The Processing Workflow

I had recently a request to explain my workflow in post-processing and how I get to my final results. So I thought I could write this up and post it on the blog. I actually don't think that photographers should make secrets out of their way of working. At least not in the amateur field. In that way I fully agree with Eric Kim who discloses everything about his way of picture taking and processing in his blog. A very worthwhile blog by the way, just take a look.

First of all I shoot RAW. Raw files are so much more versatile and malleable. JPEGs don't give half the opportunities of making changes and influencing  mood and expression during the processing workflow. And that is what we want when we process pictures. We want them to look 'better' and from my perspective I want to give my pictures an expression that represents the feelings that I want to create. RAWs are bigger and you fill your hard drive quicker but I think if it is about picture quality this aspect doesn't count. 

I save my files in Capture 1. I have changed from Lightroom to C1 about a year ago. This was mainly because the LR app was so big and clunky that it slowed down my old Mac computer. C1 works much faster on my laptop. But I had other reasons as well. C1 has features that you don't find on LR, for example the very nice layer tool where you can 'paint-select' certain areas of the picture that you want to process locally. This is similar to working with layers in Photoshop but to my mind more intuitive. And colours look better when processed in C1 than in Lightroom. This is an important reason for many photographers to change to C1 but not as important to me as I mainly create b&w pictures. 

In C1 I create a duplicate of my picture file before doing any processing. I then work on the double. So I can always go back to my original and start over again if I am not happy with the outcome of my first processing. This first step is important to me because C1 doesn't provide a processing history. So you can't go back some steps in the processing list and start again from that point. I find this a real disadvantage with C1 and I don't understand why the C1 people have not added this relatively simple feature to the software. 

It is by the way also possible in C1 to re-create the original version of the picture file during the editing process but I prefer having the original right from the beginning. 

Because C1 doesn't provide a processing history I always create a so called new 'clone variant' of my picture when I make processing steps that could mess up my already processed picture or if I think there could be two different ways of processing the picture from a certain point in my workflow. 

Back to the workflow.

1. I create a duplicate in C1.

2. I do the cropping in C1 before I take further processing steps. So I  have a better feeling for the final picture. Re-cropping at a later stage is of course always possible. 

3. For conversion to b&w I then export the picture to Silver Efex (SE) Pro. I find the b&w files that Silver Efex produces more pleasing to my eye than the ones that C1 creates. 

4. In SE I nearly always use one of the presets that the software provides for a starting point. But I have also created some presets of my own. Presets are only a starting point, I usually tend to make many changes to the preset in order to achieve the effect that I desire. 

It is worth playing with brightness and soft contrast, you can achieve interesting results by just playing with these two features that have opposite effects on the file. But all brightness/contrast/structure sliders are worth trying as well as the tonal curve. Over the time I have developed a feeling for which effect I can expect from  which slider so that my processing has become more purposeful and less random. But finding out this has taken quite a while and a lot of try and error. Good thing is that Silver Efex has a history panel with a list where you can always go back some steps and start over agin from that point if you have messed up your picture. 

Some of the SE presets come with grain but I nearly always change the grain strength and coarseness during my processing. To my mind the Silver Efex grain is the most beautiful grain of all softwares I have worked with until now. So using the grain sliders is an important part of my workflow. 

Silver Efex also provides frames and tints and vignetting. I find the vignetting very effective, clearly more effective than the one in C1. You can define the centre point of the vignetting and change strength and size. When working with presets it is important to be aware that many presets add a certain amount of vignetting that you might want to change for your own purposes. Tints I rarely use but that is certainly a matter of taste. And the frames are somewhat annoying because if you really want to use a frame (do you really...?) and you create it in Silver Efex you can later not crop the picture anymore without destroying the frame. This is because the frame has become a part of the picture the moment you export the file back to C1. 

5. I then save the picture back to C1.

The following steps depend on what I want to achieve with my pictures and what kind of changes I would like to make further on.

6. I continue processing the picture in C1. If I want to make some simple adjustments like some local adjustments with the layer brush as previously described or sharpen or increase or decrease clarity I will do that in C1. Also working with levels and curves to adjust tonality particularly in the greys can well be done in C1. 

If however I want to make some more complex adjustments or play with distortions and blurring I take he next step and export the picture to Photoshop.

7. Export to Photoshop
Here you can work with layers (I hate layers! I find them completely counterintuitive but they are handy to make non destructive changes that you can switch on and off and tweak as often as you like). In order to use layers in an effective way you need to learn how to select certain areas of your picture in Photoshop for example with the 'Quick selection tool'. This is something that you should learn from a tutorial on YouTube or the Adobe website. It's too complex for me to explain here. 

The same with using luminosity masks. They are a very elegant way of selecting areas of your picture according to luminosity differences. I read and watched many tutorials and found the whole topic very difficult to understand. Eventually I ended up buying Greg Benze's Lumenzia, a pre-fabricated luminosity mask tool that is very well done. I have not used it in a comprehensive way but it's great to make local adjustments avoiding the look as if it was "photoshopped". This is clearly well invested money. The link is

Very helpful in Photoshop is the Camera Raw tool. You go to the 'Filters' menu and click 'convert to smart filters'. By doing so you enable the function of using all filters in a non-destructive way that can be revisited and changed as long as you have the picture in PS. You can then click in the filters menus the 'Camera Raw' tool. This is essentially the same tool that you find in Lightroom in order to process your picture with some local adjustments like gradient tool and radial filter tool. Particularly the latter together with some brush adjustments can be very handy to make local adjustments like creating light streaks or enhancing local contrast. As usual you need to play with the tools to get a feeling for what is possible or not and how you can make the desired changes. 

When you are in the smart filters section anyway you can take a look at the blur galleries. I am not very experienced with them yet but apparently you can create some nice artistic effects with blurring the picture. I clearly don't like artificial peripheral blur in order to emphasize the focus on the main subject of a picture. But using blur for creating artistic effects particularly in abstract pictures I find nice. 

The last thing that I do in Photoshop is fixing blemishes like dirt on the picture from a dirty sensor or lens. The spot removal tool in C1 is not good at all, the 'spot healing brush' tool in PS however is brilliant. I sometimes import pictures to PS only for the purpose of fixing dirt and dust etc. It's worth the step. 

7. Then I re-save the picture back to C1. And from there I create a JPEG that I save on my external hard drive in a special section.  Done. :-)

By the way I tend to sharpen my picture already somewhere during the editing process and not at the end of the whole process. Reason is that particularly when you have grain in the picture a tiny little bit of over sharpening can ruin the picture. So working with the already sharpened picture can save you this worry. But many other people do that differently, that is just me.... :-)

You can of course re-export a picture from C1 to SE or PS if you find some things that you would like to improve. C1 creates a new variant every time you export a picture to a different software so that you don't lose the version that you exported. When saving back from SE or PS these apps save the picture in the previously created variant of C1. 

That is a short description of my workflow. I am very interested in your experience and what you do and leave and how you achieve your results. There are so many ways of skinning the cat in post-processing that there is always a lot to learn. Just give me a feedback if you like.