Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Photography Workflow, Part II

I mentioned earlier that I often get asked "Do you Photoshop your photos?" and that I don't really like the question. But I didn't answer the question either. This post is the second of four planned posts that outline exactly what I do do with my photos. The next post will show some before and after photos.

So to directly answer the question "Do I Photoshop my photos?", the answer is "sort of." :-) I don't actually use Photoshop which is typically the program people think of and comes with Adobe Photoshop CS5 and is geared towards both photographers and graphics designers. I do, however, use a program with some of the same functionality called Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, or Lightroom for short that is really only suitable for photographers.

Lightroom is actually a pretty good name because it evokes the concept of "darkroom." This means that Lightroom lets you do things on the computer that, with film, you needed a darkroom to do. Some of these manipulations are able to "fix" specific problems with photographs are some are ones I use on nearly every photograph. Lightroom is also about much more than image manipulation, it's also about organizing and managing your photographs. I'll deal with that more in the final post in this series.

The first thing I do when I re-import my photos into Lightroom (described at the end of my first post) is set some Lightroom presets. Because I shoot everything in RAW mode, the default look of the photos is rather dull. I change this by setting Lightroom's "Clarity" and "Vibrance" settings to about 50 each. Clarity adjusts the contrast of the photo, but increases the contrast of low contrast regions more than high contrast. Vibrance does something similar to the color saturation, increasing the saturation of dull colors while leaving the very bright, colorful parts of the photo unchanged. There is a very nice discussion of these settings with examples here. I also set my Adobe camera profile to "Manufacturer Standard" which is a bit more colorful than the default. The effect of all these settings is to make digital photographs look more like film, especially the widely used Fuji Velvia slide film, rather than a strictly faithful representation.

The second preset I apply to all my photos is to correct the distortions of my lenses. No lens is perfect and they all distort somewhat. This is especially pronounced with wide angle lenses. Adobe has very good profiles for a lot of lenses, so if I have a profile for my lens, I make the correction. The last set of presets I apply to every photograph is some noise reduction and sharpening with a sharpening mask. The mask is used to apply sharpening to areas where the contrast is changing (like edges) and to not apply it to already smooth areas (like people's faces). The amount of noise reduction I apply depends on the camera used and the ISO value of the photograph. Lightroom makes it easy for me to apply these settings in a batch mode, so it's a very quick operation.

Now that I've done things with my photos "in bulk" I start a process where I scan through my photos multiple times doing the same step (or few) to each photo. I use Lightroom's colors (red and yellow) and numbers (0-5) to track which step I am on. When I reach the last photo, I start the next step on the first photo. The steps I take are:
  1. Reject any photos that are out of focus or obviously junk
  2. Set the white balance of the photos in groups (I select a whole bunch and set them to sunny or shady, etc) 
  3. If I've bracketed the shots (taken several at slightly different exposures), I pick the best exposure
  4. I often have several shots that are very close or identical. I pick one
    • This can be rapid fire shots of people trying to catch a good smile, or wildlife trying to catch a good angle, expression, etc.
  5. Adjust the exposure if needed
    • For underwater wide-angle photos this often means using the "Auto" exposure mode which takes a lot of the "haze" out of underwater photos by changing the black level
    • On land, this can be adjusting for high contrast situations and sometimes "fixing" an actual over or under exposure
  6. If needed, crop the photo and/or straighten the horizon
  7. Pick between similar shots (as opposed to nearly identical shots, maybe two photos of the same type of animal or scene on different days)
  8. Check and set the white balance individually if needed
  9. Check and set the exposure if needed. Especially check the highlights and shadows
  10. Clone out any visible dust on the camera's sensor or annoying back scatter for underwater photos
  11. Especially for high ISO shots, check the noise levels and add more noise reduction if needed
    You can see on my workflow that there are several points where I am filtering my photos, but I try to space those out so I don't get fatigued. In general I discard somewhere between 50 and 90% of the photos I take.  And while it may sound like a lot of work, I probably average less than minute of work for each photo I keep.

    On rare occasions I do a few other other touch ups. For instance, I will sometimes use the targeted adjustment tool to make a sky a little darker or bluer or to de-emphasize a distracting background. 

    There are two points I always keep in mind. First, most of the manipulation I do is to get a similar look to what we used to get from film and the manipulation that used to happen in photo labs when we brought in negatives for printing. Second, human vision is much more adaptable and subjective than the very accurate capture digital cameras are capable of: the human eye easily adjusts to light of different colors from sunlight, shade, etc. and it easily sees the detail in shadows even on a bright summer day. To make a photograph more accurately reflect that experience, it's sometimes necessary to adjust things away from the very linear capture of film or a digital chip. Photography is most often a way of capturing a mood or feeling rather than some objective (whatever that means) reality of a moment in time.
    In my next post I'll show some real world examples of this at work.

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