Basic Workflow

Fay writes,

Please advise best sequence for working with a digital image, download from camers and proceeding to — 1. Change PPI 2. Crop 3. Resize 4. Sharpen, Contrast, etc.”

Also, apologies to Trevor who wrote with a similar question while I was redesigning the site,

“What is your typical work flow with regards to editing photos?”

These are great questions because, depending on what software you use, performing these steps in the wrong order can make your life more difficult and cost you a lot of time. To begin, let’s divide our post-processing into three stages that I’ll call acquisition, editing, and output.

Your first task is to acquire the image from your digital camera memory. I copy the images to my hard drive. If the images are particularly valuable, I’ll often back them up immediately at this point by copying them to another hard drive and/or burning a DVD. Within whatever folder I’m using I usually create two subfolders – one clearly named as “Originals” and one for “Edited” images.

Next I open the image(s) in my editing software. If I’m using Adobe Lightroom, I begin the selection process because Lightroom is designed from the ground up to perform non-destructive editing, meaning that it will never change your original. If I’m using any other product, I immediately save the image in a non-compressed format (.psd or .tiff) in the “Edited” folder. This serves two purposes: It ensures that I won’t accidentally hit “save” and overwrite my original file, and it protects against the common problem of re-saving in a lossy format. The last thing you want to do is open a jpeg, edit it, save it as a jpeg, open it again, edit it, save it as a jpeg, etc, because each time you do that you degrade the image and the impact is cumulative. (I’ll write more on that topic later, but regardless of what format you import from your camera, you should consider jpeg format as suitable for “output” only). 

So now you have your image open, and you’re ready to edit it. I often crop my images first, because I want to see what they’ll look like and I want to set the levels accurately for the section that I’m keeping. However, you may choose to crop later if you’re using software like Photoshop where you’d have to undo all your other adjustments if you decide to change the crop. Next I do overall level and colour adjustments and any retouching.

When I’m happy with the image I save it. Note that at this point I have not adjusted image size, change the resolution, or performed any sharpening. The reason for that is that it really sucks to drop the resolution for web use and then decide the next week that you’d really like a 12×16″ print. If you don’t save the full resolution adjusted image, you’ll end up having to repeat all the steps.

The final step is output. If I’m making a print, I set the image to the desired size, sharpen it, preview it, and if necessary make any minor colour adjustments.  Then I “save as” so that I can reproduce later.

If I want an image for the web or to email, I change it to the size and resolution I want, sharpen it, and then use “save as” to save it as a jpeg.

Note that in both cases I take care not to overwrite the high resolution edited image.

It is worth nothing that popular photo editing software like Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop Pro force you to make order decisions that more workflow oriented software like Adobe Lightroom doesn’t. For example, if you crop, adjust the levels, and are in the process of retouching when you decide you want to tweak the levels, you have to undo back to that point, or you’ll be adjusting the levels twice, which is a destructive process (meaning you loose data and therefore quality). Ditto if you want to change the crop. There are ways around some of these issues using layers (applying adjustment as layers instead of directly to the main image), but that adds complexity.

In Lightroom all editing is non-destructive and the concept of order doesn’t really exist. You can alternatively tweak the levels, colour, and crop as many times as you want without throwing away any data. Everything you do is visible immediately, and when you output the image all the changes are applied. I personally find that the time it saves me is well worth the $300 price tag, and fortunately you can download and try it free for 30 days to see if it’s also worth it for you.

Also, even though you may have backed up your original images, I encourage you to also back up your edited images.  I usually burn a DVD containing both original and edited images so that I won’t have to repeat the editing process 🙂

4 thoughts on “Basic Workflow

  1. Digital Photography Workflow

    For those of you who haven’t heard, I also have a blog dedicated to helping people with their photography.  I just posted on basic workflow for digital photography and thought some of you might also find it interesting….

  2. GAH, I had a long reply put together but it was rejected for some reason and I lost it.
    Can’t afford Lightroom, checkout Picasa ( The only thing it’s lacking is out of order undo. YOu can undo chronologically or undo all your edits.
    Tagging, CD/DVD burning & gift disc creation, copying/moving, croping, touch ups, emailing, and everything you’d expect included.

  3. The downside to Lightroom is the $300 price tag, and it’s primarily a workflow and image adjustment tool. For example, it doesn’t have the retouching tools that Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and the Corel photo product have. The upside is that Lightroom makes it very fast to select, crop, adjust, and output images. It has cut my post-processing time to about 20-30% of what it used to take using only Photoshop, which is no surprise considering that professional photographers who have to deal with thousands of images were involved in the design.
    In any event, Lightroom should not be your first photo software purchase. Photoshop Elements and the Corel product are both $100 or less. I might be wrong, but I think workflow packages intended for consumers will be along shortly as other vendors try to compete with Lightroom and Apple’s Aperature.
    Perhaps most importantly, I don’t want the the cost of editing software to deter people from getting *something*. I see so many images on the web that suck only because they need some basic adjustments. Winter is coming, and so are the usual flood of pics with grey snow 🙂

  4. “n any event, Lightroom should not be your first photo software purchase. Photoshop Elements and the Corel product are both $100 or less. ”
    “I see so many images on the web that suck only because they need some basic adjustments. Winter is coming, and so are the usual flood of pics with grey snow :)”
    Excellent points.

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