Designing a Flexible, Powerful Workflow

This photograph of Mono Lake, processed entirely in Lightroom, shows the power of modern applications that work directly with Raw images.
This photograph of Mono Lake, processed entirely in Lightroom, shows the power of modern applications that work directly with Raw images.

There are probably as many workflows as there are photographers. There’s nothing wrong with that: everyone’s different, and a good workflow for one person can seem awkward to another. But sometimes I look at people’s workflows and think the pieces have been gathered from random tips found on the internet, assembled in no particular order, and held together with duct tape and chewing gum.

Just because you’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean that’s the best way. It’s worth periodically examining your practices to see if they still serve you. I do this all the time: I question each step, and ask if there’s a better way to do it. I look at new tools and techniques and see if they could add efficiency, power, or flexibility. I’m constantly refining and improving my workflow, and in the long run this saves me hours of valuable time.

What is a workflow?

Simply put, it’s all the steps you take to process images, including downloading, editing, keywording, developing, and output (printing or uploading images to the web). While you don’t always have to perform each task in the same order every time, it’s helpful to develop a routine so you don’t forget important steps, and don’t need to invent new procedures for each photograph. In this post I’m going to concentrate on the developing part—the operations you perform to optimize an image and make it look its best.

What makes a good workflow?

A good workflow should be powerful, yet flexible—powerful so that you can make an image look great with a minimum of work, flexible so that you can easily change your mind later about any aspect of the photograph without having to start over.

To Photoshop or not to Photoshop...

Photoshop used to be the only option for serious photographers. But now, other programs like Lightroom, Aperture, and Nikon Capture NX have become powerful enough to be legitimate choices not just for initial Raw conversion, but for the entire workflow. Two years ago, when Lightroom 2 and its Adjustment Brush became available, I revamped my workflow, and now develop most images entirely in Lightroom.

The unedited Raw file of the image shown above.

I call this method—using programs like Aperture, Lightroom, or Capture NX for the entire process—the Raw Workflow (although it can be used for JPEGs as well). It’s efficient, because you can do everything, including editing, keywording, Raw conversion, developing, and printing, in one program. It’s also highly flexible, since applications like Lightroom and Aperture are non-destructive—that is, when you change the appearance of an image, the program doesn’t actually alter anything in the original Raw or JPEG file, but rather writes a set of instructions describing how you want the image to look. Only when you export the file does the program actually apply those instructions. So you can always go back and change some aspect of what you did without starting over—you’re just modifying the instructions.

For all its convenience and flexibility, this workflow isn’t viable if the program doesn’t have enough power to make an image look its best. In addition to some basic tools that all of these applications have had from the beginning, like white balance, saturation, etc., I need three things to optimize most images—otherwise I may as well take them into Photoshop. With the release of Aperture 3 all the programs I’ve mentioned now have them (as does the combination of Bridge and Camera Raw). These are:

Dust spot removal. Clean sensors are as rare as albino elephants in Alaska, especially since the small apertures needed for landscape photographs emphasize dust spots.

Curves. Curves are the most powerful image-editing tool around—by far. Without Curves I’m going to have to spend a lot of time messing with other tools to get something I could do more quickly—and better—with Curves.

Dodging and Burning. I haven’t found an image yet that couldn’t benefit from lightening or darkening specific areas.

Extreme depth of field required using Photoshop to blend five different images together to keep both the foreground and background sharp.

Rather than writing instructions about how you want an image to look, Photoshop is designed to actually change the file’s pixels. While you can make Photoshop behave in a non-destructive fashion with adjustment layers, it’s inherently less flexible than programs like Lightroom or Aperture. But Photoshop is incredibly powerful—by far the most powerful image-editing tool on the planet—and some images need that power. Here are some of the most common things that I use Photoshop for:

- Perspective cropping

- Serious retouching

- Complex selections (including sharpening selections)

- Combining two or more images (composites, panoramas, exposure blends, focus blends)

- Targeted curves

- Selective Color

For focus blends these days I often use Helicon Focus, and for exposure blends I usually try LR/Enfuse, so I’m relying on Photoshop less and less. But Photoshop is still frequently essential.

To keep Photoshop files as flexible as possible, bear these points in mind:

Make only minimal adjustments before bringing an image into Photoshop.

If you fine-tune contrast in Camera Raw or Aperture, then take the image into Photoshop to clone out a telephone pole, but later decide that the photograph has too much contrast, you’re stuck—you’re going to have to do all that cloning over again. It’s easy to add contrast to digital files, but impossible to take it out. So don’t add too much contrast or sharpening (also easy to increase, impossible to decrease) before taking an image into Photoshop.

Before taking a file into Photoshop, I typically adjust the white balance, clone out dust spots, and, if necessary, use the Recovery and Fill Light tools in Lightroom to make sure I have highlight and shadow detail. That’s it—I leave the rest for Photoshop.

Here I’ll distinguish between cloning out simple dust spots and more serious retouching like removing that aforementioned telephone pole. While I find cleaning up dust spots slightly easier in Photoshop, if I perform this task in Lightroom I’ll only have to do it once—ever. If I do it in Photoshop, and later decide that I have to go back and start over from the Raw file for any reason, I’ll have to do the cloning again. But this only applies to simple dust spots; taking out that telephone pole is much easier in Photoshop than in Lightroom.

Make all your Photoshop adjustments on layers.

By using layers I can make the Photoshop workflow almost as flexible as the Raw workflow. I use layers for everything, including retouching. This means using Adjustment Layers for Curves, Hue/Saturation, etc. Adjustment Layers are like sets of instructions about how you want the image to look—in other words, a non-destructive way of editing in Photoshop. Fortunately, with the advent of the Adjustment Panel in CS4, this has become the default path in Photoshop.

Once you’ve developed an image in Photoshop, don’t make further changes in another program.

After completing a master file in Photoshop, I import it into Lightroom, where I can use Lightroom’s collections and powerful Export feature. But once I’ve adjusted the image in Photoshop, I don’t make further changes in Lightroom. There’s too much risk of having the two programs competing against each other—having one lighten the image, the other darken it—and creating strange artifacts. If I need to make further adjustments to the file, I open it again in Photoshop.

Which workflow should you use?

You don’t need to pick only one workflow. I use both paths I’ve outlined here—the Raw workflow and the Photoshop workflow—depending on the requirements of the particular image. You may need only one workflow—some people never use Photoshop, others always use it. But try not to have too many different workflows; you’ll just confuse yourself and forget important steps. Develop one or two consistent paths that work for most images. And keep examining, and questioning, your workflow(s) to see if there are more powerful and flexible ways of getting the results you want.

I used Photoshop to blend three different exposures together, and keep detail in the moon as well as the dark shadows of this nighttime image.
I used Photoshop to blend three different exposures together and keep detail in the moon as well as the dark shadows of this nighttime image.

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