Monday, February 27, 2006

Workflow for digital photography #1

In a previous post I discussed the benefits of workflow and promised to give a brief overview. The following describes the workflow that I use for my digital photography. I've been really surprised to learn that there are many professional photographers who do not have their workflow sorted out yet.

All I can say is it is definitely part of being professional to have this aspect of your photography in order. Whether you're professional or not I think a good workflow is crucial. Check out some of the benefits here.

Essentially workflow is about getting complete control of the process from taking the image through to the final print. Every link in the chain is critical if you want to consistently produce high quality images.

OK, you can go into tremendous detail on this but I aim to just share a few pointers here. It's up to you to develop your own workflow, something that is right for you personally - that gives you total control from concept to final print.

Concept

Whether you are commissioned to do a shoot or you're just doing stuff for yourself you need a clear concept of what you want to achieve. I think about and previsualise shots way before I pick up a camera. If it's a commercial shoot then the whole thing starts with a proper brief.

The concept for the shoot will determine the equipment you need. The principle here for me is the lighter I can travel the better. I aim to take the minimum equipment. My wife would laugh here as I often end up taking everything except the kitchen sink, but hey I'm working on it.

Equipment

Once I've decided what I need for the shoot then it's a matter of checking and cleaning everything. I make sure I've got extra cables, batteries - if something breaks I've always got a backup or a workaround. Developing a few standard checklists can help here so that you're not reinventing the wheel each time.

Logistics

Many successful professional photographers have a whole entourage of assistants and managers to ensure that everything runs smoothly and is in place. My wife, a professional photographer, takes care of many of the details. And when she's doing a shoot I help her. Basically this part is about ensuring everyone involved in the shoot knows where they have to be, what they have to do and when, so the whole thing runs like a well oiled machine. Until you hear that the model you booked has come down with a bug the night before the shoot and agency is desperately trying to find a replacement, and ten other people have all got the day booked in their incredibly busy diaries and the client has a drop dead deadline. Yep, but you remembered to check another model would be available. Excellent. See what I mean about having everything covered?

Photography

Digital photography involves a lot more technology than film. A systematic approach to setting up your camera and lighting is essential. Develop a routine; I call it a 'flight check'. Just like a pilot before take-off I go through the settings on the camera.

In the heat of the action you don't want to find you've made a simple error like leaving the wrong ISO setting on the camera. And keep checking throughout the shoot that nothing has changed or been forgotten. I always shoot RAW which keeps my options open on things like white balance but out of habit I like to get it all right from the start. It also speeds up processing.

So for example I will set the tone curve I need, often shooting with custom curves, ensure the white balance is right, check saturation, ensure I'm using Adobe 1998 colour space etc.

When colour is critical I shoot a GretagMacBeth colour card before every change in the lighting. This is essential to help calibrate the colour as the image progresses through the processing stages.

If you're shooting a static scene on a tripod if is helpful to bracket exposures. Make sure you only change the shutter speed and not the aperture. This will allow you to overlay images in your image processing program, I use Photoshop, to extract as much detail in the highlights and shadows as possible.

Delete unwanted images straightaway. You don't want useless files clogging up your system. Streamline everything as much as possible. All those seconds waiting for junk images to download from your card etc add up to minutes, hours and days ... well I am sure you get the picture. I try to decide what the 'keepers' are right away. At each stage I cull images that I don't think are worth keeping.

Processing your images

The first thing you need to do is check that you have the correct ICC (International Colour Consortium) Profiles installed on your computer.

"The intent of the International Colour Consortium (R) is to provide a cross-platform device profile format. Device profiles can be used to translate colour data created on one device into another device's native colour space. The acceptance of this format by operating system vendors allows end users to transparently move profiles and images with embedded profiles between different operating systems. This permits tremendous flexibility to both users and vendors. For example, it allows users to be sure that their image will retain its colour fidelity when moved between systems and applications. " (from the ICC site).

Monitor calibration is vital. You need to know that what you see on your screen matches what an art director or editor is seeing on their screen and that it correlates perfectly with what you're going to see in print. Without a properly calibrated monitor you're flying blind and playing a guessing game - one you can never win. Please also note that you should wait for the monitor to warm up before you calibrate it. I let a monitor run for an hour before calibrating but if you're on location you may have to shorten that time, which brings me to another point. Monitors need to be calibrated regularly. I do mine once a week. There are several good calibration tools. I am not recommending any system. Check out the reviews online.

This post is getting quite long now. Next time I will cover the rest of the workflow including processing your images, storing them and making prints.

All the best.

Paul Indigo
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