For those who shoot RAW, conversion software is an integral and vital part of the workflow. While Photoshop remains as a singularly powerful image processing tool, it always helps to start from a very good baseline. Having a RAW converter that handles color, detail extraction, highlight and shadow recovery and several other image adjustments well is a big plus.
Given the rate at which RAW conversion software is advancing these days, it pays to periodically test several of the leading RAW converters, and occasionally I switch to a different one based on the result of such tests. Over the years, I've converted RAW files with BreezeBrowser, Capture One SE, RawShooter premium, Canon's Digital Photo Professional, Bibble Pro and, most recently, Capture One V4.0. I've also tried (but don't care for) Adobe's Camera Raw and, as a RawShooter premium license holder, my free copy of Adobe Lightroom. Watch the Articles page for a future discussion of what I look for in a RAW converter.
Here in summary form are the adjustments I normally make in the raw converter.
Once converted files are opened in Photoshop, the original converted image becomes the background layer and the original converted file is deleted to save disk space. The first stage in the Photoshop workflow is dust spotting and minor distraction removal, which is done on separate empty layers. Usually this is done with teh Clone tool, but sometimes selections and masking techniques are used. After that, the image post processing workflow consists of routine perspective, lens aberration, tonal, color and filtering adjustments using adjustment layers where possible and regular layers for tools that permanently alter pixels. As a result, processed file sizes tend to run to 300 to 500 MB -- and thank goodness that disk prices are falling!
The following list is a summary of the steps in my normal Photoshop workflow. The list ends in a saved Photoshop file with layers and a web-sized display file with the drop shadow style that I prefer. If a print is desired, the last few steps are modified appropriately to produce a properly sized and sharpened file optimized for printing at the size desired.
Tone and Color Adjustments
My post-processing philosophy is to produce a final product that is as pleasing as I can create from the file captured by the camera. I do confess to liking richly saturated colors, a trend popularized by Fuji'sVelvia. This leads to considerable work in adjusting color and tonal characteristics of original RAW images. In addition to color and tonal adjustments made in RAW conversion, my Photoshop workflow includes a series of tone and color adjustments performed on non-destructive adjustment layers. Masks may be used to handle difficult contrast situations.
Some tools permanently modify pixels, notably lens perspective and aberration corrections, shadow and highlight recovery, sharpening and noise reduction. For these adjustments, a separate layer is created and modified. This step happens twice, once before tone and color adjustment layers and once afterward. In both cases, layer masks are used to allow the effect of the corrections to be locally modified by painting in or out the effect of the adjustment.
For my workflow, the most useful Photoshop tools are the Highlight/Shadow tool and the Hue, Saturation and Lightness tool. Although more and more raw converters are providing something akin to the HSL tool, the selectivity and control available via Photoshop's HSL tool is unsurpassed in my opinion.
Sharpening and Noise Filtering
I incorporate multiple stages of sharpening and noise reduction, each instance of which is applied with a very light hand. In the past, I have followed the recommendation of many others and performed no sharpening during RAW conversion. I also formerly used the multi-stage layer-based freeware product, Pro Sharpening Toolkit by The Light's Right for post-conversion sharpening. This tool can be run as a series of scripts in Photoshop, and it bears at least a modest resemblance to the Photokit Sharpener product now on the market as a plugin for Photoshop. Both implement multiple levels of sharpening, usually described as capture sharpening, creative sharpening and output sharpening. All stages are layer-based and can thus be turned on or off at will.
These tools are outstanding and to some degree represent current state-of-the-practice. However, I have found that the native sharpening capability in Capture One V4.0 does such a good job of developing micro detail without introducing halos and other artifacts that I have changed my sharpening workflow substantially. (Based on limited testing, Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom appear similarly capable.) I now appy a small amount of capture sharpening during RAW conversion, followed by an early weak stage of capture sharpening with Photoshop's Smart Sharpen. Near the end, additional sharpening is applied on a separate layer, with a Hide All layer mask. The mask allows the final stage of sharpening to be painted in selectively and locally at varying degrees of opacity if desired, somewhat analagous to what some tools call "creative sharpening."
For sharpening in Photoshop, I prefer Smart Sharpen because of its built-in halo-fade feature. Since all filtering is done on separate layers, it is effectively non-destructive.
Each time I sharpen in Photoshop, I also run Neat Image with similarly mild settings, usually 50% or less. I have found that, for me, applying a small amount of sharpening and noise reduction multiple times in the workflow provides more control over the final result than a single more aggressive application of these filters. Other photographers may approach the sharpening step differently with equally effective results.
Given the importance of eyes as a point of interest in an image, it often pays to give special attention to that element. It is relatively easy to create a selection that covers an eye using quick masking or other techniques. Once selected, the eye can receive additional sharpening as well as tonal adjustments.
In addition to the above described rather standard and widely accepted adjustments, I also remove minor distractions and make peripheral image repairs, a practice that is less universally accepted. I realize that some may disagree with this approach, but at the very least virtually everyone agrees that image modifications beyond long accepted darkroom techniques should be disclosed. As a result, I always do so.
A useful repair for some images with compositional defects is to add canvas to the image. This only works so long as the background allows this to be done seamlessly. Stitched multi-image panoramas and image repairs other than minor removal of distractions (see below) can also be accomplished -- as well as digital art creations such as multiple exposures, composites, artistically filtered images, etc. Modified images of this nature are always identified as such. Original files are rarely cropped smaller than 3000x2000 pixels -- i.e. a direct print of 6.67x10 inches at 300dpi.
I also use various masking and selection techniques to isolate subjects in order to selectively blur backgrounds -- in effect simulating a shallower depth of field than originally captured.
Occasionally an image element is clipped by the edge of the frame or an unwanted element appears in the frame. Sometimes these images can be saved by judicious repairs. The methods I use to repair such images are taken from a variety of sources accumulated over the years. One of the most useful approaches has been the techniques developed by Robert O'Toole and described in his "how to" guide, "Advanced Photoshop Techniques and Tips Simplified" (APTATS), which may be purchased by following the above link or by directly visiting Arthur Morris' BirdsAsArt web site at the following link: APTATS Purchase.
In the case of image repairs (wingtips, perches, etc.), the degree of repair is always small and peripheral in relation to the primary subject. Repair usually consists of using an element already in the image (e.g. the other wingtip of a bird with one wingtip cut off by the framing of the composition) or incorporation of an element from another image of the same scene and subject (e.g. a portion of a perch cut off by the framing of the composition.)
It should be noted that I never add elements to a natural history image that were not in the original scene unless the image is an obvious composite or some other unambiguous presentation of digital art -- in which case the image is clearly labeled as such. (An example of the latter would be my lunar eclipse composite showing the Moon at various stages during the progress of a total lunar eclipse.)
Some offer rationalizations for modifying images, often comparing Photoshop manipulation with darkroom techniques of an earlier era, but I do so simply because I like the ability to convert "near misses" into pleasing images that remain true to the original subject and environment -- albeit at times a slightly idealized version thereof. Visit the Image Alteration page for a discussion of specific image repairs.
These processing steps have evolved over a number of years. Most are not my original creation but rather have been borrowed from the many talented Photoshop practitioners who are willing to share their skills, creativity and ability to teach. This is no means intended to imply that the above is the definitive workflow, nor is it necessarily right for everyone. Rather, no more is said than that it has proved workable for the tasks I normally undertake.
At least for now. In fact, I continue to make changes to both image processing workflow and toolkit as I come across new tools and techniques. So, don't be surprised if you come back in six months or a year and find that both the order and the content have changed -- in fact, it would be surprising if something hasn't changed!
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