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Friday, 27 April 2012


I've been shooting digitally for six years, and even understand layers in PS and use Aperture 3 extensively. So how come I feel like such a moron every time Ctein shows how smart guys do this? Thanks for the tutorial, but it's like reading how a 3-star Michelin chef does his job.

Looking at that bridge mask -- thanks for showing that, and telling us how long it took.

Sometimes I feel I'm a little impatient about making such things :-).

Wait, You're my uncle!?


I don't know about Ctein, but surely Bjorn Stronginthearm is your uncle!? : ]

When writing at greater length, such as in his digital restoration book, the details are more spelled out. (And the sample images for that are available on his web site, too.)

And practice makes perfect. Try out the ideas as you understand them, and work from there. Unless you're pretty unusual, you won't magically become a master printer. But you'll see clear improvements pretty much immediately.

Note that the real expertise is hidden behind innocuous phrases like "to get local brightnesses just as I wanted them" and "A bit of curves tweaking to get the print tones just so" and "kick up the gradation and total separation in the subtle, fine detail just a bit".

This is a great start for the new Digital Post Exposure Book. I would like to see you publish it as an e-book and skip the traditional book time lag. I am reading the PDF from your website but am really anxious to see an updated, mostly new version.

Feel like sharing the total hours spent preparing the file? The main reason I ask is to gather evidence that I should spend MORE time at that end of things.

Thanks, that was a pleasure to read.

What's pixel painting?

Thanks for the info, definitely quite informative! Just thinking about getting that mask right makes my head and hand hurt :)
I would be very interested in getting a jpg of your mask to use as the wallpaper(1900x1080) on one of my monitors (can be fully watermarked if you want). I will second the interest in a Digital Post Exposure Book, ebook format sounds good to me as well.
Thanks again for this sale, info and all the education you do!
Scott U

Yes, another vote for a Digital Post Exposure book.

Actually, I would like a three book series:
Vol. 1 The Camera by Mike Johnston
Vol. 2 The Exposure by Thom Hogan
Vol. 3. The Print by Ctein


I bought your Restoring book primarily to learn your techniques for creating masks and manipulating curves. (But I want more details!) I also found it quite useful when I was unexpectedly called upon to scan and print a series of photographs for a funeral service.


Dear Darel and Scott,

That book **IS** somewhere in the queue, but I couldn't tell you exactly where. It's been on my mind for a couple of years; so far it hasn't gelled. That is, I have a ton of disparate facts and tips, but I don't have the coherent skeleton to hang them on. It'll come eventually.

In the meantime, I've been doing an ongoing semi-weekly series of REALLY short columns for Focal Press for their website on the subject of “The Fine Art of Digital Printing.” I figure it's a way to get the authorial juices flowing and get lots of little bits of book content written out in highly abbreviated form. if I manage to keep it up for most of the year, I'll have most of the book, even if it isn't organized into one.

It is definitely my intention to self-publish that book as a PDF. That'll let me keep the price way down; I figure I can price it at $9.95 and make it worth my while. By comparison, the paper version of POST EXPOSURE ballooned in price to over $50 at the end of its run. Paper is just so damned expensive.

I plan to hire my friend Geri Sullivan to come up with a set of design templates for me. She says she can come up with a set that will work well for both on-screen reading and for printing the book out if people want to do that. I believe her; she's really good!

That's about the only detail I've settled on, though. Will it be an expansion of POST EXPOSURE? Will it be a brand-new standalone book? Will I pay for it out of my pocket? Will I try something like Kickstarter? All unresolved.

Bridges to be crossed when the river comes into sight, which it has not yet.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear DaveC,

Ummm, I have no idea. I just remember the bloody mask took hours (much more than one, likely less than three). I printed this, like, two–three months ago. I've printed a lot of photographs between then and now.

The time it takes me to get to a finished print for my portfolio varies hugely. The absolute minimum it's ever been was half an hour. The worst it's ever been was five days. If I can keep it down to an average of 90 min., I'm really happy.


Dear Paul,

Think of it as the digital equivalent of print-spotting. You zoom way in and you clean up the little-bitty visually-annoying artifacts and garbage, pixel by pixel. It's a lot better than print spotting, though, because you only have to do it once!

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Ctein, I'm curious as to why you sharpened the whole image before masking for noise reduction. My routine is usually to mask first so I can perform both NR and sharpening selectively, but I'm always interested in alternative approaches.

Looks killing Ctein.....

And you cook up a magnificent broth "Uncle" but we all cook up our own broth. For me the ingredients to a tack sharp picture are:

1 till 10) A good lens.......zooms and kitt zooms sure have their purpose but stop using them when sharpness will be critical (not buts please, their are exceptions to the rule but to few to count).

11) Focus......I mean mannualy focus. Make focussing an active process in which you decide where the focuspoint should be placed.

12) Check DOF but keep in mind defraction. In good light it is all to easy to turn down youre aperture cranck up the ISO and use you lens fixed focus, but you wind up with not critically sharp pictures. Personally I experiment with lenses but as a go I use 5.6 till 11 unless I want a bokeh rich shot, then I open up.

13) Work from RAW.......again no buts, every camera (except Leica's and the Pro X1 and the odd Nikon) are equiped with AA filters of the optical kind. So sharpening is needed to obtain pixel sharp foto's.

14) Never ever ever sharpen in one step. No matter how advanced your sharpening algorithms are, using a single algorith to the max always gives a lot less desired result then using several steps with different algoritms to a limited amount.

15) Know your software......don't invest in software you have heard about, take time to get to grips with it. Don't rush things.

16) Uncle Ctein layed down the steps:

a) Sharpening

b) Noise reduction (where needed and when needed)

c) Local contrast (verry important and often overlooked).

I use a GF1, Silky Pics for RAW sharpening, RAWTherapee for colorcontrast, local contrast and RL_sharpening and GIMP for pixel editing and G'MIC for some gentle denoising.

The results can be seen here:


and here:


Greetings, Ed

Thank you, Ctein, for being so generous with your time. I'm looking forward to seeing the print myself, and to learn from it.


Hmmmm... is this exercise a measure of a m43 camera or Ctein's excellent post-processing skills?

Quote #1: "... I think exemplifies the very best that a Micro 4/3, 12-megapixel camera can do. It's not a hero experiment; I can go out any day and make photographs of this technical quality. I just can't see any possible way to make a much better one"

Quote #2: "I had a couple of hours of fiddly work getting the mask just so. Such is life."

The 2 quotes imply Ctein spends 2+ hours post-processing a typical image.

I suspect that's *way* more than what most people do for their "any day" images. Truth be told, I don't have enough post processing skills to spend 2 hours on one image ;)

I'm not making a pot-shot here ... just getting my head around Ctein's level of dedication!

I spend around 20 minutes fixing up my images in post and have been thinking about upgrading my camera to reduce time spent in post. Maybe I need to re-think this!

As an aside, what level of camera would produce the [equivalent] bridge photo as a JPEG? A D7000 or a D800, for example?

Anyway, thanks for the print offer and the write-up. You've given me some ideas to explore.

I think a book (available as e-book as well as hard copy) is a good idea. Viewing web JPEGs loses a lot.

I'm with Sven W on this. It's like an advert for large sensors

Reading this post reminds me how much I don't know about post work. Daunting.

Ctien, I sounds like you essentially applied two rounds of sharpening once you had the photo in photoshop. Did you also apply capture sharpening in ACR? If so, how strongly?. As a 4/3 and m4/3 user, I am very intrigued by your workflow. Thanks!

and Ctein's your uncle.

Actually, Bob is my uncle!

Dear Sven,

Spinning off your second major question as a different comment, because it got me thinking: What would it take in a JPEG for me to be able to produce the same quality of print?

Okay, more native camera resolution, because my clever tricks won't work well on JPEG's, but 24 megapixels would handle it.

JPEGs lose a couple of stops exposure range over the RAW files, so you'd need, probably, a camera with a 12.5 stop exposure range.

No problems so far. The color space would be a LITTLE bit of an issue, but not really a big one in this case; I could make those sky colors work okay even if I started with sRGB (although I'd have to do a little trickery in Photoshop).

I think what screws me, though, is the 8 bit depth of JPEGs. I don't think I can “clever” my way out of that one. There are two sets of problems. The first is that if I make any tone and color adjustments to the sky, it's really hard to avoid some banding in the print. I might be able to make it work; I am dubious.

The real killer, though, is the need to enhance local contrast to restore the delicate tracery in the clouds. That's not a camera issue; I've discussed this as a general digital printing problem in the past. In this particular photograph, I have to do more than a small amount of local contrast enhancement to get it to look right, and that will just fail for those clouds in eight bits. There will be banding and contouring and all sorts of horrible artifacts.

So, I think this is one that I couldn't print as well from a JPEG, no matter how good the file.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Ed,

I can't imagine anyone going wrong following your recipe!

It differs from mine in a couple of interesting particulars.

I'm not sure about that zoom vs. prime lens thing. I've just run a bunch of tests on my group of lenses to figure out what lenses are the best to use when I have a choice of several, and I haven't analyze them yet, but I think the results may be counterintuitive.

I just about always use autofocus. This particular photograph was auto-focused.

I almost always sharpen a single step. I tried multi-step sharpening methods. Did not see any improvement with them, did see a lot more work.

I am sure this is all dependent on what lenses, cameras, and software one uses.

In the three steps of mine that you laid down, local contrast enhancement comes early in the process. Maybe not always before sharpening but definitely before noise reduction, because it frequently has a substantial effect on the noise.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

The obvious corollary to this exercise (in my opinion) is to see how good a print can be produced from today's technology and services without having to resort the sort of post processing indicated here. For example, 5 mins of general / local adjustment if necessary, then off to the online photo lab / printer of your choice.

The multistep sharpenning is also using multiple algorithems:

1) In SilkyPics I use normal sharpenning (as the camera sort of demands it).

2) In RAWTherapee I use the RL sharpenning which does not create halos and can adress problems with DOF and to some extend motion blur as well (if you forgot to take the tripod with you).

3) In G'MIC a more the cool GIMP plugin which I regard as an essential Swiss Army knife to any photographer, I can also use Octave Sharpenning......Octave sharpening is harsh if left to its own devices but can perform local magic by using diffent layers and different amounts of USM blur per layer. It can be used on the entire print, but its better not to do that.

4) G'MIC also contains a tool called "Hot Pixel Noise" to remove some arefacts that Octave sharpening can produce (all applied sparingly and masked (or on selections) pleas).

And 4) answers Ctein's question as well. If noise is a problem (which it rarely is since I'm a base ISO till I drop kinda guy) then noise cancellation enteres the arena, to me as a last step and only in those area's were I now need it. That is BTW the result of the threestep proces and the limitations of the software I'm using, since I have now way of directing noise reduction in either Silky or RAWTherapee..... If I'm not satisfied with the endresult because of noise in some region of the picture I denoise in Silky (soft algoritm meanig it won't deal with all the noise but leave image detail intact) and then in RAWTherapee....which has a slightly more agressive noise cancelation algorithm. Then I build a layercake with the original and the filtered image and use a mask to combine both in GIMP.

Now most these are adaptations of techniques described by Ctein in jis brilliant book about photorestotion (from start to finish) that any photographer should have lying und his or hers pillow if only for the brilliant use of maskiug techniques. The use of limited local contrast enhancement comes from the book on printing by Uwe Steinmuller (Fine Art Printing for Photographers) which should accompany it.

Of course since I use GNU software (out of principle) I had to adapt a lot, and the nice thing about adapting recepies is that you make them your own, because you have to study the why as well as the how.

And Ctein you can realy on your autofocus as much as you like (in non critical situations I do as well) but if I need selective focus I only trust my eye to see what I want to be in focus.

About the zooms, I know of one exception to the rule and that is my own old legendary Nikon 80-200 F4.5. That becomes a hard to handle but hard to beat 160-200 F4.5 on my Pana.....that is tack sharp. The old pana kittlens is also nice, the Oly 9-18 not so much, that lens needs some manual adjustments to shine (starting of with CA correction in SlikyPics).

Greetings (and thanx to Ctein for his nice words),


Dear Peter,

Yup, worth people's while to try out the different non-custom printing services available to them.

There's a lot of difference in quality and you can't generalize across the stores in a chain, even. Depends a lot on whose running the shop. I hear great things about Costco printing in Minneapolis from several folks. They can sell a large print for only a bit more than it costs me to make. And it looks pretty good!

'Course, it doesn't come close to how well I can print, but it's not supposed to, not at an order-of-magnitude lower prices. But it's more than good enough to make most people very happy.

pax / Ctein

Nice photo!

But Ctein (and Mike, too)--

Thanks a lot for reminding me that I needed to buy that Oly 45mm. Ponied up for it this weekend, and the lens is just great. Really hits a sweets spot in how it renders, especially for the price.

This blog did me right with the Panny 20 and now this Oly 45. Those and the E-P1 I've felt are like Goldilocks' "just right." But damn I just laid my anxious hands on the OM-D sample at the store when I bought the lens. The shutter delay (well, the lack thereof) and focus speed on the OM-D are really something.

As an amateur, I do not feel compromised at all by buying into u43rds. The systems are really delivering now. They are a delight to carry and use.

Thank you for spreading that word.

Ctein - that wasn't really my point, but never mind

If it's an advertisement for large sensors, it's an advertisement for sensors larger than 35mm full-frame; I've had to do everything Ctein describes for various bits of pictures from my D700, including masking the sky to apply more aggressive noise-elimination there than elsewhere.

For this kind of photography, medium-format (or large) was the film answer; people doing this kind of big art in 35mm were rare, and pushing the limits of the technology (as Galen Rowell did; for good reasons involving weight he had to transport). Well, I'm sure (never having had the pleasure) that a Phase One back would make the post-processing for this sort of image a relative picnic; but it would make the transportation, setup, and tear-down a LOT more work.

DDB - I sent you a couple of files for your opinion.

Dear DD-B,

Well, err, no, a Phase One back would not have made the printing of this particular photo a "relative picnic." I've used a Phase One back; I know what it can do and can't. It does not magically make perfect files, it merely makes better ones. And in this case it does not make ones that are so much better that this would have obviated my printing.

A Phase One back would have eliminated the upsampling in ACR. Some other steps in the workflow would have changed. It still would have been a several hour printing job, just a somewhat different one.

Bigger does not making printing easier.

As for whether bigger is better in general, that is so off the point of this exercise that it doesn't even bear debating. Again, to make the film analogy, if a pro is demonstrating to you how 35mm film is suitable for professional work, pointing out to them that 8x10 makes a better photograph does not begin to address what they're saying. It's not even on topic.

pax / Ctein

Okay, I'm wrong. I thought it would eliminate the need for noise reduction in the sky, and hence the need for the mask.

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