Introduction to Digital Workflow
Digital workflow is a fundamental part of the image making process, and one that is often overlooked by newer photographers. Over time you will amass hundreds or (more likely) thousands of images. Cataloging and organizing these images becomes a key task in the process, and really should not be overlooked. It’s also pretty simple and in the long run will save you time and stress.
Often new photographers ask “what’s the best software to use?” or “what’s the best workflow process?” Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends”. This is a very subjective topic, which will vary somewhat based on certain criteria including the file types your camera records, what you plan on doing with your images (share with friends vs. print, vs. publish professionally), and your willingness, or lack thereof, to spend time dealing with the process.
One of the benefits of digital photography is the control we have from the moment the shutter clicks through the entire image output process, which is normally a printed image or web based image. With this control comes responsibility on the part of the photographer.
Generally speaking, there are a handful of steps to processing your digital images and creating the best end results. Previously, one had to use multiple programs to handle different aspects of workflow. But today, with programs such as Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture, the need for multiple programs is really only for those with the most discerning eye and the most willingness to optimize the process. There are even free options.
- Capture: The process begins the moment you depress the shutter and start capturing images. The more “work” you can do to ensure a great capture, the less time you’ll spend sitting behind a computer editing your images. Techniques for great composition and exposure are universal – digital photography has not changed that.
- Convert: If you are shooting with a DSLR, or select compact cameras that capture images in RAW format, using a high quality RAW converter is the first step to preserving all the data that your camera captured. Basically you are converting data into a visual file. Jpegs by definition are image files, and maintain a fraction of the data captured by your sensor. If working with Jpegs, use caution and be sure not to over process these files as you are already working with less data and will sacrifice a margin of quality with each edit. RAW converters include the programs that come with your camera such as Nikon Capture NX, or Canon’s Digital Photo Pro (DPP), SilkyPics for Panasonic & Sony, or 3rd party converters such as Adobe Camera Raw (part of Photoshop and Lightroom), DXO Optics Pro, Bibble or Aperture. For more on deciding between RAW and Jpeg, read File Types.
- Catalog: Organization is key when dealing with hundreds or thousands of images. Select a naming convention for your images, and select a specified folder or even a separate hard drive to store them. Add keywords, which allow you to easily find images based on the subject matter, destination, colors, etc. Most software gives you the ability to rank your images. A good rule of thumb is to delete your ‘non-keepers’ and prevent clutter and confusion.
- Process: If you did a good job at capturing the image, you’ll need minimal editing, but generally speaking you will always need to run through a few adjustments to refine the final product. Advanced users have adopted Adobe Photoshop as the gold standard of image editing, however, if minor adjustments in color, contrast or saturation are all that are needed, Aperture, Lightroom, or even Adobe Elements are just fine. Some photographers may be intimidated by or simply don’t want to take the time to learn how to use a workhorse like Photoshop, and that’s ok. The evolution of Aperture and Lightroom in particular allow you to handle pretty much all of the steps of workflow.
- Backup: Most photographers do not backup their images, or do not back up frequently enough. Remember, Murphy’s Law can and will strike at some point, and if you haven’t backed up your images by then, years of hard work and memories can be lost forever. Backing up your work should be done both at home and ideally in the field as well. The cost of hard drives, portable and otherwise, is dropping significantly. To put it in perspective, you can now buy Terabytes of data storage capacity for the price of several hundred Gigabytes just a couple of years ago. Portable drives that fit in your shirt pocket can go for under $100.
- Distribute: Depending on how you plan to use your images, you can post to your own website, share your images on sites such as Flickr, Shutterfly, Kodak Gallery, and of course add them to your galleries right here on DivePhotoGuide.com for the world to see.
Digital workflow is a necessity, but don’t let it intimidate you. It’s really only as complicated as you want it to be. Most of the software referenced above is available as free trials, so you can try before you buy and determine which one fits your needs. Alternatively, there are also free products that you can use such as Google’s Picasa or Apple’s iPhoto. These are fairly turnkey and ideal for the technophobe or for the casual shooter who wants to just make life easier on themselves. But remember, it’s software not magic! The best images are captured in the camera and the software is only used for refinements.