There is no one perfect digital image workflow which will fit the needs of
everyone and in many cases an individual may want to use several,
depending on the anticipated use of the images. This tutorial explains
the various options, their advantages and disadvantages.
The grand-daddy and king of editing applications is Adobe Photoshop which
originated in 1990 and is currently in its 11th version, CS4. It works in
conjunction with an organizer application named Bridge and a RAW editor
called Adobe Camera RAW. It allows very sophisticated localized
correction and retouching of images using layers and masks and powerful
transformation functions. It is also the most expensive.
RECOMMENDATION: I've used Photoshop since version 1, but have also used
Picassa, Canon DPP, and Adobe Elements. For a person starting out in
digital I would suggest starting with the supplied Canon or Nikon software
and iPhoto or Picassa to master the basic editing steps before jumping
immediately to the next levels. For a recreational hobbyist wanting
better controls and file organization Adobe Lightroom or Aperture (Apple
only). For more sophisticated users wanting to retouch portraits and
other more sophisticated localized tasks it would be worth making the
financial leap to Photoshop. It comes in two versions, a basic and deluxe
with 3D editing functions. The basic version is sufficient for photo
editing; the more advanced is needed for graphic design work.
RAW vs JPEG?
The first decision which must be made at the time of capture is whether to
shoot in RAW or JPEG mode. In terms of technical superiority and
flexibility of making post-capture corrections RAW format, which captures
the unprocessed sensor data, is the better option. The only drawback with
RAW vs JPEG is the size of the files, but today with faster computers and
economical camera card and hard disk storage that is less of an issue.
RECOMMENDATION: Shoot RAW
Both Canon and Nikon supply RAW editing applications with their cameras
which allow basic modification of exposure, contrast, sharpness and other
"global" adjustments and simple file organization. A global adjustment
is one which affects the entire image. For example brightening a face
will brighten all similar tones and may result in a loss of detail in some
lighter areas. Other basic editing application which are noteworthy are
iPhoto for Apple and Piccasa by Google which are able to open RAW files
and perform basic editing with automated "best guess" functions.
The next level of sophistication are editing applications such as Adobe
Photoshop Elements, Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture. They offer more
control over global editing functions and a basic level of localized
correction ability, plus better file organization methods including
Metadata and search capability.
Editing Colorspace: ProPhotoRGB, AdobeRGB, sRGB?
When opening a file in a RAW editor it must be conformed to an editing
color space, which is a system of numerical designation for each color
value in the file. I'll assume you have read my Color Management Primer
which explains the difference between the three editing gamuts. If you have not, please read
it before proceeding.
The most important criteria for an editing space should be that it larger
than both the three-dimensional monitor and printer gamuts: both can fit
inside of the editing space:
RECOMMENDATION: Take several of your favorite RAW files which contain
bright saturated colors and process for copies identically with the only
difference being one is edited in ProPhoto /16-bit, one in AdobeRGB
/16-bit, the third in Adobe RGB/8-bit and the last in sRGB/8-bit.
Print all four files where you normally get prints made (home or lab)
allowing the printer to manage the color. The driver in the printer will
make all the necessary conversions. If printing on an ink jet print the
test on paper which is brand specific to the printer to eliminate paper
as a variable. Compare the prints to see if you can detect any
difference in quality. Pick the workflow you find is the best compromise
between your color quality needs and the amount of processing overhead and
storage space. Regardless of which workflow you choose I would suggest
shooting in RAW and retaining the RAW files at least for the "keepers"
you want to share electronically or in printed format. That way worst
case will be going back to the RAW file and re-editing I whatever workflow
best suits your future needs.
- If you could only one suitcase and it needed to meet all
your vacation needs you'd want a large one. It might be too large for a
quick weekend trip, but provide the room needed for a two-week vacation.
ProPhotoRGB is the colorspace equivalent of the big suitcase. Technically
speaking its only really necessary if you plan to print your files on a
8/C ink jet printer, but if you have a fast computer and lots of storage
space it is the best choice for working space if you only want to edit the
file one time. The caveat is that it is necessary to work in 16-bit mode
with ProPhoto to avoid banding artifacts (i.e. visible posterization) in
smooth areas like sky and skin and also store files in 16-bit mode, which
requires more disk space and processing time. If you opt to use Lightroom
as an editor ProPhoto is the default color space when opening the RAW
- This color space was created in 1998 to meet the needs of
commercial offset printing and is now smaller than most ink jet printer
gamuts making it less desirable than ProPhoto for editing files which will
be printed on ink jet printers. Choosing AdobeRGB as an editing space is
a big like selecting a suitcase based on what will fit into the truck of a
two-seat roadster: it will be adequate for some files but not for the more
demanding ones. An advantage of AdobeRGB is the ability to store edited
files as high-quality 8-bit JPEGS without risk of banding, which make them
easier to transmit to printing labs via the Internet. Labs serving
professional photographers such as WHCC recommend JPG level 10 for file
transmission. The recommendation is based on the fact it is difficult to
see any difference in final print quality between 8 and 16 bit files in
smaller sizes at normal viewing distances.
- This is the default standard for the Internet because it is similar to the
gamut of most consumer monitors and photo-based printer at Costco and
other similar processing facilities. Regardless of which editing space is
used, if an image is intended for display on a computer at some point a
separate copy most be converted to sRGB so it will look the same on all
computers, but the only compelling reason for editing in sRGB would be to
eliminate one extra editing step, the conversion from a wider editing
gamut (i.e., ProPhoto or AdobeRGB).
File Bit Level:
The files created by the editing application will have
8, 16 or 32 bits used to describe the unique levels of each color. In
binary a one-bit file would have two possible tones per color, white (0)
or black. An 8 bit-per-color file has 256 different tonal gradations in
each color or 256x256x256 = 16.7 million discrete colors. A 16-bit file
has 4048x4048x4048= million discrete colors.
Increasing the bit level of a file makee the transition between
colors more gradual. With low bit levels manipulation of the files can
create visible banding or harsh breaks between tonal areas.
Bit level has nothing at all to do with saturation or size of the editing
gamut. By way of analogy the gamut is the size of the pasture and bit
level a counter of the number of cattle roaming within its borders. An
8-bit file in sRGB has the same number of discrete colors as an 8-bit file
in Adobe RGB or ProPhotoRGB. The difference between them is how far apart
the color values are spaced. On a practical level all you need to know
is that 8-bit files produce acceptable results when editing with sRGB or
AdobeRGB, but because the ProPhotoRGB gamut is so large it is necessary to
also use 16-bit mode to avoid the possibility of banding in subtle tonal
gradients such as sky and skin.
Photoshop (.psd) and TIFF files can be 16 or 8 bit, but JPG is 8-bit
only. JPG does not appear as an option when trying to save a copy of the
file if it is in 16-bit mode. It is necessary to first change the file to
8-bit mode before saving as JPG.
My editing workflow has changed over the years with my equipment. I've used Photoshop
since version one in the early 1990s and still use it. When first switching to RAW files I used
the Canon DPP for RAW global corrections and and Photoshop 7 for selective editing, but after upgrading
to CS3 I've found the Abode Bridge - Camera RAW - Photoshop workflow more convenient. Here are the steps in my workflow:
- I shoot in RAW, setting custom WB using a gray card whenever
possible. Custom WB does not change the actual RAW data, but the settings
are used make the initial display of all files neutral, giving me a
reliable, consistent baseline for making editing decisions.
- Downloading Files:
- My computer is a 24-inch iMac. I download files using a
Firewire CF card reader. The Image Capture application (part of Apple OS
X) is configured to open Bridge Capture when a CF card is inserted.
Bridge Capture allows me to edit the name of the files and append custom
meta-data with copyright information.
- Filing and Review in Bridge:
- Bridge has several different ways to view
and flag photos. During the initial review I will mark files for
retention and editing with 1-3 stars. Bridge then allows me to select
just those files for a next level review. I eventually wind up with all
the files I want to edit marked with three stars.
RAW Conversion in Adobe Camera Raw: Double clicking the thumbnail image
in Bridge opens the file in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). I configure it to
assign the file to ProPhotoRGB / 16-bit working (i.e editing) gamut.
Global Corrections in ACR: While the file is open in ACR I evaluate the
color, exposure and contrast and adjust as required. Since I do Custom WB
from a gray card when shooting the color when opened is neutral, but that
is just a consistent baseline starting point for evaluation. For
portraits I'll often warm up the color balance a bit. A wide range of
exposure, contrast, color and sharpness adjustments can be made in the
ACR. CS4 added the ability to apply them using a gradient so it is
possible to do things like compensate for the fall-off of flash over a
group shot at this global correction stage.
Batch copy Global corrections in Bridge: The changes made in ACR are not
made directly to the RAW file they are stored as meta-data in either a
database or "sidecar" files. One of the more powerful features of Bridge
and ACR is the ability to copy and paste the adjustments made to one RAW
into others. So after editing one file I can copy and paste the settings
into other similar shots.
- Localized Editing in Photoshop:
- What the camera captures is rarely what
I've pre-visualized when taking the photograph because part of my
pre-visualization process takes into account what can be done in Photoshop
to enhance the photo. For example, when visiting a historic site in
Maryland I saw a piece of old farm equipment in a barn and was attracted
by the pattern of the gears. The lighting was very flat and uniform...
... but I knew I'd be able to enhance the contrast during Photoshop with
Candid photos taken with flash have unavoidable fall-off of light
front-to-back but that can be corrected in post-processing with the use of
adjustment layers. A Levels adjustment layer is created as a placeholder
for the mask needed to selectively apply the correction, then the mode of
the layer is changed to screen (to lighten), multiply (to darken) or
soft-light (to enhance contrast). In Photoshop repetitive tasks can be
automated with scripts called "Actions" which record key strokes and mouse
clicks. I created an Action which adds all three adjustment layers with a
The screen shot below shows the image with the adjustment
layers. Note the mask icons on each layer which show where the mask was
opened to apply each effect to the image.
This shows the before and after comparison:
The overall effect is subtle, but that is the way any retouching and
editing should be. My goal is to sub-consciously guide the viewer to the
most important content of the photo with contrasting tone, sharpness,
color, etc. If the retouching is consciously noticed then it is
overdone. For portraits I also do subtle modification to minimize
imperfections or erase a few years using selective cloning and blurring
using another action I recorded which creates the adjustment layers for
- Save Master Edit Copy:
- As you can tell from the description above I edit
most files I display and print. I work on the file un-cropped and don't
sharpen it because different print sizes require different crops and the
need for sharpening varies with printer. So after editing I save a
"Master Edit" copy of the file in Photoshop format. At that point I have
two copies of the file: the RAW and the Master Edit which is still in
ProPhotoRGB / 16bit format.
- Create Copies for printing and web use:
- To make a print or copy of the image for
the Internet I open the Master file (if not still open) crop, then apply
un-sharp masking as needed. As mentioned above the amount of USM needed
varies with image content, size, output method. See my separate tutorial
For prints I resize based on the resolution of the printer and the final
output size. If printing 8x10, 5x7 and 4 x 6 prints of the same image I
will prepare three different print files, one optimized for each size so
the printer will not crop or resize them during printing. I
For web images I resize based on the pixel dimensions I want on the web
page and convert the colorspace to sRGB/8-bit. For many years 800
pixels by 600 pixels (VGA resolution) was a de facto limit for web images.
Users today typically have larger monitors, but a 800 pixel wide page
remains more readable that a wider page so on my tutorial site I still
use 700px wide pages and 600px wide images. When larger images are needed
I use a clickable small image to display the larger one.
For an image where I've edited, printed in several sizes and
resized for the Internet I will have the following copies of the file:
Original RAW file + meta-data sidecar file
Master Edit Copy (ProPhotoRGB/16bit - .psd format)
Print File 8 x 10 (2400 x 3000 pixels - ProPhotoRGB/8-bit Level 10 JPG)
Screen File (600 x 800 - sRGB/8-bit JPG)