Workflow 2.0

Update

Over the past 6 months, my raw workflow has changed a bit as I’ve incorporated new and better tools into it. Photoshop CS2 was a real step forward for raw workflow management if you use Adobe Camera Raw as your convertor. The Bridge application is now fairly useful and I find myself making a lot more use of it. I’ve also started to use the Smart Sharpen tool in CS2 – it’s a lot better than a simple Unsharp Mask and I’ve found I like the results more often than PhotoKit Sharpener. Finally, I’ve moved my entire workflow to DNG, which has added an extra step.

As of the start of 2006, my current workflow now looks like this:

Import And Review

Once I get back with images on a bunch of Compact Flash cards, I copy the images into a “Dropbox” folder on my Mac. I then do a quick review on the images, deleting anything that’s obviously out of focus, duplicate or just not worth keeping.

To do the review, I use Photo Mechanic, which is an ideal application for this job. Photo Mechanic will work with most raw images, is fast and has some really useful tools for reviewing and comparing images (such as a way to mark keepers, do side-by-side compares and look at the images at 100% for focus checks).

When I’m done with the review, my Dropbox folder contains just the raw images that I want to keep. There are the basic set of images that’ll be archived and cataloged.

Adjust, Correct And Convert To DNG

This is where my workflow changes from the old way. I fire up Adobe Bridge and look at my Dropbox folder. I normally rename the images at this point using my standard RollXXX_YYY numbering scheme (e.g. “Roll135_67.CR2”). It’s a pretty simple naming scheme but I find it works for me. If I need to search for things, I use the metadata I add later – the file naming usually isn’t that important and I’d rather it was partially readable and consistent.

In Bridge, I select all of the images in the folder and assign the default Camera Raw profile for the camera used to take the images (using Edit->Apply Camera Raw Settings). I’ve used Thomas Fors ACR Calibrator Script to generate the basic settings for each camera. If you haven’t done this and find yourself struggling with color in ACR, I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. I found the colors from ACR a lot better after I tweaked the conversions using the values generated by the script.

Once the images have a basic calibration setup, I load all of the images up in Camera Raw. Then I step through each image, setting the exposure values and color temperature that I want. I also perform basic cropping and horizon leveling at this point. The goal is to have a folder full of images that have a basic first cut of adjustments made.

Once I’m happy, I save all the images out of Camera Raw as DNG files. Because the previews in the DNG files reflect the new Camera Raw settings, they’re much closer to the eventual image. I got tired of looking at folders of raw images that had previews that were generated at the time of shooting. I’m much happier now that I’m using DNG files as my basic raw workhorse.

At this point, I use an Applescript Studio application that I wrote to move the raw images and DNG files to the new homes in my master image catalog.

Archive And Catalog

I use iView MediaPro for archiving my raw DNG and finished images. I’ve yet to find another application for the Mac that comes close to being as useful for managing catalogs of raw images. Portfolio and Cumulus are the two other main competitors in this space for iView MediaPro but, in my experience, neither are as hassle-free as MediaPro on the Mac.

Once I’ve finished importing images, I add the metadata. I’ve use some Applescript Studio tools for setting basic information (such as standard copyrights and event dates) and try to fill in as much location information for images as I can. I’m still fairly lazy about adding keywords to my images – something I’ll need to work on later. If I have a complaint with iView MediaPro it’s that the keyword management system always feels a bit clunky.

Photoshop

After importing, I usually browse the DNG catalog for the images I’m interested in working on. As the images are already color adjusted and the exposure has been set correctly, I don’t normally tweak much in the Camera Raw during the open (unless I spot something, such as CA in the corners that I didn’t pick up earlier).

The steps I normally follow in Photoshop are

  • Noise reduction with Noise Ninja

    If the image is noisy (at say, above ISO 800), then I normally run it through Noise Ninja to remove the bulk of the noise. It’s very easy to overprocess the image and leave it looking completely false so a careful hand is needed here. I normally back the processing defaults off a fair bit and use the noise brush to keep areas of detail. The general aim here is to suppress color noise in large, smooth areas of an image.

  • Input Sharpening with Smart Sharpen or PhotoKit Sharpener

    I’ve started using Smart Sharpen a lot more for basic input sharpening. I’ve found that it does give fairly good results and seems to require less tweaking to get a good basic input sharpen, which is handy for automated workflows. I’m still using PhotoKit Sharpener and it does give some really great results but does require more effort in comparison to Smart Sharpen.

    I really dislike images that look like they’ve been oversharpened so I tend to make the overall sharpening softer and use the sharpening brushes in PhotoKit Sharpener to bring up the edge contrast in high detail areas. It’s more labor intensive but it gives better results.

  • Shadow/Highlight

    I often apply just a small touch of Shadow/Highlight (around 2-3%) to an image just to recover some highlight or shadow detail. Again, this requires a careful touch as images very quickly look false. If I do bring up details like this, I often use a stronger contrast at the Curves Adjustment set to bring the image back into line.

  • Saturation adjustment with Velvia Vision

    I used to shoot on Velvia slide film almost exclusively and I do like saturated images. It’s the color in objects that draws me to them as subjects so I usually try to recapture the color in the image that I saw originally. Most digital cameras give a slightly flat response out of the box. I use Fred Miranda’s Velvia replicator to boost saturation just a little bit. I normally use the lowest settings I can (10%, for example), just to pull the greens and blues up a bit.

    For some subjects, like portraits and flower photography, I normally miss this step out as the images really don’t need the extra saturation bump.

  • Curves Adjustment

    I also like a bit of contrast in my images so I have a set of contrast curves that I defined that apply a range of gentle S-curves to the image. These usually pull the contrast up and leave the image with a slightly punchier look. Again, this is similar to the effect that shooting on slide film gives.

Finally, I usually convert the image to 8 bit and save the file in my “finished” TIFF archive as a LZW compressed TIFF file.

Finished Archive

I maintain a finished archive of TIFF images in an iView MediaPro catalog. These images are complete except for the final output sharpening step. That way, I can use them for either web or print output without problems (as each of those outputs requires slightly different sharpening).

In order to keep the metadata in sync between my Raw and TIFF catalogs, I use MetaSync to synchronize the two catalogs. This means that I only need to edit the image annotations in one spot (the Raw catalog) which cuts the amount of work it takes to keep information consistent.

Web Export

For web work, I use a Photoshop Action that does the following steps.

  • Fit Image to 640 pixels wide and 640 pixels high.

    This will give me an image that’s 640 pixels on the longest edge, which is the size I use for my web gallery

  • Run PhotoKit Sharpener output sharpener

    I use the PhotoKit Sharpener web output sharpener to sharpen the image once it’s been resized. This restores some relative edge contrast and does make a real difference in the final images.

  • Convert to sRGB profile

    My normal workflow is in Adobe RGB so I convert the image to the standard web sRGB IEC61966-2.1 profile just to be safe.

  • Save image as JPEG

    I like to keep some EXIF and IPTC metadata in the image so I use the “Save As” option rather than the “Save For Web” option to export my images as JPEG.

I normally save the action as a Photoshop Droplet and add it as a helper application to iView MediaPro. This lets me select a load of finished TIFF images and launch the JPEG convertor droplet with them in order to get high quality JPEGs for web use.

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