Once a photo session is over, there is still quite a bit of work before images can be presented for viewing, whether in the form of prints, web pages or social media distribution.  The process includes not only initial conversion and adjustment of images (we shoot RAW exclusively), but also organizing image files for storage and retrieval and backing up all work to external storage media for redundancy.  Also, on occasion image modification may be performed to repair images with correctable flaws.  Such images must be intended for artistic purposes, never editorial ones.  In summary, the overall post-processing workflow consists of:

  • Convert images from RAW and adjust for desired artistic appearance
  • Modify or repair images for artistic effect
  • Organize image sessions for storage and retrieval
  • Backup image files externally for redundancy

Image Processing

For those who shoot RAW, conversion software is an integral and vital part of the workflow.  While Photoshop remains a singularly powerful image processing tool, RAW converters have become so full-featured that most, if not all processing can be done there.  

There are many RAW converters that will do the job well.  The one that I have stuck with is Capture One.  The steps that I follow are given below, and they would be about the same in any alternative.  Note that certain auto adjustment features seem to give adequate results for a first pass.  Images can still be fine tuned, but use of auto adjustments initially gives a consistent appearance and style to each image.

  • Grade and mark images: best for further processing, worst for deletion
  • Adjust white balance if needed (for appearance, not for exact balance)
  • Adjust exposure, contrast, brightness, saturation and clarity via pre-stored styles; fine-tune if needed
    • Populate EXIF fields as a part of applied styles 
  • Use (auto) levels to set white point, black point and gamma, and adjust gamma and curve if needed
  • Perform (auto) highlight and shadow recovery; fine turn as needed
  • Perform selective hue, saturation and luminosity adjustment
  • Remove dust spots from image
  • Repair minor defects using layers, masks and local adjustments
  • Adjust crop, rotation and keystone to desired composition and format
    • Crops conform to standard print formats
  • Adjust sharpening and noise reduction as needed
  • Convert and save file
    • External editing: 16-bit TIFF & ProPhoto RGB, original resolution
    • Print:  8-bit JPEG, Adobe RGB, 300 dpi
    • Web:  8-bit JPEG, Adobe RGB, 96 dpi

Much of this can be performed by bulk/auto adjustments and pre-prepared styles that are applied to large groups of images at the same time.  Once images are graded, the time needed to make a first adjustment pass is greatly condensed.  Images typically receive detailed individual attention only if an image is to be printed.

Only the most difficult images are sent externally for additional processing, usually those that require some sort of image repair that cannot be handled within the capabilities of the RAW converter.  For high ISO images, a trip to Photoshop in order to run a noise reduction filter plug-in may follow.  Also, Photoshop's print proofing capability may be used  as well.

Finally, for web images, Photoshop actions are used to create drop shadows and custom web pages based on hand modified Photoshop web templates.

Organizing Images

Assuming one does not use a digital asset management (DAM) program, a set of structures, processes and conventions for organizing image files is needed. There are several choices in deciding how to organize, manage, store and retrieve images. The ones listed below summarize key steps.

  • Naming conventions
  • Folder hierarchy
  • Image Retrieval

Naming Conventions

Naming conventions vary. Some retain the original camera file name. Some substitute a sequence number. Many append subject and session information.  I begin the name with a subject description.  This is followed by session location, and then by the year and month of exposure.  The original file name is appended at the end.  Using a folder hierarchy that matches this approach simplifies tracking and retrieval of images.  Here's a typical image name in abstract form, followed by the name of one of the images in the image portfolio section.



Folder hierarchy

Images are arranged in a tree structure within the computer's file system. Each depth level of the tree corresponds to some logically unified way of viewing the images. At the top are collections of multiple sessions or trips of a similar nature.  Examples might include travel trips, birding trips, outdoor activities, etc.  Each visit within this top level folder is a separate subordinate folder, i.e. an individual trip destination and date, loosely year and month.  During any particular visit, many subjects may be photographed, each of which resides in a separate folder.  The latter is the bottom tier of organization in the file folder hierarchy.

GrayFoxImages > Collection of Sessions (e.g. Travel trips) > Location & Date of a Session > Specific Subjects

Besides nature photography, subjects also include travel photography and sports imaging.  However, the principle is the same for each distinct area.  Represented symbolically, the GrayFoxImages Nature folder hierarchy is as follows:

Top Level Images folder:
Web site home page index and support folders
{ Folders for each major image collection type (e.g. Birding destinations, Travel trips, etc.) } 

      { Subfolders for images taken at each Location/Date Session + Best of Session web pages } 

            { Optional:  subfolders for each Subject Type, e.g. ducks, geese, etc. }
Portfolio folder 
 { Web page subfolders organized by subject categories, e.g. Flora, Fauna, Scenics, etc. }

Applying this to the previous example:

A best of session web page is built and stored within the Location/Date folder, and the "best of the best" are copied into the appropriate GrayFoxImages Portfolio subject category folders.  This best of trip web page will later be indexed in a GrayFoxImages Travels page.  As needed, a few images may also be converted into TIFFs for further editing or into high quality JPEGs for print preparation.

Paralleling the Travels page is an internal Archive page with links to all photo trips and photo sessions, including not only nature, travel and sports images but also personal and family images that are not a part of the web site.  The Archive page exists only on the local internal hard drive, and it provides organized access to images from all photo sessions, making all past photos, nature or otherwise, available from a single index page.

Image Retrieval

For my needs, the file system and web page approach has proved effective.  It does not lock me into any particular DAM toolset, and the basic file organization has remained intact throughout.  I have changed computers, external hard drives, image browsers, RAW converters and Photoshop versions several times without incident.  Any renaming tool can be substituted with no impact.  I have also survived disk crashes and restored the entire collection from backup on more than one occasion.

Backing Up Images

There are many ways to implement a systematic backup scheme, none of them more "right" than any other. The choice usually comes down to what best matches personal situations. The following is my approach.

First, files are organized into two categories: personal documents and image files, with images further divided into two types, making a total of three data types that reside on three separate internal data disks. The reason for this is that personal documents tend to get updated frequently whereas image files tend to get processed intensively at first and then enter a somewhat quiescent archival state.  It is convenient to place personal data and the two image types on three different internal disks. 

One can go with an always-on strategy or an intermittent on / intermittent backup strategy.  While an always-on strategy is clearly the safest, I've chosen a mix of both strategies, in part to conserve external backup disk life span.  As a result, external disk service life has generally outlasted their storage capacity.

In keeping with the above there are two powered external disks, normally turned off until needed; and they serve as intermittent backups.  There are also two USB-powered disks, only one of which is active at a time. These are rotated in and out on a regular basis.  The active USB disk disk is updated with each internal disk on a scheduled rotating basis. Also, any time system changes are made a system image is copied to the active USB disk and, one at a time, to the externals that are normally off-line. All external backup disks have enough capacity to back up the full contents of each of the three internal disks.

Backup Software

There are many backup products that perform admirably well. I use a program called SyncBack to capture editing updates to external backups.  This program allows manual or scheduled backups. One can either copy new material to the backup disk or synchronize the backup so that it mirrors the original.  I never modify anything on the computer's internal disks during the backup process.

Photo trips are special, and when I return from an outing I immediately load all captured images to the relevant main computer internal disk.  Next, all image files from the trip are copied to each external backup disk. Then, after editing the files I back up the editing changes. Intermediate edits are captured during scheduled updates to the one active USB disk.

Image Repair

In addition to standard and widely accepted color and tonal adjustments, I also remove minor distractions.  Repairs such as cloning out dust spots are not disclosed but modifications such as removing a minor distraction are labeled in the image title.  The types of modifications are discussed below and are based on  masking techniques developed by Robert O'Toole and described in his how-to guide, "Advanced Photoshop Techniques and Tips Simplified" (APTATS).

  • Add canvas to balance composition
  • Blur background beyond subject
  • Remove unwanted elements
  • Repair clipped image element
  • Composite multiple images

A useful repair for some images  is to add canvas to the image. This only works so long as the background allows this to be done seamlessly. I also use various masking and selection techniques to isolate subjects in order to selectively blur backgrounds -- in effect simulating a shallower depth of field than originally captured.

Occasionally an image element is clipped by the edge of the frame or an unwanted element appears in the frame. Sometimes these images can be saved by judicious repairs. In the case of image repairs (wingtips, perches, etc.), the degree of repair is always peripheral in relation to the subject.

It should be noted that I never add elements to a natural history image that were not in the original scene -- unless the image is an obvious composite or some other unambiguous presentation of digital art, in which case the image is labeled as such. An example of the latter is the lunar eclipse composite, a time lapse which shows the Moon at various stages during a total lunar eclipse.

Changing an image in ways that go beyond standard and long-accepted darkroom practices leads to a discussion of photographic ethics -- and never more so than in the digital age. Modifications that change tonal values and color characteristics without adding, removing or modifying image elements have long been accepted as standard practice as a part of image grading.  For more extensive modifications, the consensus difference is whether the image is intended for artistic or editorial purposes.  In the latter case, and in many photography competitions as well, the rules are far more strict.

For a few tongue-in-cheek thoughts on the ethics of image processing in the digital age, read the essay, My Lying Lens - a Fable! 

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