Shoot More, Process Less

Try these simple rules, and you’ll be able to spend less time in front of your computer screen and more time in the field making photographs

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In this age of digital cameras, super-computers and image-editing software that requires a PhD to master, it’s all too easy to spend hours under the soft glow of a computer screen endlessly fine-tuning your images. I call it the “postproduction suction.” You spend two hours behind the camera and four hours behind the keyboard editing, correcting and tweaking your shots. This phenomenon can creep into your photographic life, slowly embezzling your time away from the shutter release and into the return key until it dawns on you that you haven’t hit the trail for weeks, maybe even months. This sinking feeling is the realization that you’ve become the dreaded “desk chair photographer.”

There are many ways you can help limit your time at the computer and maximize it in the field without sacrificing image quality, and the best place to start is at the lens. Do as much to the image as you can in-camera and on location. Practice getting your exposure spot-on from the very start. Relying on postproduction software to save an over- or underexposed image not only will create more work later, but also will result in a lower-quality image. Making drastic alterations to Levels in postproduction increases digital noise and grain, which then will result in even more time spent counteracting it with noise-reduction tools. Utilize the histogram and “blinkies” on your camera’s review screen to periodically check your exposures before committing to your shots.

Applying sound shooting techniques in the field also will reduce the amount of time you spend sorting out rejects. Utilize a tripod, mirror lock-up and cable release when called for to create tack-sharp images. Pay special attention to focus when doing macro work and wide apertures. Bracket exposures as little as possible, and instead spend your time getting the exposure correct in the first frame. Be aware of lens flare, highlight burnouts and unwanted elements in your composition so you won’t have to spend time deleting or attempting to salvage these in postproduction. Frame your compositions carefully, keeping your camera level, to avoid unneeded cropping and straightening. Confidence in your shooting techniques will go a long way in minimizing editing time.

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Bust Dust
1 Keep The Sensor Clean
A key but often overlooked way to help reduce editing time is to keep your equipment clean. There are few things more tedious and time-consuming in digital photography than cleaning sensor dust off of an image in post. Use an air blower to quickly clean your sensor after each shoot and do more extensive cleanings every few shoots or so. Also, be sure the front and rear lens elements are free of dust before clicking the shutter. Investing in a camera that has automatic sensor cleaning by way of ultrasonic vibrations of the digital sensor is a great time-saver and a handy feature. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Take good care of your equipment, and it will take good care of your shots.

2 Use Split NDs Instead Of HDR
When shooting landscapes, utilize split-neutral-density filters as opposed to combining multiple exposures or using high dynamic range (HDR) techniques. HDR is a great tool that can make some superior images that would have otherwise been difficult to achieve, but keep in mind that Galen Rowell (and countless other greats) have made some of the most iconic and memorable photographs with nothing more than what they could put on the front of their lens. Master split NDs, and you’ll get the added benefit of having special pride and satisfaction in your technique, in addition to creating some of your most stunning images straight out of the camera. Nothing feels better than being able to snub the guy who loftily remarks, “Wow, you must be great with Photoshop.” Approach an image as if you’re shooting slide film again (remember film?) with the attitude that what you shoot is what you get.

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3 Streamline Your Workflow
Streamlining your postproduction workflow is an extremely effective way of reducing editing time. By weeding out unnecessary steps and efficiently organizing your editing procedure, you can drastically cut down your time at the computer. Lay out your workflow, just as the name implies, as a flow of definite and precise steps going from one to the next with each one creating a specific product. For example, my workflow is laid out in three main steps: In, Pending and Out. Each one has more specific substeps that accomplish a certain goal.

For the In step, my images are stacked (or grouped) and the immediate rejects are sorted out. For instance, I’ll stack variations in exposure, minor shifts in composition or slight changes in filter placement. I scrap any image that’s a definite throwaway due to poor exposure, camera shake or lens flare.

In the Pending step, I first adjust IPTC data for each image, adding notes, captions and keywords for later reference and for my stock agencies’ use. I then move on to comparing and adjusting the images. This is where I make all my Levels, saturation, white balance and color adjustments to the photos. I also compare and rate them in this step, further sorting out any rejects and selecting the best ones of the batch. I then clean any dust off the images.

From here, I sort all of my images into the Out step, where they go into one of several categories: Fine-Art Pieces, Stock Photography and Neither. As part of this Out step, I export my images into the correct format for each category and do with them whatever is necessary (upload to the stock agency, add to my personal website, etc.). After they have gone through this whole process, the images can be sorted into my archived images hierarchy, now fully keyworded, captioned and adjusted for easy retrieval later on.

I use Apple Aperture to handle all of this, and I have individual projects (albums) for each step in which I move the images from one to the next as they advance in the workflow. This keeps me organized and always lets me know how far along an image is in the process.

This is just one example of a workflow that works for me, but try drawing yours out on paper, as I did, so you can see the exact steps your images need to go through to be ready for production. This allows you to lay it out in the most logical manner possible and also helps you spot unneeded steps. Seeing your workflow drawn out in graphical form gives you a solid concept of what needs to happen to each image before it can be put to use. This also helps keep you from accidentally overlooking any steps in your workflow (ever forget to clean the dust off an image?).


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Take A Break
4 Avoid “Monitor Eyes”
You undoubtedly spend a fair amount of time at the computer, no matter how much you work to minimize it; it’s the nature of digital photography. When working at your computer, be sure to give your eyes a rest. Eye fatigue is common and easily written off as a minor problem when spending hours at your computer. Your blink rate can drop to just one-third or less of the eyes’ normal rate when doing computer work, resulting in severely dry eyes. Additionally, focusing on a near object such as your computer screen for extended periods of time is strenuous on eye muscles.

To remedy these problems, eye professionals recommend the “20/20/20 rule.” This means that after 20 minutes of computer work, look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This gives your eyes a chance to rest and regain a healthy tear film and helps avoid painful, bloodshot eyes. Ask your optometrist about eyewear specifically designed to reduce eyestrain from computer monitors. Availing yourself of these glasses is a great preventative measure even if you have perfect vision. Furthermore, beware of carpal tunnel syndrome due to extended periods at the keyboard and mouse. Help avoid it by taking frequent breaks, practicing good posture when typing and using keyboard and mouse wrist rests.

While computers give us a number of incredible tools for enhancing and improving our photographs, it’s only too easy to get distracted from the photographs and photography when we get too wrapped up in the digital side of things. If you find that your cameras are collecting dust while your computer is constantly overheating from rendering various Photoshop plug-ins, it’s time for a quick reality check. As powerful as Photoshop is, it primarily should be used for enhancing, not fixing, an image. Simple things like using a split ND filter or keeping your sensor clean can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend using the computer. Bottom line: If you’re struggling with an image in Photoshop, it’s probably time to reshoot. After all, isn’t taking pictures really more fun anyway?

Keep in mind that postproduction isn’t a step to be despised or avoided. It’s a necessary and vital tool to creating great photographs. But if it’s behind the viewfinder in the great outdoors where you most like to be, keep these tips in mind to help make postproduction just another element of the whole photographic process and not the dominating factor in your photography. After all, would you rather spend your time clicking the shutter or clicking the mouse?

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5 Edit Efficiently
Even with an efficient workflow, it’s necessary to build up your editing speed so that your images go from capture to print (or upload) in the shortest possible time frame. If you’re like me at all, you can sometimes get a little too trivial in your editing process. The never-ceasing battle over which composition is better, which white-balance setting is most accurate, how much saturation is too much and, yes, even which cloud-cover pattern is best can consume an exorbitant amount of your time, often with very little return. Chances are these minor differences in a set of pictures won’t make or break the final image.

Have you ever truly regretted not picking “that other one?” Take the approach they taught you in high school for the SATs: Stick with your first choice. If one image seems like a winner to you, commit to it. The longer you sit and ponder over all the minor differences between shots, the more likely you are to overthink it and choose the wrong one. This actually is a skill and is something that you can practice and get better at. Although it’s important to be rigorous and uncompromising in your editing, don’t devote so much time to it that it begins to eclipse what really matters—getting new material. Thoroughness and swiftness aren’t mutually exclusive. The quicker you edit, the sooner your images can start making you money.

9 Comments

    1) “the best place to start is at the lens. Do as much to the image as you can in-camera and on location.”
    That has to be the best advice here, to start improving (and time saving!)
    2) “getting the exposure correct in the first frame” … yip, and maybe relying more on “A” than “S”?

    Many thanks for these practical reminders. The only real post production fun is the saturation one, which you can do especially on the ones that didn’t make it first time!
    P.S.love the Photo Zoom!

    Digital took the need to pre-visualize the shot and craft the images and minimalized it by making everything available now on the LCD. With film you had to get the shot right. With digital the dominant attitude is ‘if I don’t get it right I can fix it in Photoshop’. I teach my students to visualize the shot first, then see it in the view finder and make the two match on the film/CCD. The less they have to do in Photoshop the better. I teach Photoshop as if it were a darkroom setup. Workflow is as key to successful results in using Photoshop and minimizing time at the keyboard as it is in the darkroom. Glad to see articles like this are being written.

    Burt Crapo

    Very good advice; I just don’t agree with Tony on shooting more in “A” than “S”. I know a lot of people shoot in auto and that’s ok. My opinion on that is, to get the most you can out of your work, manual is the only way to shoot. Learn your camera and it’s settings; become the photographer you know you can be and understand what each setting does and what it’s effect will be to the final image. Auto mode is for people who aren’t really serious about photography. That’s my two cents worth.

    I needed this article to remind myself why I actually became interested in photography in the first place and it had nothing to do with the computer. Here’s my advice. Take your camera with you every day and use every opportunity to shoot.

    This is a very timely article and well written. With all due respect to Kay, I agree with Tony’s coment about shooting more in ‘A’ than ‘S’ because I believe he is referring to the Aperture Mode. What you were referring to as the auto mode is actually the ‘P’ mode. I also shoot most of the time in ‘A’ to control DOF rather than the ‘S’, unless I am dealing with motion. Otherwise combining ‘A’ with the exposure compensation passes it for the manual shooting mode. Roger

    hi im new to the world of photography and i want to know if you guys have any advice for me… i thought this article was very very goodo advice.

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