Establish a Digital Photo Editing Process That Works

Digital workflow is a fancy term that describes the sequence of things you do between the time you take a photo and when you file it away for some future project. The right workflow can be important, because you'll get better results by using certain tools and filters in the right order. Take your program's automatic color adjustment, for example: If you run it before you crop your photo, the program will try to autocorrect unwanted parts of the photo that might be under- or over-exposed. Crop the photo first, and the software can concentrate just on the parts of the photo that are important to you. Last week we started a discussion of the ideal digital workflow; this week, let's pick up where we left off.

5. Adjust the Brightness, Contrast, and Color

Now that the photo is scoped down to the composition that you intended, let's fix the brightness and contrast. The best way to do this is generally by using Levels and Curves, or the Histogram Adjustment tool, depending upon what photo editor you use. If you have Adobe Photoshop Elements, for example, you can use the Curves tool. In Corel Paint Shop Pro, the Histogram gives you an easy way to do the same sort of thing.

When the overall levels are about right, you can now fix the colors. That's hard to do if the image is too bright or too dark, as that can often mask the image's true colors. Often, all you really need to do at this point is fix the white balance by dragging the white balance slider, or using the white balance eyedropper tool to pick a part of the photo that should be white or neutral gray. In Photoshop Elements, choose Enhance, Adjust Color, Remove Color Cast to get to the eyedropper, and then follow the on-screen instructions.

When the colors look about right, I'll sometimes return to the brightness and contrast adjustments and tweak the settings one more time until I think they look just about perfect.

6. Make Some Local Improvements

At this point, you might consider your photo finished and just save your work. But check out your photo: Is there anything you'd like to get rid of? You might want to surgically remove a tourist from the background of a vacation photo, for example, or edit out a blemish from someone's face. Now is the right time to grab the Healing Brush or Clone Tool and remove those unwanted elements. To get a primer on how to do that, check out "Clone Away Your Problems."

7. Turn Down the Noise

When everything else is done, your last editing task is to run a little noise reduction on your photo. This is especially important if you shot it at a high ISO or in a very-low-light situation. (If you have an average, low-ISO, daylight photo, you can skip this step.) You can apply any noise reduction filter that comes with your photo editor, or call on a standalone noise reduction program like Noise Ninja. Read "Reduce Digital Noise in Your Photos" for details.

8. Save Your Photo

At long last, it's time to save your photo. I generally recommend saving your final version as a JPEG at the highest image quality (lowest JPEG compression level). If you want your final image to be absolutely lossless--for example, you're printing it to mount in a museum gallery or you're giving a copy to the president--save it as a TIFF. For most of us, though, a high-quality JPEG is fine.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Biker Bachelorette" by Myka Forrest, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Myka writes: "A group of us I were walking around downtown Des Moines during my sister Dana's bachelorette party. A bunch of older men standing next to their parked motorcycles insisted that the lady of honor sit on one of their BMW motorcycles. I snapped this photo, capturing the memorable moment. I took the shot on my Canon PowerShot s90 with the aperture wide open and the ISO cranked up to capture the details of the night. I added some contrast during post-processing."

This week's runner-up: "Lost Man Formation" by Miguel Lanigan, Clearlake Oaks, California

Miguel writes: "I got up before dawn to see the Reno balloon races. I took this photo to capture a scene in which I saw a flight of five planes heading for a pasture where balloons were being inflated with hot air. I lined up these three balloons, lit by the rising sun, and the planes flying a "lost-man formation" to get that strong implied diagonal in the image."

To see last month's winners, visit our December Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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