One important point should be made right at the beginning. I don’t optimize all of my images. I’ll make a collection of my best images from a shoot, and optimize these shots. From the thousands of frames I take on a shoot, I often only optimize around 50. These would be the images I’m going to send to clients, upload to my website or share with friends.
Depending on your own shooting habits and preference, you may perform more steps to optimize, or maybe less, but before any image goes out the door at my studio, I apply this 10-step process.
1) Adjust White Balance.
Before I do anything else, I set my white balance. Why? Because a lot of adjustments I make will be affected by the image white balance, including exposure, vibrance, saturation and more. There are a number of ways to set white balance, such as using the Dropper tool on a known color value (for instance, a gray card), but I rarely need to set my white balance to neutral. More often, I set my white balance to what looks good to my eye.
I might try a white balance preset like Cloudy and see how things look. If the shot is too warm, I’ll use the white balance slider to adjust the balance until it looks good. If you’re shooting commercially, correct white balance may be critical in your images. This process may take longer, but you need to do what’s right in your situation.
2) Adjust Exposure.
Next, I check the exposure of my image using my histogram I shoot in RAW, so I have some latitude to make exposure adjustments and still have a decent shot. I always use my histogram and highlight indicator in the field to ensure a good exposure, but if I miss, I grab the Exposure slider and adjust the exposure using the histogram as my guide. My main goal is to avoid clipping the highlights. Remember, you only have a little latitude with highlights. If you really overexposed your shot, you won’t be able to save it using the Exposure slider. Check those histograms in the field!
3) Set The Black Point.
Once I have my exposure set correctly, I reevaluate my histogram. Often, there’s a gap on the left side, the shadow and dark areas in my images. In this case, I grab the Blacks slider and pull it toward the left to stretch the histogram to the left. Moving the Blacks slider this way adds contrast to the image, which helps clouds pop out of the sky and makes portraits more dramatic. There’s no set amount here, only what looks good to your eye.