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12 - My Workflow

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I shoot RAW, always, unless I know as an absolute certainty I won't be using any of the images professionally. If I'm just out for a walk and shooting for a blog post, okay, I'll sometimes shoot jpgs, but even then, most of the time I'll still shoot RAW.

First thing I do is open a RAW file in my RAW editor. I use Photoshop Elements. In fact, it isn't even the latest PSE, I use PSE15, which serves me exceptionally well. Here is what a new RAW file looks like when I open it in PSE15.


Yep, you guessed it, most images straight out of the camera, especially in high contrast situations, are total rubbish. If I'd exposed correctly for the sky, the beach would be blocked up in black shadow. If I'd exposed correctly for the beach, the sky and the sea would have been blown out completely. I've exposed somewhere in the middle, to make the image as bland as possible.

If I'd shot this as a jpg, my camera's computer would have binned all the colour information in the sky and processed it as white. All the RAW information would have been discarded and the photo would have been only fit for the recycle bin.

The only thing I do in my RAW editor is adjust the image to bring detail back into blown out highlights and blocked up shadows. You do that using the simple sliders. Auto can work really well, so I always check that first and usually start from there. By sliding the Highlights and Whites sliders I can bring detail back to the sky, and using the shadows slider I can bring detail back to dark areas. I also usually adjust the clarity, vibrance and saturation sliders. Don't overdo things here. Always err slightly on the side of caution. I don't use the sharpening tools in my RAW editor, as I have excellent sharpening tools both in PSE15 and in my plugins. Sharpening is usually the very last thing you do with an image, not the first, so I never sharpen RAW files at this stage.

When adjusting sliders, keep an eye on the two little black icons top left and top right in the histogram. If they're both black, it means you have no lost detail. If either of them change to white, you have lost detail in either the shadows or the highlights. This is the primary reason for shooting RAW and using a RAW editor. Get both of those icons in the histogram to black! If you want to know what I'm talking about, check the histogram in the first image above.


Once I have a workable image, I then open the file in PSE and save it as a tiff. Tiffs are non lossy, so you can work on them for years without losing any image quality. Never work on jpgs. When your image is finished, save the tiff and then make a jpg copy from it. If you ever work the image again, open the tiff and when you're done make another jpg copy from it. Always work on tiffs, never jpgs. Jpgs are compressed images and they degrade in quality very quickly if you rework them and save over them.

Next, I check horizons, horizontals and verticals and use the straighten tool if necessary to straighten the image. When you've done that, you will need to crop the image back to its original proportions, in this case 4 x 6.

The next stage of my workflow is to check the noise and fix it if it needs it. I use Topaz Denoise as a plugin to PSE, and it is fabulous at taking noise out of images, especially those blue skies, without losing detail. Whatever works for you is the key, but for me, Topaz Denoise is all I'll ever need.

The next step for me is to use the heal brush in PSE15 and take birds out of skies that would look like black specks on a print, sheep out of fields in the distance that would like white specks on a print, that sort of thing. The PSE15 heal brush is rather good. Always keep the heal brush as small as possible, just enough to cover the specks you're removing.

That's basically all the techie stuff done, some images require more than others, but in this particular image, nothing more was needed. I then took the image into Topaz Adjust to play with the colours and contrasts, and found the HDR Brightness preset did a magnificent job for me. Photoshop will do the same work, but you need a PHD to be able to figure out how to use it. Topaz give you presets and often you only need one click to get it right. Once I have my image, I give it a slight sharpen, usually no more than 30 using the UnSharp Mask tool in PSE, save the full sized tiff and make a jpg copy from it. Here's my final image as a jpg resized to 1000 pixels wide for internet sharing.


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