101: Thoughts On Workflow

101: Thoughts On Workflow

I got a question in my email about a workflow problem. A good portrait photographer is not satisfied with the way his final images look. I can imagine it is an issue for any photographer, because in the end you’re as good as your final picture. This is what you’re judged for. This also means that every step on your way to a final image has a meaning and a place. Only that way you are to be called a professional, i.e. someone who can guarantee a result because he knows what he’s doing and why.

Another reason why I’m writing this article, is because in 2 years that I haven’t been shooting, I’ve been working on my workflow. I improved it dramatically, which gave me so much more confidence! Now I know I can finish images for my models in time, for my clients, I can upload much more stock and it won’t take me long night hours anymore. I will give people more, spending less time. But it did take time to get to this point, just like any learning. In summer 2012 I uploaded over 500 images in 2 months to iStock. It is a huge number for me, because I work alone and don’t have a team of retouchers. Retouching images in “semi-bulk method”, I couldn’t believe I’m actually that productive. Suddenly I’m a fast uploader, and a mother of 2 at the same time, how did I do that?!


A photographer’s workflow… A very personal process meaning our path to a finished result. Each one of us has a specific workflow. Some people have it very simple: shoot in JPEG, copy to hard drive, done. Is it wrong? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on your shooting skills and goals really. Other people have a workflow much more complicated: shoot in RAW, sort, select, process in RAW editor, retouch, prepare for print etc. And finally, there are people who focus purely on photography and client service and outsource their workflow somewhere else.

In this article I would like to guide you through my typical “workflow day”. Be it a shoot for a portrait client or for stock agency, my workflow usually doesn’t differ much, so here is a general description of it.

I shoot in RAW only, either in RAW + JPEG L. JPEG allows me to easily store shot images and directly analyze them just for the sake of a question “Have they turned out good if they had been shot with film?” It is very useful for a digital (certainly for a beginning) photographer who never shot with film to make sure he’s not too dependent on Photoshop 🙂

I sort images in series into separate folders, just to divide a shoot into themes. Usually one theme is shot with the same setting, which later saves you time on doing bulk operations on multiple images.
Selecting images happens in Capture One, using “stars” and “ratings”. Selecting has a story of its own, and I won’t go into all details here. Everything depends on how many images you need to select in the end, and for what purpose.

Editing RAW is a huge deal for me. It touches an image at its core, preserving pixels as they are, modifying colors and exposure in a most gentle way. Color correction, sharpening (achtung!!! careful with sharpening before retouch!), skin softening, sensor spots removing – you name it, RAW editor got it.
As I said many times before, I’m a Capture One girl. Don’t ask me about Lightroom, I don’t know the program. So in Capture One I set the necessary parameters on a chosen “anchor” image, and then copy them in bulk to the rest of a series. In this regard, it is important that all images are shot in manual settings (exposure and white balance). If they’re not, you’ll have to tweak images separately. So be aware of that during shooting. I think it’s clear.
Phase One website has great resources to teach you what you can do with the software, so you’ll finally learn how to make your RAWs look almost as good as they were photoshopped.
Sometimes I use Adobe Camera RAW, although it’s not an all-in-one workflow software as Capture One is.

I export images into TIFF, 16 bit, sRGB, 300 dpi, always like that. What else would make sense for retouching purpose? If it’s not for retouching but for final output, I’d export them in other necessary format.

Well, this one is clear: what we mean by retouching is doing everything we cannot do in RAW: skin, hair, clothing, background etc. It is very easy to degrade an image in retouching phase. What is degrading? Think about noise, artifacts, color stripes on gradients, unhealthy (unnatural) texture etc.
Your mantra is “16 bit TIFF”. I retouch in 16 bit only, using gentle operations and methods to improve without destroying.

Because sharpening belongs to “destructive no-way-back” sort of operations (a separate layer is always advised), I prefer to do it as a last step. If I need to sharpen a web image, on a web-sized image I work. If I have to sharpen a large image for print, I make a special version for print. Often though, I sharpen an image in a definite way, for example, for a stock agency. It is important not to oversharpen, because a final user can always see for himself if he’d like to prepare image for print any further. So for stock, keep your master images relatively neutral, it’s the best way.
Sharpening method depends on your image. Sometimes I use Photoshop sharpen tools, sometimes do it more manually, sometimes use favorite actions. As long as I like the result.
One note on sharpening before retouching: it could be justified if an image is shot with a less-than-good lens. If I notice that my eyes are tired of looking at a fuzzy image, I’ll sharpen it first, then retouch. This is the reason why a really smart photographer will shoot with a good fixed macro lens, be it macro or fashion. Cheap lenses are not for decent production. Retouching a sharper image is more pleasant. Still, it is a different type of sharpen than a final sharpen for print.
Okay, enough on sharpen, let’s move on!

In many cases you’ll need to size images for various publication purposes: small web images, larger setcard images, largest print images. Use actions allowing you to bulk-resize and to divide into folders. Now your shoot is finished. Keep your master TIFFs for possible additional editing requests.

So here is on my workflow resulting in sorted and carefully selected crisp finished images with healthy pixel structure. As for retouching and coloring, there is little I can say, because it’s something that depends on YOU in a first place, as an artist, as a photographer seeing things in your own way.

My final mantra for you:

  • shoot with workflow in mind, shoot good to correct less
  • use better lenses and tripods, so you won’t have to hysterically oversharpen later
  • save time on workflow, otherwise it will consume all your free time
  • learn to work in bulk, it is a golden skill for portrait, stock and model shoots; while you do it, outsource to a company you trust
  • preserve pixel structure, editing the right way, using the right tools
  • don’t upsample (i.e. don’t use resolution higher than your camera gives)
  • don’t edit and re-save JPEG, ever
  • retouch in 16 bit TIFF (PSD)

And finally for some good old advertising! 🙂

My Bulk Retouching services (starting at €3 per image) are for photographers who do many shoots and notice they don’t have time or skill to finish images properly and the way their photography deserves. If you’re one of them, I’d be happy to help. It is not the same as retouching, but it will still dramatically improve many images in a short time on a short budget.


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