My Photo Editing Workflow

Since I’ve taught numerous workshops on photo editing, and touch on the topic of Workflow, without being able to get deeply into it, I thought I’d do it here to be able to share it in the future with workshop attendees. My personal workflow is not something I dreamed up overnight, nor is it something I consciously or logically designed.  It evolved over a long period of time from a combination of learning from others (Kelby, Kloskowski…others), and my own experience developing the look I personally like in my pictures. I’m absolutely positive that some of the greats out there could give me a thousand reasons why my workflow isn’t the best way.  That’s fine.  It is the best way for me, and gets the results I want.

This post isn’t intended to explain how to use Lightroom, or suggest how you should use each control.  It merely covers the way I progress through the editing process, step by step.

First I edit virtually every “keeper” picture I take.  I shoot in camera raw all the time.  Never in jpg.  I also am pretty brutal about selecting out the pictures I want and deleting the rejects.  Since I shoot raw files…THEY MUST BE EDITED, and cannot be used as is out of the camera. I tell my workshop attendees they have two choices when editing.  Either let the camera edit your pictures, in which case, shoot jpg files, and edit them before they are taken by carefully manipulating your camera controls.  The second choice is to shoot raw files, and edit them yourself using software after you download them from the camera.  Either way you are editing your pictures.  Since I shoot raw files, I’ve made the choice to use software, where I have more control and can exercise more creativity.  The post-processing of images is part of the workflow, which begins before you take the picture.

Before beginning, this workflow is for the software I use, which always starts in Adobe’s Lightroom, then for some pictures goes to Photoshop, then back and forth between Photoshop and either Nik, or On1 installed as plug-ins to Photoshop.  On1 can easily be used as a standalone and will handle everything from file organization to full-blown editing. 

Planning the shot

Once you get a good understanding of what your editing software can do you will find yourself shooting with post-processing in mind.  You’ll do this automatically for almost every shot.  Is the foreground too dark? Sky blown out? Will the detail in that rock wall pop with the right editing? You’ll then expose for those possibilities…maybe take several shots to blend later.

Importing 

After you’ve editing enough images you’ll find yourself doing pretty much the same basic things on many of them.  This is especially true for types of images; landscape, architectural, etc.  Those basics may include your preferred settings for 

controls in the Basic, HSL, Lens Correction, and Camera Calibration panels.  Whatever those settings are, create a “preset” that you can apply to all your pictures upon import.  This saves you a lot of editing later, that you would probably do anyway to each picture individually.  For my Landscape images, for example I almost always have these starting points in the import preset:

Camera Calibration Panel: I select the camera profile (LR picks this up from my camera, so yours may differ), for Landscapes.  This gives the image a good starting point.

Lens Correction Panel: I apply a lens Correction to every picture, so why not do it on import? I’ll also select remove chromatic aberration. 

Basic Panel: I always slide down highlights, and open shadows on every landscape image…to some degree.  My preset includes those adjustments, in addition to auto White Balance. 

HSL Panel: another adjustment I find myself doing on most landscapes is darkening the blue in the sky.  I will therefore adjust luminance downward a bit for the sky-blues. 

These basic edits are then applied to all my Landscape imports as a starting point.  They obviously need to be adjusted for each image, but work amazingly well for most.

In order to create the preset I simply take a sample image, adjust the above settings to taste, then save them as a preset.  I don’t include all the settings, because some like “transform” and “effects”, differ so much from image to image.  Also “Detail” is an adjustment I like to do at the very end of my workflow.  I don’t use Split Toning, or Tone Curve at all.

Editing Workflow

I begin my workflow in the Camera Calibration panel.  My import preset should have already set the profile I want, but I could change it here if I wanted.  I don’t touch anything else in this panel.  NOTE: if you shoot jpg files you won’t have any options here. 

My next step is to set lens correction if my import didn’t already do that. I’ll almost always also check the “remove chromatic aberration” box.

The next step is to straighten the image.  This will not have been done on import. Make sure horizons are horizontal and verticals are vertical.  StRt by trying Auto. If that doesn’t do what you want try the guided approach. 

If the transformation results in too much potential cropping, I won’t use the Constrain Crop box, but instead export the image to Photoshop and fill the blank crop areas using content aware tools, such as fill, or patch.  This doesn’t always work, but is worth trying.

If you have a hazy picture, before using the basic panel, jump down to the Effects panel and try using the dehaze slider, the. Come back to the basic panel

Now it’s finally time to move to the top panel, the basic panel.  The first thing I’ll adjust is color by adjusting white balance.  While I apply auto White Balance on import, it isn’t a very satisfying adjustment. I’ll frequently change that to daylight, or back to as-shot. NOTE: If you shoot jpg files, you won’t have any options here, and will have to make you color adjustments using the temp and tint sliders.  

Staying in the basic panel, after I just White Balance I’ll adjust highlights and shadows, and whites and blacks.  I won’t touch exposure and contrast unless I can’t get what I want with the highlights/shadows/blacks/whites sliders.  As I adjust these sliders I keep my eye on the histogram to make sure I’m not overdoing the changes.  

Finally in the basics panel I’ll finish off with some boost in vibrance…almost all my pictures get that, and some clarity.  Both these can make your image look very unreal.  Be careful.   I never touch the Saturation slider
All the above adjustments effect the entire image.  I now make a few target adjustments.

Hue, Saturation, Luminance (HSL) is my next stop, especially for images with partially cloudy skies.  I’ll typically use the targeted adjustment tool in the HSL panel to lower the luminance of the blue in the skies.

More targeted adjustments can then be done using the spot remover tool (dust spots), the spotlight tool (circle) and the gradient tool and brush.  While these can be done in Lightroom, I will do most of my dodging and burning and removal unwanted elements in Photoshop. The cloning, healing brushes in Photoshop are more accurate and powerful. 

At this point, depending on the image I switch to Photoshop.  In Photoshop I do things like removing unwanted elements (people, wires, garbage cans, branches), dodging and burning, and blending in skies from different exposures or different images. While in Photoshop I may take the image into the Nik plug in for some special effects.  Coming out of Photoshop I save the image back into Lightroom as an uncompressed file…usually in psd format (smaller than tiff).  Finishing touches are done in Lightroom.

Final touches include sharpening and noise reduction, and for many pictures a subtle vignette.  

Exporting Workflow

After all that editing you’d think the workflow ended.  It doesn’t. When you export your image there still might be some thing you want to do.  During the export process you need to think about how your exported image is to be seen.  Will it be on the web? Will you be sending it to print?  Answers to these questions determine how much sharpening to apply at export, and which color space you select. 

For print you’ll typically want the Adobe RGB color space, and additional sharpening, since printing softens the picture.  For print you’ll also want your resolution to exceed 250dpi. For web use export the file at lower resolution 75-100 dpi, and use the sRGB color space.  Here’s a good article on using available color spaces.  

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