Photo Editing Workflow Tutorial: 101 Guide

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Using White Balance

Photo Editing Workflow

If you’ve been practicing photography for a while now, you’ve probably developed some system for post-processing your images. Of course, it’s always great to get the shot perfect in-camera, but since that doesn’t always happen, having a straightforward, streamlined post-processing workflow can save both time and headaches.

The exact workflow process will vary from photographer to photographer, and sometimes even from image to image, yet there is a sequence that, if followed, will not only streamline your editing process, but also help avoid losing valuable pixel data (if you’re shooting with jpegs).

What Photo Editing Software Should I Use?

These days just about any photo-editing software will have the basic adjustments available, but if you’re looking for full functionality, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, and Capture One are still the industry standards. If you don’t have access to one of these programs, you can always check out the array of free photo editing tools out there.

Whichever program you choose, make sure that you always make a backup of your original (unless you’re using a program like Lightroom, which doesn’t make any changes to the original image).

Shooting In RAW

If you want to become serious about your photography, shooting in RAW is the only way to go. RAW is the file format your camera produces an image in before it gets compressed. Once it gets compressed you lose some of the data, so working in RAW is the only way to be able to edit with all the data on the table.

Almost any modern DSLR will have a RAW option, and even a few Point-and-Shoots. You’ll need one of the above programs for post-processing (or GIMP/Photoscape if you’re using free software), but the difference in editing capacity and photo quality is well worth it. You’ll also have more freedom in your post-processing workflow – the adjustment order becomes much more critical when working in jpeg’s, where it’s much easier to lose data.

The Workflow Order

As mentioned above, while there is no “one-size-fits-all” workflow – the process will vary depending on the software you’re using, the needs of the photos(s), etc. – there is a sequence that works well in most cases, and, if you’re working with jpeg’s, will help you minimize data loss. (If you’re working with Lightroom, order is still important if you want a faster workflow.

Doing a lens correction first and then returning to basic editing can slow the program down substantially.)  Programs specifically intended for post-processing will even provide you with an order that works best for them (i.e. Lightroom), but the process below can work for just about any program. It goes as follows:

1. Framing: Straighten and Crop

Though there are a number of photographers who start their workflow with white balance, for me it makes more sense to start with any obvious cropping/straightening, mostly because my lens corrections don’t tend to affect the orientation of my photos too extremely.  If you’re working in a program that doesn’t offer lens corrections, now is the perfect time to straighten out your scene, level the horizon, etc.  In Lightroom makes straightening a simple process indeed. providing a grid and a slider that rotates the image for you:

Leveling a Photo in Lightroom

Note: If you know your lens tends to have distortion issues and you’re working in a program that can adjust it, this step should be moved to after lens corrections, since those corrections correction can often change your photo substantially.

2. White Balance

If you’ve been taking photos for a while, you’re probably already aware of the importance of setting the proper white balance in camera. That doesn’t mean we’ll always get it right (especially with all the options for indoor lighting offered on today’s modern DSLR’s), not does it mean your camera, when set on auto, will always get it right (particularly in situations like shooting in the snow, etc.). Lucky for us, just about every editing program offers some means of white balance adjustment, and if you’ve been shooting in RAW, there’s no harm done.

Most programs offering white balance adjustment allow you to pick a “target neutral” with an eye dropper-looking instrument. Target neutral is something that, if the white balance were set correctly, would show up as a neutral gray. If you’re looking at values, they should all be pretty much the same, but it’s easier to look for something that would normally up light gray and click on that. Also, for best accuracy, you’ll want to choose something somewhat bright (snow, paper, a white shirt, etc.), but not so bright that any of the channels are clipped. Check for this both before and after clicking.

Using White Balance

3. Exposure

Next to White Balance, Exposure is probably the most common adjustment you’ll need to make. You might think that shooting in Auto will save you exposure headaches, but there are a number of common situations that can fool your in-camera meter. If you’re shooting in manual, you’re even more likely to need an exposure adjustment now and again.

Sometimes this will be a simple thing – programs like Photoshop and Lightroom have an “automatic” adjustment that sometimes hits it spot on. (The auto adjustment in Photoshop is only changes the levels, but Lightroom combines levels with exposure in auto.) Other times you’ll have to play around with the setting to get exactly the look you were going for.

Correcting Exposure

4. Contrast (Clarity/Levels/Curves, etc.)

Your contrast adjustment can really make or break your photo. If you haven’t already adjusted the levels in your exposure adjustment (i.e. if you were using Lightroom), now is your time to take that on. If you’re using a program that allows you to adjust the clarity, this is great adjustment for a variety of photos. (Often, if there’s no cropping, my workflow to this point is simply a quick exposure check and a clarity adjustment.)

Though it’s difficult to see at this size image, if you look carefully at the photos below, you’ll see much more detail showing on the one to the right. That’s the effect of raising the clarity.

Using the Clarity adjustment In Lightroom

5. Saturation/Vibrance/Other Color Corrections

Although it’s true that most photos could use a slight boost in saturation, vibrance, etc. it’s also true that these adjustments are often overdone, and frequently aren’t even necessary if white balance, exposure and contrast have all been properly set.

Saturation adjusts the intensity of all colors in your image, regardless of the starting point of the colors. Bump it up slightly and you get deeper, richer colors across the board. Go too far (which is easy to do) and you can get clipping (loss of detail in areas which have been oversaturated) and, in portraits, the over saturation of skin tones creating an unnatural color cast. Reducing the saturation uniformly mutes the colors. Go all the way down and your photograph will turn into black and white (though if you’re looking to create a black and white image, this isn’t the best way). (In some programs you can adjust the saturation point of the different colors individually. This can create some interesting color effects when used judiciously.)

Vibrance, on the other hand, only adjusts the intensity of the more muted colors in your photo, and leaves the already well-saturated colors alone. It’s sort of like fill light, but for colors. Unlike saturation, bumping up vibrance levels won’t over-saturate your skin tones.

For a detailed overview, read our article on vibrance vs. saturation.

In the photo on the left has no adjustments.  The photo on the right has a vibrance  of +45.  Notice that the effects are subtle, yet noticeable – the colors are definitely richer.

Comparing Saturation and Vibrance

Of these two, the photo on the left is again, neutral.  The photo on the right, however, has a saturation adjustment of +45. Notice how the skin tones are blown out and how everything has an orange cast to it.

Comparing Saturation with Vibrance

6. Detail: Local Sharpening

Once you’ve gone through the steps above, you can now go for localized sharpening.  (Since sharpening, in particular, can cause a Jpeg to lose data, it really shouldn’t be done sooner.)  Some program will have a sliders with their sharpening option – Amount, Radius, Detail, and Masking – and though you can always play around with them to see their effect, it’s helpful to know what they do.

Amount refers to the overall strength of the sharpening being applied.

The Radius slider controls the size of the radius around which the sharpening is applied.  The larger this slider the bigger the radius around which sharpening will be applied.

Detail controls how much sharpening will take place along the edges in your photo.

Masking masks out solid or similar color regions, so that only the edges get sharpened.

Remember, this step is only for detail and localized sharpening, not overall photo sharpening, so don’t get carried away.  That comes almost last (you want to have the majority of your adjustments done before the final sharpening).

When to Sharpen a Photo

7. Noise Reduction

Noise Reduction follows sharpening, because sharpening will often add more noise to your photo.  Shooting in low light situations and/or with high ISO’s will also cause add noise to your photos.  Depending upon your software, you can reduce noise here and now (if your software allows it), or, if you’re moving over to another program, reduce the noise afterwards.

The photo below is before noise correction:

Photo with Noise


Noise Reduction applied

8. Lens Corrections

Depending upon your lens and what setting your shooting at, your photo may have some level of distortion, vignetting, and/or chromatic aberrations.  Lightroom and Photoshop correct for this, but be aware, the corrections don’t always look better, especially if you’re using a wide angle lens and/or are intending a certain effect.

Also, some level of vignetting is at times welcome, as it can place more emphasis on the subject of your photo.  Either way, if you’re using this Lightroom, be sure not to do it before doing the basic editing.  If you do, it may very well slow down Lightroom’s processing. (It’s placed near the bottom for a reason!)

9. Final Framing: Rotate and Crop

Now that your lens corrections are done, you can perform your final straightening and cropping.

10. Refinements: Selective Enhancements

This is your time to make whatever changes you want to the subject matter of your photo.  This includes spot removal, shadow/highlight adjustment, filters, etc. I prefer to do my enhancements in Photoshop and usually migrate over to there at this point. If you do move to Photoshop and are working with Jpeg’s, make sure to work off a layer copy – not the original.

Below is an example of using the healing brush in Photoshop.  Notice how the spots on her arms and on her face have been removed naturally.

Use the Healing Brush To Remove Blemishes

11. Final Sharpening

Once the enhancements are done you’re free to do your final sharpening. Some people prefer to do this after their final resizing, but for me, since I’m more often making my images smaller, I prefer to do it now.  Reverse these last two steps if, for some reason, you’ll be making your image larger.

12. Resizing

This is when you would enlarge for a print or downsize for the web or email.  Personally, I edit in the largest size possible so that I’m working with all the color information RAW affords me.

Summing Up The Process

So that’s it – post-processing workflow in a nutshell. If you would like to find a class that teaches beginners how to edit photos, take a look at our recommended courses for basic photo editing. Equally, If you’re using a different flow or have questions/comments on this one, let us know!

All images copyright Teryani Riggs 2014 and used by permission.

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Usnea Lebendig is a travel and landscape photographer who loves trekking in the wilderness, exploring other cultures, and using photography for social activism.
Usnea Lebendig is a travel and landscape photographer who loves trekking in the wilderness, exploring other cultures, and using photography for social activism.

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  1. This an amazing work which proves your efficiency, I enjoyed so much! Especially photo editing tips, really impressive! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Excellent intro – clear, logical but not controlling of the photographer’s individual approach. Also nice to have it as a transcript plus images – much more effective than poor quality video. Still relevant even at 8 years old!

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