New: Workflow III for Photoshop or LIGHTROOM

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Workflow III unifies workflow across Photoshop and Lightroom, works with a single curve in RGB mode only, eliminates the need for color correction and includes my custom profiles for most popular recent cameras (the full list below), compatible with both PS and LR. Almost every image you’ve seen on this site since the beginning of 2016 has been processed (or reprocessed) with Workflow III.

Click to continue after the jump for more info, testimonials and to buy.

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On vision and postprocessing

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Before and after – starting point of RAW file in color (right), final presentation mono (left). Is that ‘photoshopped’? To most audiences, it probably is; but it’s no different to using black and white film, processing with a certain chemistry and doing a little dodging and burning of the print. Nothing has been added or removed that was not physically present in the original scene.

Though the mainstream population has now been firmly in the digital era of photography for more than a decade, I’m sure we can all remember a recent time when we were asked ‘so how much photoshop did you do?’ when presenting an image. The misconception that a good image must have some degree of implicit trickery is problematic; to the public, ‘Photoshop’ has become synonymous with ‘digital illustration’, ‘compositing’, or worse, ‘deliberate misrepresentation’. As much as we do our best to explain that Photoshop is really no different to the darkroom and chemical processes of the film days, we are at best regarded with some skepticism. But it does beg the question: why not use all the tools at one’s disposal, and what’s wrong with it if we do?

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New: MT’s Weekly PS Workflow Classroom

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It’s time to take postprocessing further in the new year.

Given the popularity of the photoshop and postprocessing videos, and the continual feedback for more of the same – I’ve decided to try an experiment for 2016. Every week, with the first instalment available on 3 Jan 2016, I’ll be putting out a new video. The concept is simple: it’s a classroom where submitted images are critiqued and postprocessed and subscriber questions answered. This is the closest I can get to a providing a consistent learning environment for a large audience.

  • Subscribers can submit images of their own; I will try to critique all of them
  • We select the most interesting to post process in ACR/photoshop using workflow II, with a discussion of the rationale behind it
  • Any subscriber questions are answered
  • In addition, I postprocess images of my own so you can see the complete workflow from capture and conception to completion – to see how the complete ‘idea’ comes together (i.e. capture with previsualized output)

Each weekly video will run for ~1h15min.

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The eternal question: why I use Photoshop over Lightroom

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Right after ‘what should I buy’ comes this series of questions: why don’t you use Lightroom? And what does Photoshop give me that Lightroom lacks? Moreover, is your workflow applicable to Lightroom? I received a slew of emails recently following the release of LR CC/6 and realised I’ve never really answered any of these questions. Today we’re going to fix that.

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Now available: Photoshop Workflow II


Buy now: Video A2: Photoshop Workflow II (US$80, 4h10m in two parts with downloadable raw files)
A2 builds on and supersedes the original Intro to Photoshop Workflow for Photographers, using the new tools in ACR 8.x (PS CS6, CC, CC 2014) to streamline and significantly speed up postprocessing whilst simultaneously improving tonal quality and flexibility. The best way to describe the results are with the words transparency and clarity. Although the fundamental logic remains the same – it includes a large number of improvements and represents the current state of my workflow. It has personally reduced my own postprocessing time by about 20% compared to the methodology in the original Intro to Photoshop, leaving more time to shoot. New to this video is a full color management how-to and downloadable sample raw files. It is of course back-compatible with both the Monochrome Masterclass and Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & 5: Exploring and Processing for Style. It works on JPEG images if opened in ACR or opened in PS then acted on using the Camera Raw filter. It won’t work with Lightroom because there are still limitations to the software.

(And yes, there will be a reveal of the mystery camera at some point.)

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Now available: The Monochrome Masterclass workshop video!

I’m pleased to announce that after a very long gestation period, including filming in some foreign locations 😉 the video is finally ready and available immediately here.

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Photographic integrity and the use of Photoshop

Even amongst photographers, I think it is very important to demystify something which has plagued the photography community and the craft in general, especially since the early days of digital capture. I’m talking about Photoshop; yes, that dirty word which has now come to be associated with over-airbrushed models, extra crowds, and general media hoaxes and fakes of all possible descriptions. I think never has a creative tool been so universally reviled and misunderstood by the general population. The word ‘Photoshop’ in itself has almost come to be synonymous with making alterations or changes to something to the point that it is no longer representative of the original object or subject.

Whilst it is, of course, possible to turn a Oprah into Britney Spears and vice versa; to do it well exceeds photography and solidly enters the realm of digital illustration. I am not going to discuss that in this article*; suffice to say that it is a completely different challenge and requires the hand and eye of a painter combined with the logical, structured thinking of a programmer.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I was taught the vast majority of my Photoshop knowledge by one of the best illustrators in the UK. He also happened to be a photography enthusiast, my neighbor in London, and also the reason why I now shoot with a Nikon instead of Canon. I also use Photoshop for illustration, layout and design purposes, but in my experience, that requires an almost completely different set of tools to what a photographer would use – another story for another time.

That is not to say the retouchers couldn’t learn a thing or two from the digital illustrators; too often a much-too heavy-handed approach is applied to any corrections that are performed on an image. It is very important to have an eye for the original subject, a sensitivity to the natural pre-existing lighting in the frame, and the touch of a feather to seamlessly and imperceptibly blend any changes made with the original image. This applies not just to airbrushing and heavy commercial grade retouching, (such as smoothing skin and removing dust or unwanted reflections) but also to normal photographic corrections during postprocessing – I’m thinking specifically of dodging and burning or saturation adjustments.

This is one of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of using an editing tablet and pen; the pressure sensitive and tilt sensitive nature capabilities of the setup allow you to have very fine control over precisely how strong the effect applied is. Both size and density can change depending on the pressure on or angle of the pen; it’s very much like drawing or painting. I suppose if one were to substitute the brush tool for the dodge and burn brush and start a new layer, the resulting image – representing the corrections applied – would almost like a sketch of the original image. (I like to use the Wacom Intuos series because of their high precision and natural feel.)

There are a few worthwhile rules that I think all photographers should keep in mind as they are retouching and postprocessing:

It is possible to overdo it. precisely how much is enough is actually not a very easy thing to determine. However, this is where it is useful to see plenty of other images; look at enough photographs and you will eventually develop a sense of those that work and those that don’t, and more importantly, an eye for just how much processing is required to achieve the desired look.

If you can see where an image was retouched/ edited/ processed, you’ve gone too far. if the corrections also obvious, then the resulting image is no longer photograph but a very poor illustration. This of course is not the intention of photography.

Do things in small, gentle increments. this permits finer control as well as better blending and integration of the changes with the structure of the original image. It is also much easier to undo things and not have to repeat signification amounts of work if you happen to make a mistake.

Any sort of documentary or reportage photography which is intended for editorial news or recording purposes should not have the contents of the image altered at all.

The final point brings me to the second half of my article. In a situation where a photograph is meant to serve as witness to an event, object or place, integrity is paramount. This includes news, reportage, documentary legal documentation, or any sort of archive or historical reference. Although it is perfectly acceptable for the color, contrast and general tone of an image to be altered in such a way as to best present the subject to the viewer; it is definitely not acceptable to change what constitutes the contents of the image. Overenthusiastic use of the clone stamp, healing brush, and most notoriously, mask, copy and paste have cemented Photoshop in the popular consciousness as the tool of choice when deliberate deception or obfuscation is the intention.

That said, I think it is equally important to define what is acceptable in the context of not altering the contents of the image; this list includes exposure, shadow and highlight recovery, curves, levels, dodging and burning, desaturation/ black and white conversion, and minor hue and saturation adjustments. Frankly, the final item – hue and saturation – is also a little bit borderline. This is because a decisive change in the color of a photograph or subject can result in very different interpretations, for example, naturally occuring blue carrots would be an event of note, but postprocessed ones would not. It is therefore the responsibility of the photographer to ensure that color is as accurate and faithful to the original subject as possible. The alternative is to shoot in black and white; this has the effect of removing the psychological aspects of color from the image.

Determining what is naturally occurring and what is the product of Photoshop skill has become more and more difficult since the increasing popularity of shooting in RAW. It is actually nearly impossible to spot well executed retouching; in fact, I actually make it a point to look for flaws in retouching in order to avoid these mistakes in my own commercial work. Even in very good work, there are two giveaways. The first is that everything simply looks too perfect; reality is dirty, rough and full of flaws; an image that is meant to serve as documentary witness should also reflect that. It is possible (but highly unlikely) that a subject will be perfect and flawless at the full resolution level; and this is where such inspection should begin. The second clue is a lot more subtle, hidden in the noise characteristics of the camera. Even by eyeball, if this texture microtexture is not properly replicated in a retouched area of an image it will be fairly obvious. Although it is possible to have images with zero noise even in the shadow zones, or alternatively add it back, it is almost impossible to perfectly replicate the native noise pattern of the sensor, or have zero noise in the shadows. It is also possible to reveal these inconsistencies either through extreme total manipulation – which amplifies the differences between the retouched and surrounding areas – or through the use of forensic statistical analysis software.

There is a big gray area between documentary photography and conceptual or artistic photography. This twilight zone is home to the commercial photographer. Understandably, it is highly desirable to make your product or service or people look as appealing, flawless and perfect as possible; however there is also the question of integrity. This is where too much Photoshop can get you into trouble. Once a photograph no longer reasonably represents the actual product or service you are going to receive; in some countries it is quite reasonable to take legal action on the grounds of misrepresentation. One very good example of this is fast food; in the hundreds of times I’ve at McDonalds, I can’t recall ever having received a burger which actually resembles anything on the menu. Natural lettuce is simply not that green most of the time, nor are the burgers that big! (I also remember an oldish article circulating on the Internet which shows just how much effort and preplanning is used in the preparation of a burger for one of these shoots; there were spare parts for everything and a huge pile of discarded ingredients that would be perfectly edible, but due to a slight blemish were rendered unsuitable for photography. This was obviously in the days of film, before Photoshop retouching.)

I personally deal with this issue on a fairly regular basis. As you know know, I’m a commercial photographer whose work covers subjects that are meant to be desirable – expensive watches, gourmet food and avant-garde buildings. There is therefore some degree of retouching required to ensure that the subjects look as perfect as possible; you can reasonably expect there to be no loose drips of sauce around your entree, or dust and scratches on your new watch. But just where do you stop making the tomatoes redder, and the meat more golden brown? To complicate things, it’s also a tough balance between finding a unique and aesthetically pleasing angle (a commercial photography requirement) against representing a perspective that a normal person might reasonably expect to experience. I honestly don’t have an answer for this question; the personal guidelines I generally work to are that the images I produce must look natural, even if they are conceptual in nature and require compositing multiple images (which frequently happens to manage reflections, deal with large dynamic range while maintaining shadow image quality, or photographing prototypes that might not be representative of final finishing). A dedicated and careful viewer should not be able to tell which part of the images has been retouched or composited, oh where the break points used were.

For my limited documentary work, I do absolutely zero retouching or airbrushing on any portions of the image and seek to deliver as faithful color to the original scene as possible. Adjustments are limited to curves, dodging and burning and sharpening; hue and saturation adjustments are made solely in the quest to deliver more accurate color. Personal or artistic work is basically open season; however, if I want to do illustration, I’ll do illustration; since I’m focusing on the photography, and my style these days is predominantly natural, I try to do as little retouching as possible. (It also helps me to speed up my workflow and throughput.)

By no means am I saying these guidelines are a hard and fast set of rules for every photographer to follow, however they are worth keeping in mind depending on the intended usage and purpose of your photographs. In the interests of maintaining the reputation and integrity of both the profession and the individual; working photographers should be open to fully disclose if an image has been edited or retouched, if it is ever called into question. The editing and retouching of images has been around for many years before Photoshop – there were even services for adding color to black and white images – but during the film days, retouching was never perceived as a threat to integrity, perhaps because the tools available were rudimentary, and it was nearly impossible to achieve a perfectly natural looking result. Today, it is very much our responsibility as photographers to do our best to restore public trust in the integrity of documentary images, as well as faith that what you pay for is actually going to be what you receive. MT


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (; Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Two new Malaysian workshops: 3 & 4 November 2012

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After the success of the last session in Kuala Lumpur (Making light, and Finding light) I’m pleased to announce another two new workshops for 3 and 4 November 2012:

The streets of Melaka: Saturday, 3 November 2012 (Melaka)
Intermediate street and travel photography techniques; from 10.30am to 7.30pm
All you need is a digital camera. Any camera; even a compact/ point and shoot is fine (bring it if you have one). I’ll show you how to see, how to translate that into an image, and how to make images where the equipment doesn’t matter – you’ll be liberated. The day concludes with an assessment of images and debrief.

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Introduction to Photoshop Workflow for Photographers: Sunday, 4 November 2012 (Kuala Lumpur)
With digital photography, shooting is just half of the story: the other half is in both how you shoot to make the most of the output of your camera to maximize image quality, and how you optimize those images afterwards. Photoshop doesn’t have to be intimidating or slow – I spend less than a minute per image on average, but each one is individually optimized. Bring along your problem/ difficult images or images from the day before. I’ll cover the entire basic desk workflow from assessing/ editing and sorting to adjustments and output. You’ll need a laptop with Photoshop CS3 or higher plus an editing tablet – I like the Wacom Intuos series. Note that you can use the trial version of Photoshop for 30 days before deciding if you want to buy it or not. But, once you see what it can do, it’s not a lot of money to spend when you consider that you use it on every image.

Each session is RM1,000 per person, or book both for RM1,800. Please note that payment is due on confirmation to reserve your place.

Please email for bookings or information. Places are strictly limited for both sessions (max. 6 for Melaka, and max. 10 for Intro to Photoshop) in order for me to help you get the most out of the session. MT

On Assignment: A small matter of retouching…

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Finished shot. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon – composite of three images

This post is for those of you who are curious about how much work exactly goes on during an architectural/ interior shoot. (And yes, the company whose boutique is featured here is one of my clients, as is their parent company.) It’s not quite as simple as it looks. First, let’s look at the original, unedited shot again – this is what you get out of camera with the raw file converted straight to a JPEG, all ACR adjustments zeroed out. This is about as good as you’re going to get straight out of the camera. Light was available ambient, and I used the excellent Gitzo GT5562LTS 6x Systematic carbon tripod for support.

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The same shot, straight out of camera, NEF>JPEG via ACR with all adjustments set at neutral.

Can’t see any issues with this image? Let me point them out to you.

  • There’s a bit of sombrero distortion in the horizontal lines; this is a lens issue. Minor, but obvious when you’ve got this many parallel lines.
  • The horizontals run to the right slightly; it’s almost impossible to get this perfect in camera, even using the built-in level guide – as with the in-focus indicator, there’s a bit of ‘dead space’ around the null position where the camera might report perfect levelling even though things are a degree or so off.
  • The highlights are gone. All gone.
  • The shadows are also all gone…oh dear, this is turning into a tonal nightmare: very dark wood on the storefront, extremely brightly-lit illuminated displays…
  • Very distracting reflections from the store and the boutique across the hallway – we couldn’t get them to turn off their storefront lights (obviously) – so there was no choice but to retouch them out.

Now you know what I’m up against, let me explain how the issues were solved. Distortion is taken care of using ACR’s built-in profile for the lens; note how everything is straight again in the finished image below. Slight issues with levelling are taken care of using Photoshop’s distort tool – select all, then Edit>Transform>Distort. Use guides to help you line up your horizontals and verticals, and then pull the corners a little bit to make everything line up.

Dynamic range is a bit more of a challenge. Although the rough image above has had zero highlight and shadow recovery done and perhaps represents about 8 bits of tonal information, I wouldn’t want to push this image too far in post. The extreme highlights will posterize slightly and the shadows will get noisy, though I might be able to recover 13-14 stops this way. The image above was actually exposed for the midtones. The shadows and highlights had separate images three stops apart. I overlaid one on the other, and erased out the bits I didn’t want – so that would be putting the darkest image on top, then erasing around the highlights to reveal the images below. This is the correct way to do HDR – and perhaps the subject of a future article. The tonal transition between layers was made smooth by feathering the opacity and hardness of the eraser brush, as well as using curves on the individual layers afterwards.

Two more steps – dodge and burn of the flattened image to give it local pop; and the hardest bit: retouching out the reflections of the opposite boutique. Note that the reflections overlaid some very complex textures and structures in the image; it definitely wasn’t a simple clone or healing brush job. (Originally, the images were done in the morning; the boutique opposite proved to be extremely bright, so I came back at 10pm once most – but sadly not all – of the lights in the neighbouring boutiques had been turned off. ) The solution? Get creative with replacement textures. The left hand window is actually an inverted clone of the right hand window; everything was nearly perfectly square geometrically, so it wasn’t too much of an issue. Small differences in alignment were sorted out using the Distort tool again, matching up the corners. It also helped that the interior of the store itself was mostly symmetric, of course. Some strategic erasing around the left-unique features and some healing brush later, and voila – finished.

As much as I like to get it right straight out of the camera, there are some times when it simply just isn’t possible. MT

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Finished shot again.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (; Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs.  You can also get your gear from via this referral link.  Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the Flickr group!

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Teaching update: Photoshop workflow DVD, August Email School intake

1. By popular demand…presenting Ming Thein’s Introduction to Photoshop Workflow DVD!

Thank you to everybody who participated in the earlier survey on whether a DVD covering my Photoshop workflow would be useful – it seems that nearly a thousand of you thought it would be, and that’s more than enough justification for me to produce one. I’m just sorry it’s taken this long – commercial work and everything else gets in the way…

However, I’m pleased to announce that the DVD is finally complete and available for sale; it covers:

  • A basic explanation of the working environment of Bridge and Photoshop, following CS5.5 (CS3,4, 5 and 6 are similar; I don’t use any tools here that aren’t available in the other versions, so it’s a very flexible workflow)
  • A runthrough of the functions of Camera Raw
  • My personal workflow – if you’ve ever wondered what my postprocessing process is, or how I get the style and look you see on the site and in my commercial work, this is for you.
  • Several end to end processing examples – I’ve picked a number of files that I’d consider difficult or processing-intensive to use as step by step walkthroughs.
  • The Camera Raw portion – where about half the work is done – also applies to Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, too. The buttons may be different, but the fundamental principles of tools don’t change between software – dodge is dodge, burn is burn, and curves are curves.

Total runtime is about 1h 15min.

Checkout now via PayPal

This will be the first in a series of many DVDs in which I’ll spend more time detailing and explaining the various functions of Photoshop and their application to photographers, but it makes the ideal starting point for anybody who would like to get started in serious postprocessing, or perhaps are wondering why their images lack that punch and sparkle.

Please note – for KL residents, happy to do MEPS – please send me an email to make arrangements.

2. Email School of Photography August intake

I’ve now cleared the pipeline somewhat, which means I can take on a fresh batch of students for my Email School of Photography – more details here. It’s a unique, fully-customized correspondence course tailored to your skill level and photographic objectives – learn what you want to learn, at your convenience. So for all of you who were on the fence, now’s the time to sign up.

The course is just US$800 for ten sessions including a detailed portfolio review; once again payable via paypal to mingthein2(at)

Thanks in advance for your support – all these little things help me keep producing content and keep this site running. MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved