In this synopsis, we take you through seven steps that will form a good base to work from as you learn and modify your approach to enhancing and storing images. You'll soon find that good exposures require little processing while others can be quite challenging if, for example, habitat needs to be removed to create a more pleasing outcome. In our Displaying synopsis we present a variation on these steps specifically for Web graphics and introduce an image classification scheme we employ to help with sharpening decisions.
To date, we have used Breeze Systems - Digital Workflow Simplified to download and manage our RAW files. This is absolutely the most cost effective software utility on the market for library creation and archive management. For Web graphics, the HTML tools are worth the price of admission alone! Although Adobe Bridge has undergone significant improvements, we still find their file management features cumbersome compared to the relative ease of downloading, sorting, moving and deleting images within the automated and user friendly structure that Breeze Systems provides. In all other aspects, we now rely on Adobe Photoshop CS6 for RAW conversion and enhancement, augmented with a suite of targeted plug-ins from Topaz Labs and Nik Software.
You'll find that developing a good color sense is definitely an acquired skill. From a reference perspective, a good starting point is the new "Adobe Photoshop CS5 Book for Digital Photographers" by Scott Kelby. Here you can learn enhancement essentials and completely set up your computer, monitor and printer to get the most out of the Photoshop feature set. We also recommend "Photoshop for Nature Photographers: A Workshop in a Book" by Ellen Anon and Tim Grey. This reference material is absolutely essential if you are looking for a quick study of the Photoshop basics specifically tailored to the requirements of nature photographers. Although both the above are older titles, we feel they still grasp the essentials and provide good reference material to get you started.
As we have previously mentioned, the key to structuring workflow efficiently is to "ruthlessly" edit your image production based on your output goals. As our bias is Web graphics with a longer term view to producing prints, we aim for fairly tight file management recognizing that at some future date we will undoubtedly return to past images as our color sense evolves and enhancement software becomes more sophisticated. We therefore tend to reject outright images that exhibit either severe exposure issues (histogram extremes or out of focus) or habitat interference (branches or grasses that obscure the subject and are far too onerous to clone out). We also find that it is best to reject really poor composition and subjects with extreme flaws (such as flight shots where the bird has severely split primaries). This is obviously not an exhaustive list and may appear somewhat purist but the objective is to reduce your files from each session to a manageable subset that is relatively simple from a tracking perspective and meets your personal creativity goals.
You can now use either BreezeBrowser Pro or Adobe Camera RAW to convert the RAW files for downstream editing. We use the latter and configure the conversion as follows:
Depth: 16 Bits/Channel
Resolution: 360 Pixels/Inch
Settings: Image Settings
White Balance: As Shot
The RAW converter environment allows you to make a number of global adjustments. Although the general rule is to leave the bulk of post-processing corrections to Photoshop, we feel this is the appropriate time to address any issues related to Exposure, Blacks and White Balance. Adobe Camera RAW does have some unique adjustment features. In earlier versions, by depressing the ALT key and moving the Exposure or Blacks sliders for example, the screen will turn appropriately black (highlight format) or white (shadow format) and detail the image areas that require adjustment. Moving the sliders will visually demonstrate whether the damage is minor and thus worth pursuing or major and simply not worth the effort to salvage. Remember, compensation adjustments at this stage affect all pixels in the image. We generally start with Exposure as this affects White Balance. If the image has issues, it would seem obvious to correct the biggest problem(s) first. Although the Exposure slider affects the entire tonal range, it's essentially a tool for setting the white point (at this stage you need to ensure that diffuse highlights still have sufficient detail). We generally do not adjust White Balance but often get good results by selecting a custom white point by clicking the White Balance Tool on a neutral grey area (a lighter area may be overexposed and not contain any useful information). We prefer to sample a 3X3 pixel array (previously changed from a single pixel in Photoshop) from which a new White Balance is calculated. It may be necessary to try several areas to produce the results you are looking for. Otherwise, we generally stick with As Shot. Next we adjust Shadows to help expose detail in the darker areas. It's probably best to now move the Highlights, Whites and Contrast sliders to shape the overall tonality and reserve the Blacks slider for later to fine tune the black point. Adjust Highlights and Whites first as this sets the midtones without affecting the end points of the tonal range. Finally, adjust Blacks and Clarity if necessary to improve image sharpness. We generally don't touch Saturation or Vibrance as Photoshop offers much finer control post-conversion. Again, our advice is to make the Preview image as bold as possible and leave the more controllable saturation and sharpening to Photoshop.
After conversion, you can now make any final global adjustments for any lighting issues that remain using Shadows/Highlights. Most professionals employ a "targeted" approach using Adjustment Layers to perform Steps 3 to 5. The advantage of Layers is that it allows you to target corrections to specific areas of the image while leaving the original image intact. When you are satisfied with the result, you simply Flatten the layers to create an enhanced image. We prefer to attack the image globally through the Image Adjustments menu as we're primarily producing Web graphics which is a much less demanding medium than print. As such, we tend to move through the enhancement steps quickly, addressing only the most serious image issues. Any of the reference material cited above will provide an analysis of how to utilize the layers feature set. If we're undertaking more complex adjustments, we prefer the Viveza masking tool available from Nik Software as the process is easy to implement and literally saves hours of complex and tedious work.
It is now a matter of removing those annoying little gremlins that inevitably cling to the camera sensor. We use the Spot Healing tool and prefer a partial zoom to cover and inspect the affected areas, using the Hand Tool to move sequentially through the image. At this time, we also clone out any distractions to the central image as we hate to get through the remaining steps and find that it is difficult to create a pleasing result if the cloning step has created a distortion that is difficult to correct.
By further optimizing exposure you can reveal hidden detail and emphasize texture in key areas by using Levels. Adjusting the black and white point sliders (far left and right respectively) produces contrast and adjusting the middle equivalent generates brightness. This is a good tool to help improve the contrast of an image.
When making color adjustments, we generally use the Hue/Saturation tool. As a first step, in Master Mode, try sliding Saturation to 17, Hue to 4 and adjust Lightness to taste. Next look for color extremes, most likely Blue, Red and Yellow and make adjustments using their respective slider modes. However, we also find the Color Balance sliders for Shadows, Midtones and Highlights can produce some striking results. We also often find the Auto feature in Curves produces the best results, especially if you select the grey eyedropper and click on an appropriate neutral area of the image. The Selective Color settings for White, Neutral and Black are a useful end touch for producing sharp Web graphics by adjusting only their Black slider respectively. This is also a good time to apply the Blur Tool to background if you are trying to create a particular effect. As mentioned above, we leave the Master file image in tact, preferring to sharpen and crop our output as a last step in order to produce alternative output from the same image.
It is at this stage that we return to Bridge and complete a custom Metadata schedule to attach to the Master image. Here we add an abbreviated personal IPTC profile, a copyright disclaimer, a subject description and location information. This is done from a template that we created and attached to the Tools drop-down menu.
We now complete final adjustments to the Master image and save the result to the Output file. We generally crop first. If we've used Adjustment Layers, we Flatten and perform targeted sharpening. For example, if the image subject has a prominent eye, we will zoom and use the Lasso Tool to isolate, make any final tonal or color adjustments necessary. We use Unsharpen Mask or the Smart Sharpen Filter to complete the final image, experimenting to determine which produces the best result. Try starting in Basic Mode, Default settings, Amount 65, Radius 0.3 to 1.1). Selecting Remove Gaussian Blur and More Accurate seems to produce a good result. There is no hard and fast rule for sharpening and a fair amount of trial and error is needed to create results that are not harsh or exhibit halos. For some work, Amount 100%, Radius 0.2 and Threshold 0, applied four to seven times often produces great results. You might want to refer to our Displaying synopsis for an alternative method of "grading" images prior to making sharpening decisions.
All of the above depends on your "sense of color contrast" and we will guarantee that your eye will improve considerably as time progresses. We feel the process works well for us given our current level of knowledge. We're certainly sold on working solely in RAW format. As you read, practice and perhaps participate in online forums, you will undoubtedly make changes. It's an iterative process and can only improve over time as experience and technology enhance your insights.