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Learning Lab

The Ideal Digital Photographer's Workflow, Part 2
Pages: 1, 2

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:

  • Choose Image > Duplicate. Cropping is a destructive process and this way you won't lose your original.
  • Choose the Zoom Tool, then press Opt/Alt and click in the center of the image to zoom out so that there's a nice, wide border between the frame for the image window and the image itself (see Figure 3).
  • Convert the Background layer to an ordinary layer by highlighting and double- clicking its Name bar in the Layers palette, then pressing Return in the Layer Name dialog. This allows you to transform the Background Layer.
  • If there are several other image (not Adjustment) layers, link them.
  • Press Cmd/Ctrl + T so that you can stretch or re-scale the adjustment layers. A Transform marquee appears.
  • Press the Shift key and drag the corners of the image until it is properly cropped across its width. Then place the cursor in the center of the image and drag it so that the top and bottom are as close as possible to their position in the final crop. When all that's done, click on the Commit (checkmark) icon in the Options bar.
  • The transformed image is now larger than the original, but you can't see the data outside the image window unless you choose the Image > Reveal All command. Nevertheless, that data is still a part of the file. You can keep it if you think you may want to retrieve that data at some future time. However, since you have a copy of the original, I'd recommend that you crop out the extra data in order to speed up editing and to save drive space.
  • To eliminate the data outside the image frame, press Cmd/Ctrl + A (Select All), then choose Image > Crop.

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.

  • For more information, or to order the book, click here.

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