38 Useful Photoshop Processing Steps for Digital Photographs
Updated February 25, 2013
No one can teach what you need to do to your photographs in processing. However, I can show what I do to mine, in order to get what I want. You'll have to adapt your process from there.
Below I describe my favorite processing techniques. Some steps I do each time while others are optional.
You may also want to read my 20 Processing Principles.
I learned most of these methods from online webinars, wherein an expert goes through the steps he or she uses on a RAW file to make a photograph. Free online training from experts is, so far, one of the greatest things about the 21st century.
I suggest you do something similar: gather techniques from various sources, try them out, and decide which work for you. Then write your own online list of Photoshop techniques for the next guy.
I mostly describe what I do, and leave you to look up how to do it. For example, if you don't know how to make an adjustment layer, just search on "adjustment layer photoshop."
I know for sure my list of favorite methods will change. If you'd like to tell me about your favorites, let me know about a new plug in, or challenge my assumptions, contact me.
:: Importing Your RAW Files
The point of these steps is to stay organized enough to save time later.
1. Download and convert. In Photo Downloader, which comes with Photoshop, import the RAW files from your camera to a new folder named after the shoot date (like 20121201) and convert to .dng in one step.
2. Rename folder. Add some words to the new folder's name, such as the location or event. This helps you find a folder quickly. I keep all my day folders separated into year folders, too.
3. Keyword. Add keywords to the .dng's. Adobe Bridge has a great way to do this. You only need enough keywords to let you quickly find the image later. I find I don't need to be extremely specific.
4. Quick review. Go through the folder to see if you really got what you thought you got, and as well as you thought you got it. Check that focus, exposure and framing were right. This is feedback for your shooting skills. It hasn't anything to do with processing.
5. Wait. Wait at least 2 weeks before addressing these photographs again. You want to forget the circumstances and see the photographs only for what they are. This helps you edit (choose the best) more objectively. For me, capturing photographs is a completely different task from editing and processing. At the same time, knowing what you can do in processing will improve your capture success.
:: In Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom
Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Lightroom have many functions in common. These steps work on the RAW image itself, but all the changes are saved as instructions rather than pixel modifications. Therefore all of them are non-destructive. The more you can do in ACR or LR to get the photograph you wanted, the better.
1. Set profile as default. You profiled your camera, right? So open a photograph you shot with that camera, set the camera profile on the Camera Calibration panel, and then make it the default. If you use only one camera profile, you need only do this once.
2. Straighten and crop. If your lens was well-corrected, or if your ACR or Lightroom has your lens data to correct distortion, you can use the lens tab tools. Otherwise, it's better to do that in Photoshop after correcting distortion in PTLens.
3. Try "auto." Click the Auto link or button. This sets your white and black levels, often pretty close to what you would have chosen.
4. Set whites. Hold down the Option/Alt key and adjust Exposure until you have just a little white, or just a touch darker than that.
5. Set blacks. Hold down the Option/Alt key and adjust Blacks until you have just a little black. Skip this if you are making a high-key image.
6. Manage midtones and overall contrast. Now bounce around between the Highlights, Whites, Shadows and Contrast sliders to put the tones where you want them. There's no real recipe for this, but maybe going from Contrast to Highlights and so on (top to bottom) will work for you.
7. Check white balance temperature and tint. Is it too warm or cool? Is it too green or magenta? I have the best success adjusting by eye, rather than using the dropper white balance tool.
If you lack confidence in eyeballing color, set a custom white balance before you shoot, in each new lighting situation.
Or take one frame of the color checker chart. Open that image along with all the others with the same lighting situation at once in ACR. Use the eyedropper White Balance tool on the gray patch. Then Select All and Synchronize white balance.
8. Clarity. Add as much as +10 Clarity, but keep this at zero if you shot at a noisy ISO. Many people set negative Clarity for a dreamy portrait.
9. Color adjustments. On the color adjustments panel, choose Luminance and then the Targeted Adjustment tool. Fix your sky by clicking on it and dragging down. Maybe increase the saturation a bit by changing to the Saturation panel and clicking and dragging up. This works well because it retains the relationship between Cyan and Blue, without you having to fiddle them both.
10. Tweak a hue. Sometimes I change the Hue of a color on the color-adjustments panel, if when I'm done it still looks real and I like it better.
11. Fix chromatic aberration and vignetting. Do this step if you cannot correct for lens distortion automatically. The reason is that ACR does a better job with chromatic aberration and vignetting than PTLens.
Zoom in really close on a contrasty edge in a corner. Then on the Lens Corrections panel, remove the color fringes. Hold down the Option key while you adjust the red/cyan and blue/yellow sliders. Change the view to Fit in View and adjust the sliders to remove any vignetting.
12. Remove dust spots or very small birds with the Spot Removal tool.
13. Darken a sky with the Gradient Filter tool. Now, see, you didn't need a graduated ND filter for that.
14. Add a subtle vignette. You may want to finish the image off with Post Crop Vignette.
:: In Photoshop
1. Save with a version letter. Open the image in Photoshop, from ACR. Save as the original filename plus "_m" as a .tif, like "_DSC4432_m.tif" The m stands for "master" and in the end this file will be your finished photograph with all the layers, ready to get optimized for screen or print.
2. Reduce noise with your favorite plug-in. I use Topaz DeNoise, but if you'd rather be able to reduce noise selectively in the image, Nik Dfine is probably what you want. The idea is to remove the noise but not the detail. Low-ISO images may not need any noise reduction. Some people have good success with the noise reduction built into Lightroom and ACR.
3. De-blur with Topaz InFocus. If you need to do this, always do it after noise reduction. This counteracts lens blur to some extent. I find it works great with a strength of 1.0 on images taken with the Nikon 12-24mm. Deblurring is not the same as sharpening. Sharpening is just a special kind of contrast enhancement. Topaz InFocus actually deconvolves the image, reversing what the glass did to blur it, and/or the blurring you get from diffraction (small aperture on high-MP camera).
4. Correct lens distortion with PTLens. Maybe someday cameras will correct lens distortion and save the change in the RAW file in such a way that Adobe software can read it. But until then, this inexpensive plug in works great. The lens correction in LR4 or ACR 7 works well too, if your combination of camera and lens are in the database.
5. Crop. If at this point you want to crop, set the Crop tool to 3:2 to maintain the original shape. Otherwise just use it unconstrained. If you've been able to correct lens distortion in Lightroom or ACR, use the crop tool there.
6. Clone to a separate layer. Rather than change the background layer pixels, first add a new layer and call it "clone". Change the clone tool settings to "Current and below". Be sure you are on the "clone" layer and go to work. The cloned changes will be on the new layer, but visually merge with the background layer. This makes it easy to start over by deleting the clone layer, to erase part of it and try again, or come back and do a better job in 6 months after you've practiced cloning some more.
7. Handle the contrast overall. You can do this with a Curves layer set to Strong Contrast, or by duplicating the background layer and setting the blend mode to Overlay. Either way, adjust the opacity of the new layer to avoid applying too much of the effect. Nowadays I use the Pro Contrast filter in Nik's Color Efex 4 instead.
8. Handle the contrast on smaller scales. On a duplicate of the background layer, do Filter >Unsharp Mask with the sliders set to punch up the smaller scale contrast. Try 20%, 50, 0 and fiddle it from there. Nik's Tonal Contrast filter is another good option, or maybe the structure control in Nik's Viveza.
9. Handle the contrast in the darks, midtones and lights. You can do this with Curves layers set to restrict the effect to certain tonal ranges (tricky), or with the Shadow/Highlight adjustment on a duplicate layer, or with Nik's Tonal Contrast filter.
10. Black and White for tones. For another way to adjust tones, put a Black and White adjustment layer over the background layer. Set the adjustment layer blend mode to Luminance. Now you can adjust tones with the sliders, at least to the extent they are divided into colors. This method totally rocks when you use Nik's Silver Efex Pro, then change the new layer to Luminosity blending.
11. Masked curves. The most flexible way to adjust tones is with Curves layers and masks. You first try to select the area to change, then Refine the selection edge with a feather of maybe 2-5 pixels. Then add a Curves layer and make your light/dark adjustments. The adjustments will only apply to the selected area.
12. Individual colors. To make fine color changes, try a Hue/Sat adjustment layer. First choose which general color, such as Blues. With the plus dropper, select the color you want to change.
13. Vibrance. To give the colors overall a bit more jump, use a Vibrance adjustment layer. Negative vibrance is sometimes useful to bring down excessively bright colors without affecting the rest.
14. Color correction. If there's a color cast, try a Photo Filter adjustment layer. Just choose the color opposite the cast (greenish? Choose magenta). Swipe the amount number and use the arrow keys to step it up or down to find the exact right color correction. Mask it so the correction only applies to the part of the photograph with the color cast, such as the blue shadows on a portrait taken outdoor in sunshine.
15. Merge all to a new layer. Sometimes you want to make a change that applies to a stack of layers at once. Hold down Option while doing a Merge Visible. This adds a new layer with everything below incorporated.
16. Emergency measure. If everything has gone wrong, sometimes you can save an image by putting on a Curves layer and clicking the Auto button. Try each of the auto options to see if one looks better than another. This is really more useful for a gawdawful jpg someone has sent you, or for that really old family photograph you want to spiff up.
17. Add a vignette by first selecting the stuff that will be surrounded by the vignette. Invert the selection. Add a Curves layer and darken. Now while you are still on the mask, blur the bejeebers out of the mask with Filter > Blur. Adjust the size (Command/Control-t) and darkness (opacity) to suit your purposes. This way has more flexibility than the Post Crop Vignette, because you can select to darken more of a bright edge and less of a dark edge, evening out the overall look.
18. Make actions and use Batch. To avoid the tedium of repeated steps, record an action. It's well worth your time to figure this out. With an action recorded, you can then create a Batch process to do the same thing to a whole folder of images.
:: Output Files
At this point you have a finished master tif. Now in order to show it, you must non-destructively optimize it for the intended output type and size. Each method below starts with saving as a slightly different filename. I always keep the first part of the filename the same, so that all the versions fall together when sorted by filename. This way I can see quickly if I already have a screen version, or if I need to make one.
For screen output, I first save as _s.tif, flatten, convert to sRGB and then downsample to 8 bits and save again. Then from the _s.tif file I resize to the final output size with Bicubic, sharpen with USM (radius 2px, 30%, threshold 10) and Save for Web as a jpg with High quality, copyright metadata and no embedded profile. Or, if you have Nik's Sharpener Pro, choose the options for screen and it will take the size of the image into account.
For printing, I save the master as _pml.tif, for "print master luster (the paper type)", flatten and then soft proof with my profile for that paper. Usually the out-of-gamut colors are handled well, so I don't need to do anything else. I save the _pml as _pml_12x8 (for the print size) and resize that before sharpening with USM (radius 2px, 100%, threshold 10). For printing at a size larger than the original, try OnOne's Perfect Resize. It enlarges and sharpens appropriately all in one step.
I like to sharpen with Nik's Sharpener Pro for prints, because it removes the guesswork.
For Blurb's PDF-to-Book process, I save the master as _bm.tif, flatten and set the soft proofing to Blurb's profile. Normally the rendering intent takes care of out-of-gamut colors, but check this each time.
Then I duplicate the background layer, set that new layer to Soft Light, opacity to 24%. Then I Select > Color Range > Shadows and refine the selection edge by feathering 5px.
Next I do Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection. This compensates for the difference between RGB and CMYK in a mysterious way.
Next I flatten again, convert to Blurb's profile (which also changes the color model to CMYK) and downsample to 8-bit. Resize and sharpen the same as for printing locally. Save as a jpg, maximum quality, profile embedded. Now it can go into a Blurb book template in InDesign and look great printed.