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 or web pages.  (We do not have a social media presence.)  The process includes not only initial conversion and adjustment of RAW images, 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:

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
  • Perform HDR and/or Panorama processing
  • Keyword and catalog images
  • 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.   Also, Photoshop's print proofing capability may be used as well.

Additional tools are used for noise reduction, sharpening, HDR, panoramas and VR processing.  These tools, as well as the ones mentioned above, have varied over the years and will undoubtedly do so in the future.  Currently, we use NeatImage, Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI, Photomatix HDR, Aurora HDR, PTGui, AutoPano (legacy) and Panot2VR. Animated slide shows are produced with Pictures-to-Exe.

Workflow is session based, but images are also keyworded and cataloged separately.

Finally, for web images, Photoshop actions are used to create drop shadows and custom web pages based on hand modified Photoshop web templates. For more, see the section below on web site construction.

HDRs and Panoramas

HDRs and Panoramas enhance what one can accomplish in processing the output of a photo session. For most of our scenic/landscape outings, we capture three to five images of each scene, bracketed at one to two stop intervals. Depending on intent, a bracket set may be captured as single compositions or as part of a sequence constituting a panorama. There are many good products on the market for both HDR merging and adjustment as well as panorama stitching, so our choices reflect only our personal experience and thus do not constitute an endorsement.

HDR Merge Software

The tools we have used or currently use for HDR image merge and refinement are listed below.

  • Photomatix from HDRsoft
  • Aurora HDR from SkyLum
  • HDR merge in Capture One Pro 22

Each has its strengths and weakensses. Photomatix was one of the first quality HDR merge programs on the market. It's capabilities are excellent, but the user interface can be a bit daunting since controls are generally couched in terms of technical processing rather than end effect. Further, the selection of pre-programmed styles is very limited.

Aurora HDR was first delived in 2018. Its controls are intuitive, the user interface is every bit as powerful and comprehensive as Photomatix, but they also manipulate end effects that any photo processor can relate to. And, there is a wide selection of pre-stored styles that usually get one close to the desired product. Sadly, the last update was in 2019, and there has been only silence since then. New cameras and RAW formats are simply not supported. Company response is to convert to DNG and run that through Aurora HDR. This provides little confidence in the future of the product.

The late 2021 delivery of Capture One Pro (version 22) included HDR merge (and Panorama stitching). Our experience so far is mixed but encouraging. Merging is generally satisfactory, although there are situations where the merge seems to fail to recover the full range of tones in the captured images. Also, the the extensive conrols present in Photomatix and Aurora HDR are missing. One does have the full editing capability of Capture One after the merge, which may or may not be adequate. Finally, one cannot "HDR" a single image, a favorite technique I've frequently used with Aurora HDR to good effect.

Panorama Stitching Software

Panorama stitching requires two separate tools, a stitching program and (if 360 degree panoramas are attempted) a virtual tour program. Over time we have used the following products.

  • AutoPano (stitching) and PanoTour (VR processing)
  • PTGui (stitching)
  • Panorama stitching in Capture One Pro 22
  • Pano2VR (VR processing)

We began with KOLOR products AutoPano for stitching and PanoTour for VR processing. These were quite good and usually produced excellent results. Unfortunately, as so often happens in the world of commerce, KOLOR was bought up and subsequently terminated by the new corporate owner. With it's demise, a well-respected tool became legacy, still useful for stitching JPEGs and TIFFs, but unusable for newer RAW formats.

With the demise of AutoPano, we moved to PTGui, another highly regarded panorama stitching program. The user interface is a bit daunting at first, but with familiarity it becomes quite powerful. There are a full range of controls, including control point editing and a wide range of projections, one of which is almost certain to produce a satisfactory result.

Capture One Pro 22 also included panorama stitching. This early version is missing many of the features of more robust stitchers, including the ones described for PTGui. Nor is ghosting removal implemented at present. However, the few examples we've tried resulted in satisfactory stitches. One hopes that future versions will be more robust.

Finally, once KOLOR disappeared, and with it, PanoTour, we settled on Pano2VR as its replacement. Results are excellent with respect to 360 degree and 360x180 degree (spherical) panoramas. In fact, Pano2VR is an incredibly powerful VR tool. One downside is that the interface is quite difficult to learn and use on a casual basis. But, if one can get past the initial learning curve, the output is well worth the effort.

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! 

Keywording and Cataloging Images

Absent an integral multi-folder (tree structure) session search capability within Capture One, consideration of a database management approach, combined with keywording, becomes necessary.  In order to proceed, a few choices have to be made.

  • Constructing a consistent and complete set of keywords
  • Deciding on the cataloging approach and tools
  • Deciding what to do with the current session-based file system oriented approach
  • Deciding whether to catalog all images (tens of thousands) or the web site subset (thousands)

As noted above, the favored RAW converter is Capture One, which provides both session (file system) and catalog (DAM) organizational approaches.  Fortunately, the Capture One DAM capability, which CO calls catalogs, provides a choice of referenced image storage or integral-to-the-catalog storage.  The referenced approach does not disturb the session-based image structure whereas the catalog system holds images internally.  Fortunately, the referenced catalog approach allows continued use of a session based approach in parallel.

Having begun with sessions, the referenced approach to cataloging was chosen.  All image processing, including keywording, is still done within the CO sessions environment.  Currently, only those images selected for inclusion on the web site are keyworded and moved into the catalog structure.  Because this process is happening after the fact, the entire collection is being reviewed, which as resulted in a few additional images also being marked for possible future inclusion.

The keyword library consists of three major categories:

  • Places (where images were captured)
  • Subject (e.g. birds, other fauna, flora, scenic, travel, events, etc., subdivided into secific categories)
  • Status (i.e. individual photo session vs portfolio "best of the best" collections; HDR, panorama, etc.)

Fortunately, Capture One permits both a session window and a catalog window to be open at the same time. This facilitates image import while maintaining visibility of both source and destination.  Further, the CO catalog software includes a feature called smart albums.  These are active subset collections for which the software watches the overall catalog for new imports and automatically populates the smart album with new images that meet the smart album's keyword criteria.  The same subset could, of course, be identified by a search on the relevant keywords, but smart albums make chosen subsets available at all times.

So far, everything is going into one overall catalog, but multiple catalogs are possible.  Having not started with a catalog approach, populating the catalog takes quite an effort.  The completed product, however, will finally remove the barrier to finding specific images in an image collection spanning many decades.

Images as Art

In addition to straight photography, Gray Fox Images also includes a collection of photographs rendered as art -- photo art in effect.

The idea begain as simply a way to place an image on the Home page screen as a welcome to the site.  A photo of two snow geese in flight was modified with Photoshop filters, with a welcome message overlaid on the result, producing the image shown here.   Eventually, having only a single image always visible began to seem rather behind the times as animation in the form of carousel pages became popular.

This led to two separate efforts, the first to produce our own carousel based home page and the other to produce more photo art.   The resulting carousel Home page was based on an example found on the web site, and it is now the standard Gray Fox Images home page.   As such, it features a selection of photographs from and links to a number of recent photo outings or sessions.  Each of these also appears on the Travels page.

The snow geese image was soon joined by others, and the resultant small collection was rotated onto the home page on a monthly basis.  The Travels images on the Home page carousel were also updated at the same frequency.  However, as the photo art idea caught on, their numbers also grew, leading to the idea of a separate Photo Art collection.

That collection now numbers over a hundred images, drawn from the entire Gray Fox Images photo collection. The art images are now rotated on a weekly rather than a monthly basis.  The Photo Art collection was soon animated in the form of a slide show, similar to the slide shows found with each Gray Fox Images Portfolio collection.  Eventually, the Photo Art slide show became the basis for a Photo Art home page.

Web Site Construction

The web site is composed of a number of components: text-based pages, photo galleries accessed via thumbnail pages, hand-coded HTML, script and CSS additions and animated slide shows. The primary web authoring editor for text is Microsoft Expression Web -- a product that is no longer offered for sale or supported.  It is, however, available as a free download, and as such remains a useful, if no longer a state-of-the-art tool.

After RAW conversion, editing and, if necessary, repair, images are output as web-sized JPEGs and run through a set of actions in a legacy version of Photoshop to add drop shadows. Finished JPEGs are processed via customized Photoshop web gallery templates for exhibit on the site.  These templates have been extensively modified with site specific attributes via added HTML code that integrates smoothly with Expression Web HTML pages. While it is possible to create a drop shadow effect with HTML and CSS, the code to do so would have to be edited into each Photoshop-generated page, a time-consuming and error prone process.

Animated slide shows are produced using Pictures-to-Exe. The Home page carousel is based on a tutorial example found on Internet. The online site file structure is maintained with Filezilla. Locally, files are organized according to the structure described below in Organizing Images. A particularly useful resource for custom HTML and CSS info as well as scripts is, a large body of "free online tutorials, references and exercise in all the major languages of the web."

Inevitably the need arises to make bulk changes to pages after the fact. We have found several tools useful in carrying out such site maintenance activities. A legacy version of Adobe Bridge is the first choice for renaming many files at the same time. Capture One Pro's bulk renamer capability is also used. Adobe DNG converter is sometimes used for programs that do not convert a particular file format. A utility called Find and Replace will search HTML pages for specified character strings and replace each instance with a given alternative. A utility named delempty finds and deletes empty folder. And finally, a legacy version of Adobe's Image Ready is used to create the rollover menu buttons on the navigation frame.

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.

Having said the above, being able to search by keyword combinations rather than depending on memory would be highly useful.  Usually, this involves storing images under the control of a DAM system, something I have until recently chosen to avoid.  Such systems are often driven by a relational database, a relatively heavy weight implementation.  Given that I manage images under the operating sytem's (hierarchial or tree structure) file system, which Capture One calls sessions, it would be helpful to have a search and retrieveal capability that would work with Capture One's session-based tree structure and reside within my RAW processing software.  This feature is not available and is unlikely to be added in the future.

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.