Focus Your Photo Editing Workflow
If the extent of your photo editing has so far been limited to using preset filters, sooner or later you’ll want to step up your photo editing workflow for greater control over the final results. But with image manipulation programs like Photoshop featuring so many complicated features and tools, it can be difficult to know where to begin.
In reality, though, most photos don’t need a huge amount of work doing to them in order to achieve their full potential. On top of which, many of the intimidating tools you’ll find in photo editing software are not intended specifically for photographers, but are more for designers and illustrators. Consequently these can largely be ignored when editing photographs.
In fact, unless a photo needs complicated comping work (combining elements of more than one file in a single image), the process of editing a photo is nearly always the same; and not especially difficult to master. This short guide to improving your photo editing workflow will walk you through the main steps.
Which Photo Editing Software Should You Use?
Once there were very few Photoshop alternatives available to photographers. Now there are many. For sure, some image manipulation software is easier to use than others. And undoubtedly the better programs provide much more powerful tools. But essentially any mid- to pro-level photo editing software will allow you to get the job done. So use whichever you are most comfortable with and have access to.
In any case, your photo editing workflow will likely remain fairly consistent across all applications. For this reason, in this guide we’ve tried to make as little reference as possible to specific programs, tools, menu paths, or key commands, but instead largely stick to using general terms. This ensures that the advice can be beneficial to all photographers, on all platforms.
If you are serious about photography, you will always shoot your photos as RAW files. JPEGs are by definition compressed files, meaning that they have lost a lot of important information even before you begin working on them. Shooting in RAW format will produce higher quality files and provide you with much greater flexibility to edit your photos. In any case, you can produce JPEGs from your RAW files later if required.
The first - and arguably the most important - step in any photographer’s photo editing workflow, then, is to develop their RAW files. However, because RAW processing software provides numerous controls for adjusting the look of your images (changing color balance, split-toning, or increasing contrast, for example), it can be tempting to do the bulk of your editing at this stage. This would be a mistake.
Your goal when developing a RAW file is not to come out with a near-finished edit of your image, but instead to produce a file that is the best possible starting point for editing. In practice this means creating a file that is, firstly, of the highest quality possible, and secondly, one which offers you the greatest degree of flexibility for editing further down the road. That means retaining as much information as possible.
Although you may have a strong and distinctive edit in mind for a particular photo, making extreme edits at the RAW processing stage will lock you into those decisions. For example, if you push the contrast way up now, it will be much harder to reduce this again without a drop in image quality should you later change your mind about the overall look of your edit. Better to develop the file so that it is just edging towards the ball-park direction of your desired edit, but in such a way as to preserve the maximum amount of information in terms of contrast, detail, color, exposure latitude, etc.
In practice then, you’ll want to adjust Exposure, Darkness, Black Point etc. so that the image is just starting to take on the desired feel, but without losing any information in either shadow or highlight regions. Similarly, even if your final objective is to produce a contrasty image, keep contrast fairly low for now. Likewise, color adjustments you’ll probably want to leave for later, and the Sharpening and Saturation sliders should always remain untouched here.
Beyond basic changes to overall exposure, then, the main edits you will want to make at the RAW processing stage are simply correcting things such as lens distortion and color fringing. If the image is a little wonky and needs straightening, or if you want to crop it, you could also do these tasks now. But that’s about it.
Having processed your RAW file in the restrained manner described above, you will be left with a good solid base on which to begin editing more creatively. Probably the single most important edit you can make to a photo is to change contrast and exposure, so it makes sense to start with these steps.
If you’ve processed the RAW file correctly, your image should now have a fairly average overall exposure. Obviously, though, there will be some areas you’ll want to make lighter or darker in order to improve both the aesthetic balance and visual impact of the image. As with all the edits we will make from here on in, the goal is to make them in an entirely non-destructive manner, so that we are free to tweak or even delete them at any stage later on.
Different programs allow you to make local edits to exposure like this in a variety of different ways. If you are using Photoshop, you should absolutely make these edits by means of Adjustment Layers; for example by creating a Curves Adjustment Layer to change both exposure and contrast at the same time, and then masking areas of the Adjustment Layer where you don’t want it to affect the image. In programs that lack an equivalent to Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers, a workaround can be achieved by duplicating the background and using Layer Masks to apply exposure adjustments only to the desired areas of the image.
The purpose of the “burning and dodging” stage of the edit is to get your image feeling about right in terms of atmosphere, and to make the image more balanced, drawing the eye towards the subject and keeping attention away from distracting areas by darkening them slightly. Just be careful to respect the laws of natural light and don’t get too heavy-handed with your edits; obvious changes to exposure in isolated areas can quickly upset the balance between shadows and highlights, making an image look fake.
Color and Saturation
Once you’ve got the overall exposure of the image looking how you want it, you can move on to adjusting the colors. There are numerous ways of doing this, so before you even begin adjusting the colors, it will help to have a clear idea in mind of your final goals.
If your editing software offers White Balance controls beyond the RAW developing stage, these can be a good place to start. More versatile, however, are tools such as Photoshop’s Color Balance sliders (selectable as an Adjustment Layer), which allow the tweaking of Highlight, Mid, and Shadow areas separately. So, for example, you could add a slight blue cast to shadow areas, while keeping the highlights and mid-tones warm.
In some applications, such as Lightroom, a similar effect can be achieved by using a Split Toning filter, which permits the tweaking of shadow and highlight areas independently of one another (although here you lack the control of the mid-tones provided by Photoshop).
Now that the general color balance is starting to look good, you can move on to making any necessary adjustments to individual colors. For example, you may not be happy with the blues present in the image, and want to make them all a little more aquamarine by adding a hint of yellow. Or certain parts of the image might include overly saturated reds (on a person’s nose or ears, for example) and so you’d like to neutralize these areas so that they don’t stand out so much.
Depending on the program you’re using, you’ll probably have quite a few options here. For increasing or decreasing saturation, the Hue/Saturation controls will be your best bet; these allow you to either adjust overall saturation of the entire image, or to specifically select certain colors (e.g. only the reds) and adjust these independently. For changing the tone of a specific color, the Hue part of the Hue/Saturation sliders will usually be your first port of call. However in some programs you will also have options such as the Replace Color or Selective Color windows, which permit the tweaking of individual colors in ways that differ from the Hue/Saturation sliders.
Just as when editing the exposure, be wary of making overly radical edits to the colors; things can quickly deteriorate into the bizarre, cheap, and ugly if the colors of a photo are pushed too far from their natural origins.
No matter how great a photographer you are, with pretty much any image there are likely to be a few elements that you’ll want to remove from the frame. These can range from sensor dust spots or minor artifacts that came about due to the photo editing workflow itself, to small but distracting details that were present in the original scene, or even major compositional errors and distractions; such as a tree growing out of your subject’s head or a passerby who walked into shot behind.
Whatever photo editing software you use, and whatever retouching tools it offers - for example Photoshop’s Clone Stamp and Healing Brush, or the Spot Removal tool in Lightroom - wherever possible try to do all retouching on a totally separate layer to your background. This way, if you mess up any of the retouching, or later change your mind about it, removing the offending item is as simple as turning the layer off or deleting a small portion of it.
Sharpening increases the relative lightness and darkness between neighboring areas of pixels, giving an impression of greater detail and sharpness anywhere that there is texture or there are lines. Used subtly, this can really improve the quality of a photo, and can be especially useful when an image is suffering from very slight camera shake, motion blur, or even just a lack of definition caused by cheap optics.
The thing is though, photo editing algorithms aren’t yet intelligent enough to differentiate between the kind of pixels where you might want to increase the contrast - such as those making up the features of a person’s face - and those where you don’t; digital noise for example. It’s for this reason that sharpening should never be applied in the RAW developing stage, but instead always towards the end of your photo editing workflow. If you adjust the Sharpening slider as you process the RAW file, the effect will be applied across the entire image, making even defects appear sharper and increasing noise in background areas that lack all other detail.
While you should always apply sharpening only towards the end of the editing process, there are actually two differing ways of approaching this issue. Some people argue that you should do the retouching first, before adding any sharpening; otherwise you may end up sharpening unwanted or ugly parts of the image, making the problem worse. But given that it’s common for the sharpening process to create a few unwanted artifacts all of its own, others prefer to do all sharpening first, before cleaning things up right at the end.
Whichever order you do it in, though, don’t be surprised if you have to return to your retouching layer after sharpening to remove a few extra blemishes.
If you’ve done a good job as a photographer, most photos won’t actually need a huge amount of editing done to them. What’s more, the photo editing workflow essentially remains the same each time. So whichever editing software you use, in most cases all it will take to realize the full potential of your shots is to follow the simple steps outlined above. Happy editing!