Updated May 2017
A solid post production and colour management workflow is a vital skill that all photographers MUST learn, practise and keep updated throughout their career. From camera to print, this article will show you my full and extensive post production workflow. This is my professional workflow that uses the Adobe RGB (1998) colour space. This workflow is used for my landscape, architecture and fashion photography.
I will be showing you my workflow for a black and white and a colour image, as colour management processes are slightly different depending on whether or not you’re working with colour. This will provide a more comprehensive look into my post processing procedures.
My monitor calibration tool is the ColorMunki Display. I use a late 2009 27” iMac and a late 2013 15” Retina MacBook Pro. The images will be processed for output ready for my print lab to print on Ilford Smooth Pearl paper. The images were captured on a Canon 600D using a Canon 75-300mm f4 lens and a Nikon D300S using a Nikkor 18-55mm f3.5 lens. I am an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber using Photoshop and Lightroom for image processing.
Recommended Prior Reading
I highly recommend reading these below articles before continuing. These will help you understand colour spaces, monitor calibration and the difference between Lightroom and Photoshop. Understanding my workflow will require you to comprehend the below three topics. So please, read them thoroughly. You can ask questions in the comments, or send me a message on Facebook.
Black & White Workflow
Section 1 - Colour Management
Setting the Colour Space in Camera.
I have my camera set to Adobe RGB (1998) however, because I shoot RAW the colour space in-camera doesn’t actually matter. The reason for this is because RAW doesn't store any colour space data, instead; your image is assigned one once you're in the editor. But more about that later. If you shoot JPG, your image will be assigned the colour space when taking a picture, so you're better off selecting sRGB in camera for reasons I discuss in my Colour Space article.
Colour Space in Photoshop.
Under Edit > Colour Settings I’ll ensure that Settings is set to North America General Purpose 2 (My Settings tab is on a custom colour setting, but the settings are the same) and Working RGB space is Adobe RGB (1998). Under Advanced Controls, I check Blend RGB Colours Using Gamma. Everything else remains the same.
Colour Space in Adobe Camera Raw (Photoshop).
ACR also needs to be set up, so to do this I open any RAW file in Photoshop (It doesn't matter which one). See the little blue link down the bottom of the screenshot below? Part of It says Adobe RGB (1998). This means that the colour space in ACR is set to Adobe RGB (the screenshot doesn't show it, but I also work in 16 bit colour, not 8 bit). If it was anything but, I would change the settings by clicking the blue link.
The Pixels Per Inch is also set to 300. VERY IMPORTANT. If it's less than 300, make sure you change it. I discuss PPI and DPI in this article. When opening a RAW file into Photoshop, it will automatically open in Adobe Camera Raw first as the file needs to be processed. Much like a steak needs to be seasoned before being grilled. Please don't make fun of my analogies.
To save this information, I click Open Image then close out of Photoshop.
Colour Space in Lightroom.
The way Lightroom works colour space is by output. Images don’t get assigned a colour space until they are saved as JPGs (This only applies to RAW files). However, I do need to change the External Editing colour settings to ensure the photos are set as Adobe RGB 1998, 16 Bit, 300ppi when sent to another editor. In Lightroom, You are working on your images in your set colour space, but the file isn't being affected until output.
To do this, I enter Lightroom’s preferences and check that Edit in Adobe Photoshop CC 2015, Colour Space is set to Adobe RGB 1998. The same applies to Additional External Editor. Don't forget, Resolution 300 and Bit Depth 16/bit.
If I import JPG files into Lightroom, it will assign the images ProPhoto RGB upon import. But I can convert this when I output the images from Lightroom.
The colour histogram in Lightroom is reading the images in Melissa RGB. Monitors cannot display that colour space so the colour histogram becomes inaccurate. More about this issue and the Melissa RGB colour space later on.
Section 2 - Lightroom
The first image I'm going to detail for you will be a black and white. Below you can see the image I'm going to work on. This is the RAW, straight out of camera image.
I'll start by inserting the SD card into my computer. With Lightroom open I'll import my images. After choosing a save location, I'll make sure I apply what I call blanket metadata. This is general copyright and contact information that all images must have. To do this, in the right column under Apply During Import, I'll see Metadata. I click the dropdown and select New.
IPTC Copyright and IPTC Creator are the only fields I use here. More detailed metadata gets applied at the end of my workflow. I save this as a template so I don't have to manually enter the details in each time. To save it, I click the Preset dropdown and choose Save. Once metadata is applied, I'll type in some blanket keywords that apply to all images.
Above the Metadata dropdown I'll also see Develop Settings. I have a preset that I apply to all images. All it does is make the standard sharpening that Lightroom adds to all images zero, applies lens corrections and removes chromatic aberration. These are things I found myself doing to every image and so I decided to create a develop preset to save me a bit of time.
Once all the images are imported I'll then sort them into folders called Collections. I'll create a Collection Set and give it an appropriate name. I'll add all the images into a Collection called 'All Photos'. I'll then go through them, flagging the best images by hitting the B key which adds them to a Quick Collection. Once I've decided on all the best images, I'll save that Quick Collection and name it 'Best Photos'. Both collections then get added to the Collection Set. By doing this I am organising my images into folders and making everything neat, tidy and easy to find. I don't flag or rate images, as I find it redundant with my Collections workflow. I do use the colour labels for certain things as well.
After sorting the images into collections the RAW processing can now begin. Selecting the image I want, I open the Develop Module. I change all the regular parameters under the Basic Tab. You can see what I’ve changed in the screenshot to the right. I typically leave the Tone Curve adjustment as I do this in Photoshop with Curves and Levels.
The next step is to change the Hue, Saturation and Luminance sliders. I don't convert to black and white until I'm in Photoshop. All I'm doing in Lightroom is processing the RAW image to create a blank canvas. Fixing the white balance, evening out highlights and shadows, things that can't necessarily be done in camera. You can get a little more creative than what's even possible out of camera, but the trick is to stay subtle.
Think of RAW processing like applying makeup. You have your RAW skin (RAW File). Then you apply concealer to even out everything and to act a base coat for the makeup (RAW Processing). You then get creative with your eyeliner, blushes, shadows etc. (Editing in Photoshop).
Then there’s sharpening and noise reduction. I always turn Sharpening off in Lightroom as I tend to do it in Photoshop at the end. I do however, reduce noise. None of the noise sliders make any sense to me at all, so I just play around with them until the noise is to a degree that I’m happy with. These sliders can vary all the time and I always keep it extremely subtle. It's very easy to go too far and start to blur and lose detail in your image.
I always enable Profile Corrections to the lens I was using. This fixes any lens distortion but sometimes it doesn't always look good. So sometimes I'll turn it off again. Removing Chromatic Aberration is a vital step that I do to every image (this is done through my develop preset I mentioned earlier). If it needs adjustments however, I'll do those here.
The last module is Camera Calibration. Under Process I'll make sure it's set to Current (2012). I don’t have a colour profile for my camera, so under Profile I typically leave it on the Adobe default, but I'll go through the profiles and preview the results. In this case, the default looked fine. I left the rest of the sliders as they were.
Obviously, all these modules are optional. I don't need to use all of them but I always work on them from top-to-bottom. I have skipped over a couple of modules for this image because I didn't use them.
As you can see, this is where I'm at. RAW is on the left, Processed is on the right. That's a much more desired result out of camera than the RAW don't you agree?
The RAW processing is now finished. The image however is not. There's two major steps to post production. Processing and Editing. Processing is what you do with the RAW file in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. This is making basic adjustments like tonal correction, white balance correction and contrast/brightness changes. Any further editing or retouching happens in Photoshop.
I open the image in Photoshop. Photo > Edit In > Photoshop, or Cmd+E on the Mac keyboard (Ctrl+E on Windows).
Section 3 - Photoshop
First thing I do is work on what's called Local Adjustments. These will only affect certain parts of the image. Because this is a fashion portrait, I'll be doing my skin retouching here. Things like layer masks, blending modes, colour adjustment and more are used and painted over specific sections of the image. I won't go into the steps involved as it is extremely complex, and best left to a stand-alone tutorial. But to the right is a screenshot of all the layers I used.
Secondly, I work on my Global Adjustments. These are layers that affect the entire image as a whole. I use the Black and White and Levels adjustments and move the sliders to suit. That's it. No more global adjustments needed. Converting an image to black and white can be a lengthy and arduous process, but I keep it simple. Sometimes deadlines can be within a couple of days.
Once the adjustments are done, it's time to fill in some more detailed Metadata information. Edit > File Info opens the Metadata window. I fill in any further items that are specific to this image. Things like Model Release and Location Release information are often filled. Once I've added any relevant information I click the Done button to save that information.
This image is nearly done. But note that I haven't done any cropping or sharpening to this image yet. There's a reason for that.
Now I save this image as a PSD, keeping the same image name but adding '_Retouching' to the end. This becomes my Master File. This image is finished but without any cropping or sharpening. This allows me to open the image again and again to crop, sharpen and save for any medium I want. Your cropping will usually be dictated by the size of your desired print. Sharpening is usually best left up to your print lab as sharpening is dictated by the type of paper and size of the print. However you can sharpen yourself if you'd like, I detail that below.
Once I save the image as a master file, I DO NOT SAVE THE MASTER PSD WITH ANY OF THE BELOW ADJUSTMENTS.
- If saving for the web: (soft proofing not necessary).
I now flatten all the layers and crop the image to my desired composition. I will also sharpen it a little if it's a bit soft. I use the Unsharp Mask feature in Photoshop. I detail how to use it below. Once done I'll convert it to the sRGB colour space, Edit > Convert Profile. This is immensely important as sRGB is the only colour space that can be viewed online and on all consumer monitors and devices. When viewing an Adobe RGB image on the web it will tend to look very muddy and desaturated if the website isn't colour managed. Once I've converted the colour space I save it as a high resolution JPG and I'm done. Again, I DO NOT SAVE THIS OVER MY MASTER FILE! If I want a PSD with these new changes, I'll save a new one and name it accordingly.
- If saving for print: (soft proofing is very necessary).
What soft proofing does is allows you to see what your image will look like printed on a certain type of paper. Soft proofing gives you a visual preview of your image, and allows you to make more colour adjustments to correct any changes to the image when printed.
Now I'll soft proof my image (This is very complex and needs to be done correctly). I have a basic explanation of it in the colour section of this article. I’ll make any more adjustments that might be needed here based off the proofing results. If a print lab is printing my image, Soft Proofing a black and white is still important.
Once soft proofing is finished, I will highlight all my layers and flatten the image. I’ll crop using the cropping tool to the ratio of the print size. i.e 8x10", 4x6", 8x12" etc. If I'm getting a fine art print, I won't need to crop to a set size as the paper size is determined by the image. So I can crop as creatively as I please.
- Saving for print - continued
Now its time to sharpen, I use the Unsharp Mask option found in Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. There are many ways to sharpen an image in Photoshop, the Unsharp Mask is only one of many. Sharpening ALWAYS and ONLY happens very last.
TIP: When sharpening, make sure you're viewing the image at 100%.
I'll usually start with an amount of 500% and work my way backwards. Radius and Threshold typically don't move, but I will adjust them if needed. These numbers will vary depending on the softness of the image to begin with. Sharpening needs to be so subtle that it's almost unnoticeable. If my image is printed and the sharpening is visible, it'll be hard to sell, and it'll rarely win professional awards. It needs to be invisible to the naked eye. Judges are sticklers for this sort of thing.
TIP: Remember to turn sharpening in Lightroom to zero otherwise it'll mess you up when trying to sharpen in Photoshop. If you feel uneasy leaving sharpening at zero in Lightroom, then sharpen a little bit... 5-10% at absolute max.
Guess what? It’s all done now. I’ll flatten the image, save it as a full resolution, uncompressed TIFF or JPG (depending on my print lab's request), choose its output destination and voilà. If I'm printing multiple sizes of one image, I'll then reopen the master file and I'll re-proof for the paper (if different paper is being used), I'll re-crop to the new print ratio and I'll re-sharpen for the new image size. I never save the proofed, cropped and sharpened image over the master PSD because these adjustments will always be dictated by the final medium.
I save my to-be-printed files as high resolution, uncompressed TIFFs because that's how my print lab prefers them. Consult your printer on their preferred file formats.
Section 4 - Lightroom
To spare you some reading time, follow the Lightroom section above for details on what I did for the second image. Because it is pretty much exactly the same.
ALRIGHT, PAY ATTENTION:
I mentioned earlier that the colour histogram in Lightroom is inaccurate. Lightroom's working colour space is a modified version of ProPhoto RGB called Melissa RGB and the colour histogram is generating values based off that. Because I'm looking at an Adobe RGB or sRGB rendering–depending on the monitor–the values of the histogram and the colours of the image don't actually match, thus messing up my edit. So by enabling the soft proofing feature in Lightroom from the word go to the colour space of my monitor, the histogram will display values based on my viewable colour space, and become accurate.
When Soft Proofing is turned on, a dialog box will come up. I click Create Proof Copy. This will create a copy of my image, and Lightroom will use the chosen colour space for that image, instead of Melissa RGB. This colour space change will be applied to that image only, so I make sure I choose the Proof Copy option. Because this can't be undone.
Processing only happens on the Proof Copy. Going in this direction, you should have the original RAW file untouched, and you'll have your Proof Copy with the processing. If you don't use the histogram in Lightroom (for the majority of the time I don't, I simply use my eyes) then using the Soft Proofing feature isn't necessary.
Here's an example of soft proofing in the sRGB colour space.
When soft proofing is turned on, you might see some red highlighting. This is just telling you that colour is out of gamut for the colour space you're proofing in. In this case it's the entire sky. This blue is a little too saturated to fit within the sRGB colour spectrum, and isn't producible.
So what I need to do is bring those out of gamut colours back into gamut. What I’m going to do in the HSL module for Saturation, is grab the tool circled in the screenshot below, and click and drag down on the red colour. This will desaturate the colours under it. In this case, it’s bringing the saturation of the blue down until it comes close to the sRGB gamut.
The majority of the blue is now in-gamut and will print accurately to what I am seeing on screen. You'll see that there's only a little bit of red hanging around. It's so minor that you'll never notice. I wasn’t able to make it perfect, but its close enough.
Remember: You need to do this for the colour images from the very beginning. Depending on the colour gamut of your monitor, how many colours fall out-of-gamut will be unique to each image.
Now that my image has been processed it's time to send it off to Photoshop, just like I did for the black and white.
Section 5 - Photoshop
I need to correct the perspective of this image as some of the verticals are a little wonky. Because this image is so minimal, all I'm going to do is use the crop tool, and in the options bar there's a Straighten tool. I'll draw down the edge of the black paneling and Photoshop will rotate the image slightly to straighten it up. If you had a more complex image–like the example below–you may want to try one of the two options.
Duplicate the layer, Edit > Free Transform. Hold the option key [alt on Windows], click and drag the corner pins to skew the perspective and do your best to get a correction that works.
Duplicating the original layer, go Filter > Adaptive Wide Angle. Then by drawing along the vertical lines, telling Photoshop what should be straight, the image will be skewed, stretched and warped to make those lines straight. Once this is done, hit OK and assess the differences. Obviously for this option, you'll have to crop and/or clone your image to hide the wonky edges.
NOTE: Using adaptive wide angle works best for interiors, but it's worth a try.
After correcting perspective distortions, this is where you'd fill in your image specific metadata as talked about in the black and white section. After finishing any further corrections, excluding cropping and sharpening I’ll save my image as a PSD. Again, this will be my master file.
Section 6 - Soft Proofing
I’ll be printing on Ilford Smooth Pearl paper from my pro lab. They have provided all their colour profiles for colour and black and white proofing, they have also explicitly stated to proof the image in the Perceptual Rendering Intent.
View > Proof Setup > Custom. I'll choose all my settings and have a look at my image to see what it looks like. Turning the Preview check box on and off allows me to see the difference. Luckily, there was no drastic difference. However, if there was, I’d then make some adjustments based off the proof to ensure accurate colour when printed. Your soft proofing window should look like mine too. Preserve RGB Numbers is ALWAYS kept off. Turn Black Point Compensation on, and the two check boxes in Display Options leave unchecked. Switch between Perceptual and Relative Colorimetric to get a desired result, unless your print lab hve given you specific instructions.
After proofing, it is time to crop and sharpen. Cropping is different in my case. This is going to be a fine art print, so I can crop it however I please. But I'm going to leave it as the original ratio, because I prefer it that way. I'm going to print this on A3+ paper (12" x 18").
Sharpening happens after cropping.
My lab has provided layout templates for their print sizes. Opening their PSD template for A3+ (they have added guides to show the printing margins), I'm simply going to drag and drop my flattened, sharpened and cropped image into the new document and place it 5 pixels from the top margin (thats five taps of the down arrow key if you didn't know). It's placed at the top so there's room down the bottom for your signature. However, I can't sign autographs to save my life, so I add branding type instead. This is simply created by adding some text.
Now that’s done, I save the image as a full resolution, uncompressed TIFF file (or whatever format your lab has asked for). Always check your lab's website to make sure you know the correct colour management and output processes to ensure your image is printed as expected. Better yet, visit your print lab in person and sit down with them. The information you can gain is absolutely invaluable.