A few weeks ago I was asked a question about my digital darkroom workflow by one of my private photography tour clients. He enjoyed making digital images but admitted that he wasn’t sure what to do with them once they landed on his computer. I asked if he was using Lightroom and learned that he wasn’t. I explained a few of the major advantages in using Lightroom to process RAW images and he was instantly sold on it. I also explained that I make extensive use of Nik Software plug-ins from within Lightroom. My client went home and purchased Lightroom 4 as well as the Nik Complete Collection. Soon thereafter I received an email from him asking me to describe how I use Lightroom, the Nik plug-ins and Photoshop within my workflow. He didn’t need a tutorial on how to use each product. Rather, he was curious what part each one played in the overall scope of my workflow.
I’ve been using Photoshop since 2002 and Lightroom since it launched in 2007. I discovered the Nik plug-ins about two years ago. Though I don’t consider myself an expert with any of them, I do admit that I take for granted my ability to use them to accomplish my artistic goals. I hadn’t given much thought to how each piece of the image processing puzzle fits together until my client asked me to define how I use each one in my own workflow. It occurred to me that I figured it all out on my own, through a process of trial and error. Surely there is a more efficient way to learn how and when to use each tool. With that in mind, I decided to share a macro look at my workflow with the hope that it will help other photographers who may be struggling to put the puzzle pieces together.
The first thing you should know is that the process I’ll describe is not the right way. It’s not the wrong way, either. It’s just my way. It’s what works for me and it’s taken a number of years to get here. I’m offering this as a jumping off point. It’ll give you the boost to get started and when you’re up and running, you’ll develop your own way of doing things. If your way works for you, it’s the right way. Find what works and run with it. Now, let’s get on to the good stuff…
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4
Lightroom 4 is the workhorse of my workflow. It does all the heavy lifting. Lightroom 4 is the very first step in my workflow. I import my RAW images from the CF card directly into Lightroom 4 using a folder hierarchy organized by state. One of the biggest timesavers in Lightroom 4 is the ability to apply a keyword set to all imported images, which is a step I never, ever skip. Once the RAW files are imported I embark upon the tedious and time consuming task of weeding through them to separate the keepers from the trash.
Once I’ve identified images that make the cut the next step is to add more specific keywords and titles. I do this before I start processing the images simply to ensure that I don’t get so excited about the final image that I forget to update the metadata. Hey, I’ve got a short attention span! Now that the digital asset management crap is out of the way, the fun begins – processing those RAW files.
Lightroom was designed in such a way that, for the most part, you start at the top of the adjustment panel and work your way to the bottom. This is not a “how to use Lightroom” tutorial and I’m not going to go into detail about each and every tool. If that’s what you’re looking for I highly recommend Piet van Den Eynde’s excellent e-book, “Lightroom 4 Unmasked“. Here’s a partial list of the adjustments available in Lightroom 4: dust spot removal, white balance, exposure, highlight and shadow recovery, white and black point, vibrance, saturation, contrast, curves adjustments, HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) color channel adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction and more. Lots more. After making these global adjustments I’ll move on to fine tuning the image with local adjustments using the adjustment brush and/or graduated filter. Global adjustments are those that affect the entire image as a whole. Local adjustments target specific areas of the image. Dodging and burning (selective darkening and lightening) are classic examples of local adjustments.
When I’m done making local adjustments the image is getting very close to final form. For those of you who like percentages, let’s call it 75% to 85% complete. Next up: Nik Software plug-ins. I use these plug-ins on every single image I process.
Nik Software Complete Collection
I prefer to make most of my creative edits using Nik Software plug-ins, primarily Viveza 2 and Color Efex Pro 4. Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 shoulders the load for all of my black and white conversions. The best analogy I can relate is this: I use Lightroom 4 as a broad brush would be used to paint an entire wall while the Nik plug-ins are akin to using a detail brush for trim pieces. Ever notice how much more impact a door has when the trim is painted a contrasting color? I find that my images are much more impactful when I use the Nik Complete Collection to make small creative edits.
Every image pays a visit to Viveza 2, where I often use Nik Control Points to make precise selections that allow me to make highly targeted adjustments to brightness, saturation, contrast, structure (very fine detail enhancement) and more. I commonly use Viveza 2 to easily resolve white balance conflicts. I also use Viveza 2 for more precise dodging and burning than is possible with Lightroom 4. One of the major advantages in using Viveza 2 for this lies in the power of Nik’s Control Points, which allow you to select a certain color or tone with ease and without having to create complicated masks. I don’t know what kind of insane algorithms are at work behind the scenes but the whole process is simple, powerful and very clean.
After Viveza 2 I’ll often bring an image into Color Efex Pro 4 for final creative edits. Color Efex Pro 4 is essentially a collection of digital photo filters, some of which mimic the effects of their analog brethren like circular polarizers or graduated neutral density filters, while others exist only in the digital darkroom. Contained within this amazing plug-in are filters that give foliage extra zing, landscapes more warmth and clouds more definition. Every once in a while I’ll find myself flummoxed by an image with an odd color cast. Luckily, there’s a Color Efex Pro 4 filter that zaps color casts in about 4 seconds flat.
In most cases, this trip through Nik Software plug-ins is the end of the line for my processing workflow and always takes place inside Lightroom. When working with the Nik plug-ins you have the option to use them as a Lightroom or Photoshop plug-in. The major advantage to using them inside Photoshop is the ability to save a layered file that allows you to go back and re-edit the image at any time. This is not something that interests me. It’s a personal choice and if you’re new to using the Nik plug-ins I encourage you to try both ways to gain an appreciation for your own workflow preference.
Adobe Photoshop CS5
Why not CS6 or CC? Because I’m cheap, that’s why. I work so infrequently in Photoshop that I see no need to upgrade to the latest and greatest version when the one I have now does everything I need it to do. So, what do I need Photoshop to do? If I’m working with multiple images to increase dynamic range or depth of field (exposure blending or focus stacking), Photoshop is the only way to get it done. Very rarely do I ever have a need to do any kind of complicated cloning but when I do, it’s in Photoshop. As I write this, I just learned that Lightroom 5 was released tonight and it now offers a more advanced heal/clone brush than has been included in any prior version. I haven’t used it but I suspect it is still rudimentary when compared to Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill capabilities. Lastly, I still use Photoshop for printing. Yes, you can print from within Lightroom 4 (and now, 5) and as I understand, it’s a pretty fluid process, but Photoshop still has its hooks in me when it comes to printing.
So, there it is. A birds eye view of my digital darkroom workflow. Remember: this is not the right workflow, nor is it the only workflow. It’s a starting point for those of you who are just digging into Lightroom, Nik Software Complete Collection and/or Photoshop. Try it out for a while and you’ll soon find yourself falling face first into your very own workflow. It may be similar to mine or it could be completely different. Either way, it’s not better or worse – just different. The most important thing is that you take that first step and allow yourself the freedom to experiment and create. Have fun!