While workflows are very much a personalised thing there are still some things you should take into consideration in order not to fall into bad habits.
The basic workflow goes like this:
1. RAW Processing
Load your photo into a RAW Processor (eg. Camera RAW, Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One, etc)
Note that these programs are already laid out in such a manner as to improve workflow. As a rule of thumb you should work through the settings from top to bottom.
Once you’ve fine-tuned your picture and you’re contempt, you’re ready to open the picture in Photoshop (or your graphical image editing software of choice).
2. Image alterations
The next step is to create all the image alterations you need. Create a copy of the original layer and go to town! You don’t want to have several layers with fine masks to end up worthless because you decide to do a perspective correction or move some aspects of the image.
Note: With Image alteration I mean any action that will alter the image’s pixels.
This includes the following:
Detail corrections such as sharpening,
Spot-removals and cloning
As large amount of these actions you will have applied during RAW processing though. Whenever possible choose the non-destructive way. Adjustment layers and masks are your best friend!
Only when you’re 100% sure you won’t be doing any other drastic changes to the image’s pixels should you continue with the next step:
3. Color adjustments
Now you start color correcting the image using adjustment layers.
Selective color adjustments,
Vibrance and/or Saturation
4. Image contrast
One of the last steps is composition. Keep in mind The Rule of Thirds as it generally does provide good results.
Depending on what media you want to display your photo on (be it print or screen) you will need to take into consideration the color space and format. If you’re printing you also need to take care in the previous step to make sure it’s the correct aspect ratio and size. Photoshop’s Crop Tool has handy aspect ratio settings for this.
Generally if you are going to publish on the web you will want to convert the color space into sRGB, otherwise you will find that all the colors look washed out and plain wrong.
See also: Color Spaces Explained
Many people ask me why to shoot in RAW files. The files are so big and you can’t easily view them on every computer. What’s the advantage? Then when I tell them it gives you an incredibly amount of control in post-processing they believe it’s not worth the time.
Let me show you why it is most definitely NOT a waste of time or space.
Let’s consider the following picture:
As you can see it’s severely underexposed, there is absolutely no details in the blacks and the picture seems beyond recovery. So since Camera RAW (the RAW processor I’m using in this example) support JPEGs as well, let’s see what we can do!
As you can see, it’s not pretty. The colors are washed out and while some details are recovered, many are still lost.
Now take a look at the same picture (using the same settings) in RAW format:
Much better, no? Of course it’s still noisy since the SNR (Signal-to-noise ratio) is much higher when shooting underexposed due to how digital sensors work. This is however a result we can work with. Then there’s the fact that you can change white-balance as you please, it’s not baked into the image as it is when shooting a compressed format such as JPEG.
For more reasons to use RAW see also: The Power of RAW Processing
What are color spaces and why should you care?
Simply put, without getting into ICC profiles, they are models that translate the raw data into colors that can be displayed by your device (be it a monitor, cellphone or printer). The sensors of digital cameras actually record a big amount of data that includes colors that many devices can’t even see. In fact it records colors that the human eye is unable to see (such as infrared). There’s a couple of standards in use nowadays for print and web use: sRBG (the standard for office and home use, such as on the web), AdobeRGB and ProPhotoRGB.
Take a look at the following image. The horseshoe shape is the spectrum of colors that the human eye can see. The little triangle inside is sRGB, the colorspace that is by far the most used over the web.
It is the standard colorspace that all non-color managed applications use to display their interfaces. So what happens when you look at an image in a non-color managed application? The colors look washed out and what you envisioned on your computer is lost in (color)translation.
Now let’s look at AdobeRGB and ProPhotoRGB
One thing you might notice here it that ProPhoto can actually hold colors outside of the spectrum of the human eye.
8-bit vs 16 bit (or higher)?
What does it even mean? Well basically it’s the amount of data each color channel can hold per pixel. This means that more bits is more data (which also means bigger filesize) and as such more control. You will get better gradients between colors and more control when adjusting curves/levels.
So what does all of this mean for the average person? Working in 8-bit sRGB is definitely the most convenient, less likely to cause problems with correctly showing your images to others. But keep in mind that future proofing your work is never a bad thing. You might not be thinking about printing right now, but when you do it would be a shame if you had to redo everything from your RAW files (you do keep a backup right?) when you do.
Preparing your images for output
Ok so you decided to work in a colorspace other than sRGB, how do you make sure your images display correctly on other people’s devices? It’s actually not that difficult. In photoshop you simply “Edit -> Convert to Profile…” and select sRGB before you save your image for the web. Lightroom and other programs all have export options that allow you to convert to sRGB or already do it by default.