Photo Editing – Process, Workflow and Balance

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Here’s a fantastic question about establishing a process for editing your digital photos.

I would like to know if you ever published a “rough” guide to processing/editing the photos after you have taken them. I’ve heard the term “workflow” (pardon my ignorance) which consists of the numerous steps in editing a photo.

I have read that sharpening always comes last…but I’m a little vague on what comes before: resizing? Color/contrast? Also, is there a difference in the flow if you print to paper vs print to web?


Nothing gets me excited like a good process and when it comes to photo editing its something that evolves as your eye becomes more aware of your shot. My personal feeling is that you stop at the step that leaves you feeling most complete when looking at your photo. More is not always better with editing. Often times less is more. Here’s my process:

  • Always use a RAW file when you can and make a copy so that you can compare your Before and After at each step. I currently use Aperture with a little Photoshop CS on the side. I’ve also used Photoshop Elements, Windows Picture Editor, and Picnik. (I think that a look into these tools is worth a post of its own, so keep your eyes peeled for that one.)
  • Identify the story that you want to tell with the photo – what is the essence, what sets the scene, what makes it special or unique, what is unnecessary in the shot? Answer those questions and then crop your photo so that without another minute of work it’s a great picture. A lot of workflows that I’ve read leave the cropping for last; I disagree. I think that a great crop (along with good composition) can be the end of your journey into editing.
  • Noise and Sharpening. I like peace and quiet in life and in my photos…unless used for dramatic effect. If I’m shooting in low light and without a flash (because nothing ruins a genuine moment like a flash) you’ll have noise. There are a few great applications and a few free add-ons that address the issue of noise. Noise is what makes your photos look grainy. So I remove the grainy (or at least some of it). I sometimes Auto Sharpen the photo but this is not something I do regularly. I’ve used NoiseWare with great results. In some of the editing software’s that I’ve used (Aperture, specifically) you can set up automatic rules that if your ISO is above a certain value your noise reduction application or add-on is run on the photos. I would issue caution to make sure that the first part of your rule is to make a new version – sometimes, noise is good.
  • Brightness, Contrast and Exposure are next. In the coming weeks I’ll be showing some examples of what I call the Three Bright Bears (That’s too bright, That’s too dull, That is just right). Nearly all of the photo editing applications that I mentioned above have an Auto option. I always start with Auto and then tweak the levels from there using the curved visual display.
  • Touching Up and using the Healing Brush. After I tweak my brightness I usually find a minor flaw in the photo that jumps off the screen at me. I touch it up using the healing brush or a patch. I have been known to over-heal (that’s a serious professional photog term by the way) be careful when you’re doing this kind of touch up to go from zooming way in to the photo so your brush work is precise and then out again. Sometimes the flaw is just too big to “heal” but the story is solid; in this situation I make the picture Black and White or Sepia.
  • Finally I will explore color saturation. Is it the blue eyes that will make the shot? Or the red mittens? Maybe it’s the sky and the contrast with the fall leaves. Sometimes messing with color can impact the whole shot when you only need a boost in one area – I really like Photoshop’s ability to select multiple areas on the photo using the magic wand and then adding color to those selected areas.

And to address your last question; does the flow change if you’re doing prints vs digital display only. My experience is that an over exposed photo is more noticeable in a printed photograph. I always watch where I put my Brightness, Contrast and Exposure when I’m planning on printing the photo. I also consider the need to compensate for mat overlap when I am cropping a photo that I plan on framing.

I throw this back to the group now: What’s your process? Have I broken a golden rule in your workflow? Or are you a SOOC (straight out of camera) kind of photographer? And for those of you that really like to chew the meat: Do you edit the photos of your children to remove their imperfections?

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