Digital Focus: Establish a Digital Photo Workflow, Part II

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Feature: Establish a Digital Photo Workflow, Part II

How do you edit your digital photos? Do you remember to perform all the tweaks needed to make them look their best? And do you do it all in the best order to preserve image quality and get the best results?

The way you edit your photos is often referred to as your "digital workflow." Last week I began to share with you the way I edit my own photos--my own digital workflow, as it were. We started by talking about the best formats in which to capture and save your images.

Fix the Brightness and Contrast

After you've opened your digital image in your favorite image editor (I use Corel's Paint Shop Pro) and adjusted its color balance, which I discussed last week, it's time to move on to some other corrections.

The next thing I usually do is tweak the picture's brightness and contrast; if the image is too bright or too dark, everything else will look wrong. To do this, click the Enhance Photo button in the toolbar at the top of the screen and choose Automatic Contrast Enhancement. You can accept the default changes or make the image somewhat brighter or darker than normal. Click OK.

If you like the result, move on to the next section. If you're still not happy, though, take matters into your own hands. Choose Adjust, Brightness and Contrast, Gamma Correction, and move the sliders right or left to fine-tune the settings. When you're satisfied, click OK.

Sharpen the Image

If you took the original picture in JPEG format, then your camera probably already ran a sharpening filter on the image--but if you shot in RAW, it's totally unprocessed. So you'll need to evaluate your image and decide if it would benefit from a little sharpening.

To sharpen your photo, choose Adjust, Sharpness, Unsharp Mark, and try using Paint Shop Pro's default values: radius, 2; strength, 100; and clipping, 5. If the result is noisy or ragged, undo the sharpening. You may need to zoom in a little to see the effect.

Once all of the basic pixel-changing edits are done, I tend to run a noise reduction utility on my photo. Don't bother with this step if the picture was taken in normal lighting with a low ISO setting. But if you were taking night shots, long exposures, or using an ISO above 400, then there might be noisy pixels sprinkled like unattractive seasoning all over your image. I like to use Noiseware Community Edition, which you can download for free from Imagenomic. You'll need to save the file, process it in Noiseware, and then load it back into your image editor when you're done.

Crop and Compose

Now that your photo has gotten a makeover and its exposure looks great, you should use the crop tool to recompose the picture to get it into its final form for sharing or printing.

In Paint Shop Pro, you'd click the Crop tool (third from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen) and choose the desired print proportion from the Presets menu in the Tool Options palette--8 by 10 in horizontal, for example. If you don't see Tool Options, turn it on by choosing View, Palettes, Tool Options. Drag the crop box around the screen, size it to compose the picture to taste, and then click the check mark in Tool Options to recompose and crop the image.

Save It and Apply Metadata

That concludes the major steps in my typical digital workflow.

Remember to perform your edits in this order:

  1. Color balance
  2. Brightness and contrast
  3. Sharpening
  4. Noise reduction
  5. Cropping

After you've taken these initial steps, you can always make other changes, such as boosting the saturation or adjusting the colors. You might also want to add filters, perform special effects, or do some composite work by adding layers.

When you're done, save your image the way we discussed last week: in a format that will retain the most color information.

One last thing: I've made adding metadata a regular part of my workflow, or else I know that it'll just never happen. So after I finish editing and saving my photos, I load the files into my photo organizer software and add some keywords so they'll be easy to find. What do I do with the file names? Nothing. I don't use file names anymore; I find keywords to be a much smarter way to work with digital photos.

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