Structuring Workflow

Equally important and probably more confusing than choosing equipment is establishing a logical workflow process. This is essentially how you manage image files from flash card to computer enhancement and storage. Although we began with simple JPEG files using the camera's "canned" settings, we soon switched to shooting RAW as we wanted to maximize the digital data captured for downstream processing. Our initial foray with the software provided by Canon and subsequent trials with Adobe Elements also revealed a myriad of file management inconveniences and processing limitations. Moreover, we soon discovered that our print output was not a facsimile of what we were seeing on the screen. You'll have to devote a fair amount of time to this process, in particular monitor to printer color management. Although to date we have employed kludge tactics to develop a workflow process using a number of disparate but effective software programs, Adobe Lightroom has now emerged with a leading edge holistic solution that certainly makes life a lot easier if you are starting from scratch. As a primer, we would suggest you review this synopsis to gain a better appreciation of some of the initial and future hurdles that must be overcome to begin to produce quality output in a productive manner.

Digital is a much different medium than film. Here, images are just bits, completely dependent on a computer that is subject to the vagaries of technology and obsolescence. Since everything is now a bitstream, you will need a work environment that encapsulates "end-to-end" the critical tasks at hand. We define workflow broadly as the process of downloading, sorting, converting, enhancing and archiving image files. This starts with choosing a color profile in your camera body and ends with the storage and safeguarding of data over time. Although there is no right or wrong methodology, processing a large number of image files dictates the need to be as productive as possible. You will go a long way to addressing the question of efficiency by first resolving the degree of control you want to achieve when post-processing image files. If you want total control, defined as the ability to process full sensor data, then it's probably best to capture images in RAW format, using the Adobe RGB (1998) color system, process at a depth of 16-bits per channel using a resolution of 360 pixels per inch and save in "lossless" TIFF (Tagged Image File Format). This is undoubtedly best if your objective is to produce large print media requiring a broad color spectrum. If you want minimal control, defined as the ability to process "lossy" compressed sensor data, then capture images in gamma-corrected JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) using the sRGB IEC61966.2.1 color system and process at a depth of 8-bits per channel using a resolution of 72 pixels per inch. This is the preferred format for Web graphics and small cards where print resolution requirements are less stringent. The route you choose will dictate workflow complexity and definitely influence the costs of processing hardware, software and storage. We chose the former as we found JPEG produced relatively harsh results given our output objectives (initial 6X4 inch Web graphics leading to 13X19 inch print media).

A bit compression algorithm known as JPEG is used to reduce image file size in an effort to conserve and maximize storage capacity. As such, editing is inherently a harsh process as bit loss is already substantial. Notwithstanding, we have met many bird and wildlife photographers who feel JPEG is a satisfactory medium and meets all their output objectives.

There is basically only one reason to capture an image in RAW format and that is to maximize the data available to gain total creative control during computer enhancement. Simply put, a RAW file is a complete record of the camera sensor data. When you shoot in RAW format, the only on-camera settings that have an effect on the captured pixels are ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Obviously you can't change these parameters once an image is exposed, but you can gain fairly broad control over white balance, refine lighting (shadows, highlights, brightness, contrast), correct color (hue, saturation) and, within limits, exposure compensation. Since a RAW file maximizes bit capture, you now have control over editing headroom in high-end enhancement programs such as Photoshop. Editing is by nature destructive but considerably less so with RAW files processed at 16-bit depth using a wide colorimetric setting such a Adobe RGB (1998). It's almost axiomatic, the more bits you start with the more latitude you have to adjust other parameters downstream. We store our files using TIFF as they retain the full quality of the processed image over time (JPEG will degrade as images are repeatedly accessed and resaved). Most large, high quality prints are done from TIFF to ensure that sufficient detail is captured and revealed in the final result.

It's worth reemphasizing that in a typical workflow there is no right or wrong approach to file management. To date, we have adhered to the original process we developed using Breeze Systems. Although Adobe Bridge has similar capability, we still prefer the folder creation ease of DownLoader Pro and the tag editing feature set of BreezeBrowser Pro to manage our field data. Whatever you decide has to work for you!

We define the following folder structure in DownLoader Pro: C:\Date And Location\Raw1\Raw2\Master\Output

We download image files in RAW format to the Date And Location folder. We then tag and move our best session images to Raw1 using BreezeBrowser Pro, discard the losers and move the remaining files we wish to keep for later review to Raw2. In other words, we split the images we want to retain into a primary and secondary folder structure based on quality and composition and catalog according to date and field site for ease of locating as time progresses. Processed files are stored in the Master folder prior to Sharpening and Cropping. Completed images are placed in the Output folder using an alpha suffix to the original camera file number to denote different versions of the Master folder image. Obviously, the original RAW files in the Raw1 and Raw2 folders remain in tact.

You assign an image file a color profile from the menu in your camera body and choose the same working space in the Adobe Camera Raw conversion. Four spaces usually define the "gamut" or range of supported colors: sRGB (minimum range sufficient for Web Graphics) to ProPhoto RGB (maximum range good for high end press prints). Adobe RGB (1998) is the color profile that optimizes the importance of color for our immediate purposes and is also the most widely used by professional bird and wildlife photographers.

Color management is an attempt to match monitor color to print output as closely as possible. Monitors and printers reproduce a color gamut differently. If your objective is to make an accurate print from a RAW file, you should be aware that "in-house" print technology cannot reproduce the bright, saturated colors that a monitor can display. Conversely, print can reproduce dark saturated colors that a monitor can't display. Since one of the basic attractions of digital photography is image control, it would therefore seem obvious that producing predictable and accurate color is of paramount importance. From a print perspective, good color management is therefore a must if you want to ensure what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG).

Good color management begins with an accurately calibrated monitor, a process that can be either relatively simple or require specialized equipment. An easy approach is to use the Adobe Gamma software available from the Windows Control Panel. We don't recommend this as it is tantamount to doing nothing and hoping for the best. A better and relatively cost effective method of characterizing a monitor is available from Colorvision DataColor. The Spyder2 hardware sensor and operating software is user friendly and will produce a custom ICC (International Color Consortium) device profile that matches your specific monitor. Once complete, you have now at least ensured the Adobe RGB (1998) color profile assigned to an image is accurately translated to your working space, for example, as displayed in Photoshop through the Camera RAW conversion process.

Prior to actually processing an image, you must configure your software by defining your color and profile preferences. Two steps are required in Photoshop. Both are in the Edit Menu, one under Color settings and the other under Preferences. Rather than reproduce what is a simple, well documented but lengthy set of configuration recommendations, we would suggest you refer to pages 30 to 40 of "Photoshop for Nature Photographers" by Ellen Anon and Tim Grey for the best overall explanation and summary. In fact, their workbook is a must tutorial that will reinforce your understanding of not only the basics but also the importance of developing a sound workflow process.

There are also several tricks that you can employ to help improve your ability to perceive color when processing an image. One is to work in dim lighting conditions with any artificial light minimized. Change the desktop background color to neutral grey when editing an image. This will eliminate color conflicts between the image and background that inhibit your ability to focus on the main subject at hand. Change the default setting for the Eyedropper Tool from Point Sample to 3 By 3 Average in the Options menu under Sample Size to produce a more representative reading of the pixels in the sample area. Finally, set target color preferences for the Shadow, Highlight and Middle Tone areas in Curves by setting the default for each Eyedropper as follows:

Black: R=20, G=20, B=20
Middle Tone: R=133, G=133, B=133
White: R=244, G=244, B=244

These latter adjustments are useful for removing any colour cast bias that is inherent in your camera (usually blue or red) while using Curves for color correction.

Unfortunately, to produce a good print you are only half way there. It's important to understand that a printer also has a color management system that will ultimately conflict with the color preferences and profiles employed in your enhancement software. The first step is to ensure your printer driver is capable of adjusting such critical settings as paper type and size. Fortunately, most modern printers come with software that produces custom ICC profiles that allow you to instantly select settings from the Print window in your operating system (in the past, these had to be individually configured through the Properties button during each print session, an inherently time consuming and painful process). Embedded printer profiles are now a simple way to print from an application such as Photoshop by allowing paper stock, size and other key choices to be made instantly within a single menu option. The key to ensuring WYSISYG is to now turn off the printer color management utility and let Photoshop manage color. In our Epson Stylus Photo R2400, we accomplish this by clicking on the ICM button in the Advanced menu.

For the beginner, especially one with little or no computer experience, the lexicon of image enhancement is a literal minefield. We can assure you that the processing techniques, at least the number you are required to master to achieve excellent results, are relatively few and simple to implement. However, this is little solace for the novice as most published material is laced with terminology that must be mastered, or at least minimally dissected, if you want to understand the degree of control you have over the image processing alternatives available. Although we started by attempting to enhance JPEG files, we soon found that we were producing relatively harsh results. Moreover, as we began working with RAW files, we also discovered the software functionality of Adobe Elements was severely restricted. The obvious next step was to begin utilizing Photoshop (CS2 was the latest Creative Suite version available at the time) as a means to engage a greater range of processing functionality. We soon found that this also had a number of drawbacks, most notably the RAW converter. However, times have changed. If you are beginning, our advice is to start with Adobe Lightroom for the benefits this program provides to managing overall workflow. Although we still use a combination of Breeze Systems and Photoshop to manage all our tasks, Lightroon now effectively integrates the entire process in a suite of application modules designed specifically to simplify RAW image editing and enhancement.

There are a great many books available on Lightroom but a great primer is "The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book - The Complete Guide for Photographers" by Martin Evening. Conceptually, Lightroom is engineered in modules (Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web) that interface with a core image processor and database. How does this differ from Photoshop? The answer lies in the distinctly different approach each program uses to process images. Photoshop is basically a real time, single image editor that more often than not requires a complex workaround to achieve best results. Conversely, the controls in Lightroom perform each task as expected and are unencumbered by Photoshop legacy issues. An example is how a file is progressively degraded in Photoshop as consecutive image adjustments are applied. Lightroom applies these adjustments only at the point that an image is exported, for example in a fixed pixel format such as JPEG or TIFF. In other words, Lightroom preserves an image in RAW format throughout enhancement rather than render a file as a pixel image when converted in Camera RAW and processed in Photoshop.

What does all this mean to a beginner? We would say everything unless you intend to utilize specific targeted processing functionality that only Photoshop can provide. This is hardly likely early on in your learning curve. In other words, Lightroom can perform many of the tasks that were previously the domain of Photoshop in a much more accommodating and speedier fashion. However, if you are comfortable using Photoshop, Lightroom certainly represents an effective "front end" process for importing, parsing and implementing basic select adjustments. Photoshop then acts as an effective "back end" enhancement module suitable for major retouching. Using Import By Reference, you can then easily place the derivative into the Lightroom Library. In effect, Lightroom becomes a RAW and master archive where backup and print tasks are more easily controlled.

Whichever program you choose, the case for total integration of Lightroom and Photoshop is still open to speculation. Our guess is that Lightroom will continue to emerge as a digital photography mainstay and become a cornerstone management and development tool. If you are getting started, we recommend you don't look elsewhere. You should be aware, however, that computer performance is a function of the size of the image files you process. Lightroom will definitely need some computing power if you intend to use large files, say in the range of 18-34 Megabytes, not uncommon in many of the newer camera bodies available today. To be on the safe side, we recommend use of a dual core processor with a high end, well supported graphics card and the maximum Random Access Memory (RAM) you can buy. This latter recommendation may seem like overkill, but our experience is that the evolving complexity of image enhancement programs literally chews up memory as you upgrade to newer versions.

Whether in the field or at the computer, organizing and safely managing a repository of digital photographs can be a real headache due to the ever changing types of storage media (for example, CD, DVD, hard drive, flash drive, USB key and thumb drives) and file formats (for example, JPEG, TIFF and PCD). As such, we feel the only sane archival strategy is to simply adapt to obsolescence. This means periodically moving data from older to newer technology. We strongly suggest you add a detailed description to each image and place them chronologically in folders with a logical title and structure. We use two 1 terabyte external hard drives to backup and mirror our images. This reserves our main hard drive for storage and processing of current field work only. We also store our very best images on DVD. Because of the sheer volume of data, we can't stress enough the need to ruthlessly edit image files after each session. Notwithstanding, storage media is relative cheap and trending to larger capacity as time progresses.

We hope the ideas and suggestions provided above will help you craft a comfortable workflow. Although our workflow process satisfies our current goals, we feel it also recognizes that we will undoubtedly improve our editing skills over time and want to return to early images at a later date. This will inevitably lead to improving some of our past output and help to either use or delete files we have stored in our Raw2 folders (as we have saved the original RAW file, we can return and apply new insights and abilities as they are acquired). Remember, there is no right or wrong approach, just whatever makes you comfortable.