the presets may cause highlights to blow and contrast will be out of whack. Do not let yourself be troubled by this; we will make it look right in the next step.

2) Adjust Exposure and Contrast

This is the heavy lifting of this process. In Lightroom 4, Exposure and Contrast are the two sliders that have the most effect on you images. In Lightroom 3 and earlier you had to adjust the entire Basic Adjustment panel to nail down an image, with Lightroom 4 about 70% of image adjustment can and should be done with these two sliders. We want to use these two tools to get this image as close to perfect as possible.

I recommend starting with the Exposure slider and use it first to get the desired level of exposure. Using the Highlight and Shadow clipping warnings is a good idea here if you desire a standard exposure. If purposefully over or under exposing, just eyeball it. Primarily focus on proper exposure on your subject; we can fine tune the rest of the image in the next step. Do not worry about the image getting a bit flat, just nail the exposure down.

XeL 4

Next, adjust the Contrast slider to get the desired results. Take it to the right if you want more pop and a high-contrast appearance. Move it left for a more flat appearance. Either way, adjust that slider until you just about have your image where you want it. If your Contrast adjustments trip any clipping warnings, you may want to go back and re-address Exposure again.

XeL 5

Now, if you are happy with what you have going on, continue on to step 3. Otherwise you are thinking your image needs something different.

To address that simply try a different combination of XeL Mix and XeL Tone presets, then readjust Exposure and Contrast. Leave the White Balance as you set it earlier. A little bit of work in steps 1 and 2 saves you a lot of time throughout the rest of the image and in turn, in your overall processing session.

3) Adjust Basic Adjustments

Now that we have the Exposure and Contrast set, we can address the highlights and shadows and black and white levels. If the previous two steps are 70% of the work to perfecting an image, this step is a good 10% more towards our goal.

First, make sure that the highlight and shadow clipping warnings are enabled. If there is undesired clipping occurring, you should start out by using the Highlight and Shadow sliders to eliminate as much of that clipping as possible. If there are no warnings, your image may be a bit flat and it would be an idea to expand out the highlights and shadows until they start to clip, and then back them off. This will maximize your overall range of your image, whilst preventing clipping.

Next, adjust Black and White Levels until your image has the overall tonality you desire. These two settings can make a dramatic impact on your image, with an overall lightening or darkening effect. Work with these two in unison to help perfect your image’s overall contrast.

XeL 6

Obviously, you do not always want to maximize your image’s available range, but in general it is a good idea. However you may want to create a moody image and get a bit of shadow clipping or go high-key and get some blown out highlights.

Highlight and Shadow should be adjusted next, just be careful not to use them too heavily, if you find yourself doing so, you may want to readdress the Exposure and Contrast sliders.

XeL 7

4) Exposure and Contrast Local Adjustments ( Optional )

Once your image has proper exposure thorough out and the appropriate level of contrast, it is time to move on. If you are still having issues getting your image lined out properly, you may have to use some Local Adjustments to further refine Exposure or Contrast in constrained areas.

When using Local Adjustments for Exposure issues, I recommend using the mask overlay by pressing the O key. Max out the Exposure slider in the Local Adjustment tools.

Then mask out the area to adjust. Turn off the overlay with the O key again. Your selection will be drastically over exposed. Now back off on the Local Exposure slider until your selected area blends in properly and you reach the desired exposure. I recommend starting high and working low, as I find it easier for my eye to see the right exposure when it is getting darker than when it is getting lighter.

When adjusting Local Contrast, I recommend using the same method, with the exception of removing almost all contrast and increase it until it looks right. Again, that is merely my recommendation, do what works best for you, but I strongly recommend against making any other local adjustments at this time, only focus on Exposure and Contrast.

5) Apply Any Desired Additional Presets ( Optional )

Here is the time to apply any other XeL preset you may want to include in your processing. Want the cross-processed look, add XeL: Color’s Crossprocessed preset now. Add any special effect preset you desire at this point and repeat any above steps needed. Do not add any XeL Grain presets or XeL Paper presets yet.

6) Fine Tune Skin Tones ( Optional )

Now that the heavy work has been done, we can start focusing on details. The first and foremost detail, when there are people in the picture, is to make sure skin tones look good. Here is where things can get sticky.

Correcting skin tone issues generally involve making adjustments to Orange Saturation in the HSL. It may also be needed to reduce Yellow or Red Saturation as well, depending on the results altering Orange Saturation garners. The problem here is that by attempting to balance the skin tones in the image, you are also altering the Color Mix that is very important to accurate emulation of film response.

Now, this does not apply to every image, any emulation is going to shift skin tone. We only want to alter the Color Mix when really needed. When is it needed? Say you have a beautiful fall senior portrait you took. You want to use a saturated film emulation to capture those amazing colors, but the subject looks like she fell into a vat of spray on tan.

Here is where you make your first hard choice. Do you dedicate yourself to perfect emulation? Do you dedicate yourself to a perfect image? I would always choose the latter, and here is why:

If you had taken a portrait on saturated film years ago and sent it to the lab for processing and prints, the technician had two different ways to print that image. A: They could focus on printing out great colors in the background vegetation, or B: They could use filters to adjust the skin tones to a pleasing color and hope that the background doesn’t suffer much.

They always chose B, they always printed the best skin tones.

I recommend you do the same as well, because here we are emulating the use of dichroic filters that were utilized in color wet printing. However we have the ability to refine our alterations to only one, specific range of color normally and that color is orange.

So, if your skin tones are all wrong, regardless of the subject’s skin color, Orange Saturation in the HSL Mixer will make the biggest impact on the appearance of the skin. If light skin tones are too pale or dark tones too ashen, increase the Orange Saturation slowly. Usually a change of +5 to +10 units of Orange Saturation will fix this problem. Add just enough to correct the skin; we want to use as little correction as possible.

XeL 8

If light skin tones are too vibrant and dark tones too darkened, then we will do the opposite. Slowly decrease the Orange Saturation in the HSL. Do it just until the skin starts to look good again, and try not to use more than -10 units of adjustment. Minimal change to Orange Saturation is the key here; generally a change up to -10 to +10 units from the starting setting will take care of skin tone issues without making a huge impact on the rest of the image. If after adjusting the slide by 10 either way, we may have to look at other colors.

Before you adjust Orange Saturation much beyond the +/- 10 mark, Try using the same steps with Yellow Saturation and then Red Saturation. You can safely change yellow by as much as +/- 10 as well. If you are playing with Red Saturation, try to keep the change between -5 and +5, as red will have a bigger impact on the image than Yellow or Orange.

If adjustments to Yellow or Red do not help, undo them and move the Orange slider a bit more. Do keep in mind that you only want to correct skin tones if the change is way over the top. You do not have to adjust the skin every time you take a photo, but if your subject is normally pale, and for some reason resembles an Oompa Loompa, you should fix the skin tones.

Film always shifted skin tone, but the printer would not ever let it look unnatural. Their customers never knew their skin looked horrible. You should never let your clients look bad either; their satisfaction means more than having a Velvia emulation be technically good. No one likes to be orange, unless you are on Jersey Shore I guess.

7) Sharpening, First Pass

Now that all the primary technical and stylistic steps have been taken, it is time to pay some attention to the image quality issues. The first is to sharpen. I recommend two sharpening passes in the XeL: Single Image workflow. The first sharpening pass is to get the sharpening close to what you want the final results to be. We need to do this to address both Noise Reduction and Grain addition. Afterwards, sharpen as desire and targeting the final output media.

Sharpening is a workflow unto itself. We covered it a long time ago, but it has changed little since then. I will be revisiting the topic of sharpening shortly, but if you can’t wait, check out the classic Sharpening Series. For reference to that article, this first phase would be called pre-sharpening.

XeL 9

I used to recommend that pre-sharpening be done at the beginning of the development process. With Lightroom 4, I really feel it should come after any adjustments to the Exposure/Contrast and Basic Adjustments settings. I feel this way simply for the sake of speed. If you still like to pre-sharpen at the beginning of development, go for it, it won’t hurt anything at all. But I now much prefer to do my sharpening just before noise reduction and grain addition, and then polish off the sharpness afterwards.

8) Noise Reduction ( Optional )

Again, this is a step that really requires its own article. Again, this is an article I need to update. Whereas the old Sharpening article still works great, Lightroom 4 has much better noise reduction than prior versions of Lightroom. So, for the basics of Noise Reduction, here is Adobe!

So, in this step utilize the Noise Reduction sliders in conjunction with Sharpening tools to eliminate as much digital noise as possible without losing massive detail or creating sharpening artifacts due to excessive noise reduction. This is a tricky dance, to make low-noise images from shots at a high ISO, and it can be a series of hard compromises. Leave the noise in before you would ever destroy detail.

Luckily, we are emulating film, and Lightroom has a nifty Grain feature than can help mask noise while remaining true to the look of film.

9) Apply Grain and Paper Presets ( Optional )

So with everything done to this point, it is time to add the grain effect to our emulated film image. This can be done for 1 of 2 reasons or eschewed completely. If you choose to not use grain, that’s fine … photographers hoped for grain free images for years, now we have them. But if you have a noise-free image, but want your shot to have the classic film grain look, then apply the XeL Grain that matches your XeL Tone preset. You have then added stylistic grain.

If for some reason, your best efforts to reduce noise in prior steps did not garner the improvement you desired, you may be interested in applying functional grain. This is when you add enough grain to mask the appearance of noise.

Either way you go, Grain will give you a more authentic film look. Grain is also handy when masking minor artifacts in a manner that is more transparent and less time consuming than a trip to Photoshop.

Noise is normally generated in a type of pattern. Patterns draw the attention of the eye, because the brain loves looking for patterns in the world. This is what makes noise so distracting, while grain is much easier on the eyes. So, to apply functional grain to the image, start with the XeL Grain that matches your XeL Tone preset. Now, slowly raise the Size slider and Roughness slider alternately until noise becomes less noticeable. At that point, you can then continue to adjust those two sliders to make large grain that eliminates most noise, or add more grain with the Amount slider to almost completely eliminate noise and replace it with grain.

Either way you go, Grain will give you a more authentic film look. Grain is also handy when masking minor artifacts in a manner that is more transparent and less time consuming than a trip to Photoshop.

The final step here is to apply an XeL Paper preset from XeL: Black and White. This is by no means a requirement or even recommendation. However, if you like the paper effects, this is the time to add them to the image for an authentic look.

10) Sharpening, Second Pass

Now, hit that final, Creative Sharpening phase. Keep in mind the target media for your image. If you need to readdress your grain distribution, go ahead and change any setting +/- 5 units to accommodate sharpening needs while retaining true to the emulation.

11) Additional Local Adjustments ( Optional )

Now, set yourself loose, make any creative Local Adjustments you desire to bring your vision to fruition.

12) Crop, Export, Print!

Crop to your liking of course …

XeL 10

XeL adjusted image above

Original below …

XeL 11

Image by Douglas Oppedal, Subjects Michael and Charlynn Gray. Processed with XeL Kodak Portra 160 VC emulation

Why Were Some Tools Left Unused?

Simple, certain tools effect the emulation of films more than others. Some tools are too powerful for their own good when attempting to consistently emulate a particular style. Here they are an why I recommend against manipulating any of these unless absolutely needed.

  • Tone Curve

The Tone curve is a very powerful tool that can rapidly destroy all the efforts you made with Exposure/Contrast and the Basic Adjustments. If it can’t be done with those tools, then you may need to adjust the Tone Curve, but try to avoid it. The Tone Curve is the primary tool used in emulating a film’s tonal response (XeL Tone presets). We set a custom Tone Curve at the onset of the process. In fact, the entire workflow focuses on making the image content work with the preset Tone Curve. Changing it breaks the emulation.

If you simply have to adjust the Tone Curve for your image, turn off the Point Curve tool and make your adjustments to Highlights, Lights, Darks and Shadows. This will shift the inherent curve, but retain much of the basic shape.

  • RGB Curves

RGB Curves are really another function of the Tone Curve. I do not recommend using them in an emulation situation, unless you truly find you need color correction for some reason. I do not use RGB curve in film emulation just for the reason of allowing color correction, as the curves can function in the same way as dichro filters in a color enlarger. Then the RGB curves are a better choice than using the HSL for color adjustments. XeL: Color’s Cross Processing presets also utilize RGB curves for their effect.

  • HSL/Black & White Mixer

The HSL/Black & White Mixer is the heart of the XeL Mix film emulations. Aside from altering Orange, Yellow and Red to correct for skin tone, avoid using the mixers. If you absolutely need to adjust image color, use the RGB curves, as their alterations will look more authentic, as if a lab corrected the image with filters.

  • Clarity

Clarity is used hand in hand with Tone Curve in XeL Tone presets. It helps get the film quality of image depth on a digital image. Only adjust if the effect is too much or too little for your needs.

  • Vibrance

Adjust Vibrance at your own peril. With some of the fairly massive Mixer alterations made, increasing Vibrancy can quickly make an image look more artificial. Alternately, if an image looks too over the top, you may want to lower Vibrance, but not too much.

  • Saturation

Much like Vibrance, adjusting Saturation can be perilous to the emulation effect. Each color channel gets its own custom saturation, global adjustments to Saturation magnify those changes and the appearance can be disconcerting.

Obviously, you can really alter anything you want, these are your images. But if you want to use XeL in an authentic manner, taking advantage of the film emulations, not altering these settings unless absolutely needed is your best bet.

By no means is this workflow the defacto XeL workflow, but it is what I use daily, and I feel that it gets the most mileage possible out of my efforts creating XeL. In turn, by adopting and altering this process for your needs, you should get more out of you investment in XeL that you were previously.

Michael W. Gray – XeL Technical Architect & Product Manager – X-Equals.com

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