Digital Focus: Establish a Digital Photo Workflow, Part I

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Feature: Establish a Digital Photo Workflow

Don't get me wrong: There's nothing wrong with just taking pictures with a digital camera, and then sharing, printing, or storing the results with no intermediate editing. I do that quite often myself, when I don't feel the need to mess with anything.

But people who want to push the limits a bit and do more with their digital photos often ask me about the concept of a digital workflow. What should they do with their photos to improve the pictures beyond what their camera is capable of capturing, and in what order?

This concept is really just a modern update on the workflow used by film photographers who develop their own pictures. In the digital universe, it's also a good idea to do certain things in a certain order--or your edits won't necessarily have the desired effect.

So this week and next, let's talk about digital photography workflow.

Start With the Camera

These days, the best place to begin is by setting your camera's file format to RAW. Certainly, this is optional: Shooting in RAW can be like making a major lifestyle change. (You know, like buying only organic foods or riding your bike to work instead of driving.) So if RAW is too much to ask, shoot your pictures in JPEG format at the camera's best resolution and quality level. Keep in mind, though, if you shoot in RAW you'll be able to process your photos with a higher level of fidelity, which can be a good thing if you want to eke out every last drop of quality.

Some digital cameras give you the option of capturing both RAW and JPEG images simultaneously. That's the best of both worlds, and the option I recommend, since the JPEG file is instantly usable by Microsoft Windows and most photo programs, while the RAW version is ready for editing.

First Things First: Balance the Color

So, you know what format you're shooting in. When you open a photo in your favorite image editor, I suggest that the first thing you do is adjust the color balance. Also known as white balance or light source adjustment, this is a key step to being able to accurately adjust the photo. If the whole image is too green, for instance, you can't be sure you're fixing anything else properly.

When you open a RAW file in a photo editor that supports that format (and these days, most of the popular ones do), the first thing you'll see is a dialog box that helps you import the image. Here you can control the color balance, such as in this screen shot.

Pick the best lighting; as you select different options, the image preview changes accordingly. You could also just accept the automatic default--which, you may find, is still better than the average color balance in JPEG images..

If you shot in JPEG, don't worry--there's a color balance setting for you as well. If you're using Corel Paint Shop Pro, open your image file and choose Adjust, Automatic Color Balance. You can accept the default or drag the slider around to make the picture warmer (redder) or cooler (more blue). Click OK when you're done. Here's what you'd see in Paint Shop Pro.

Do No Harm

Next week, we'll pick up after color balancing and finish the rest of the digital workflow. For the time being, though, you might want to know what to do when you're ready to save your work.

Follow the digital photographer's version of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. No matter what format your photo started in when you opened it, save it in a format that won't throw away color information or cause ugly fringing effects. I know of no image editor that will allow you to save a RAW file back to its original format, so one way to preserve your changes is to save it as a TIFF. TIFF has the advantage of being fairly universal, so most programs will be able to open the file. But a better option might be the native format used by your favorite image editing program. For Paint Shop Pro, that would be .psp. Adobe Photoshop users would save the edited file as a .psd file, and Microsoft Digital Image Suite users would save it as .png.

What if you're not working in RAW format, but using JPEG instead? You'll still get the best results from one of the file formats I just listed, but the differences in image quality are generally minor. Unless you're really serious about the craft, there's nothing wrong with resaving your photos in JPEG format--but I highly recommend using the highest quality/lowest compression level available.

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