20 Processing Principles for Digital Photography

Atmosphere Understated

Processing can involve many steps, or just a few. I have some favorite procedures, but most of them are optional.

However, I do adhere to a set of processing principles. I think these will work for anyone, with any appropriate software. Every photographer is different, so I can't be certain of that. Use them or not, according to your own purposes.  

1. Calibrate everything. For accurate color, profile the camera, monitor and printer. You can interpret the color image-by-image as desired.

2. Get good data. The camera is for collecting image data. To do that really well: shoot RAW, at maximum bit depth, at the lowest usable ISO, with the sharp parts really sharp, custom white balance and expose to the right if you can. Processing is where you use that data to make the photograph you envisioned.

3. Jpeg is an output format. The jpeg format has serious disadvantages for collecting image data and for manipulating it with software.

4. Convert to .dng and add keywords. DNG is the most future-proof RAW file format we have. In 20 years, the current round of RAW formats may not be readable. It seems much more likely that future software will read .dng files. Keywords will allow you to find the image you want among hundreds of thousands, at least until image-recognition software replaces text for searching.

5. Organize images with collections. Keep images in their original folders and use Collections (or your software's name for this) to organize them into virtual folders. This vastly reduces the need for putting copies into additional folders, and it goes a long way towards making sure you don't lose track of an image.

6. Know your equipment. Knowing your lenses and camera will save lots of processing time. For example, if you already know a particular lens is well-corrected, there's no need to remove distortion.

7. Adjust for some white and some black. Most images look better if they have some full white and some full black. It doesn't take much. Low-key images may not need any white. High-key images may not need any black.

8. Get good tones and you'll have good colors. When you have sufficient contrast and all the tones are placed where you want them, quite often the colors look right too. Never start by amping up the saturation.

9. Look at the reference colors. Regardless of calibration and white balance accuracy, check the grass and leaves, sky and skin tones. If these look right, the rest will probably look right too.

10. Work at 16-bit for as long as you can. Open the file as a 16-bit .tif and work with it as a 16-bit file. Only for an output jpeg should you change it to 8-bit.

11. Work in Pro Photo RGB for as long as you can. This is the main reason for having your file 16-bit. Using this larger color space avoids banding and other problems associated with a too-small color space. Printers with 8 or 10 or 12 inks have a larger gamut than the other color spaces, so if you want to take full advantage of that, you need Pro Photo RGB. Plus, in the future we may have displays that can show the entire Pro Photo color space. You don't want to have to go back and re-do all your processing work to accommodate them.

12. Save as a .tif. The .tif format can be set to save uncompressed, so .tif files save much faster than .psd files. This is less important than it was, because Photoshop CS6 saves in the background.

13. Remove noise early in the process. Plug ins like DeNoise and Dfine are much better at noise reduction than ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) or anything in Photoshop CS6. Noise reduction, if required, is usually my first step upon opening the file in Photoshop. You want to remove noise before doing any small-scale contrast enhancement or sharpening, to avoid emphasizing the noise. A very sharp image helps the noise reduction algorithm distinguish noise from image data.

14. Work non-destructively. Never modify the background layer itself. Instead, use adjustment layers or duplicates of the background layer. This means you need to avoid applying the burn and dodge tools (and similar) to the background layer. It also means any change starting with Image>Adjustments on the background layer is a bad idea. I usually reduce noise and remove lens distortion and deblur on the background layer, but that's all.

15. Check your before and after frequently. It might seem crazy to look at the image as it was before the change you just made, but toggling the before and after really helps you see whether your changes are moving the image in the right direction. In ACR, press the P key to toggle the most recent change. If you go to the Snapshots panel in ACR and press the P, you toggle all the changes up to the current time. I have F13 programmed to toggle the active layer on and off in Photoshop. You can Option-click the eye on the bottom layer to see the before and after of all your layers at once.

16. Take advantage of auto-masking. I've never heard anybody say how much they love to make masks. In ACR, the adjustment brush can be set to auto-mask. In Photoshop, the quick-selection tool tries to figure out what you are selecting (and you can easily make a mask out of the selection). In Nik plug ins, you get the control point system for auto-masking.

17. Don't be afraid to try things. Try cropping, flipping, converting to black and white, or anything else you can think of. It's all reversible, as long as you work non-destructively.

18. If the viewer can tell you modified the image, you've gone too far. Beginners run the sliders out to their limits, or make wild adjustment layers with 100% opacity. Pros do a lot of small adjustments, and when they finish, it looks like the photograph came out of the camera that way. Pros also check the before and after frequently.

19. Subtle adjustments can make a big difference. The overall impression of the photograph changes dramatically with as little as, say, a quarter of a stop of exposure adjustment. Build up a series of subtle adjustments for a big impact. It’s all about what the viewer sees, when they see it, and how much one element takes over or does not take over the image. Tell your viewers what’s important and what is not, so they will understand what you wanted to communicate.

20. Sharpen last. Sharpening early could lead to tears, because subsequent adjustments may turn that nice subtle sharpening into a horror, requiring you to start over. Sharpen at the final size, and according to the way it will be viewed.

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