Photographers want to spend most, if not all of their time making photographs. Even though post-processing is a fact of digital photography life, they sometimes shudder at the thought of developing a routine approach to it.
I admit that I once fit into the above category. While I loved making photographs, I was often frustrated by the amount of time spent in the digital darkroom. One day I decided to explore ways in which I could create the images to match my vision at the moment I pressed the shutter, but in less time and with more consistency. An efficient digital photography workflow allows me to do just that without sacrificing flexibility. You can apply the same or similar approach, even if you use different software. It’s not difficult to have a consistent workflow, and the benefits are huge.
When reading about software, the steps can appear to be more complex than they are in practice. But the process described in this article can take under 30 minutes to complete. Sometimes I just use parts of it and in less than 15 minutes I have the photo I want. Read through the steps and try them—the more you do, the less time it will take in the future. I use this every day, and won’t go back to my old ways.
The Basics: RAW Capture and Monitor Calibration
Use the RAW format for your photos. Just about every modern digital camera has this option. RAW images have much more information than JPEGs because cameras strip data from a RAW image to produce the smaller JPEG files. You will have better images at the end of your workflow if you work on photos that have more data.
Periodically calibrate your monitor to ensure that your printed image will be as close as possible to what you see on your monitor as you go through the workflow.
My workflow always begins with Lightroom and Photoshop and includes Nik Software plug-ins, which save me incredible amounts of time. The algorithms and flexibility are nothing short of amazing.
Step 1: Lightroom
Lightroom is the first step in my digital workflow. It has Adobe Camera RAW processing built-in, so you are working with a lot of digital information, not a re- duced-data JPEG. These are some of the key steps that are “musts” for me:
• Import photos from my camera’s CF card.
• “Pick” the photos that I want to keep and edit. Simply click on each photo and press the “P” key.
• Select a picked image, add keywords, and give it some number of “stars” for ease of finding/selecting it at a later time. I use five stars for simplicity.
• Make some edits with sliders to improve the histogram, such as exposure, and getting rid of clipped bright and/or shadow areas.
• Increase Clarity. This eliminates softness in the image which is common in a digital file.
• Make minor edits, such as increasing or decreasing Hue, Saturation and Luminance if necessary. I don’t always do this, since I can use Photoshop and Nik software with more flexibility. It’s there to use and Adobe has added new features in Lightroom with each release.
Figure 1 shows Lightroom’s right-side of the Library panel where you can add keywords.
Figure 2 shows the Develop panel where the sliders are adjusted to improve the histogram and the clarity of the image.
Lightroom helps me prepare images for later stages in the workflow, but there are also other ways to do that (including Aperture or Adobe Camera RAW). All of the edits are “non-destructive,” so I can undo my changes without changing the original photo.
Lightroom also helps me organize my images, and equally important, find them on my hard drive based on the pick and star system that I use. Just know that if you use Aperture or Camera RAW, the Nik plug-in part of the workflow will work with them too.
Step 2: Photoshop
I don’t necessarily use Photoshop on every image. There are times when I will send my Lightroom-adjusted images directly to the Nik plug-ins (this works great). However, Photoshop does allow me to do more complex edits when warranted. Lightroom makes it easy to use Photoshop:
• While in Lightroom and with your edited photo open, select “Edit in Photoshop” from the top Photo menu item. You’ll be presented with some options. Make sure you edit with Lightroom adjustments to include what, if anything you did in LR.
• You now have your image open in Photoshop.
These are some of the things I might use Photoshop for:
• Upsize/downsize an image.
• Use Content-Aware-Fill to take an object out of a photo if it detracts from the image.
• Use layer masks to adjust various parts of the image that I wasn’t able to adjust in Lightroom.
Figure 3 shows the Lightroom-edited image in Photoshop and the use of Content-Aware-Fill to take a distracting part of the wall out of the photo (do this in pieces for best results).
Truth is, with the latest features of Lightroom, and the flexibility with Nik plug-ins, I find myself doing less and less in Photoshop. But the Photoshop step helps me when I use Nik for adjusting my images because each Nik plug-in becomes a layer in Photoshop!
Step 3: Nik Software Plug-ins
I consider using Nik Software as an essential part of my workflow. The plug-ins are fast, incredibly easy to use, and integrate perfectly with the rest of my post- processing approach.
Each plug-in is a separate product, but the user interfaces are so similar that using one of them makes it easy to use all of them.
An important feature of this software is its unique “U Point” technology which allows you to use Control Points to edit selected areas of a photo. This allows you to point to an area on the photo and adjust sliders such as brightness, contrast, structure, etc. to effect only the area that you want adjusted. For example, you can apply a highlight to a face or brighten the eyes without impacting anything else in the photo.
Those well-versed in Photoshop might say that they can do everything that Nik does in Photoshop with layers and its other tools. And there is truth to this. However, everyone is not a Photoshop expert, and even if they are, why not spend a few minutes with Nik instead of more time with Photoshop?
First a summary of the plug-ins and what they are used for, in the order that I use them:
• Dfine: Reduces noise
• Viveza : Selectively controls color and light
• Color Efex Pro: Provides creative effects
• Silver Efex Pro: Creates black and white effects
• Sharpener Pro: Sharpens for type of output (you can also use it on the RAW image).
Now for the workflow, with the photo open in Photoshop:
Reduce Noise With Dfine
Noise is a fact of digital photography life and even with today’s high end high ISO cameras there are times when you will have it. I always want to see if Dfine sees noise, because you might not be able to see it on your monitor.
To check for and reduce noise, select Filter > Nik Software > Dfine. This sends the photo to Dfine (see Figure 4).
You can use Dfine in automatic and manual mode (for more localized noise reduction). The automatic setting works well to reduce noise for a large percentage of my photos, and I use it about 90 percent of the time
If I want/need more localized reduction of noise (perhaps with major color or luminance noise in dark areas of the photo), I’ll use manual mode. This allows me to select areas of the photo, measure the noise and reduce it.
In either case I can compare the before and after image without leaving Dfine. When I’m satisfied, I click okay and the de-noised photo is sent back as a layer in Photoshop. I can do more in Photoshop at this point (including reducing the effect with the Opacity slider, applying Dfine to certain masked areas, etc.)
Control Color and Light with Viveza
I use all of the Nik plug-ins, but I have to say that this one is one of my earliest favorites and I use it on just about every image.
I’m now back in Photoshop and if I decide that some localized adjustments are necessary then Viveza comes to the rescue.
In Photoshop, select Filter > Nik Software > Viveza to open the photo in this plug-in.
I generally begin with global adjustments using the sliders to adjust the whole image. I might change the brightness, saturation, structure (which enhances detail and texture) and other sliders.
The magic of Control Points comes in after I use the global adjustments (Figure 5). Click on the Control Point button, then on the photo in an area you want adjusted, and you’ll see sliders that apply only to that area (you can change the area of influence with the size slider). I’ll use Viveza to darken areas of an image, reduce brightness and increase contrast in skies, and even create a focal point for the image while adjusting depth of field.
After doing my before and after comparison, I send the photo back to Photoshop on its own layer.
Creative Effects With Color Efex Pro
If I want to do some color enhancements or apply a creative effect, my go-to plug-in is Color Efex Pro. This plug-in has tons of preset filters, including these out-of-the-box favorites of mine (you can create your own favorites with your unique adjustments, too):
• Pro Contrast
• Tonal Contrast
• Darken/Lighten Center
• Detail Extractor
By the way, the Detail Extractor is new with Release 4, and can give you an “HDR” type effect, although Nik’s HDR Efex Pro is more full-featured.
For each filter you can make further adjustments and while the presets are good starting points, I never leave Color Efex without applying my own style with the sliders (which offer different options depending on the preset). With Release 4 of the plug-in you can add filter upon filter before going back to Photoshop.
I also apply these filters to different areas of the photo with the same Control Point technology discussed earlier.
Figure 6 shows the image in Color Efex after applying the Tonal Contrast and Darken/Lighten Center filters. As usual, I do my before and after comparison, and when satisfied, I send the photo back to Photoshop.
Sharpening for Print
As a last step in the workflow I generally use Nik’s Sharpener plug-in. Most digital images need a little sharpening before printing. This program lets you sharpen based on a number of variables, including the type of printer and even your estimate of the distance that the photo will be viewed from (Figure 7).
Black & White Photography With Silver Efex
If I want my image to be black and white I use Silver Efex Pro. Silver Efex is so good that I use it for almost every photograph I want to convert to black and white. The plug-in uses the same style of interface with presets on the left and fine adjustments on the right side.
When thinking about black and white, there are at least two important things to remember:
• Always shoot in color (don’t do black and white in-camera). This is important when using Silver Efex.
The plug-in uses the color in the file to provide the best effects.
• You can always try Silver Efex in the workflow, since it too creates a layer in Photoshop. You can adjust or delete it if you prefer the color version.
One interesting feature is the ability to make a photo black and white, while bringing out color in parts of the photo using Control Points (Figure 8).
The final step is to print your work of art!
I save the photo in Photoshop, which sends it back to Lightroom. There I can always do more editing, have the photo in my catalog for printing, send it to the web or in an email, and with version 4, create a book.
I’m a fan of printing from Lightroom so this final step is important to me. I save the file in a Lightroom collection, so I can easily find it and print it again and again.
Your process may be different than mine, but the most important thing is to have one. Once you create your workflow you will begin to see the benefits very quickly. One last point. I have found that the above process works so well for me, that I regularly use it on photographs that I took years before deciding on the workflow. Maybe you will too.