Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill


Digital Darkroom: My Workflow - Hardware & Software

I'm the type of photographer who cares as much - and am as interested in - the processing of my images as I am the original capture of them. To me it makes little sense in investing thousands of dollars in camera equipment, photo excursions, and huge amounts of time in image capture and then minimize the effort of processing the resultant images. After all, to consistently produce top-notch images it's essential to use the best tools and make the best decisions in both the front end (image capture) and back end (image processing) parts of the image production process.

Because I'm concerned primarily about image quality and because I have an inherent interest in image editing tools, I frequently experiment with new processing tools and, if I like them, I try to integrate them into my workflow. Thus, my tool chest and workflow is always evolving. So don't be surprised if what you read here doesn't ALWAYS match what you may read in my blog or in the contextual information associated with each image posted in my various Galleries.

For organizational purposes, I've split my Digital Darkroom section into two distinct categories that are found on separate web pages:

1. PAGE 1 (this page): Digital Workflow & Software

2. PAGE 2: Computer Hardware

I. My Workflow: Some Introductory Comments and Caveats

Image Quality, Not Speed to Market: My primary concern is maximizing image quality, not maximizing the speed in getting my images to market. In many workflows (think photo journalists) getting an image to its ultimate destination (a newspaper, a website, etc.) as fast as possible is a valid concern and can dramatically affect the value of the image. If speed-to-market is your main concern, quit reading now.

"Best of Breed" vs. "Swiss Army Knife" Workflow? Over the last several years several companies have produced very complete and full-featured workflow tools. Two of the most familiar are Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom and Apple's Aperture (or, at the consumer level, Apple iPhoto). These tools are designed to fulfill most or all the needs of most photographers - from image review and culling, image organization, raw conversion, image editing, throughout to production of images for specific final uses (print, slideshows, web, emailing, etc.). I have tried both Lightroom and Aperture a number of times and ALMOST adopted Lightroom 3 as a "full" workflow tool in the late autumn of 2010. However, each time I have found SOME aspect of the workflow of these highly competent Swiss Army Knives lacking for my needs. So...for the foreseeable future I will continue to use a workflow that uses what I consider the "best of breed" tools for each specific task.

What Do I Recommend? There is NO "one size fits all" answer to this question. For those new to digital photography or new to a raw workflow the answer is easy: I recommend Adobe Lightroom. In my opinion this is an EXCELLENT overall workflow tool that is reasonably easy to learn and is capable of producing very good output. For many photographers (including up to the serious enthusiast or even professional level) Lightroom may be all they ever really need and they may never have to "graduate" to full version Photoshop. I absolutely do NOT recommend my workflow to ANYONE just learning the skills of image editing. And, of course, I'm hoping my competitors never adopt my workflow! ;-)

II. My Raw Workflow - Tasks and Tools

MY Goal: The ultimate goals of my workflow are twofold: to produce master files of my best and/or most useful images AND to organize, rate and keyword all my other "keeper" images in a manner such that I can easily access any of them in seconds. My master files are derivatives of my original raw captures and I keep them in either 16-bit "flat" TIFF or 16-bit layered Photoshop format. My master files are converted to ProPhoto RGB colour space during raw conversion and remain in that colour space until I produce derivatives from my master files for specific uses (e.g., Adobe RGB for print, sRGB for web, etc.). All the rest of my "keeper" images (that I haven't produced masters from) remain in raw format until I dream up a specific use for them (at which time a master TIFF or PSD will be made and use-specific files are derived from them).

My philosophy in producing a master file is almost always to reproduce the scene I viewed in the field as accurately as possible. This is especially true of my wildlife images. However, when I'm shooting other subject matter, such as landscapes or plants or "extracts/abstracts" I don't hesitate to use digital tools to enhance and/or produce "interpretive" images that stray from the original scene by a considerable amount. However, I ALWAYS disclose such adjustments and will NEVER claim a manipulated or heavily adjusted image is "as seen in the field". To me it all comes down to disclosure.

I NEVER assume that ANY camera is perfect and, because of this, firmly believe that both global and local adjustments to a camera's output are necessary to produce images that are as close as possible to the original scene. Thus, I do NOT believe that all digital corrections and/or adjustments made to images are, by definition, unethical or misleading.

1. Image Import, Image Culling/Sorting: I use Adobe Lightroom to import images from my memory cards and, during the process, write specific metadata (including copyright info)"into" the images. I also use Adobe Lightroom to weed through and cull my images down to a manageable number.

2. Image Keywording: I use Adobe Bridge to keyword my image files (raws, masters, and derivatives). The primary reason for this is that over the years I have developed a detailed nested hierarchy of keywords and an efficient methodology to apply these keywords to large number of images. Fortunately for me keywords laced into images (of virtually any format) can be "seen" and recognized by Adobe Lightroom.

3. Raw Conversion: I use Phase One's Capture One Pro to convert my raw files to 16-bit TIFF files. It is not uncommon for me to make two or three raw conversions from a single raw file for eventual compositing in Photoshop to produce a single master file. The most common adjustment differing between the raw conversions (from a single file) is exposure, but on occasion I will make multiple conversions that differ in white balance or noise reduction or sharpening or even some other adjustment. Adjustments I make most commonly during raw conversion include tweaks to white balance, exposure, contrast and colour saturation (increase OR decrease). I will also remove lens artifacts (such as vignetting or chromatic aberration), perform noise reduction, and do initial capture sharpening (to offset the effects of the camera's anti-aliasing - or lowpass - filter).

4. Image Editing: My primary image editing tool is (surprise, surprise) Adobe Photoshop. On selected images I will also perform some adjustments using Light Crafts excellent software package called LightZone. What I use each of the software packages specifically for is detailed in section III below.

5. Image Cataloging/Management: I use Adobe Lightroom as my primary image cataloging and management tool for my main image collection. On occasion I will use Adobe Bridge for image retrieval and organizational purposes for peripheral/derived parts of my collection (e..g, organizing and moving images around that are destined for use on this website).

6. Printing: I use Colorbyte's ImagePrint for all my printing needs.

III. My Raw Workflow - Why I Use/Like Specific Tools

There are two questions I get asked so frequently it is worth dedicating a section to answering them. The questions are:

What do you use Product X (e.g., Lightroom) for?

Why do you use Product X (e.g., Capture One Pro) instead of Product Y (e.g., Lightroom) for Task Z (e.g., raw conversions)? ya go, a little more about WHY I use the software I use (and a little about what I use each application for). It is safe to assume that in all cases I'm referring to the latest version of each software product listed below:

1. Adobe Lightroom: I really like Lightroom's tools for image review and image culling (and especially how those various display modes can be made to work on a dual-monitor system). I also like Lightroom's image sorting and retrieval capabilities (for all images in specific catalogs). In particular, I really, really like how lightning fast it is to find specific images within a collection/catalog compared to many (most?) other products. What do I think of it as a raw converter or image editor? Well, let's just say I really like it for the tasks listed above and I prefer other tools for raw conversion & image editing! ;-)

2. Adobe Bridge: Historically I used Adobe Bridge for all tasks associated with image management, including image import, culling and sorting, image rating and keyboarding, image sorting and retrieval, etc. However, since I integrated Lightroom into my workflow in the autumn of 2010 I now only use Bridge for two main tasks/reasons: image keywording (I find it faster and easier to keyword using Bridge than Lightroom) and simply as a file browser. Because Lightroom and Bridge work well together (application integration is a hard-to-resist reason for using a suite of Adobe products) there is no major inefficiency with isolating one task (like keywording) to Bridge while using Lightroom for the majority of my image management tasks.

3. Phase One's Capture One Pro: My preferred tool for performing raw conversions is Capture One Pro. What do I like about Capture One Pro? A large number of things. The colour of the output. Its sharpening tools. Its automatic noise reduction. Its ability to extract subtle white-on-white detail out of scenes and/or portions of scenes that initially appear almost featureless or "blown out". But the thing I like MOST about Capture One Pro are the default camera profiles (think of them as groups of image adjustment settings specific to each camera). I find that I can get to my ultimate "end point" in image adjustment FASTER in Capture One Pro because the default camera profiles are usually very close to my final endpoint. Can I get output similar to that of Capture One Pro when using Lightroom? Sometimes...but it's my experience that when using Lightroom it takes many more image adjustments (and about 3 times the number of "clicks") to get there.

What about making selective (= non-global) adjustments to a raw file during the conversion process? Since version 6 Capture One Pro has offered a "layers and masking" approach to making selective non-destructive edits to a raw image file. I prefer how Phase One has implemented it's selective adjustment capabilities compared to Lightroom. But I rarely use it. Instead, I make selective changes to a raw image by making multiple raw conversions from a single raw file (where I vary a single adjustment variable, such as exposure) and then composite/merge the multiple output files into a single final master image using Photoshop.

4. Adobe Photoshop: What can one say about the undisputed heavyweight king of image editing tools? There are so many things I like about it that I wouldn't know where to begin my list. So...I'll just stick with what I use it for...

First and foremost, I use Photoshop as my tool of choice to take the output (normally a 16-bit TIFF in ProPhoto RGB colour space) from Capture One Pro and produce my final "master" file. If I have chosen to make multiple output files from a single raw file (in order to selectively adjust one parameter - normally exposure - in my final output) then my first job is to combine/merge these multiple files together using layers and masks. I may then also make further selective edits to the file (such as selective curves adjustment, selective increases or decreases to colour saturation, selective sharpening, etc.). If I do this, I will more often than not perform these changes uses adjustment layers and keep the layers intact in my final master file (which will be saved as a 16-bit Photoshop files).

I also use Photoshop for producing derivative files (from my master file) for specific uses. For instance, if I want to produce an image for use on this website, I will open my master image file in Photoshop and then crop and/or reduce the resolution, convert to the appropriate colour space (sRGB), add a layer with my copyright text, do final sharpening specific to web use, reduce the colour bit depth (to 8 bits) and then save as a JPEG - all in Photoshop. If I'm making a print of an image, I do all image "prep" in Photoshop (conversion to Adobe RGB colour space, cropping, adjusting resolution, performing inkjet-specific sharpening, etc) but ultimately print the image using Colorbyte's ImagePrint software (see below for details).

What about when I send an image to a magazine or newspaper? Many magazines and other print publications prefer you don't touch (and especially sharpen) an image file destined for use in their publication. But before sending them an image file, I will always convert the colour space to Adobe RGB (in Photoshop, of course!) and, if requested, will also crop and re-size the image (using Photoshop, of course) as well.

Finally, I produce most of my own promotional literature for everything from my photo tours through to gallery exhibits and seminars I may be giving. Much of this literature takes the form of graphically rich PDF files that use, of course, my images within them. While the layout of these pieces is done in a professional layout application almost never used by photographers (Adobe InDesign), I do all my image prep for them in Photoshop. The prep includes converting my masters to the appropriate colour space plus cropping, re-sizing, output-specific sharpening, overlaying text where appropriate, etc.

5. Light Craft's LightZone: LightZone is a very interesting raw conversion and image editing application that uses Ansel Adams "zone system" of photography as a metaphor in the design of their interface. LightZone provides tools to make the adjustments needed most by photographers (such as adjust exposure, boost colour, correct colour shifts, selectively sharpen images, perform black & white conversions, etc.). I find LightZone extremely useful to explore tonal balance options/ideas and exposure adjustments in an image - I commonly use it while producing my master files (where a LightZone adjusted version of the image becomes one of my layers in my final master). LightZone in no way removes my need for other tools and I don't recommend it as a replacement for Photoshop or one's favorite raw converter. But it's a great creative tool that can help one explore the potential of their images.

6. Colorbyte ImagePrint: I use ImagePrint from Colorbyte software to make all my inkjet prints. I prefer the printer drivers in ImagePrint for my Epson printer (compared to Epson's own or those of Adobe) and they offer profiles for a HUGE array of printer papers (all free for download from their website). ImagePrint is NOT cheap, but it makes an Epson printer really perform!

Looking for a listing of the hardware I use in my digital darkroom? Proceed to PAGE 2: Computer Hardware...

Page Update/Revision: February 14, 2011