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By Vandit Kalia
May 2006 (updated July 2007)

I shoot with RAW, which minimizes in-camera processing and yields images with greater dynamic range and bit depth than JPEGs: perfect for high-contrast shots taken in Indian forests, for example. However, the resultant image is usually quite dull and lifeless, lacking in contrast and saturation.

A typical shot might look like this:

But keep in mind that this is exactly what the name implies - a raw image. For JPEGs, all cameras perform some internal processing. The benefit of shooting RAW is that I,as the user, get to perform this post-processing as per my own tastes, as opposed to a generic "one size fit all" algorithm produced by the camera. With practice, only a few minutes of post-processing yield an image that looks like this:

Before, I used to use Adobe Bridge and CS/CS2 for image processing, Raw Shooters Essential for screening images and IMatch for cataloging. Recently, I have switched to Lightroom for my RAW processing as well as image screening and archiving needs. It is a very powerful software and does a better job of integrating an image database with image processing. So I no longer need to switch back and forth between various applications.

Physically, I organize my images by shoot. So I have a folder called RAW images, under which I will have folders like "Borneo June 2007", "Ranthambhore July 2007" and so on. I also have a folder called CONVERTED images, under which I have the same sub-folders as the Raw folder. Logically, I keep 2 separate databases - one is of all the RAW images, the heart of my image collection, and is maintained in Lightroom. The other is of all my converted images, maintained using Aperture to keep track of these images. This database is created on my computer's hard drive, and then moved on to 2 external hard drives.

My new workflow is as follows (you can compare it to my old Workflow to see what has changed):

Step 1: Import images from card to a storage folder on my computer. I do this using Lightroom, which also renames the images according to my needs (usually location of shoot-month & year-numeric sequence). RAW files with sidecars (eg, .CRW files) and non-Canon RAW formats are converted to DNG at this stage as well. I can also input basic IPTC fields here, as well.

Step 2: Go to the Library module of Lightroom and review images, flagging the ones I want to delete. I do a quick review of the images marked for deletion, and then get rid of them. If time allows, I just let the images sit for a while and do a second review loop after a week or so - this lets me review my images more objectively, without the memory of the trip or shooting situation clouding my judgement.

Step 3: Assign keywords to all the images that I am going to retain. At this point, I also select all the images that I will be processing immediately and move them to my "Quick Collection" in Lightroom.

Step 4: Go to the Develop module of Lightroom, and adjust color temperture, exposure, curves and saturation of all the images in my Quick Collection. After I am done at this stage, most of the images are very close to being "final" - that's one of the advantages of Lightroom: the RAW processor allows you to do so much more. At this stage, I also prepare multiple RAW conversion files, if need be - for example, for merging 2 different exposures, or blending various color temperatures.

Step 5: Once all the images in my Quick Collection are processed, I export the files to TIFF format. Lightroom batch-processes the output and puts it into the appropriate folder. I also import the images into Aperture's database at this point.

Step 6: Open each the image in Photoshop. Apply noise reduction if needed (using Noise Ninja) and crop, again if needed. Also apply Capture Sharpening at this stage, using Photokit Sharpener. Save.

Step 7: (OPTIONAL) Batch up-size all images that need to be up-ressed, using QImage - the best $50 you'll ever spend for a printing software that does a very good job with up-ressing as well.

Step 8: Back to Photoshop - adjust contrast. This step can consist of one or many adjustments: levels, simple curves adjustment, blending in multiple layers, use of masks and multiple layers, and more. There is no simple formula here - what I use depends on the starting image, my goal for the ending image and the nature of the image. I work in adjustment layers.

Step 9: Adjust saturation. I used to use Fred Miranda's Velvia Vision plug-in, but now have started using a plug-in from "The Light's Right Studios" (Glen Mitchell's site has excellent resources for photographers - well worth visiting) or simply Photoshop's Variations & Hue&Saturation tools.

Step 10: Apply Creative Sharpening, if needed. Creative sharpening is the optional second step of my 3-step sharpening process, and consists of selective sharpening to satisfy the user's vision. Generally, I don't use it much - if I do, it is to sharpen the subject's eyes and any other features that I think are important.

Step 11: Save the resulting image as a TIFF. If I am submitting to an agency, then this is the final product.

Step 12: [FOR WEB DISPLAY] Downsample the image to around 500-550 pixels on the wide end, using Bicubic Sharper. I find this size to be good enough for web display and low-res enough that I don't have to worry about my images being boosted for any serious commercial applications. Then I apply Output Sharpening. This is the third stage in the 3-step sharpening process I use, and is used to sharpen the image to match the desired output medium, using Photokit's Output Sharpener, or simple USM with edge masking. Finally, I run an action to apply a border and frame to the image, and save for the web.

Step 12: [FOR PRINTING] Open the image in QImage, and let Qimage's interpolation and output sharpening algorithm take care of everything for me. I find this process to be much easier to use for prints up to A3 in size. Once I have the image sharpened to the point where it looks good on screen, QImage does an excellent job of ensuring that it looks great on print. For really large prints, however, I first manually up-res the image in step 6, (just as I would for a stock submission).

Sounds complex, doesnt it? It really isnt. I have most of these steps programmed as actions in Photoshop and assigned to various function keys. On average, it takes me a couple of minutes to prepare an image for web display and maybe 10 min to get an image ready to print to A3.

Do note that it is not possible for me to specify exactly what goes on in each step, or the "best" settings for each step. That is like asking what is the best composition - there is no real answer except "it depends". Post-processing is as much art as technique, especially when it comes to adjusting contrast and saturation. That is a skill that comes with practice.

However, it does help to have a thorough understanding of each of the various tools available to you, and what the pros and cons of each are. Working through a few examples is a great way to learn these techniques - and understanding the capabilities of the digital darkroom means improved photo taking (how you choose to compose/expose a shot and what you can do with the image later are related).

I run half-day Photoshop Digital Darkroom workshops for Photo Safari India. These cover everything: from the basics to complex subjects like using multiple layers and masks to fine-tune results. These workshops can be combined with one of our trips, or with a half-day shooting trip in Delhi or Mumbai (other locations also possible).

Cost of the workshop + half-day city shooting trip is Rs 12,000 / $250 per person - this includes transport and lunch. Participant(s) are expected to provide their own laptops/computers, although we can arrange a fully-loaded machine for you at an extra charge, if you prefer. Cost of the workshop itself is Rs 4,500/$100 per person if combined with one of our other trips.

Please contact us if you are interested in this workshop.


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