June 13, 2024

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Photoshop Tutorial Secrets From the Trenches: Seven Essential Steps to Digital Workflow

I’ve been shooting with digital cameras in my portrait and wedding photography studio for about five years now, and in that time I’ve taken well over 50,000 exposures. Our studio has been around for about twenty five years, and it is busy, so creating a digital workflow that made sense was essential to not only our sanity, but our bottom line as well. After all, we’re in business to turn a profit, and time is money.

One of the reasons this is so important is because so many photographers get bogged down and stuck in time wasting systems, systems that are over complicated and too “perfect’. In the real world, where real clients pay the bills, and making them happy on a consistent daily basis is critical, getting the job done as fast as possible is essential.

Let give you a “snapshot” overview of our digital workflow. You should know that all the stratgies we’ve created in our studio are not new. They are essentially the same as when we shot film. Nothing has changed, except the media, the turnaround times (faster, much faster!), and, of course, the huge learning curve. Which we’ve over-complicated beyond anything that makes sense.

Funny thing is, I’ve come to realize that the learning curve is quite small when you do only the things required and when you use only the essential tools.

Here are the seven steps to digital photography workflow:

Good capture: This is the starting point. Without a properly exposed file and good color balance, you are in the “taking corrective measures” mode. You don’t want to be there. In time you would go crazy if you had to “fix” every file, so you need to master these two basics. Good photography and fast, painless workflow starts with good exposure and good white balance. A good exposure means you have as many of the tones, from the blacks all the way to the whites, in the image. The middle tones are exactly where you want them to be, in the middle. How can you check this? Shoot a grey card, and check your histogram of that grey card image in Photoshop. The levels should show you most of the data in the middle, or very close. If you are off, you are either over or under exposing your files and you are asking for trouble. Your white balance should be neutral, with no color cast. How can you verify? You should first of all should be creating a custom white balance for each lighting scenario. In our studio I created a custom white balance and never change it. It works all the time because the lights and the studio setting is consistent. On location each scenario requires a custom white balance. It’s very easy when you get the hang of it. To check that you are getting a fairly neutral image from you custom white balance, again, shoot a grey card, in Photoshop use the color picker, and the RGB numbers should all be very close together. This means your image is neutral. If any of the RGB numbers are way off, you have a color cast in that direction. Master this and you are 90% of the way to success.

Adjust contrast: For many images we hardly do much contrast adjusting. Sometimes we slightly “tweak” the file in levels, but you can easily get carried away here and ‘over process’ the image. When you do that, there’s no turning back. It’s like over-cooking a steak. Too late, once it’s cooked. So be careful here. My rule of thumb? Less is more. If you have to ask yourself “Does this need more contrast?,” then you’re done. STOP! But I do a step before anything else, and it does adjust the contrast as a side effect. You will never hear about this in any digital photography course or book. As a matter of fact, they will (“they”, being the “experts”) likely frown upon this step. Try it anyhow. We do, on every sinlgle image we work on. And that’s a lot of images. Here it is: In Photoshop go to Filter/Sharpen/Unsharp mask. Apply the following settings: Amount 60 Radius 20 Threshold 0. See how it removes the haze? Cool uh? And it just beefs the image up a bit. Now this filter is also used to sharpen image, but this step is not a sharpening step. We call it the de-fog step.

Enhance the skin tones: For all you nature and scenic photographers this step may not apply. But try it anyhow, it may help. The idea behind it is to bring out the reds in our skin tones, for all skin types. In the good old days of retouching by hand, we used to finish the print off with a layer of red. This always brought the final steps of those long tedious retouching by hand steps together just nicely. How do we do this? Simple. In Photoshop go to Image/Adjustements/Selective Color. You will notice that the red channel is the default chanel. This is the one we want so don’t switch. Pull the top slider, Cyan, over to the left, and watch the colors, especially in the skin, warm up. Adjust it to your taste. We find that most images are within the -20 to- 40 range. That’s it! Assuming you have a good exposure and good white balance, this is the only color “enhancing” you will need to do.

Adjust the saturation: When I shoot I turn the cameras’ sharpening, contrast and saturation features off. I don’t want the camera doing any of these important steps for me, since every image requires a different amount in order for it to be optimum. The images that come off the camera tend to look a little flat, dull and sometimes not sharp. But that’s good! I get to adjust these myself. The saturation will add a whole lot of life to your images, if done properly. Again, less is more. Here’s how: In Photoshop go to Image/Adjustements/HueSaturation and pull the middle saturation slider over to the right. It helps if you enlarge your image so you can really see this effect and not over do it. This works very well on scenics and underwater images as well. But be careful not to over process. Remember, less is more.

Burning and Dodging: Over and over, I see it all the time. Using the right amount of good old fashioned burning or dodging and you will take your images to whole new level. It isn’t easy to master however. Way back when I started out in photography, my mentors and early instructors were well versed and skilled in the ways of this traditional application. They knew and valued the importance of an image that was properly worked. The rookie mistake I see over and over is either not using enough (or none at all), or using too much. It takes some doing but this skill is worth mastering. Here’s how: On the toolbar in Photoshop, click on the dodge/burn tool. It has both. Burning is by far the one you will use the most. When you select burn, the control bar across the top will allow you to set the brush options. These settings are vital to your success. First, select a soft brush. The size will depend on the area you are burning. When I am burning all around an image, I generally choose a larger than the image area size. Next, choose Highlights in the range options. Next, bring your exposure down, way down to about 20. Now you are are ready to do the first step. Burn all around a few times, and stop after you notice a very slight darkening. Next, switch the Range to midtones. The first step, in highlight mode in the Range bar, gives your image some teeth for the next step. Now burn around again, careful not to over do it. The success of proper burning will depend on how well you can achieve an almost imperceptable dark vignette look to the image. If it’s too obvious, then you’ve over done it. I should point out that this is not recommended for white or very light images.

Sizing: Almost done. We size two ways. For prints smaller than 11″x14″, we use the crop tool and simply crop and save as required. For larger prints we use a technique that will magically increase your images to just about any size without any virtual deteriotion. Here’s how. In Photoshop go to Image/Image Size. In Document Size, switch the option in the drop down menu from inches to percentage. Only do this on the top “witdh” option: replace 100% with 110% and click okay. Make sure Constrain Proportions and Resample Image options on the lower left are clicked on. The image will increase in size by 10%. Do this until you have reached the size you want. It’s amazing! Virtually no deteriotion at sizes up to and beyond 40 inches. Try it.

Sharpening: This is the last step, well, almost. My sharpening approach is not something you will hear about in any course or book. Again, I figured out what works, and what works best. I was able to get tack sharp images from file sizes as small as 3.4 MP. Here’s how: Go to Filter/Sharpen/Unsharp and start with these settings: Amount 500%, Radius .2, and Threshold 0. Click on preview. Highlight the Radius number and start to increase that number (I use the “up” arrow on my keyboard) one step at a time until the image slightly “pops”. That’s when it’s done. If it pops too much, bring it back one number in the radius. I don’t even touch the other two settings. They will not recommend this technique in any course or book, but it works in the trenches. I’m sure it breaks all sorts of rules. The final step for all images is by to Filter/Noise/Add Noise, and set the amount at 1. Why do I do this? It gives the image a slight texture, a little bit of “love”.

That’s it! In a nutshell. From the trenches. There are more technical and highly advanced ways of getting these steps done, but frankly, in the end, you won’t see the difference. I know, I tried em all! Fact is the only expert in the game of portrait photography is the client. All she cares about is great looking images. She doesn’t care if I shot using RAW mode (which I don’t by the way, always JPEG). She doesn’t care how many megapixels I use. She doesn’t care what kind of lights I use, how I workflowed my images, whether I did them on a MAC or a PC (PC by the way). She ultimately is the final judge and jury.