Please note that this is a copy of my workflow from 2010. Whilst it is largely the same as the one I use now, I will be updating this article throughout February 2015 to show how I now work.
One of the most important parts of developing your photography is in creating a standard workflow which you can follow, and learn to build upon when you process your images. This will help you develop a certain consistency, and when the basics become second nature, you will feel more confident in your ability to do justice to the images you capture in the field.
I would like to point out at this stage that post-processing will not be able to make up for shoddy camera work. It is merely a way of fine tuning your creative vision, and creating a high quality output file from the digital RAW file, whether that be for printing or for web display. If the image is soft and poorly exposed, forget it – you won't be able to create the technically high quality work you should be striving for. So, keep the tripods steady, and the highlights in check!
Over the past few years, I have tried using many software packages to process my images. I have also experimented with many RAW conversion software programs. Invariably though, I always come back to Adobe Photoshop with its Camera RAW plugin. The RAW conversion plugin is very straightforward, and the quality of the output TIFF or JPEG files is top-notch.
I am sure that a lot of you reading this article will also be Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Camera RAW users, so I will attempt to describe my workflow to you. I make no claims that this is the best way to do things, as I am sure it is a process I shall refine over the coming years of my photography journey. However, currently I am very happy with the print and web outputs which it helps me create, and I hope you find it useful.
Finding and opening your RAW file - Adobe Bridge
Fig. 1 shows the Adobe Bridge window. This image browser comes with Photoshop, and is a great way to browse through your photographs. If you choose to use Adobe Bridge to open your RAW files from, there is one setting I recommend you adjust. When Bridge is open, go to the the following menu option, Edit > Camera RAW Preferences, and ensure that 'Apply auto tone adjustments' is not selected. This will prevent Adobe Camera Raw from automatically adjusting brightness, contrast etc when you open a RAW file. This will prevent you from inadvertently opening a very under-exposed image, which Camera RAW would automatically 'brighten.' This would cause very high levels of noise in the image, and would make a poorer quality print than a properly exposed image.
Navigate to the folder which contains the RAW files from the photo session you want to work on, right-click on the photograph you wish to process, and select 'Open in Camera Raw...'
The Adobe Raw window
Fig. 2 shows my selected image loaded up, with the Camera RAW default settings applied. In terms of overall brightness and contrast, this is very similar to the result which would be achieved if I had shot JPEGs with the camera, rather than RAW.
I had intentionally dialled in about -0.5 stops of exposure compensation when I took the photo, to prevent the whites in the waves burning out. The image looks a little dull, flat and lifeless at this stage, and does look like the scene I photographed.
On the right hand side of the Camera RAW window, there are several tabs below the histogram. I don't use all the tabs, but below I will give you the information on the ones I do. The first, and most important tab, is the 'Basic' tab (Fig. 3).
The first step here will be to set the white balance. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to white balance, and you should experiment with different settings. I normally switch between 'as shot' and 'auto,' and find that these two generally produce the best results. Another option is to use the white balance eyedropper tool to click on an area which you feel should have a neutral tone, such as the whites in the water, a grey cloud etc. In this case, I was happy with the cameras choice of white balance, so I won't make any changes.
Below the white balance tools, you will see the exposure slider along with several others. I have found that the Adobe 'auto' settings button normally works very well for landscapes, when combined with manually adjusting the 'Recovery' slider to between 20-50%. This seems to produce a nice bright image, with the recovery slider keeping rogue highlights under control! However, even if you are happy with the automatic settings, I suggest you experiment with the sliders, as your eye is a better judge than any piece of software!
At the bottom of this section we have the clarity, vibrance and saturation sliders. I always keep these at zero, as I prefer to apply these sorts of adjustments in Photoshop itself.
Fig. 4 shows the results after making adjustments in this first tab.
'Tone Curve' Tab
This tab (Fig. 5)contains 2 sub-tabs, 'Parametric' and 'Point.' Under the Point tab, I will always select 'linear' from the drop down menu. While this lowers contrast, I much prefer being able to add more contrast in Photoshop itself if I need to. I will describe how I do this later in the article. However, by lowering the contrast prior to converting to JPEG/TIFF, we are giving ourselves more shadow and highlight detail to work with.
I do not usually use the Parametric tab sliders, but you should feel free to experiment. They are sometimes useful for controlling very high contrast scenes, and for helping to retain sky detail when the sun is visible in the photo.
I never sharpen in Camera RAW as I prefer to do all my sharpening in Photoshop itself. I don't believe that sharpening during the RAW conversion brings any benefits to landscape photographers, as it is a destructive process. In my view, any narrow halos it creates will just be made worse when I increase contrast and saturation in Photoshop.
'Lens Corrections' Tab
The 'Chromatic Aberration' section of this tab (Fig. 7) is a vital step in any photographic workflow. No lens is perfect, and depending on a number of factors, you may see some colour fringing along high contrast edges. With landscapes photographs, this often occurs along the horizon line, and where trees etc meet the sky. Throughout your time as a photographer, I am sure you have taken a photograph from below a tree, looking upwards at the branches with a bright sky behind them. That eerie blue/purple glow you may have seen along the edges of the branches was chromatic aberration!
To use this tool, zoom in to 100% along a high contrast edge such as the horizon, and play about with the sliders until any colour fringing you see vanishes. From the 'Defringe' drop-down menu, I usually select 'All edges.' The result is hard to describe, so try out the different options for yourself while viewing the image at 100%.
I do not use the lens vignetting slider, so I recommend you leave this one set to 0.
This concludes the section of the article on Camera Raw. I have not mentioned some of the tabs which are available, as I find that they are not useful in my workflow. Some of you may be wondering why I do not use the 'HSL/Greyscale' tab to apply selective colour saturation, and to control hues. The answer is that this is purely personal preference. I prefer to do such things in Photoshop as I like to have the extra control using layers and masks gives.
Transferring the image to Photoshop
Fig. 8 shows the export settings window which is accessed at the base of the Camera RAW window. I always work in the sRGB space, although depending on your own needs you may wish to investigate the other options. I always work in 16 bits/channel mode, as this provides a higher quality output, and is more tolerant to adjustments in Photoshop. As an example, it will allow for more subtle tonal graduations in skies. Ensure that your size is set to your native camera resolution (in my case the Canon 30D is 8.2MP), and that you will be exporting at 300 pixels/inch.
At this stage you can choose to save the 16 bit TIFF file to your hard disk, or export the TIFF directly into Photoshop. I don't bother saving a TIFF at this stage, as it is just a straight RAW conversion which I can do at any time. Adobe Camera RAW will save all the changes I have made providing I click 'Open image' or 'Done,' rather than 'Cancel.'
So, I always hit the 'open image' button, and move into Photoshop...
Working in Photoshop
So now we have the image in Photoshop, as a 16 bit TIFF. Even at this small size, we can see that the image has one major problem, the horizon. The wide angle lens has caused some distortion, and the horizon is curved. Also, the colours are dull, and the image is not what I would describe as complete.
Creating working layers
I always add 5 layers to my original background layer, as shown in Fig. 10. I work from the bottom of the stack, upwards. The distortion layer is just a duplicate of the background layer, and the top 4 layers are all adjustment layers, which you create by selecting them via the button circled in the screenshot. Also, please pay attention to the blending modes I have selected for each layer.
Listed below is an outline of what each is for, and how to use it.
Distortion correction & horizon fix layer
So starting at the bottom of the stack, the first thing to do is to remove the distortion created by the lens, and then to ensure the horizon is level. This layer is just a duplicate of the background layer, with the default 'normal' blending mode.
To remove distortion I use a program called PT Lens. It costs $25 at the time of writing this article, and is an absolute bargain. I use the plug-in version, and fig 11 shows the PT Lens dialogue box. The plugin automatically detects the camera you used, the lens, the focal length, and corrects your image automatically. Don't worry about all the other options, as the default settings correct what we landscapers need... just hit the OK button, and the job is done.
To access the window in Fig. 12, you need to follow the following menu path in Photoshop: Filter > Distort > Lens Correction. Hide the grid by unchecking the 'Grid' box, and select the 'Straighten Horizon' tool, as circled above, perpendicular to the horizon. Another option is to turn the grid back on, and use the angle tool in the bottom right of the Lens Correction window to make small adjustments to the image.
In both cases you will see a white background appear behind the image at two of the corners. Hit the OK button, and return to the main Photoshop window. At this stage we need to crop our straightened and distortion free image out of the rotated layer. Before you do this, hide the background layer by clicking on the eye button beside it in the layers box. You will be able to see the white background, and this will make it easier to crop the image you want.
Once you have cropped, you can start to work up through the other layers you have created...
Hue/Saturation adjustment layer
Selecting each colour in turn, from the drop down menu, adjust the sliders to taste. For this image I increased the saturation of the reds, yellows, cyans and blues. When you are happy with your changes, click OK and view the image at 100%. Have a good scan around the whole image, making sure you have not introduced any strange artifacts from your saturation changes. As this is an adjustment layer, you can go in and change your settings as needed. Concentrate on the saturation slider, and I recommend you do not touch the hue and brightness sliders. I also recommend you do not move any of the sliders while the 'master' option is selected from the drop-down menu. You will have much more control when you change each individual colour.
Selective Colour adjustment layer
The use of this adjustment layer is optional. In my opinion it is one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop. There are no rules for using this tool, just get in there and play around with the sliders, watching carefully what each does. If you are working on several images from the same shoot, it may be worth saving your 'colour recipe' from the first image, and then loading it into this adjustment layer on your other images. This will allow you to maintain some consistency from image to image.
Curves adjustment layer
I only use the curves adjustment layer to slightly increase global contrast in the image. The way I like to do that is by clicking on the line in 2 places, and dragging them to create this very shallow S-shape, as shown in Fig. 15.
Levels adjustment layer
This layer is optional. If you have worked with a well exposed initial image, and followed the steps of this workflow carefully, you should have a pretty good histogram. However, just to finish things off, drag the right and left hand sliders just below the histogram inwards, so they just touch it. Ideally you will have to move the right hand slider inwards just a tiny bit, as this shows you have been working without clipping your highlights. The left hand side of the histogram may already extend to the edge of the box, and if this is the case then leave the left hand slider where it is.
So you have worked your way through all of the adjustment layers, and you should have an image you are quite pleased with. At this stage you may want to add some new adjustment layers with masks, to target the colours and brightness of specific areas in the image, or you may want to change some of the layers you have already been working on.
Or if you are ready to save and export your work, move onto the next section...
Saving and exporting your work
Keeping the layers intact
If you think that you may wish to come back and edit the adjustment layers in the future, you will need to save the file as a .psd file. This will allow you to come back and load up the image exactly as it is now. This is a particularly useful way to be able to make adjustments after printing, if you discover you are not completely satisfied with the finished product. However, this will be a big file which you may not need again. If you think you don't need it, flatten the layers and move on...
Creating a high resolution, unsharpened master file
I recommend you save this file in TIFF format as you will not lose quality when you open the image in the future due to repeated compression of the file.. If you wish to save master files as JPEGs due to disk space considerations, you must first convert it to an 8 bit file: Image > Mode > 8 bits/channel. Be sure to save this at the top JPEG quality (12).
Creating a sharpened file for the printer
Whether you print at home or in a lab, you will want to create an appropriately sharpened TIFF or JPEG file. When creating this file, I recommend you work on a copy of your master file so you do not inadvertently save some of the changes you make during sharpening.
For all my sharpening for print needs, I use the TLR Professional Sharpening Toolkit. Preparing an image for print is an article all on its own, and it can be done so many different ways. Therefore, I will leave you to do your own research on that... although the link I have just given is probably exactly what you need.
Creating a file for web display
Again working on a copy of the master file, try the following steps for producing a sharp image for web display, it seems to be the one used by Marc Adamus.
- Set the longest side to 3 times the length of the web file you want to create e.g. if you want an image 500 pixels on the longest side, set that side at 1500 pixels to begin with. Use the Image > Image size menu option in Photoshop.
- Run the sharpen filter 3 times using the Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen option in Photoshop.
- Reduce the longest side to the desired length for web display.
- Use the 'Save for Web & Devices' option in Photoshop to create your JPEG. Be sure to use the settings shown below in Fig. 17.
Below you can see the image I created for web display following this workflow, and below this again you will see the file created from a RAW conversion using Adobe defaults, with no work in Photoshop.