Digital Darkroom Workflow

A basic outline to help you find your own best workflow when working on images in the computer


Digital Darkroom Workflow

Digital photography adds a bunch of new steps to the photographic process. Because of that, many photographers get uneasy that they might not be following the best workflow.

Are you missing something in dealing with images in the digital darkroom? Are you using your image-processing software to its best advantage? How about to your best advantage?

Digital workflow is the process between a beginning and an ending that defines how you work with an image. In this column, I’ll stick with image-processing workflow (the digital darkroom) because it carries the most confusion. I can’t possibly give you all the techniques involved in each of these steps. You can find many good books on the market, such as those by Scott Kelby, George DeWolfe’s Digital Photography Fine Print Workshop or the Outdoor Photographer Landscape and Nature Photography With Photoshop CS2 book. Our sister publications, Digital Photo Pro and PCPhoto, also cover this material.

Digital Darkroom WorkflowLet’s Start At The Beginning
1 Import. Open a photo into your image-processing program, such as Photoshop or RAW-conversion software.

2 Save As. If you’re shooting JPEG,immediately save your opened photo as a new file. You can use either TIFF or your processor’s native format (such as PSD in Photoshop). This will protect the original and ensure that you don’t use JPEG as a working file. RAW is automatically protected. It must be converted to use it, and you can’t save over the original RAW file.

Overall Adjustments
The next four steps can be done in either a RAW converter (with RAW files) or in the image-processing software itself (JPEG files). These are overall adjustments that affect the entire image.

3 Crop And Rotate. I’m a strong believer in cropping out problems early on. Junk often shows up along the image edges, for example, and it’s worth removing that junk and fixing crooked horizons before moving on. This frees you creatively because you won’t be distracted by stuff that doesn’t belong in your photo. In addition, unwanted edge junk can wrongly influence the adjustment of the overallimage.

1. Import—open photo
2. Save As—if JPEG, save the photo as a new file

In Photoshop or Camera Raw:
3. Crop and rotate
4. Adjust blacks and whites
5. Clarify midtones
6. Correct colors

In Photoshop:
7. (RAW and JPEG) First work print opportunity
8. Refine adjustments—based on work print
9. Local adjustments— changing tones and colors in small areas
10. Cleanup—clone out problems, control noise
11. Save master—unsharpened and layered PSD file
12. Size and sharpen
13. Work toward a final print

4 Blacks And Whites Adjustments. I consider this one of the key steps for prepping a digital photo. I still see photos from top photographers that aren’t properly adjusted for these tones. The result is weaker contrast and less than optimum color. Many cameras don’t record a solid black in the darkest part of your image, yet that solid black is critical for colors and tones to look their best in a print or on the printed page.

I prefer Levels for the “blacks and whites” step (technically, there’s only a black or a white tone; however, there are many black and white areas throughout a photo, so “blacks” and “whites” are commonly referred to as plurals). In Photoshop and Photoshop Elements (plus Camera Raw using Shadows and Exposure), hold down the Alt/Option key as you adjust the Black and White sliders. This gives a Threshold screen that allows you to see and judge where your blacks and whites appear.

One scene might need the blacks and whites just barely appearing, yet another might look better with large areas of black. I’m usually less aggressive in adjusting for whites, as this can quickly make bright areas look washed out.

5 Clarify Midtones. Midtones can make an image come alive and give a scene a feeling of luminosity. Coming directly from the camera, dark midtones can look muddy and make colors appear less than their best. Or, if overexposed, they look washed out. A good way to deal with them is by using Curves. Click and drag from any part of the line, and the picture changes—brighter up, darker down.

6 Color Correction. A wrong white balance or a scene with an overall colorcast you dislike can be fixed at this point. An easy way to do this is to use Levels—pick the middle eyedropper (this should be called a White Balance eyedropper because it works exactly the same as the White Balance eyedropper in Camera Raw) and start clicking around the image, looking for something that should be neutral in tone, such as a cloud, the ground, a white flower and so forth. You’ll usually get a fairly good-looking image quickly. You can also tone down a strong change by using an adjustment layer.