Digital Workflow Basics: Fine-Tune Your Photos Effectively

How the pros go from digital camera to editing to printing or sharing.

What Is a 'Digital Workflow'?

Making a great photo is more than just composing the shot and pressing the shutter release--you might want to fix the colors, brighten shadows, change the cropping, and sharpen the photo or eliminate noise. The order that you do all those things in is important because it can have a significant effect on the quality of the final photo. Pros call this sequence their "digital workflow." Here's a simple but effective digital workflow you can apply to your own photos.

1. Choose the Right File Format

A digital workflow begins way back at the camera, when you get ready to take your picture. What file format should you use? If you're striving for the best possible quality and you have the time and patience to edit your photos on the PC, then use a RAW format if your camera supports it. Not only does a RAW file have no image compression, noise reduction, or automatic color adjustments, it preserves the full range of colors and brightness that the camera captures--much of which is discarded if you shoot in JPEG format. If you don't have the time to invest optimizing all of your photos, shoot in JPEG instead--but be sure to choose your camera's best JPEG quality setting. Your photos won't require as much editing, but the image files won't have quite the same potential for greatness.

2. Gut Check With the Histogram

After you take a photo, eyeball its histogram on the camera's LCD. In fact, you might want to turn on the camera's histogram overlay and leave it that way, so it's always visible when you review your photos. (Check your camera's user guide to see how.) The goal of this histogram review is to make sure your photo has a reasonable exposure. Check to make sure that there isn't a peak at the extreme right or left of the histogram graph; a spike on the right means parts of the photo are overexposed ("blown out"), which, frankly, is impossible to fix. A peak on the left means that parts of the photo are underexposed, which is bad, but it's generally something that you can tweak. If you see a histogram like this, with no peaks at either edge of the graph, you can assume that there's nothing radically wrong with your exposure.

3. Import Your Photos

Now it's time to bring your photos into your PC. You can use whatever method works best for you; I like to copy the photos directly from the memory card, but you can connect your camera via its USB cable if you prefer. Likewise, you can drag and drop the photo files to a folder on your PC, or use software that imports them. If your software offers the ability to erase the memory card when the transfer is complete, I'd recommend against it--make sure the transfer was successful before you take that step, or you might lose a whole set of photos. Moreover, I'd wait until you back up your hard drive before erasing photos from the card, just to be on the safe side. It's a good idea to back up your hard drive--or at the very least, all of your photos--to an external hard drive or some other backup solution to guard against catastrophe.

4. Compose and Crop

Now it's time to get to work on your photos. Start by fine-tuning the composition in an image editor. If your photo needs to be rotated, do that first. There's probably a rotate tool in your program that lets you spin a photo by 90 degrees to the left or right with a single click. Next, look for photos that aren't perfectly level and straighten them. In Photoshop Elements, for example, you can use the Straighten tool to re-orient your photo. If you have a photo of a sunset at the beach, for example, it can be ruined if the scene is tilted even by just a little.

Crop your photo before moving on, so that when you adjust color and brightness later, your photo editing software won't be influenced by unwanted parts of the image. You can use cropping to take advantage of eye-catching composition tricks now, even if you didn't frame the scene that way in the viewfinder.

5. Adjust the Brightness, Contrast, and Color

Now that the photo is scoped down to the composition that you intended, fix the brightness and contrast. The most common way to do this is by using Levels and Curves, or perhaps the Histogram Adjustment tool, depending upon your photo editor. If you have Photoshop Elements, for example, you can use Curves. In Corel Paint Shop Pro, you use the Histogram to do the same sort of thing. When the overall levels are about right, move on to 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.

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 remove a tourist from the background of a vacation photo,, 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--in this "before and after" example, notice how the background person was airbrushed away. To get a primer on how to do that, check out "Clone Away Your Problems."

7. Turn Down the Noise

After your touch-up work is completed, it's sometimes a good idea to run a little noise reduction on your photo. This is especially important if you used a high ISO or shot in a very-low-light situation. (If you have an average, low-ISO, daylight photo, though, you can skip this step.) You can apply any noise reduction filter that comes with your photo editor, or, for better results, call on a standalone noise reduction program like Noise Ninja. Read "Reduce Digital Noise in Your Photos" for details. Whichever way you choose to go, be careful not to use too much noise reduction on your photo, because it will smooth over detail in your photo as it works.

8. Sharpen--Carefully

Photographers often remark that digital cameras capture photos that are a little "soft," and it's true that most digital photos can benefit from judicious sharpening. If you shoot in JPEG format, your camera is probably adds a little sharpening automatically. If you don't think it's enough, you can add some more in your photo editor. If you're shooting in RAW, of course, the only sharpening will be what you apply yourself.

The most common way to sharpen a photo is by using your photo editor's Unsharp Mask tool, which you control by varying three controls, usually called Amount, Radius, and Threshold. As you make Amount and Radius larger, the sharpening effect increases, so check the effect when viewing the photo at 100 percent magnification and be careful that you don't overdo it.

9. Save Your Photo

At long last, it's time to save your digital photo. It's usually a good idea to save your final version as a JPEG at the highest image quality (meaning the 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. Here, you can see how the JPEG format (on the left) retains less quality than the TIFF (on the right)--in particular, check out the pixilation around the text in the exit signs.

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