best software for landscape photography

Software for Landscape Photography You Just Can’t Live Without

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The plethora of image editing / manipulation software out there is staggering.  Every piece of software is in a constant state of development and overhaul, getting better, more stable and increasingly complex with each update or version. Therefore, I hope I can be forgiven if, by the time you read it, this overview of photography software has any glaring omissions or missing updates. Before moving on to how you can utilise some of the currently available software to get the most from your images, it is worth looking at software to help organise your images.

Unlike your camera and hardware, how much you pay needn’t be the deciding factor when you are choosing which software to use.  Some freeware and open source software can really hold its own when it comes image manipulation. The software available for organising and cataloguing your images is no exception.

You will undoubtedly have software that came bundled with your camera and if you are happy with this then keep using it.  There is, however, a small drawback .  Simply that each time you get a new camera you will have to contend with  new software. This may not affect you if you change the camera model, but will if you switch camera makers.  Personally, I like the idea that no matter which camera I use, the software I install will remain stable and adapt to any hardware changes.  If my camera breaks and I upgrade or temporarily hire a different camera then I want to know that my software will recognise the camera and, as importantly, the RAW format it employs, of which there are many.

Photo Organizing

Two good contenders I have chosen for organising and cataloguing your collections are Adobe Lightroom and Picasa 3.

Picasa 3 is a great tool and best of all, free.  It’s fast and recognises a good number of popular formats and EXIF information. In my experience it has no problem in recognising RAW files like .DNG and .CR2 and automatically updates the image catalogue when you open up the program, so, Picasa has a lot to offer if you want some free storage and organisation.

Despite having some rudimentary photo editing tools, colours, style pre-sets and cropping, Picasa3 is not really a serious tool when it comes to altering images that might benefit from some detailed post-production work. For many photographers, however, being organised and having access to some basic tools is quite enough and if this is the case then you will find Picasa to be a good, solid choice. Plus you can store up to 1024MB of images online with no cost.  Like Flickr, it’s a great way of sharing your photographs and getting a bit of extra storage.

For more serious photographers Adobe Lightroom steps it up a gear from (the very basic) Picasa 3 and  is a fantastic utility for editing and organising your collection.

But let’s take a quick look at how Lightroom goes about organising your files before looking further into its editing capabilities.

When you plug your camera or SD card into the PC, Lightroom immediately recognises the format and will backs up your images up to the catalogue.  These catalogue images are only stored on your local machine as a thumbnail cache so you won’t be using up masses of drive space and even when the SD card is away from the machine you will still have access to this catalogue.  The folder tree structure to the left of the screen is pretty intuitive and immediately recognisable so it doesn’t take long to get to grips with finding the image you want.  The real magic, however, comes with the functions to the right of the screen because rather than working in very generic imaging terms, Lightroom is purely photographic in it’s functions.
adobe lightroom

In develop mode you can take any image and crop, colour, white-balance, increase the exposure, clarity etc.. and the histogram and EXIF information is constantly displayed.  Working with graduated filters is fairly simple; just a case of dragging the filter across the image then assigning either colour, exposure, contrast etc.. to the selected filter.

A further advantage of working with Lightroom is not having to program actions.  Often, in Photoshop, it can be hard to remember and replicate the steps you went through to create a great conversion or effect. Not so with Lightroom.  If you have made a number of changes to the image (for example, you have toiled to achieve a great looking black and white from a colour photograph) then, in Lightroom, you can keep these settings and simply save them as a pre-set for use another time.

Another advantage of Lightroom is that the editing is entirely non-destructive.  The image will only appear as your edited version within the software.  This is indicated by the two small boxes in the bottom right corner of the thumbnail and reminds you that the image has been cropped or changed.  However, if you go back to your original image in the original folder then no changes will have occurred.  Once you are happy with your work you can then export the finished photograph as a full sized JPEG.

The noise reduction in Lightroom 3 is basic, but adequate for general use.

In terms of landscape photography a major benefit of Lightroom is the perspective correction. This can be an arduous task in generic software like Photoshop.  If you already have Photoshop, and are predominately using it for photography, then you’ll find that Lightroom, as an alternative, can take a lot of the leg-work out of some tasks.  One of the problems with Photoshop is that it has to have a wide appeal; not only for photographers but for artists and graphic designers alike. As such some of the corrective tools can be a little overwhelming.  All of this is simplified in Lightroom.

Whilst Lightroom is undoubtedly a professional, photography tool, for a less experienced photographer it is also a good teaching tool, allowing you to see how different filters would affect your images before you actually go out and buy them.  With some models of camera Lightroom can act as a live shot preview giving you far more information and detail of the shot’s composition than you could hope to get off the back of a 3.5” LCD screen.  Don’t think of this as simply a useful application for studio or indoor photography. Some net-books with decent processors and 8 hour battery life are really well priced and can be a useful, extra piece of kit to throw in your camera bag when you go out to a location.  Using a larger screen can help you get a real sense of how the composition will work out.  Personally, if I could only buy one piece of software for my camera then Lightroom would, possibly, be the one to go for.

Photo Editing Software

By far, the most popular post processing software in the world is Photoshop. However, GIMP is also a popular alternative to Photoshop.

Photoshop vs. Gimp

The most notable difference between Photoshop and Gimp is the price, Gimp being $0.  Of course, if you opt for Gimp it’s always a good idea to make a donation to help with its continued development but as open source software you can have it up and running on your machine (for free) in minutes.

Photoshop does have the advantage of integration with Adobe Bridge, so it provides some facility to organise your images around the program, which, unfortunately, Gimp does not have.  To be fair, Photoshop does support a whole load more devices than its free counterpart and if you are dealing in video, 3D or animation then it beats Gimp hands-down.

Where it really matters, in terms of photography, is in RAW support and in the number of plug-ins available for purely photographic purposes (rather than for graphic design or clever artistic renderings.)

RAW support for both programs did lag behind the curve a little with Adobe only releasing a RAW plug-in in the wake of CS3 and Gimp coming a little further behind until the release of UFRaw.  The screenshot shows Gimp running UFRaw, which gives adequate control over your RAW image files.

I like to run both CS3 and Gimp on the same machine for different purposes.  Although I would recommend Photoshop for the vast majority of imaging requirements, the advantage with Gimp is that when I want to view an image full screen using multiple monitors, then having the photograph, toolbox and layers channel docked separately makes this easier than the Photoshop interface.

Although Gimp is lacking specific camera support, there are plenty of resources available to help you get into the script (if you are so inclined) and create a more bespoke Gimp and there are plenty of developer’s forums where you can discuss any ideas you might have, The bottom line is, that if you have the money then get the slick, urbanite Photoshop, but if you don’t?  Well, don’t be too disappointed with its poorer, farm-boy cousin. Gimp makes a good alternative to Photoshop Elements but doesn’t really compete with the extended editions from CS3 up. Photoshop is a global phenomenon, used everywhere, but no further proof of Gimp’s possibilities, however, than in Nick Risinger’s PhotoTopic, 360 degree, sky survey of the Milky Way.  The 37,450 exposures that made up the completed 5000 megapixel image were tweaked, curved and finally assembled using Gimp 2.6.

Specialty Software for Landscape Photography

For landscape photography there are three further areas which need to be considered as carefully as RAW support.  These are noise reduction, panorama stitching and high dynamic range photography.  It’s worth exploring these these three areas, and the software available for them, in a little more detail as if you are serious about pursuing landscape photography, you will incorporate some of these photography techniques.

Noise Reduction Software

One of the most valuable plug-ins to have is one dealing with noise.  Often landscape photography requires shooting at higher ISOs because of low light.  Despite Photoshop’s limited noise functions, you can often find that dealing with a noisy image very often results in some loss of detail and over-softening.  Sharpening the softened image after noise reduction simply takes you back to square one, only with a different noise profile across a different spectrum.

The Noise Ninja plug-in for Photoshop is the most useful tool I have found in dealing with noise on images shot at higher ISOs. If you are not a Photoshop user then Noise Ninja is also available as a standalone. Noise Ninja is great for fast, batch processing of images prior to printing, so that you can accomplish the best possible level of sharpness and clarity. Noise Ninja also comes as a standalone program, if you don’t want it integrated as a photoshop plugin.

Noise control in software like Photoshop and Gimp can be OK, but we need to be aware that each model of camera records noise with some degree of variation.  In Noise Ninja you can take a photograph of the provided on-screen display and the software will use the image to create a detailed profile of exactly how your model of camera records noise at a particular ISO.  It’s worth creating a profile for every ISO setting you are likely to encounter.  The software can then read the EXIF data for the image and use the correct noise profile to give you the best possible result.  Even with images at ISO 200, it’s worth putting it through the software just squeeze the very last drop of quality from your photograph. Note, you can use the stand-alone PC version of Noise Ninja.

For Gimp users there is nothing currently available that you can tailor to suit your camera’s noise profile, nor any plug-ins dealing solely with noise.  Of course, Gimp has the generic noise control stuff just like Photoshop but if you want a script or plug-in then the closest thing is called G’MIC for Gimp. It’s more of a fun tool but mixed in amongst the toys are some serious pieces of subtle noise control that will certainly help.




Panorama Software

There are numerous pieces of software on the market to help you effectively stitch panoramas together but before moving on (to the one I have found suits the purpose of seamless landscape composites), it is worth giving mention one other decent offering.  If you happen to have a Canon DSLR then you may be in luck because bundled with most Canons is a fantastic piece of free panorama software called Photostitch 3.1.  Before spending out on third party software I would recommend trying and assessing the results of this.  I’m unaware of the software bundled with other makes of camera. If, on the other hand, you are going to spend money panorama software then an good investment, and addition to your collection, is PTGui.  The cost of the software ranges from $112 to $211 depending on whether you choose to go with the Personal or Pro version.  The Personal version is fine but if you plan to do any HDR work then the Pro version supports this and can deal with stitching bracketed exposures. It also has support for tone-mapping.

A great advantage of PTGui is the choice of how you wish the final panorama to beprojected:   Generally, most software produces only a rectilinear panorama but PTGui can project the image across a range of curved surfaces to create some stunning effects that might otherwise only be possible with an odd assortment of expensive lenses or many hours in Photoshop. Used cautiously this can render some great results.

As a general rule the software is pretty intuitive but where difficulties do occur you can manually set control points where images overlap. The software will also batch stitch panoramas; sorting through your images and choosing those which correspond, without the user needing to babysit the software through the process.

In an ideal world the landscape and ambient light would be perfect at the very same moment you have the shot set up and beautifully composed.  But the world isn’t perfect and in reality it’s not often the case and sometimes you will be forced to shoot hand-held.  It’s in stitching the images that arise from these imperfect camera settings and scenarios where PTGui comes ahead of its rivals:  vignetting, flare, white-balance, colour and  exposure differences are automatically adjusted and any circular lens distortion is automatically compensated. Should you wish to display your Panoramas for web rather than print then there is also support for Quicktime VR or QTVR as well as flash and HTML5 viewer.

HDR Sofware

It’s best not to think of HDR as an effect, but rather a compensatory piece of software that addresses two basic problems inherent in digital cameras. The first is that the sensor in your camera has none of the evolutionary complexity of the human eye, and the second is that cameras are entirely without emotion.

Photography, and particularly landscape photography, is an attempt to capture something of the emotional response we get from a compelling vista, so that, through our photographs, we can attempt to share some of that emotion.  Only too often we capture a scene that is, in reality, simply breath-taking only to later look at the image and find it flat and lifeless, conveying nothing of how it made us feel.

For example, when we photograph a sunset the camera will register many of the brighter parts as pure white whilst rendering deep colour to a muted black.  The human eye sees the entire, spectral range of tone,shade and subtle colour differences at the high and low end, but cameras lose much of the depth inherent in a 3 dimensional landscape.  By capturing the image across a range of exposures, and using HDR, we can begin to regain some of that depth and the juxtaposition of light and shade, making the image more representative of how we originally viewed the landscape.

There are a number of HDR software products available but Photomatix Pro, whilst able to produce dramatic images, has all of the elements needed for landscapes where, very often, the dynamic range we need is subtle and delicate.

When you have used the software for a while and had some experience of the results you may find yourself photographing scenes that you might otherwise not have bothered with, such as  flat skies with full cloud cover, or where  the light seems too intense in certain areas of the composition.  This can all be controlled (and taken advantage of) in good HDR software like Photomatix and you can breathe life into an otherwise mundane photograph.

There will be times when a landscape has exposure levels that are almost binary opposites. Photomatix will allow you to bring some parity of exposure and depth because, in the software, bracketing a shot has a use other than HDR by using exposure fusion.With exposure fusion you can use bracketed images to create one single exposure level.

The software discussed here doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is available and it’s certainly worth searching around for any Photoshop or Gimp plug-ins, which are in a state of constant growth and development.

Other Useful Landscape Software Programs

Topaz Adjust for Photoshop has relatively good noise suppression and effectively removes JPEG artefacts from images with high compression and can often be usefully employed with landscapes

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is an indispensable tool for landscape photography.  Using Google Earth as its backbone this simple (and free) piece of software gives the directions and times for sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moon-set for anywhere on the planet.  You can check where the sun might be in relation to a particular building or location and plan how the light might affect your image long before you even arrive there.  You can also arrive there at the right time !

Virtual Photographer / Virtual Studio for some basic filters and adding film grain to photographs.

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