Workflow

I get two questions regularly:

1. “What camera should I buy, or should I buy X or Y?”
2. “I have the same equipment as you. How do you make your images look the way they do? Why can’t I do it?”

I’m not going to address the first question here. As for the second question, there are two answers and one fundamental underlying question: assuming the problem isn’t with your composition, what is it about your workflow that creates that very visible difference in the final image?

Workflow is very important to professionals, because if you’ve got a very high image throughput, then you can take on more work, deliver better quality images to your clients, and at the end of the day, make more money. So it’s in our interests to be as efficient as possible, without sacrificing quality. Good workflow should have the absolute minimum number of steps, be fast and easy to execute, automated to the greatest extent possible (but recognizing that individual images are like children: you have to treat each one differently) and most importantly, be camera independent. The latter requirement is so that you are free to use the best tool for the job without worrying about what to do with the files later. There’s no getting around the fact that different cameras and lenses require different amounts of editing or correction to achieve the desired results; it’s just something that has to be built into your process.

A common misconception is that workflow just covers the post-shoot editing process: it doesn’t. Workflow affects the entire way you execute an assignment, from preparation to final image delivery. What follows is a high level overview of the way I work, and some of the key steps.

1. Prep
- Make a list of equipment you’re going to need.
- Charge batteries, and bring 2x the number you think you’ll need – s*** happens.
- Ensure you have spares: cards, batteries, flashes, bodies, RF calibration spanners…
- Unless you’re shooting a run-and-gun stealth photojournalist assignment, or are going to be carrying your equipment for long periods of time, take everything you think you might need. Better to have it and not use it rather than miss a shot for want of a lens.
- Pack with plenty of time to spare, in case you find you’re missing something or can’t decide which configuration to use – at least you’ve got time to think it over or go out and buy anything critical that’s missing.

2. Shoot
- Turn up early so you can set up (if required) and be relaxed. Nervousness means jumpy hands which means blurred images.
- I always shoot RAW, for maximum latitude later when processing.
- Write-protect your keepers in camera to prevent accidental deletion.
- Shoot bursts where possible, both to get duplicates (insurance) and a choice of material to work with later.

3. First edit
- Delete the ‘obvious fail’ shots in camera when you have downtime – but ONLY when you have downtime. Missing a shot because you were staring at the back of your camera is an amateur’s mistake. I’ll probably dump about 50% of the images at this point.

4. Post-shoot
- Unpack
- Clean equipment – lenses, filters, eyepieces, LCDs etc.
- Recharge any depleted batteries
- Put everything back where it came from, so you can find it again next time.

5. Dump cards
- I will dump all cards to my primary processing machine at this point, and leave the cards unformatted back in the camera – just in case a file gets corrupted or I need the original, I know it’s still there.

6. Backup
- I use a Mac. At this point, I’ll run a time machine backup on my primary processing machine.

7. Second edit
- Delete the images that don’t really work at larger sizes – see my previous article here on editing. I use Adobe Bridge to delete and rate images. Another 50% of the images will go.

8. RAW conversion
- Depending on your machine, figure out how many RAW files you can open before it starts to slow down (use the ‘efficiency’ display in Photoshop; it’s in the bottom left of your image window. 100% means that everything is being loaded to RAM, which is the fastest way of editing). I can open about 15 12MP files in 16 bit before things start to slow down. This means I’ll probably load 20-30, because I also delete some at this point.
- Load bunch of files (20-30) into Camera Raw.
- Make primary exposure adjustments; I will adjust white balance, exposure, shadow/ highlight recovery sliders, vignetting.
- I only crop to aspect ratios that are non-native for my camera. If I’m using a multi-aspect ratio camera like the Leica D-Lux 5, I won’t crop at all.
- I have created a color profile for each camera I use so that I can get consistent color and the same look out of any camera I use, this is applied to the raw file in ACR.
- And same for the tonal response curve.
- Open the files in Photoshop (I’m using CS5.5 Extended now) at maximum quality: 16bit, full resolution.
- B&W conversion: depending on what final look I want, there are many options: gradient map, desaturate, channel mixer…to be the subject of a future article.
- Make curve adjustments – sometimes up to four or five times.
- Any retouching is done at this point – e.g. dust removal for product shots, or color enhancement using brushes and masks. I use a Wacom Intuos4 6×9″ tablet for this, nothing else so far gives me enough fine control.
- Local dodge and burn where applicable.
- Finally, sharpening: do this last, so you don’t land up increasing image noise/ grain. Must be done after curves.
- Convert to 8 bit and desired color space.
- Save final file. I generally use a maximum quality JPEG unless the client demands otherwise; you really can’t tell the difference unless you’re going to do future manipulation on it. (Revisiting old files will be the subject of another future article).
- Optional: do an incremental backup again, if it’s a big conversion job you can’t finish at one sitting, or if each file is time consuming and will take a lot of effort to duplicate.

9. Final edit
- Go through the set again. Keep only the unique, essential images. By the time I’m done, I keep only 1-5% of the initial shoot volume.

10. Portfolio selection
- I keep a portfolio of images for the subjects I commonly shoot; this gets updated after every shoot, especially if I feel there are images that should be added. It’s my aim to have at least one image to add to the portfolio (and replace an old one) from each assignment; this way, I force myself to continually improve.

11. Backup and format
- Dual duplicate sets of images with all raw files to external hard drives, one of which is kept offsite
- Keep finished files only on main processing machine
- Final backup: time machine of main processing machine
- Only now will I format cards. Where possible, I keep at least two copies of the original files – just in case something goes wrong. It’s happened to me in the past, and I’ve been very, very grateful that I did remember to backup. I’ve been doing it religiously ever since, and highly recommend you do the same.

A note on filing: I store images in hierarchal folders by Subject>Event/date>Subset. This allows me to find things easily. I have a separate folder for work on assignment, which is named with something sensible and a date. I don’t like database-based programs for image management like Aperture, because it’s very difficult and unwieldy to manage if you have a lot of images.

12. Delivery
- Send off the images to clients; either over the web, or via DVD.

Now, repeat! MT

Comments

  1. Wowzers. That’s a ton of work.

    I just do the following (a newbie’s comparison):

    1. Bring gear i think i’ll need. This usually means i will leave a few items behind. If i get caught without an item i left behind, then i try to make do with what i did bring.

    2. Getting home, download everything into Mac. I do very little deleting/reviewing in-camera while at the shoot, only delete the most obvious ones. After reading books on HCB, i realize that it’s sometimes the crap shots that become the keepers. I’ve accidentally deleted some “good” bad shots this way, and regretted it later. I almost always give the shot a chance to be looked at on a full monitor before deciding on a delete. Admitted, i don’t shoot half as much as you do, 300-500 frames is normal for me for a single session while you probably deal in the thousands.

    3. I look through all the photos in Lightroom. About 60% get junked at this point. I mark potential keepers with 2 stars and maybes with 1 star.

    4. I look through all the 1 star photos again. About 80% of these get junked and the remainder get upgraded to 2 stars.

    5. Then i look at the 2 stars, and delete another 50-60% of these.

    6. The remainder i put through my automated processing which is a basic curves, fill light and some sharpening. Some will turn out to be not as nice as i’d hoped, and if i can’t find a way to recover, it gets junked. At this point, i’m left with about 10% of what i started out with.

    7. I process each shot individually at this point and try to get the best out of them. I normally keep most of these, but generally only publish 10-20 assuming i had 50 shots left at this stage. The other 30-40 unpublished, i keep on a burner, and maybe come back to them later for a second look whenever it takes my fancy, then perhaps a few more will get published.

    8. Then backup everything via Time Machine. Then format all CF cards, recharge batteries, clean gear.

    About 5-6 hours to go through the processing up to step 8, assuming 500 shots to process. Usually break it up over a day or three, to combat fatigue and tired eyes.

    • You get used to it after a while. That’s the whole point of having a consistent workflow, you can run on autopilot and not really have to think about it too much. You’d be surprised how slow I am when using PS on somebody else’s computer – none of my keyboard shortcuts are there. With my primary machine, it’s almost like typing to me.

      Sometimes I deliberately bring less/ not much because I want to challenge myself or force myself to see a different way. On assignment, it’s not the time for taking risks (unless that’s what the client wants) so I make sure I’ve got everything.

      The biggest difference I can see in our workflows is that I don’t batch action anything; each shot is treated individually. I think it makes a subtle, but noticeable, difference.

  2. Hi Ming Thein,

    Just surprised you don’t use Lightroom to process your images. I was a Photoshop die-hard for years until I picked up LR3 on the constant urging of my friends – it was like the lights had turned on. Everything became faster and easier for me. As for the problems with catalogs slowing down, I’ve read that some users have dedicated catalogs for large volume, single session shoots.

    • I’m told that LR4 is even better. To be honest, I don’t have the time to invest in changing my workflow; I can edit every image individually and be completely happy with the results (as in I don’t feel like I need to do another round of editing again later) within about a minute for normal images (assuming no product retouching, which can’t be done in LR anyway). I guess it’s a matter of whichever workflow you’re comfortable with – I’ve gone through every version of CS, so it’s almost like muscle memory for me. :)

  3. parameteres says:

    Thanks for sharing! Step no#10 Portfolio Selection is good to add to my workflow – i yet to get a portfolio :-p

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