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The Ideal Digital Photographer's Workflow, Part 3
Steps for Working Optimally with the RAW Formatby Ken Milburn, author of the upcoming Digital Photography: Expert Techniques
If you're the proud owner of one of the many new digital cameras just introduced at PMA 2004 that carry a "pro" designation, you'll quickly discover that you have vastly greater control over the quality of the images produced by your new camera if you shoot them in RAW format. It's a double blessing if you also happen to have Photoshop CS, with its updated and much-enhanced new RAW file converter.
The downside is that, marvelous as the new RAW image converter in Photoshop CS is, it can still take an inordinate amount of time to convert RAW images into something that your image-editing program can use. The process gets especially tedious when you need to RAW-process dozens or perhaps hundreds of images from the shoot you just completed in order to decide which images you want to keep, print, or deliver. In this article I will show you several steps you can take to save hours of work after every shoot.
1. Download Images from a Fast Reader
If you've been downloading your images through a USB 1.1 cable, the 5MB-plus RAW files are going to take seemingly forever to download. If you've just bought a pro or prosumer camera, chances are you have either a USB 2.0 connection, a Firewire connection, or both, on the camera. That means you can use your camera as the card reader at several times the transfer rate of your USB 1.1 card reader. All you need to do is plug the camera into the computer with the cables that came with it. Your computer will simply think the camera is an external drive and you can simply create a new job folder in the RAW folder and drag-and-drop the files into it. If you don't have a fast connection on your camera, you'll find it's worth your while to spend about $50 on a newer model card reader that lets you hook up to either of the higher speed ports.
Note: If you have an older computer that's fastest connection isn't state of the art (again, USB 2.0 or Firewire), you can get a bus card, plug it into your computer, and it will adapt to those ports. Laptop users may have to upgrade their laptops to get these ports, but I have heard that new adapters are being brought to market that will work in PMCIA slots.
2. Prep the First Image in Each Series of Similar Photos
RAW images are so called because they (theoretically, at least) contain all the image information that the cameras sensor was capable of recording, which is typically billions of shades of color, rather than millions. From this data, one can extract exactly the visible range of colors (brightness range) and color balance that we want the viewer to see. Theoretically, one can do that by using image-editing commands on a JPEG file, but when the camera stores that JPEG file you have to work with a much more limited range of information. So you end up having to work with what's left, rather than what you started out with. That's why, after using the Levels or Curves commands, displaying the Histogram shows a "comb" effect. The gaps in the Histogram on the right represent missing data.
First, for those who aren't yet familiar with the Photoshop RAW image converter, I'll give you a brief familiarization. Of course, if you're already familiar, you can skip over this next section. The balance of the article will organize your RAW photo processing into efficient workflow routines for most of the operations you're likely to encounter. It will also, incidentally, introduce you to the power of Photoshop CS' new scripting capabilities by utilizing one of Russell Brown's (Adobe's head Photoshop tipster) scripts for automatically processing RAW images.
Few all-purpose image-processing programs are capable of processing RAW files, because each camera manufacturer has different file specifications for RAW images. However, Adobe has created this new built-in version of the original Photoshop Camera RAW plug-in so it can read RAW images from all the most popular pro and prosumer digital cameras and then open them directly into Photoshop. This makes it much easier to accept files directly from a variety of photographers who might be using different cameras.
Also, the Photoshop CS RAW file interpreter is significantly more powerful than the software bundled with most cameras (though you should take a look at your own software and make that judgment for yourself -- nothing in this industry is static).
Having said all that, check Figure 2 to see what the RAW image processor dialog looks like.
Although the settings you can make in the new RAW file converter are greatly expanded over the older plug-in (no longer available), the settings essential to getting an acceptable-looking Photoshop file are the same:
3. Automate the RAW Processing for All Photos Shot of Identical Subject and Lighting Conditions
If you've learned the most important lesson in what it takes to become a good photographer, you'll take lots of photos of any given situation so that you give yourself (and your client, if it's a commercial job) the best chance at capturing the most meaningful moment, composition, and camera angle. Now, here's the problem with that plan: If you're shooting RAW, it can take a lot of time to do the settings for each of those similar images. The answer is to do the settings for one of the photos and then automate the application of those same settings to all the other photos. Photoshop CS makes this operation very fast and easy. Here's the 1,2,3 of it:
Holy Smoke! Batman!! We got the power!! Repeat the above seven steps for each different series of images shown in the File Browser immediately after a download, until your whole assignment has been properly adjusted.
If you need to confirm all the files with your client before you make any settings, then you may want to reverse the order of doing this procedure and the next one. Just remember that, otherwise, you'll save time by keeping them in this order.
4. Automate Converting Your RAW Files to the Commonly Needed Formats
Don't wait a single second before you go on to this next stage. Now that you have the settings converted to the intended best resolution, interpretation(s), and size, you want to convert the file into all the formats required for all the various purposes you're likely to need these files for in the immediate future.
Before Russell Brown, Adobe's Creative Director, turned this into a simple process by writing a script for it, this was one of the world's most tedious (and often overlooked) processes. You can buy a whole CD of these scripts by journeying to www.russellbrown.com for less that $30, so I'd strongly suggest doing it unless you just like to waste your time. If you're too cheap to do even that, you may be able to download this particular script for free -- provided you don't wait too long. From time to time, Brown posts new Photoshop scripts as free downloads, partly as a means of "teasing" you into buying the whole thing.
For the purposes of completing this workflow stage in the most efficient possible manner, the script you want is entitled "Dr. Brown's Image Processor." The name is a bit misleading, because it doesn't automate all image processing tasks -- just a few that you'll find yourself needing over and over, and over and over...
After you've downloaded the file, use your file browsing system to move a copy to the following folder (matters not whether you're Mac or PC): Drive/Photoshop CS/Presets/Scripts//Dr Brown's Image Processor... Close and then restart Photoshop CS.
Now, here's what we want to use Dr. Brown's Image Processor for right now: We're going to convert each of the series of files we processed into the file formats we're going to need in order to: (1) Make a contact sheet and collect images that can be transmitted to the client by resizing and converting all the images to TIFF format and placing them all in the TIFF sub-folder of this job folder, (2) Create all sorts of onscreen presentations -- including a "feedback" web gallery for communicating with the client, by converting and resizing all the same images to JPEG format and placing them into the JPEG folder for this format, and (3) convert (without resizing) all the images to PSD (Photoshop native file format) and place them into the PSD folder that is used to store "works-in-progress."
Here's the routine to follow next:
You just saved yourself many hours of tedious, step-by-step work. You also just made a major positive impression on your client because of your ability to speedily communicate and deliver your work. Don't forget to thank Russell Brown.
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 (March 2004) the Digital Photography: Expert Techniques.
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