The Ideal Digital Photographer's Workflow, Part 2

Steps for Editing Nondestructively on Your Images

by Ken Milburn, author of the upcoming Digital Photography: Expert Techniques

This article follows up on suggestions I made in Part 1 about creating a minimally destructive workflow for the work you do inside image-editing software, whether you're using Adobe Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, ULead PhotoImpact, Microsoft PictureIt!, or another editing program. Today we'll first look at five nondestructive editing steps you should take once you've downloaded your images. Then we'll examine some second-stage editing techniques designed to enhance the impact your images will have on your clients, or your friends and family.

Preparatory Steps

The first thing you should do after downloading images from your camera is to make it easy to choose exactly which pictures you want to keep. If you're a pro, you also want to spend the least amount of time needed to make the photos impressive enough to show the client.

Delete the Baddies

I suggest you start deleting the photos you don't want using your thumbnail image management program. For Windows folk, I recommend Adobe Photoshop Album; it's the most versatile of the under-$50 variety of these. (Corporate users and those who store their images on multiple servers or across a network may prefer Canto Cumulus or Extensis Portfolio. Mac users will benefit from the astounding speed and new features in iPhoto '04.)

To delete the baddies, highlight them in Album (or iPhoto, if you're a Mac user) and press the Delete/Backspace key. A dialog will ask if you're sure you want to delete the images. If the answer is yes, either click OK or press Return/Enter. Another dialog will appear to ask if you also want to delete the image from the hard drive.

Note: When low light forces slow shutter speeds, many photographers shoot several frames so that they can use their computer to choose the image with the least motion blur. If you have done this, the first images you should eliminate should be duplicates that are less sharp than the sharpest acceptable photo in the series. You'll automatically save a lot of disk space, eliminate the chances that you'll accidentally use a blurred image later, and make it easier to subjectively choose the other images you want to delete because you won't have as many images to look through.

Rotate the Verticals

Immediately after deleting the baddies (the more images you have to rotate, the longer it takes), select all the images that need to be vertically oriented and rotate them. If some need to be rotated left and others need to be rotated right, you will have to repeat the operation for each of those orientations. In order to minimize image deterioration, particularly if you plan to keep files stored as lossy JPEGs, it is best to rotate images to the correct orientation as soon as they are downloaded.

Match the Exposure and Contrast of Sequence Shots

If there are groups of pictures that have been taken of the same scene and that also use the same camera angle and lighting conditions, make sure that they are all of uniform brightness, contrast, and color balance. I always do this from within Photoshop Album because the edited version is saved without overwriting the original and that's what you see when Album displays the thumbnails. The fastest way to do this is with the AutoFix command, which makes a "best guess" for the correction of brightness, contrast, and color at the same time. AutoFix is the fast way to do it because it can be applied to any number of images that have been pre-selected in Album. Also, you don't have to switch to another application to do the processing. That is not to say that AutoFix will seem particularly fast, because waiting while doing nothing always seems to take forever. A gigabyte or two of RAM and a 2+ gigahertz processor will certainly help.

A better, but more time-consuming, alternative is to use Album/iPhoto to open the series of images in Photoshop (Elements or CS, no matter). The images will open in a stack. In the Layers palette, create an Adjustment Layer for Levels. Use the Levels dialog to set the absolute white and black point for the image (see Figure 1). Then drag the mid-tone slider to set the image brightness and click OK. Drag this first image to one side, open the Layers palette, and drag the Adjustment layer you created to each of the other images in turn. The same adjustments will then be made for each of those images. Once you've adjusted all the images, close each file. Album will add "edited" to the saved file's name so that it doesn't overwrite the original, then display only the new version.

Figure 1: The Levels dialog as it should look after maximizing the brightness/contrast range that can be shown in a photo.

If you're not happy with the result from Album's Quick Fixes, Photoshop and Photoshop Elements also offer numerous "one- (or two- or three-) click" automatic correction features as well. So if you have a series of pictures shot of the same subject under the same lighting conditions, you can select several by Cmd/Ctrl + clicking their thumbnails and then right-clicking to choose Edit in (Photoshop or Photoshop Elements) from the in- context menu.

Of course, some images simply need to be manually corrected if you want to be exacting as to how you, personally, want to control color and contrast. Starting in Album, so that your changes automatically stay organized in Album, highlight an individual thumbnail and then choose the Edit In command as described in the previous paragraph.

Here's the best routine for insuring that you are displaying the most complete tonal range that your sensor and exposure can provide. It's a good idea to run this routine on a duplicate of each image you shot:

Related Reading

Digital Photography: Expert Techniques
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By Ken Milburn

Hint: If you are working in a full version of Photoshop, you can record the above exercise as an Action. You will need to place a stop at each adjustment step in the Action, but you won't have to remember what sequence to do the steps in and you won't have to waste time searching for menu commands.

Note: It is best to do the above routine using an Adjustment Layer. This provides two important advantages: (1) You can automatically adjust other images that were taken at the same time and place so that they match one another perfectly. All it takes is dragging the Adjustment Layer to the open window of the next image, where it will be immediately applied. (2) You can nondestructively change this adjustment at any time by simply opening the Layers palette and double-clicking the appropriate Adjustment Layer. The dialog for that type of layer will open and you can then change the adjustments. Better yet, you can duplicate the Adjustment Layer before you make the changes, then turn off the original and readjust the copy. Then you can go back and forth between the two adjustments at any time by turning the appropriate layers on and off. Believe it or not, Adjustment Layers don't even increase file size.

Archive the Keepers

Once you've eliminated the duds and done your basic corrections, it's essential to archive these items offline. Don't wait until later: You'll never have time to do archiving of huge libraries all at once. Once the basic editing has been done, copy the new files to another hard drive and to a CD or DVD. CDs are easier to distribute because more users have the drives installed and because they only cost about 20 cents each. DVDs, on the other hand, will hold a lot more information. The fastest way to archive images is by using Album's Export command.

Hint: The Export command is also very useful for converting a set of files for Web use. I routinely copy the same files I archived to separate folders that hold an 800X600-pixel JPEG because I can then automatically post all those images to a web gallery or create a slideshow to be played on CD, DVD, PDA, or emailed.

Make a Project or Job Folder for Sharing and Communication

Once you've made sure that your images are basically presentable, by making sure similar frames are uniformly adjusted and that all frames are adjusted to show an acceptable amount of detail and contrast. Again, the easiest way to do this is by using Album (or iPhoto). Collect the photos you want to communicate with (say you want to discuss them with an assistant, client, or friend before you proceed with additional editing, interpretation, or special effects.)

Second-Stage Image Editing

Once you've done your basic editing, you'll want to go ahead and do all the things that will make this image fulfill the ideas you (and your clients/colleagues) have with regards to the image's impact.

Sketch Out Where You're Going Before You Start

Once you've communicated with any other folks whose creative input is required or desired, you'll probably have a short list of preferred photos and a long list of editing suggestions. Ask each of the people you communicate with to add their notes to either a copy of the image or by using an opaque, brightly-colored marker on a proof print. Figure 2 shows you an typically marked image done in Photoshop.

Figure 2: A copy of a Photoshop image that has been marked up for editing.

Do the Required Cropping First

If your editing sketch has crop marks, do your cropping first (I'll explain the exception to this rule in a minute.). It will save you having to do retouching and editing on details that you're not going to use later anyway. When you crop, I recommend doing it in such a way that your cropped image will be the same size as the original -- at least on one version -- especially if you're going to have several photographs in this collection or assignment. Here's how you do that:

Figure 3: The image after zooming out and re-scaling it. The marquee shows the limits of the cropped image.

Tweak Specific Brightness Values with the Curves Dialog

You have already made the basic brightness and contrast corrections in the Stage I "quick and dirty" image editing. There will undoubtedly be specific tonalities in the image that can benefit from some brightening and darkening while using the Curves command. The easy way to brighten or darken all the objects that fall within a specific tonal range is to press Cmd/Ctrl while the Curves dialog is open and then click the cursor on a pixel in the image that is representative of those pixels whose tonality you want to change. This places a handle on the curve line that you can then drag up and down while you watch the effect in the image. Better yet, use the Arrow keys to move the dot at regular increments and just stop when you're satisfied with that particular result. Keep repeating this process until you've adjusted all the areas of brightness to exactly what you wanted them to be.

Adjust Color Saturation

Often, it's not so much the overall color balance of the image, but the intensity of the colors that really makes or breaks the impact you intend the image to have. You probably already know that you can change overall saturation by simply dragging the Saturation slider in the Hue/Saturation dialog. You can also intensify just one particular color by using the Select > Color Range command to select just one color in the image. After making that selection, use the Select > Feather command to blend the edges of the intensified colors with their surroundings.

Apply All New Adjustment Layers to Other Same-Sequence Shots

Just as you did with the Levels Adjustment layer, drag the new Curves, Hue/Saturation, and any other Adjustment Layers that you might have used to help to improve on your interpretation of the image from the first image you edited to all the others. Then, should you decide to use any of the other images later you will start with an already (mostly) pre-edited image.

Make All Physical Changes to Parts of the Image

Operations that involve actually changing a specific part of the image include burning and dodging, all sorts of retouching, red-eye correction, and cloning to remove undesirable objects in the image such as power lines and lawn trash.

Apply Any Filters You Want to Use for Image Adjustments

If you want to use plugins and special effects that will affect the overall image (or any selected part of it), now's the time to do it. Do any filter effects that affect image quality. Do any local area focus control (blurring and sharpening) At this stage, all the work you've done to this point will be affected equally and you won't have to do specialized retouching that takes the effects into consideration.

Apply Any Filters You Want to Use for Special Effects

If you want to texturize the image, use photo painting effects filters, or create colorization special effects, now's the time. Since these effects completely change (and therefore destroy) the original image's data, it's a very good idea to archive the version of the file that exists immediately to your applying these effects. At the very least, use the History palette to shoot a Snapshot of the image before you apply the filter effect(s). A Snapshot increases the file size by the same amount as if you were to copy the Background layer, but at least you have a way to return to the original if you don't like the effect you've created. It also gives you the means to paint over the filtered version of the image with details from the original image.

Copy All the Finished Images to a New Folder and Burn It to CD-ROM

If, during your editing process, you have worked on a number of images, it's a good idea to back up the entire session to CD-ROM or DVD. It's then much easier to find and repurpose exactly the images made for that given session. Remember, CDs are very inexpensive these days and backups made on them in the course of your work will pay for themselves many times over in time saved. Not to mention their value as insurance against losing all that work.


This article has covered the workflow for the editing that has to be done for almost every type of image you're likely to encounter. Some images (or many, if your personal style includes a particular "trick") require special procedures such as image compositing, image distortion, and morphing. You should also establish a workflow for presenting and sharing your work.

Ken Milburn has been a photographer, both full- and part-time, for nearly five decades. In addition to countless articles, Ken has written 17 books on web design, Flash, Photoshop, and digital photography. His latest book, for O'Reilly, Digital Photography: Expert Techniques, was released in March 2004.

O'Reilly & Associates will soon release (January 2004) the Digital Photography: Expert Techniques.

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