Summer 2006

The digital darkroom can definitely be an intimidating place. Without a solid plan and efficient process the editing of even a single image can be a painstaking process. This is why most digital photographers these days have an established workflow that they go through for each and every image they create. With a little practice, a few tips and an established workflow the process of taking an image from first capture to final product can be greatly simplified.

On shooting RAW:

I always shoot RAW. For me the ability to make subtle adjustments to an images white balance and exposure after shooting is well worth the extra space that RAW files take up on my compact flash (CF) cards. Furthermore, the ability to convert my RAW files into uncompressed 16 bit tif files assures the highest possible quality digital files and subsequent outputs. If you consider yourself a serious photographer but are hesitant to shoot RAW due to the storage requirements my suggestions would include buying more CF cards, a bigger hard drive and more RAM. But always shoot RAW!

Converting RAW files using Raw Shooter Essentials:

As I mentioned, shooting in your cameras RAW mode will allow you to make subtle adjustments after you have captured an image. To make these adjustments you will need to open the RAW file in a program such as Photoshop CS, Breezebrowser or my personal favorite Raw Shooter Premium (RSP).

The intuitive controls and instant feedback of RSP make it easy to use and very quick to get through a few Gigabytes of images. You can first preview your shots in a slideshow format that allows you to flag, rank or delete images as necessary. Image corrections and adjustments can then be made to individual images or groups of images and converted into either jpg, or preferably, 16 bit tif files.
This program is fantastic and is very easy to get the hang of.

Update (July 2006) - Pixmantec's Raw Shooter program was recently bought out by Adobe so watch for new software to come...

Saving Backups:

The next step for me is to save backup copies of my unconverted RAW files to my hard drive in a folder labeled with the date of the shoot. This way if you ever need to find an image again you can do so by looking at the exif file data. These backups will later be moved to an external hard drive and burned to DVD.

The main reason for saving files at various stages of the process is that I can always go back at a later date and re-edit them. Furthermore, most magazines or other publications ask for images with only minimal alterations so saving these unedited versions is definitely a good idea.

With these first steps out of the way it’s time to move on to Adobe Photoshop CS (PSCS) and the second phase of the workflow.

Rotate & Crop:

The first thing that I usually do once I open an image in PSCS is enable the “grid” function (View > Show > Grid). This visual tool helps me to determine if an image is tilted at all and needs any rotation. Once I have determined this I will use the measure tool (found under the Eyedropper Tool) to draw a straight line across the "horizon" of the image and then use the rotate-arbitrary function (Image > Rotate Canvas > Arbitrary). I will then crop the image to the original size of the image using the crop tool from the toolbar. Note that you can set preset measurements for the crop tool for different cameras. I will then upsize the image back to its original 300 dpi using the bicubic smoother option.

Displaying the grid overlay can help to keep images square.

Duplicate layer:

Before making any adjustments to the actual image I create a duplicate layer from the background. This can be done very simply by dragging the background image in the layers window into the “create a new layer” icon. I do this so that I can preview any changes that I make to the image and also to make sure that I don’t accidentally make any unwanted changes to the original image. You can make several layers for each step that you perform or flatten the image each time you are happy with your results.

Additional layers can quickly be created by dragging the background layer into the “create new” icon.


The first real adjustment that I look for in an image is whether or not I need to clone out any undesirable components. This could be dust that has found its way on to my cameras sensor or perhaps a small branch that does not compliment the image. Whatever the case, the tool that I use to remove these elements is the clone brush. Cloning out elements effectively definitely takes a bit of practice. My best advice is to select a relatively small brush size with medium-low hardness and set the opacity to around 40 percent. You then need to select an area to clone from. This is more often than not an area that is horizontal to the object that you are trying to remove. Once you have done this simply work your way over the undesired object in a horizontal direction, overlapping each click by about half. If things get out of hand just open the history dialogue and back yourself up a bit. Or you can just delete this whole layer and try again. Once I have gone over the undesired area there may still be some somewhat obvious edges. If this is the case I usually increase the brush size and decrease the opacity to around 20 percent and try to blend in the cloned area.

Undesirable features such as the branch above the dove on the left can be removed from an image using the clone brush.


Next I generally adjust, or at least check, the levels of the image (Image > Adjustments > Levels). This essentially involves adjusting the histogram to make sure that for both the whites and blacks the histogram covers the full range of levels between black and white. I may also slightly adjust the mid-tones.

I always ensure that an image contains a full range of levels form white to black.


Here’s where things get a little trickier. The shadow/highlight tool (Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight) is a very powerful one that can enhance detail in both the shadows and highlights of an image. But with every image being unique there are no real preset values that can be prescribed here. However, you can set the defaults in this dialogue box to be more in line with the adjustments that you commonly make.

The above settings can be tweaked to achieve the ideal shadow/highlight adjustment.

Color Enhancement:

Color enhancement in an image also has no universal prescription. Perhaps you decide that you would like the leaves of a plant to be “greener” and more saturated or you want the water color to be “bluer”? In the world of PSCS anything is possible. It’s just a matter of finding the most direct way to achieve your goal. I generally break color enhancement down into either selective or global processes. For example if the entire image has a yellow cast to it you may want to adjust this using the channel mixer or selective color tool. These adjustments are generally quite easy to perform and, since you shot RAW and adjusted the white balance of your image before converting it, are usually not necessary.

More often you will want to enhance certain aspects of your image and leave others unchanged. This is slightly more complicated. I basically use two methods for this. The first is used when there is a very definite color that I would like to adjust (e.g. green moss on a dark log). In this case I would simply use the Select > Color Range function. This tool enables you to select a color, as well as the range of similar colors, that you wish to include in your selection. In this case I only want to modify the greens so I will select them using the eyedropper and then adjust the slider until I feel I have all of the moss selected. Once you have made your selection you can adjust the color, hue or saturation to your liking (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, Channel Mixer).

The second method that I use involves adjusting the color in a discrete area that has a similar color or hue to the rest of the surrounding image. You will not be able to use the select color tool because the colors in the overall image are too similar to enable a comprehensive selection. Alternately you may find that you are able to select the area but once you have made your color corrections it looks very obvious. In these situations I make changes to the entire image and then use the history brush tool from the toolbar to essentially erase the changes to whatever parts of the image that I don’t want changed. The advantage of this technique is that you can use different brushes and adjust the opacity to make smooth transitions between adjusted colors. Make sure that you save, close and re-open the image before attempting this technique or PSCS will have no reference history to go back to.

Velvia Vision:

Back in the days when I shot film my favorite film was always Fuji velvia. I was certainly not alone as velvia was the chosen film of a great majority of nature photographers. The warm, contrasty and intensely saturated look of this film (see image below) can be simulated in PSCS either by adjusting the color balance or, much more simply, by using an action set such as “velviavision” created by Fred Miranda (

Velviavision allows you to adjust the intensity with which you wish to apply this filter. This will depend on the image and may vary greatly. Used sparingly velviavision can yield some very pleasing results and I apply it to many of my images.

The characteristics of the above image which was taken using Fuji velvia film can be simulated in PSCS.

USM and history:

The final step – and it must be the final step – is to apply sharpening to your image. I always, and would recommend setting the in camera sharpening to zero. This gives you much more creative control once you are in PSCS. While RSE applies some sharpening during the RAW conversion I almost always find that I do some additional sharpening.

Forget about the “sharpen” and “sharpen more” tools in PSCS. The tool to use is unsharp mask (USM) (Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask). While somewhat tricky to get the hang of this tool enables the ultimate in sharpening control. Before you sharpen however I would suggest saving your image, closing the file and re-opening. You’ll see why in a minute!

Before sharpening I like to convert images over into LAB mode (Image > Mode > LAB) and then select the lightness channel to sharpen from the channels window. A general rule is that smaller files will require less sharpening. With a full size image out of a 6-8 megapixel camera I would suggest setting the sliders to 100-120%, 0.5-0.8 and 3 as a starting point. You can then adjust each as necessary until you have achieved a result that is pleasing to you. Do note however that over sharpened images are definitely undesirable. And always preview your images at 100 percent when sharpening. Once satisfied you can convert your image back to RGB colour.

Unsharpened image.

Sharpened image.

One little trick that I often use (the reason for saving, closing and re-opening) is to sharpen the image so that the straight edges (such as a birds beak) are getting just slightly over sharpened. Then I use the history brush to “paint” over these oversharpenned spots yielding an overall image with maximum sharpness. You may also include another step where you sharpen the image slightly - save, close and re-open – then sharpen again to achieve maximum sharpness.

Final Steps:

Save your image again, rename it, and you’re done! That wasn’t so hard now was it??

While there are many more tricks and advanced techniques to using Photoshop to edit images, this basic workflow will get you started and allow you to make your favourite digital images even better.