Digital Imaging Workflow
One of the most important skills for the modern photographer to have is a solid workflow that takes them through all the steps from capture to output. Because many people are intimidated by the computer, they will easily become lost and lose sight of the goal they had when they began editing a set of images. A workflow prevents this by helping the photographer stay on track and keeping them from wandering into uncharted territory when editing images.
To me, the whole reason to develop a solid workflow is speed. Because editing can take up the majority of your working time as a professional photographer, any way to reduce the required time to edit a set of images is worth consideration.
A good workflow begins at the time of capture. There are many things we can do in-camera to reduce the amount of time we will spend on the computer when we get home. All too often photographers neglect to properly expose their images, set their white-balance or check for a good composition before taking a photograph. All these things take a fraction of the time to fix in the camera as they do on the computer. Don’t just say that you’ll crop the photo in Photoshop. Shoot it as if you don’t have Photoshop. It is always smart to take the best possible image in camera and to leave a minimum amount of work to be done on the computer.
In principle, the import phase of any workflow should be rather straightforward: get the images from the memory card onto the computer in the least amount of time. There is one caveat though. If the images you put onto your computer aren’t organized, how will you find them later? This is probably the most widespread problem I see when teaching. Many students just don’t know where their images actually live on their hard drives.
Luckily we live in the 21st century. There are many software programs out there that make the whole process of image organization much easier. The industry standard, and the one we teach here at Rocky Mountain School of Photography, is Adobe® Lightroom®. Lightroom makes it very easy to import your images in an organized way and find the images you are interested in easily and quickly. I won’t be talking about how to import your images using Lightroom in this article,* but I will say that if used properly, Lightroom will help just about any photographer keep their images organized.
The way I like to organize my photographs is by putting them into folders named with the date I took the images and a few descriptive words about what I actually shot on that day. For example, if I took a bunch of images on July 4th, 2014 of a fireworks show, I would put all of those images into a folder called “2014-07-04 Fireworks Show.” It’s important to put the date in the “YYYY-MM-DD” format so that your folders will stay sequential over many years. By adding a couple of descriptive words to the end of the folder name, you will easily be able to tell what you shot on each day and more quickly find the images you are looking for.
Many photographers like to sort their images by where they were taken or what’s in the photo instead of using dated folders. These alternative organization systems can be equally as effective and should be considered as well. However, I do think the dated folder system is the easiest to learn and to get used to for a beginning photographer. And, if you are interested in one of these more content-based organization systems, you will want to also do yourself the favor of including dated folders beneath each location/subject folder in order for you to be able to sort between multiple visits to that location/subject. For example: Yosemite>2008>2008-04-13 Half Dome>PHOTOS.
Beyond helping you create a folder structure, Lightroom offers many additional ways to organize your images in the Library module. Collections, keywords and labels help photographers sort their images more specifically, instead of just leaving them in folders to find. I think all Lightroom users should experiment with each of these tools to find which is(are) the best method(s) for their own organization.
*One quick note on importing. Many photographers waste precious time downloading their images by connecting their camera to their computer using a cord instead of using a memory card reader. A card reader can speed up the import process dramatically, and I strongly encourage every photographer to buy one. Also, card readers have come a long way in the past few years. If you are still using a card reader from 10 years ago, it might be time to upgrade. A new, high-quality card reader will result in huge time savings over the years.
Editing is by far the hardest part of the workflow. Because of this, it’s also the place where people inevitably waste the most amount of time. I like to tell my students that no image should take longer than five minutes to edit in Lightroom. There just aren’t that many things you can do to any given image. Now, I want to be clear here. There are many photographers that will take hours in Photoshop making an image perfect and altering the finest details. That’s Photoshop. In Photoshop it’s easy to spend hours; in Lightroom, edits should be quick and effective. If anyone is taking longer than five minutes on an image it’s usually because they don’t have a workflow and are moving between tools in a scattered manner.
So, what’s the right order? That’s up to the photographer to decide. Every photographer moves through the tools in a different way. You should establish a systematic approach to the tools in order to maximize your editing time. With that said, here’s what works for me (assuming that I have a pretty good image coming from the camera).
1. Cropping – There is no use editing parts of an image that you are going to end up chopping off in the end. Make the crop first.
2. White Balance – It’s hard to see what you’re working with if the image is too warm or too cool. Adjust this early on. But feel free to make the image a little warmer or cooler to convey a certain “mood” through the image.
3. Global adjustments – Changes such as exposure, white and black point, contrast and saturation. All changes at this stage should be “global,” as in, affecting the whole image.
4. Local adjustments – Make adjustments to specific parts of the image (“local” adjustments).
5. Retouching – If the image is going to be printed or published in any way, take time to clean up any dust that may have been on the sensor, remove blemishes on faces, poles coming out of people’s heads, etc. And don’t forget to discuss beforehand how much retouching you and your client are comfortable with.
6. Final touches – If the image needs sharpening, noise reduction or suffers from chromatic aberrations, this is when I would tackle that. Remember, you can only sharpen an in-focus image; if you took a blurry image, sharpening will do nothing for you. Also, noise reduction isn’t magical, it won’t remove the noise entirely, it’ll just make it less apparent. And too much noise-reduction will actually make your photo blurry.
Lastly, we have the output phase of things. Luckily, Lightroom makes this step very easy. If you are sending the photo out to the web to put on a website or print through a photo lab, you will use the export dialog box to prepare that image for that specific use. If you are going to print your image directly from your computer, you will use the print module within the program. Many people may want to crop or edit the same image many different ways for different uses. To do this, I would suggest using “Virtual Copies” in Lightroom. This allows the user to create many different versions of the same image without actually duplicating the size of the file. This way you can make different versions without filling up your hard drive.
I hope this gives you a perspective on the steps involved when taking an image from capture to output. I can’t emphasize enough that a workflow is entirely dependent on the photographer, but I suggest that all of you use this as a “starter workflow” and adapt it into something that works for you.