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.
4) Watch The Highlights.
Many applications have modes that will show you highlights that are overexposed. In Lightroom, highlights show up as red areas. I evaluate the blown-out highlights and determine if I need to use the Highlights slider to tone them down. Some highlights like rim lighting or blown-out skies in portraits are deliberate choices for effect, so I leave these highlights alone, but other highlights like bright spots on faces and oversaturated colors need to be toned down. The Highlights slider can help tone down these bright spots. If the Highlights slider doesn’t have much effect, try using the Whites slider. Using a combination of these two sliders in Lightroom will reduce the bright spots in your image.
5) Clarity Looks Good.
One of my favorite Lightroom sliders is Clarity (also called Mid-Contrast in Aperture). This slider affects midtone contrast, which often improves many of my images, especially landscapes. Slowly pull this slider to the right and watch what happens to your image. Edges get sharper, contrast increases, and landscapes start to really jump off the page. But Clarity can have a bad influence on portraits and skin tones. Skin doesn’t look good when you go overboard with the Clarity slider. If you still want to add Clarity to your background, then use the Adjustment brush to selectively add Clarity where you want and not on your subject’s skin.
6) Punch Up Vibrance.
Vibrance is like Smart Saturation, adding Saturation where the software thinks you need it and leaving skin tones unaffected (unless you add a lot of Vibrance). I generally bump up my Vibrance on all my images—it just looks better. This tool is invaluable for adding Saturation to blue skies, while not making things look unrealistic. And if you want to add some Saturation to your background, but not give your model a sunburnt look, Vibrance is the tool to use.
7) Add A Touch Of Saturation.
Here’s a common question: Why does the image on my camera LCD look so good in the field, but when I open the shot on the computer, everything looks so drab and flat? The reason is because many photographers shoot in RAW, and the camera LCD image is a JPEG preview of the underlying RAW image. If you have your camera set to strong saturation and contrast, these settings are applied to the LCD preview image. To get the same look in the computer on the RAW shot, we need to adjust the image, including adding Saturation. I generally add just a small amount of Saturation to my images. As with Vibrance, Saturation just makes things look better. Sometimes I add a lot, especially with landscapes shot in overcast skies. With portraits, I may not use Saturation, especially if it turns the skin tones orange.
8) Use Lens Corrections.
Not all glass is made equal. No matter what brand or how expensive, lenses will perform great in the middle apertures like ƒ/8 and perform less well wide open or fully closed down. Lens issues such as light falloff in the corners or pincushion distortion can occur. To correct them, I use Lightroom’s Lens Corrections. This employs a preset lens profile for the exact lens you used on the shot. These profiles are constantly updated as new lenses come out. Instead of manually fixing vignetting, it’s much easier just to click the Enable Lens Correction button. Your shot instantly gets fixed!
9) Sharpen The Shot.
Sharpening is a critical part of the process, especially if you don’t sharpen in-camera. Lightroom and Aperture both have sharpening tools with lots of control. In Lightroom, I often use levels of 100 or more, depending on my shot, with the Radius set at 0.5. Sharpening is subjective, but remember a few important guidelines. First, make sure you’re looking at your image at 100% when you sharpen. This will let you really see what’s happening when you’re adjusting your sharpening. Second, don’t oversharpen. If the Amount or Radius is too high, your image will have halos and nasty artifacts. Third, determine when to sharpen your image. If you’re working in Aperture or Lightroom, you’re doing nondestructive editing, so you can sharpen anytime you like. If you’re working in Photoshop, it’s better to sharpen at the end of your workflow. Sharpening is immediately applied to the pixels in Photoshop, so save this for last, once you’ve done all your other editing.
10) Get Rid Of Those Nasty Spots.
If there’s one thing that drives m
e crazy, it’s dust on my camera sensor. I work in a lot of dusty, dirty locations, so I’m doomed to always have some amount of dust on my sensor. Nothing is worse than printing a 16×20 of my favorite image and finding a dust spot right in the middle. Both Lightroom and Aperture have tools to remove dust spots. Carefully scroll through your image and remove those troublesome spots. In Lightroom, I use the Healing Brush for the best results. In Aperture, try the Retouch Brush in Repair mode or the Spot and Patch tool. Enlarge your image so you don’t miss any spots. Lightroom 5 includes a Visualize Spots feature, which makes finding spots much easier.
How long does it take me to complete my 10-step optimization? Some images only take a few minutes, while others take much longer, especially if there are a lot of dust spots. Remember, I only optimize images that are my best from a shoot.
Now you’ve completed the first two parts of the workflow process: organization and optimization. That only leaves one part left, and it just may be the most important: image backup. In the final installment of this series, we’ll look at how to back up your images and eliminate crashing hard drive nightmares.
For an in-depth look at all aspects of Tom Bol’s workflow, pick up a copy of his book Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places. Visit his website at tombolphoto.com.