My Digital Photo Editing Workflows

by Feb 19, 2021Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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My Digital Photo Editing Workflows

Something I receive a lot of email queries about is the digital photo editing workflow I use. I’m often asked what software I use and how do I combine my tools. So, in this article I’m going to share my various editing tools and how I combine them in my editing workflow. This way I’m able to share much more detail than in an email.

But before I share my editing workflow, I want to sound a note of caution. My workflow probably won’t suit you. You might not like the software or techniques that I use, or perhaps you don’t want to work the same way that I work. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong or you are wrong. A good workflow is one that you are prepared to follow.

I’m also not able to comment on individual workflows or give recommendations about which software to use. I receive hundreds of emails each week and at times each day. It’s not possible for me to answer or even acknowledge all of these. On top of that, selecting new software to use for editing is a very personal thing. I have however published an article to help you decide when choosing your photo editing software.

The final point before we look at my digital photo editing workflow in detail is that this article contains a lot of links. Most of these are to my tutorials on this website. These explain and expand on the various elements of my editing workflow. Be sure you take some time to read these.

What is a Photo Editing Workflow?

First, you should understand that there isn’t a set definition of what a digital photo editing workflow is. Roughly speaking it’s a set of steps that you might take a digital photo through from capture to being complete. Typical these steps fall under some broad headings:

  • Capture – This is how we go about capturing photographs with our camera. As this article is focussing on photo editing we won’t cover this aspect of the workflow but if you want to know more, see my Photography Tutorials.
  • Import – Is the process of importing the images we capture from our camera to the computer. This could be largely manual, or it might involve software like Lightroom or Capture One.
  • Organising – Having imported our photos we need to organise them on our computer. This allows us to quickly find a given image in the future amongst the thousands of images we have.
  • Editing – This is the area most people think of when it comes to the digital photo editing workflow. It’s also the area where I receive most questions so we will be covering it in detail.
  • Output – Having edited an image to produce a finished photo, we probably want to share it. This is where the Output activities come in. It’s also one of the most valuable topics because if we don’t share our photos, they sit on our computer unseen. All that invested time and effort never amounts to anything and is effectively wasted.

Now let me walk you through how I tackle these various stages for my own photography.

Importing Photos

When importing photography from my camera, I start with Adobe Lightroom, but there are plenty of alternative you can use. My objective is to move the files from the camera to the computer, rename them and put them into my folder structure. The folder structure I use to hold my images is much more important than the tools I use for the import.

In this article I explain my file structure for storing photos and the thinking behind it.

Folder structure used when importing photos

The reason I use Lightroom for the import stage of my photo workflow is down to circumstances. For a long time Lightroom was the only software that offered an integrated solution to importing, organising, and editing photography. (I did use another package before Lightroom was developed but Microsoft purchased that and added “features” that ruined it.) Although other photo managers have now caught up, I have no need to move. Lightroom still does everything I need it to in terms of organising my +0.5m photos.

Something else that importing to Lightroom does is automatically adds the photos to my Lightroom Catalog. This catalogue is core to how I organise my photos, making it easy to search and find what I want.

Capture One and PhotoLab

At one time I also used Lightroom for all my digital RAW editing, but this changed when I switched camera systems to Fuji. Today I use Capture One for processing my Fuji RAW files and this requires I also import the RAW files to Capture One. I tend to do this step of my workflow once the Lightroom import is complete. As the images are already in my computer storage at this point, the import to Capture One is fast.

The other RAW converter that I use is PhotoLab, due to the quality of the results. Typically, I use this for my Micro 43 RAW files as it can’t process the Fuji XTrans RAW. Whilst this also has a catalogue system, it doesn’t require you to import the images. Instead, it uses image discovery as you browse through the folders on your computer.

Backing Up Photos

After importing the photos to my photo library, I like to back everything up. The catalogues in Lightroom and Capture One are held on the main drive of my computer and are set to back themselves up to a remove drive each time I close them. Because my main editing computer is a Mac, I also have Time Machine running which handles hourly backups of the Mac hard drive.

But the photos I import aren’t held on the computer hard drive as there isn’t enough space. Instead, I import them to a remote storage unit which I can expanded by adding more or larger hard drives. The multiple hard drives in the unit also have automatic redundancy so that if one hard drive fails, I can still access my photos.

The unit I use for this is a Drobo and I have two of these which I’ve used for years. Other technologies are now available but when I bought my Drobo units, the alternatives were more expensive and less flexible. Until I have a need to change them, I will continue to use them.

In addition to the main Drobo storage, I have several 5Gb hard drives which I use to backup the Drobo. The largest Drobo is currently running around 9Gb of storage so multiple disk drives are needed to back it up. I also maintain multiple copies of my backups which allows me to keep a backup set offsite. To accomplish all this with a degree of automation I use Carbon Copy Cloner software.  This is cheap, easy to use, efficient and reliable. If you want to know more, you can read my hardware storage and backup strategy.

Organising Digital Photography

After importing and backing up my photos, it’s the organising stage of my digital photo editing workflow. At this stage of the workflow images are organised by time and shoot. But trying to find a particular photo in a folder relies on memory and browsing.

The solution, which saves time in the long term, is to add keywords and location information to the image. This allows me to then search all my photos to find ones that meet my need. Searching in this way is extremely efficient. You can filter hundreds of thousands of images down to a handful in seconds, but you need to invest in keywording up front.

Lightroom library module used for managing photos

When it comes to adding keywords and location information it’s sometimes possible to do this during the import process. Lightroom has an option to set key metadata as photos are imported. But when it comes to more specific keywording, it can be a time-consuming process.

Star Ratings and Keywords

To make this task easier and reduce the amount of time I spend on it, I first sort my images using a star rating from 1 to 5. A 1-star photo is a keeper; perhaps shared on social media or used in a book. The 2-star images are the ones I consider good enough to submit to stock libraries. And a 3-star image could be sold as a print. Anything that doesn’t receive a star rating is deleted from the library. This article describes more about using a star rating system with your own photos.

Having rated my photos, I can apply broad keywords to all images I’m keeping. I only need to add a few keywords for searching together with location information.  After this I do a second round of keywording for images with 2 or more stars. This takes much longer but I’m investing my time in my best images.

Everything I do in the organisation phase is done in the Lightroom Library module. The Lightroom Catalog is the core of my photo management system. I don’t use the photo management features of other software because I’ve already invested the time in Lightroom over the years. I use my other RAW converters (Capture One and PhotoLab) only for RAW processing.

I should also mention the link between organising my photos as the Editing phase. A typical editing session will generate at least one additional image file which I store with the original RAW file. To help manage additional files I use the file Stack facility in Lightroom. I also use Lightroom Collections and Lightroom Smart Collections to organise the finished photos but you can use the same approach ion other software.

Editing Digital Photos

When it comes to the Editing stage of my digital photo editing workflow, I need to break it into two steps:

  1. RAW Conversion
  2. Photo Effects & Finishing

RAW Conversion

As mentioned earlier, I now mainly use Capture One and DxO PhotoLab to process my RAW files. My objective is not to produce a finished image, but rather a good image I can process further with other editing tools. The RAW conversion therefore tends to be about correcting problems and maximising the image quality.

I’ve already published a couple of example workflows using Capture One and DxO PhotoLab (YouTube video). These will provide a degree of insight into how I work with RAW files.

Lightroom RAW Processing

Sometimes I decided that I want or need to use techniques like double RAW processing. This is where the RAW file is processed twice with different settings, before blending into one image. Often when using this technique, I will work from Lightroom. This allows me to open the file in Photoshop as a Smart Object giving greater flexibility in editing. It’s a relatively advanced technique which requires the integration between Photoshop and Lightroom.

As Lightroom tends not to process my Fuji XT RAW files very well, I add an additional step. This is to pre-process the RAW file using a Lightroom plugin called XTransformer from Iridient. This performs the Demosaic of the RAW file to DNG format with excellent image quality. Lightroom can then process the DNG format file and produce much better results.

The output image from the RAW converter stage of the workflow is usually by a 16-bit RGB image in either the TIFF or Photoshop PSD format.

Photo Effects & Finishing

After converting the RAW file into an image format, I will apply any additional post processing. The aim of this stage of my workflow is to finish the image. Typically, I try to exaggerate aspects of the image in a way that makes it more appealing, for example increasing the appearance of warm light or adding a selective glow.

For this I will usually work with Adobe Photoshop or sometimes Affinity Photo. If I decide to use Luminosity Masking techniques, I will use Adobe Photoshop so that I can use Luminosity Masking Extensions. I have several of these but tend to work with Lumenzia (affiliate link), TK Actions most of the time.

Lumenzia in Photoshop

Most of my editing tends to be with Photoshop rather than Affinity Photo. That’s because I’ve been using Photoshop since 2000 and most of my of master files are in the PSD format. Affinity Photo is an equally good tool and I sometimes use just for a change, but I’m quicker with Photoshop and speed matters when editing stock photography.

Photoshop Plugins

But whichever of these packages I use, plugins are a big part of my photo workflow as they speed up my editing. I have a lot of plugins that I can use although not all Photoshop plugins will work with Affinity Photo. Most of the time though I will use the Nik Collection as it offers me the fastest and easiest editing. If you don’t have the Nik Collection you can download a trial from DxO (affiliate link) or the old Google version for free.

I also have and use the following plugins depending how the mood takes me or if there is a specific effect that I know the plugin does well:

Two plugins that I’ve been using a lot recently are Topaz DeNoise AI or Topaz Sharpener AI plugins.

Topaz Denoise AI is now a key part of my workflow

After taking a converted RAW image into Photoshop I apply one of these two plugins to a copy layer. With many images this creates an exceptionally clean and sharp image that can’t be achieved with the RAW converter alone. After processing the layer with these plugins, the layer is converted to a Smart Object. I then apply the other plugins I use like the Nik Collection, On1 etc as Smart Filters. This has the benefit of preserving their settings between editing sessions.

Once I have finished all “special effects” processing, I save the image as a master file in the Photoshop PSD format. This master file is the basis for any further variations I want to produce in the Output stage of my workflow.

Output

The Output stages is really an optional stage of the digital photo editing workflow. Having said that, if you aren’t going to output the image to share, what’s the point of doing all this work.

For the Output stage of my workflow, I start with master file which is in the Photoshop PSD format. Any changes I make to prepare the image for Output are applied to copies of the master file. Typically, I will create a new image and save that as a new file, always leaving the master file unchanged.

Screen Output Workflow

If the image is being shared on social medial or my website, I will open the master file and then flatten all the editing layers. I then convert the colour profile for the image from the ProPhoto RGB colour space I use for editing, to sRGB which is more suitable for internet display.

Now I can resize the image to the required pixels, for example 1,200 pixels on the longest edge. This is to ensure the image isn’t too large and will load quickly on the internet.

As a final step I apply screen output sharpening using Nik Sharpener Pro. The finished image is then exported as a JPEG file after which the master file is closed. It’s important when closing the master file not to save the changes you have made to it.

Print Output Workflow

The workflow for printing is similar and starts with the master file. I make my own prints using an Epson 3880 A2 printer, printing from Lightroom. I tend to use Lightroom because I’ve used it a lot in the past, understand it, and it produces good results.

After selecting the master file for printing I switch to the Develop module where I soft proof the image. This creates a virtual copy of the master file so there is no danger of my changing the original file in error. After soft proofing I switch to the Lightroom Print module where I can send the proof copy of the image to the printer. In this article I describe in more detail how to print from Lightroom.

Most of the time when printing I rely on Lightroom to resize the image to the required size. Sometimes when the starting image is quite small or if I decide to produce a very large print (which I send to a third party printer) I will enlarge a copy of the master file using Topaz Gigapixel. This software can do amazing things when enlarging small images for print.

Summary

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this workflow article. I hope that it’s helped to explain the topic as well as shared something about my own digital photo editing workflow. But to get the greatest value spend some time exploring the various tutorial links. It’s worth the effort.

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