How I Process: A Look Into a Pro’s Workflow


Photography is complicated enough to get your head around, without throwing in the need to process images on the computer after a shoot. That’s an entirely different kettle of fish. Opening up Lightroom or Photoshop can be pretty daunting for those who aren’t tech-savvy or seasoned post production veterans. We’ve all been there, but constant practice helps you to develop a general workflow that can be applied to all of your photos.

To help you dissipate the mist of confusion that surrounds post production, I thought it would be helpful for me to share with you my own workflow when it comes to processing a photo.

The image in question is of a sleepy puffin…But, hopefully you won’t find yourself falling asleep through this workflow tutorial!

(Photo by Will Nicholls)
(Photo by Will Nicholls)

It’s also worth noting that I shoot in RAW format. It’s the best choice for any photographer, but it does mean all your photos must be processed if you want to use them in any way. JPEG files are processed within the camera and have pre-determined ‘picture styles’ applied to them. This is an ugly, blanket processing method, but it does speed everything up. Raw files naturally look flatter and don’t appear to ‘pop’ with colour.

Step 1: Cropping

The first thing I will do to an image is to fine-tune the composition with some cropping adjustments. This might not always be necessary, but it is difficult to get it entirely perfect in the camera. This might be because you are limited in how far you can get close to, or zoom in on, your subject. It may be that you were handholding the lens, and without the ability to hold the camera rocksteady like a tripod, a general swaying motion will render compositions slightly ‘off’.

Sleeping Puffin

This is how the photo looked coming straight out of the camera. You can see that my limitation was the reach of my lens; I couldn’t get any closer because of a barrier between me and the bird to protect its nesting area. The best composition, in my mind, is a frame-filling image of this gorgeous puffin.

Sleeping Puffin

There–that’s better. Cropping is simple, and Lightroom makes it easy to change your mind later. You don’t actually throw away the areas you’re cropping out, so if you want to adjust it later on you can.

Step 2: Lens Corrections

distortionThis is something I’ve only relatively recently started to do to some of my photos. They don’t all get this treatment, but removing vignetting and distortion caused by your lens is very easy in Lightroom.

Just look at the ‘Lens Corrections’ module in the Develop window. Select ‘Enable Profile Corrections’ and you should see the brand and model of your lens pop up underneath. If you pay attention to the photo, you’ll see that it removes any distortion caused by the lens, and appears to ‘flatten’ the image. It’s almost as if you’re looking at a print of your photo that isn’t entirely flat on the table, and the lens corrections module just spreads it completely flat against the surface.

Step 3: Sort the Exposure

The following adjustments are going to be using the ‘Basic’ module of the Develop window. This is where you can make your standard raw adjustments.

When I first started taking photos, I would find myself making fairly drastic adjustments to the exposure slider in order to brighten and balance an exposure. This was due to poor technique, but nowadays I rarely touch the exposure slider itself. This is a good thing, meaning that I am getting fairly good at achieving proper exposure in camera, if I may say so! It just comes with practice though, so don’t worry if you need to move that slider to properly exposure your image.

For this shot though, the highlights on the white feathers are a little blown. This is unavoidable sometimes, and I’ve chosen to expose the rest of the image properly at the expense of the feather details. It’s no trouble though – that detail is still there hidden away. Pulling back the ‘Highlights’ slider slightly calms down the burning whites. Take a look at this before and after close-up.

highlights-compare

It’s a slight but noticeable difference. If you’re going to make adjustments like this though, it is important that you calibrate your monitor. Otherwise, you could find yourself overexposing or underexposing an image within seconds. I recommend using the Spyder 5 from Datacolor for this.

If I’m being honest, this image doesn’t need much adjustment at all for the exposure. But I will usually find myself playing with the shadows slider too, to bring back detail lost in the blacks. Highlights & Shadows are a big part of any photographer’s workflow, and they are a gift when it comes to recovering detail in a photo. It’s amazing what kind of information is retained when shooting in raw.

If you’ve hugely overexposed an image in raw format, take it into Lightroom and pull the Highlights to -100 and the exposure slider down pretty far. You’ll be surprised how much information comes back. If areas remain burnt out white, then that information is lost forever.

Step 4: Check the White Balance

One of the great things about a raw file is that you can adjust the white balance in hindsight, rather than having to get it perfect in camera. Altering the white balance has no negative effects with a raw file, but can degrade a JPEG.

For this photo I haven’t needed to make an adjustment, but if your photo appears to have an orange tint, then pull the ‘Temperature’ slider to the left a bit. If it appears to have a blue tint, then pull it to the right.

A great way to sort your white balance is to use the dropper tool. If you use it to select an area in the photo that should be perfectly white, it’ll adjust the temperature and tint sliders to reflect a proper white balance. You can fine-tune this of course, but it’s definitely a good starting point.

white-balance

Step 5: Bring Back the Colour

Now is the time to make the image pop! I love this stage of my workflow. It’s when the image really starts to resemble what I saw through the lens.

Raw files always look washed out, so to bring back the colour you need to harness the power of the ‘Vibrance’ and ‘Saturation’ sliders. Always start with adjusting the vibrance. It pulls out and enhances the colours that are already there. The saturation slider should only be used if you need to, effectively, introduce more colour into the image. It’s kind of like splashing your photo with a bucket of paint – it can go wrong very quickly!

Sleeping Puffin

Look back at the original photo posted earlier. You can really see the greens in the background and the red of the puffin’s beak showing up now. I always bring the colour back to resemble the scene as I saw it.

If you pull these sliders too high, you’ll burn out the colours. This is when they appear very ‘hot’ and as one solid colour across the pixels of the file. For this shot, the vibrance is set at +27, and the saturation at +18. That’s actually a fairly extreme colour adjustment for me.

Step 6: Sharpening and Noise Reduction

It’s always good to give your photos a little sharpen, and reduce any apparent digital noise. It’s important not to go overboard, although that could be said for any stage of your post processing workflow. Sharpening increases the contrast between edges in an image, and too much of it makes a photo almost look like it has been neatly outlined all over wherever there is detail (such as feathers).

sharpening

Sharpening

The sliders you want to pay attention to mostly are the ‘Amount’ and ‘Masking’ ones. This is with regards to sharpening, so the highlighted ‘Luminance’ slider is for noise reduction. We’ll look at that in a minute.

You can see the values that I’ve used for this photo. I rarely ever go above 50 for ‘Amount’ when sharpening. 30-40 tends to be a good mark to get a crisp shot. Any more than that and you’ll run the risk of ugly sharpening, but you can experiment and see what it does with your own images.

The ‘Masking’ slider allows you to limit which parts of the photo receive sharpening. If you hold down the Alt key on your keyboard whilst you pull the slider, the image will turn all strange and the white areas will highlight what is being sharpened. This means you can avoid sharpening areas without detail, such as the background, and introduce unnecessary noise.

Noise Reduction

Take a look at this close-up of my puffin photo. You can see the grainy details in the background – that’s digital noise. We want to get rid of this. Make sure to do your sharpening first though.

noise

The luminance slider is perfect for this. Holding the Alt key again whilst moving the slider will put the photo into black and white temporarily. It allows you to see the noise much better – and make sure to zoom in to 100% as well, that way you’ll get a better representation of what’s going on.

Pulling up the luminance slider, you’ll see the noise disappear. Pull it up all the way and it’ll make the entire image really smooth, eliminating all the noise. But you’ll do this at the expense of sharpness. Instead, go for a balance. Luminance makes a big difference early on, so just 23 on the slider is enough to strip the photo of noise. I also like to pull the ‘Detail’ slider (underneath Luminance) up to 100. I have never read about or noticed a reason not to, and it seems to retain some of the clarity in the shot. Look at the difference now:

noise-2

Comparing the Two

It’s always fun to see the difference you’ve made when sharpening. There’s a great button for this.

beforeafter

Clicking this button will temporarily turn off your sharpening and noise reduction adjustments, letting you see the difference clearly. I’m always surprised at how well I can simultaneously reduce noise, whilst sharpening at the same time, in Lightroom.

In Conclusion

I hope this has helped you understand what is ‘expected’ of post production. This is a relatively simple workflow, and there are plenty more complex adjustments you could do, if you so wish. But these basic adjustments keep your post production efforts ‘pure’ and ‘accepted’ in the industry – at least with nature photography it is expected that adjustments are fairly minimal.

(Photo by Will Nicholls)
(Photo by Will Nicholls)

Post production can seem like a chore, but if you get to grips with your own workflow things tend it speed up. It’s almost like you are writing yourself a little instruction manual, and before long it’ll be almost instinctive. You won’t need to refer back to guides or ask for help when processing, ultimately reducing the amount of time you find yourself stuck in front of editing software.

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About the author

Will Nicholls

Will is a professional wildlife photographer from the United Kingdom. He has been behind the camera since 2007, and is also a trained zoologist. Will runs photography blog Nature TTL alongside his full-time business as a freelance photographer & cameraman.

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