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.