Digital Workflow

Going digital definitely has a lot of merits. Immediate feedback, being able to shoot more than 36 frames at a time, being able to make duplicate/ back-up copies immediately, and having the ability to edit work on-the-spot rank at the top of my list.

Nothing in life, however, comes for free.

If there's been one major drawback of going digital for me, it has to be the fact that in addition to being a good photographer, you've got to become a software and image-processing expert too.

Back in the film days, basically a slide was either good or bad. I kept the good ones, threw away the bad ones. End of story.

Over the past few years, with the switch to digital format, I've had to experiment with all sorts of software...some good, some bad...and I think I've finally begun to reach the point where I have a workflow that I'm comfortable with.

Before I spell out the software I use, let me underscore the fact that there's no single, correct answer for choosing the best software and deciding upon optimal digital workflow. If only it were that easy. Nope...there's all sorts of software out there, ranging from incredibly simple to mind-numbingly complex, and there's probably an infinite number of ways to make use of the software. To complicate matters, updates to existing software plus completely new software are appearing whatever you're comfortable with now has a reasonable probability of being out-of-date or changed signficantly within a few months. Nice, eh?

Take heart though. At the end of the day, most of the software packages available now share certain fundamental traits, so once you pick up the basics, it's much easier to adopt new software (although it's still a major hassle).

In short, coming up with the right digital-workflow formula depends in large part upon what you want to achieve, how much time you have, how comfortable you are with computers and digital technology, and how often you can tolerate feeling like an utter fool when you just can't seem to figure out how to do something.

For what it's worth, following is what I use to evaluate and work with photos. Please note that I use Macs, not PCs, so all of the software I've selected is Mac-based. The cameras I use are all Canons, so part of my workflow is optimised for Canon.

Step 1: Save and Toss
After filling a memory card with images I immediately use Photo Mechanic to review and do a first edit. The reason I use Photo Mechanic is that it's lightning-quick at importing and reading RAW files (I shoot only RAW files). With say 4GB of RAW images, the last thing I want to do is wait around for previews to load.

Photo Mechanic sucks the images in from my memory card and creates previews on my laptop in an instant, letting me go through and mark my "saves" and "tosses", the equivalent of what I would have done with slides on a light table.

On a typical shoot, I'll toss out 80% or more of the images if it's something I've shot before. If it's something really rare, or something I've never taken photos of, I'll keep more.

The trick at this stage is to be able to evaluate at a glance what will look good after adjusting orientation, a bit of cropping, levels adjustments, etc. Unfortunately, there's only one real way to get good at this...trial and error.

Photo Mechanic does have built-in editing and organising tools to help with this process. I have to confess I don't use these much at all, since all I'm really concerned about at this stage is whittling down the number of shots to only those I want to invest more time in.

Step 2: Review, Tag, Organise
Once the first edit is done, I (make at least one back up copy first, then) import what's left into Aperture as referenced files (meaning I don't actually import the full images into the Aperture Library, but instead use low-res previews only, which use up less memory...I know, I know, all of that is mumbo jumbo unless you use the software).

Aperture allows me to view all the images once again and perform very simple image edits (crop, alignment, white balance, etc). Aperture's edits are non-destructive, meaning that the software doesn't alter your original file...very important in case you want to revert to the original later.

Above all though, Aperture is a great way to organise images, since the software lets me add keyword tags and other metadata, which I can use to create intelligent libraries of images (plus so a whole lot of other things I haven't figured out yet or perhaps may not need to do).

Aperture is a fairly new software program, which means there are some shortcomings (like the god-awful spot and patch tool), but I'm sure updates to come will address those areas. Until Aperture came along, there really wasn't any other way (on a Mac) to organise images quite as effectively (at least nothing I was aware of).

A similar alternative is Adobe Lightroom, though from everything I've seen and read, Aperture is better for organising (while Lightroom is more effective for processing images). My friend Alex Mustard uses Lightroom and is quite happy with it, so that's a solid endorsement if there ever was one.

I'm still an Aperture newbie, so I'm definitely not up-to-speed on all of the software's capabilities. Whenever I get stuck, I rely on my friends Gunther Deichmann (who's a certified Aperture Instructor) and Eric Cheng for help and advice.

Step 3: RAW conversion
For many images, especially topside ones, there's no need to go beyond Step 2. Aperture has a pretty good export function that allows you to set image size and file type for export. For web stuff in particular, this is more than adequate.

For underwater images that I know are destined for print, however, Aperture doesn't cut it in many cases. In order to export images to usable formats, Aperture needs to convert your RAW data to whatever image format you select. The RAW conversion process is something that each software package handles slightly differently, meaning that even with the same RAW file and nearly identical settings, your processed image can appear quite different.

Think of it this way...with film, not all processing labs were the same. Processing machines, chemicals and technicians' talent all differed, so it was important to work with someone who knew what they were doing and with a consistent process.

RAW conversion software is like the film-processing lab. You need to pick the conversion engine that works for you.

On a recent trip, I tested Aperture's RAW conversion against Photoshop's default Camera RAW converter and Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software. For not-too-challenging topside images, all of them provided acceptable, if slightly different, results. For underwater images, however, DPP won hands down.

Gradations of blue, lighting transitions and general colour saturation all came out the best with DPP. I'm by no means an expert on what the technical differences among the RAW conversion processes are, so I won't even attempt an explanation. I just go with trial and error plus my own gut feeling of what I like.

One advantage of DPP is that you can apply (or unapply) Picture Style settings (which mimic different film styles, reminiscent of the Fuji films I liked). For many shots, the ability to do this gives you an instant preview of how high saturation, low saturation or something in between will look. I really like having this functionality.

The primary disadvantage of DPP is that it's slow. Almost painfully so. Editing capability is also quite limited, so only rarely can I end with DPP. Using DPP is usually an intermediate step to the next and final part of my workflow.

There are other RAW conversion engines too, so the key is to experiment and pick what you like best, and remember, it's not necessary just to stick to one. I still use Aperture's and Photoshop's RAW converters, depending upon the characteristics of the image in question.

Step 4: Final Edit
Once I've converted the RAW file to the basic look and feel that I want, I use Photoshop to perform final touch-ups and removal, curve adjustments and the like. By this stage though, the image should look pretty much the way I want, so there's not much work left in Step 4.

One thing I like to do is keep Step 4 edits in separate layers, which unfortunately increases the file size significantly, but allows me to back-out any adjustments later.

I usually re-import the finished file to Aperture and keep it as a version of the original file, so I can see the before and after versions. Re-applying keywords and other metadata from the original to the adjusted image is a snap with Aperture.

So that in brief is the effort I invest in processing each image. Clearly, I don't do this for every image...only the ones I really like and believe will go to print.

One thing that's important to note is something that Alex Mustard pointed out during a recent trip we were on...most of the images that go to print look good "as is" on the camera's LCD screen. All of the stuff above is just to tweak a little here, a little there...not to rework the image completely.

In short, if it's a crappy image...throw it away. It's a common misperception people have that somehow software (especially Photoshop) can make bad images into good ones. I got news for you...It ain't gonna happen.

Of course, as you can probably imagine, trying to learn the ins-and-outs of these software packages (and many others) drives me crazy at times...but there's no turning back now. I'm positive that I've only scratched the surface of each of the respective software program's capabilities, but that's all I really need (or want) to do...just enough to get the job done.