My Learning Curve - Part 2
5. Digital Workflow and Image Management
By digital workflow I mean the processes that lead to a finished digital image and by the term image management I mean the processes I use to backup, file and generally bring some order to my stock of images. This order allows me to keep my images safe and instantly retrieved or sorted depending on many variables e.g. should there be a requirement to view all my vertical, perched on a dead branch, heron images with a few key words placed into the search parameter of an image database application they can all be instantly displayed copied to a CD, printed or loaded to the web with ease.
Before continuing any further it is important I give full credit to Andy Rouse and his excellent publications:
Rouse, Andy. Digital SLR Handbook. 2005. Photographers' Institue Press.
ISBN – 1 86108 425 0
Rouse, Andy. Understanding RAW Photography. 2007. Photographers' Institute Press.
ISBN – 978 1 86108 515 3
I have based probably 70% of this section on his wisdom and would urge anyone to obtain these books for a fuller explanation and use his experience as a basis for their own digital workflow and image management processes.
If you choose to shoot only Jpeg’s these books also detail some very slick Jpeg workflows, my main focus is RAW and so I have not experimented with them and they are not detailed here.
By way of introduction, the following is a process overview.
Your first task will be to decide whether to shoot RAW or Jpeg images. Having taken you images in the field, making every effort to ensure they are properly focused and exposed (particularly so for Jpeg images), you will need to extract the images from your camera memory card onto your computer. You will then need to process your images in some way to produce the final image. This will need to be saved and backed up and then managed by image database software
I currently use the following software for these processes, each being used at the appropriate time and in some cases using only some of their full functionality:
• Adobe Digital Negative Converter (Adobe DNG Converter) – Free Application
• Adobe Bridge (included in Adobe Photoshop)
• Adobe Raw Converter (included in Adobe Photoshop)
• Adobe Photoshop (I currently run CS2)
• OnOne Genuine Fractals 5.0 – My preferred image interpolation software
• Neat Image – My preferred image noise reduction software, I also use it for image sharpening.
• Backup My PC – Backup Software
The above software are used in the digital workflow process.
• Picasa 3 – Free Google Application, this is my Image database management software.
What I found confusing before I finalised on my own set of processes, was the overlap in tasks that could be done by the various applications. For example many applications could be used to crop, alter saturation, edit etc. But for a RAW process I haven’t yet found one application that will do all the steps well. In other words some software applications are better suited to tasks within the overall process than others and it took me quite a while to figure it all out.
The following sequences occur sequentially and in their order for good reasons which I will explain. I have actually drawn the following as a flow diagram on a piece of A3 paper because it helps me to see the overall process. It may be worth taking time to do the same.
1. RAW or Jpeg?
The whole process starts before you even take an image. You need to consdier what you require from your final images this will dictate whether you shoot RAW or Jpeg. These two file image formats have very different digital work flow processes. RAW images will allow you to make the best quality images possible but:
• The files are big and take up a lot of memory on your camera card and in your image storage system.
• They reduce your camera image burst length and take longer for your camera to process. Camera processing time, burst rate and length may be important to get the shot e.g. action nature and sports photography
• They require digital processing to produce a final image, this takes time and motivation.
I choose to shoot RAW in almost all situations.
2. Colour Space – sRGB or Adobe RGB (Adobe RGB 1998)
If you are not endeavouring to get your final images published or held by a stock agency then it is probably best to use sRGB, this colour space is more suited to home printing and use on the web. If you plan to use your images for commercial printing or agency stock then you will most probably need to use Adobe RGB. I shoot Adobe 1998. Adobe 1998 appears more natural and a little drab compared to sRGB but commercial printers demand it. I would urge you to explore this further if you plan to make your images available for printing or agencies before you make this decision.
A good summary of their pros and cons can be found at:
Link To – Cambridge In Colour
3. Camera Image Settings (Picture Style)
If you have chosen to shoot Jpeg’s you will need to select the settings you prefer for sharpness, contrast, saturation and perhaps colour tone (depending on your camera make). I would take care with selecting to high a setting for any of these, there is the train of thought that says they may be best altered on the PC rather than by manipulating the original image, however shooting them at your favoured settings in the first place and therefore saving processing time may be a worthwhile trade-off for many Jpeg shooters.
For RAW shooters it appears best practice to set all these to zero, you will be relying entirely on digital processing on the PC and want as pure a data as possible.
I also set the numbering setting to continuous. In my later image database management process I personally like to keep some number system with my images rather than all words or letters.
4. Raw and Small Jpeg?
For those with slow computers it may be worthwhile shooting RAW and small Jpeg combined. You can view the Jpeg’s quicker (because of the small file size) on your computer and therefore speed your later initial editing process, step 9.
5. Exposing Your RAW Image to the Left or Right?
When taking you RAW image you may want to consider exposing to the left, to minimise the possibility of blowing highlights when there is limited image review time and chance for taking images until you have the correct exposure. Or to the right, when you wish to reduce noise levels in your image as much as possible and have the luxury of being able to do so without blowing the highlights.
There is insufficient space here to discuss this fully and so I urge you to investigate this yourself.
6. Take Your Image
Take you image ensuring that to the best of your ability and limitations of light etc. it is as sharp and as correctly exposed as possible. This is particularly important with a Jpeg image as more digital processing can be employed with a RAW image than a Jpeg to correct or change your image as you wish without degrading the image significantly. This is one of the main reasons why I shoot RAW only.
7. Editing Your Images ‘In Camera’
Before I download my images to the computer I do a first filter or edit, deleting those images that do not meet my quality criteria.
When editing ‘in camera’ or checking your histograms and image composition on your camera LCD screen it is worth remembering that the very act of turning on your LCD screen heats up the back or your camera and importantly you sensor and can increase image noise levels. I therefore try to minimise my time spent looking at the screen while actually shooting the subject. For wildlife photography I will quickly check the histogram and rough composition and then concentrate on my subject, you want to direct you attention to the subject not the back of the camera to get the best shots. When there is a convenient quiet time I will then review my images checking at maximum magnification for sharpness and deleting any that aren’t sharp regardless of how good it may be otherwise. I then review for other things e.g. delete any experimentation shots that didn’t work and learn from it, delete those I just don’t like.
I try not to be too harsh an editor at this stage, the camera LCD screen is not ideally suited to this task, your computer screen is a much better tool.
8a. Transferring RAW Images to Your Computer
I use a card reader for this task, though you could use your camera and a USB cable (but your computer will need to be loaded with the relevant drive software that came with your camera).
With my memory card inserted into the card reader and linked to my computer I then open up Adobe Digital Negative Converter. This is a free application readily available from the internet. This will convert your RAW images to DNG (Digital Negative Images) files. DNG images are simply RAW images in a slightly different format that is more universally understood by a wide range of applications and has some advantages over the camera RAW image that will become obvious later. There is no difference in image quality between the two formats. I then convert the RAW camera images to DNG images and save them in a file with the following format – Year, Month, Location. The file format helps in my final image database management.
8b. Transferring Jpeg Images to Your Computer
I simply place the memory card in the reader, open up ‘my computer’ on the computer (for Windows XP) and copy paste the images into a file named as per 8a above.
Your images are now on your computer, if you are not going to process them immediately then it may be best to back them up now. This can be as simple as copying and pasting them into a second external hard drive, but you will need to delete them after you have finished all the processes that follow.
I now do my main editing. I open up Adobe Photoshop got to File, click Browse and the Adobe Bridge application opens (after a long wait!).
I then find my new file and do a first edit based on criteria in 7. plus I consider composition and any other filtering criteria.
If I have a number of images that are all identical but I am concerned with picking the sharpest of the bunch I wait until later in the process to delete them.
If you have a slow computer and chose to shoot RAW and small Jpeg’s it is at this stage you would be best to view the small Jpeg’s and delete those that fail your filtering along with their RAW twins.
I then use the Adobe Bridge Label function to assign each image with a star rating (1 to 5) and colour (usually red). The higher the star rating the better I feel the image is and the red ones are the very best.
I then use the star ratings as a further means of consideration for deletion. I usually keep red images and those with 4 or more stars and delete the rest.
By being harsh in my editing I am learning to be selective of my own work and also saving myself time, aggravation and file space later.
I only process further the red labelled images.
If I have chosen to shoot RAW and small Jpeg I delete all the small Jpegs at this stage.
I am now left with only perhaps 5 to 10% or less of images I may have taken in the field at step 6.
10. Delete Images From Memory Card
Once I am happy I have captured all my images onto the computer I then delete all images from my memory card and for good measure reformat it each time just to be sure.
11. DNG Image Processing
None of step 11 will apply if you have chosen to shoot Jpeg’s only
If I have shot RAW and so now have only DNG images that passed editing I will now process the red labelled images. If at any point during this processing I need to stop and get back to it later I will save the images to my backup external drive.
To process the red labelled DNG files I go to each file in tern and open them with the Adobe In Camera Raw application. If I have multiple identicle images I now use the zoom function to find the sharpest image. This is a bit aggravating and time consuming, if I can't see any obvious differences I just pick one and delete the rest with no further thought or time wasting. Within this application and further processes detailed below I am taking only my best images and now investing considerable time on them.
In the In Camera Raw application I will adjust:
• White Balance
• Curves (contrast)
I leave the sharpness and colour noise settings at a default of 25 each. Set depth to 16 Bits/Channel.
I then crop the image using the crop tool and click Done.
The above actions have not in anyway degraded the image data and by opening the In Camera Raw Application I can discard or modify the above adjustments at will.
The DNG file is my digital negative, my original image with the above adjustments laid over it but they are not permanent. My original file is still intact.
12. Add Image Metadata
I will now add the image metadata to each image. Along with the camera data (lens, aperture, ISO, shutter speed etc.) automatically saved at the instant you took your image I will add a copyright notice, author, keywords in the ‘Description Section’, IPTC Contact Data. Use of the metadata template function is useful here for all the above except perhaps keywords (small right facing arrow in top right of the open window).
The Keyword section above is very important for later image database management. I will add (for a wildlife image) species, vertical or horizontal format, behaviour, any interesting points, juvenile/young/old etc.
Therefore with the above metadata keywords and file name you have a large selection of words with which to manage the images later.
A DNG file accepts XMP data (metadata) and it is this XMP data that is universally accepted by all image database management software – another reason for conversion of your RAW images to DNG. Also when you buy the latest version of Canon camera its RAW files may not be compatible with some versions of Photoshop but a DNG will always be supported by Photoshop.
Once I have undertaken this first batch of image processing I then backup all my DNG files - star rated and red labelled. I don’t want to lose the considerable amount of time and effort expended to date!
14. Take a Break!
15. Save Your Best DNG Images as TIFF Files.
After a break I then review my red labelled best images. If I still think they make the grade I will proceed to the next stage, if not I down grade them with a star rating.
For my best images I now open the In Camera Raw function again and save them in the same location with a TIFF file extension. You will see that these files are huge, they are uncompressed files with 16 bits/channel and are the ideal files for maximum quality manipulation in Photoshop (you will not need to do this if you have chosen to shoot only Jpeg’s).
I only save my best (and I mean best) images as TIFF’s.
16. Image Processing Using Photoshop, Neat Image and Genuine Fractals Plug-ins
From the Adobe Bridge application I then right click a TIFF or Jpeg image (if I have chosen to only shoot Jpegs) and open it with Photoshop.
Within Photoshop I undertake the following, in this order, to make sure the image is processed to optimum quality:
• I consider saturation, and exposure one last time and adjust if necessary.
• I use my onOne Genuine Fractals plug-in to interpolate the image, i.e if I had to crop the image in 11 or there is a requirement for the final image to be as high a pixel count as possible I then increase the pixel count of the image using this application which is supposed to be superior (because of the different basis it works upon) to the same function within Photoshop. This is an area very much open to your own investigation and decision. For me I am happy to increase the size of an image by up to 50% a bit wary of increasing it by between 50 and 90% and never increase it by more than 90%. Some agencies will not accept interpolated files. I believe its true to say the sharper your original image the more interpolation it will stand. I don not sharpen the image in this step.
• Next I will review the image for noise using my Neat Image plug-in. I remove noise only if necessary and the minimum I can get away with, this is greatly aided with the Preview function in Neat Image. Removing noise can seriously remove image detail too! I used to be obsessed with removing noise but now try to be more tolerant due to the noise/detail trade-off. I think the most important stage to be considering noise is in your choice of ISO, use the lowest you can get away with at all times, this will usually mean forcing you to use a tripod to get consistently sharp images at 1/60th and above (even with long telephoto lenses), subject movement willing. As Andy Rouse states noise reduction can make fur and feathers look like plastic or man made. I have noticed this in some of my earlier images and see it often on internet images.
• Having removed only the bear minimum of noise acceptable I now look for dust or marks and remove them with the Photoshop Clone tool at 100% to 200% view. I may also clean the image slightly if required e.g. using the clone tool I may ‘repair’ a small defect on a flower petal to enhance the image. I may also ‘clone out’ or use the Patch tool to hide any small distracting items from the composition e.g. a blurred bird in a landscape image.
• I then have one last final review of the image at 100% and sized to fit the screen and make changes if required.
• Lastly, and this is important, it is only at this final stage when I then sharpen the image. I use the sharpen tool in Neat Image, just because it suits me. You could use the sharpen tools in Photoshop. When sharpening I think it is worthwhile investing some time in understanding how to do it properly it can really make or break an image. I would read as much as you can and then practice and experiment for yourself. Whichever means you use to sharpen the image I think it is vital you do it as little as possible. Over sharpened images look terrible to my eye and are not accepted by Agencies or commercial printers. The sharpening tool is not there to make up for sloppy image taking in the first place and will not save the day acceptably in most circumstances. Having said that, all digital images need a bit of sharpening to bring the best out of them detail wise.
17. Save Finalised TIFF and Make a Jpeg Copy
Having finished work on the TIFF file I then save it at 8 bits/channel and then as a Jpeg Copy at maximum quality in the same folder. If I was to then work on the TIFF file at a later date I would open it and change it to 16 bits/channel before making any changes.
I will then backup my files for safety.
For me that is the end of my Digital Workflow. For my best images I have a DNG file, TIFF File and Jpeg file. For my highly rated star files I only have a DNG file which I can spend time on in the future if required.
18. Image Management
You will be pleased to hear the next step is now easy. I simply open Picasa 3 and if it does not capture my new files I instruct it to do so.
My new folders and files will now appear in Picasa. All the Metadata will be recognised by Picasa and be in their Tag system for each Jpeg image (but you will need to add tag information to DNG and Tiff files in Picasa 3). I can now use the Picasa keyword search feature to search for images in a huge variety of ways and therefore manage my images effectively.
I will then 'Star' my Jpeg Copy images in Picasa thereby acknowledging them to be my best images.
For my best images I then save them as web resolution images at 500 Pixels along the longest side and 85% quality using the Picasa Export function and save them in a "Web folder" within the main folder. These images are then ready to use on my website or other internet sites.
I upload the high resolution Jpeg Copy images to my internet sales galleries.
Using Picasa I can now search and select images, print, copy to CD, share them on the web etc.
19. Backup Regime
All my images are contained on an external hard drive. I often review old images and delete as necessary to save file space. I then back this drive up on a weekly basis, or sooner if I have some new important images, to another separate external hard drive using a backup programme (Backup My PC). You could use the Backup tool in Picasa. I am just used to this software. I choose to let the software review all images I have and then to backup any new or changed files. My backup external hard drive lives (unplugged) in a steel filing cabinet away from my computer area.
So there we are my process as a whole. It may seem very confusing to those new to this but in reality if you follow the logic and take each step one at a time, once you have been through it a few times it will become second nature. As stated previously it may help to make a diagram on a large sheet of paper to see it all. But at the end of the day you will have processed your images in the best way possible and be able to manage them efficiently.
In the future it may well be that advances in one or other of the above software applications or others e.g. Lightroom may make it possible to undertake all these steps within one programme. However the steps will still be needed.
Effort at the beginning ruthlessly editing, devoting time to only your best images, indentifying and keeping to a workflow (however yours may work out) will save you time in the long run.