We live in a digital age, a time when a post-processing workflow is an increasingly essential aspect of our photography. Cameras produce images with the expectation that they will be altered later, will be corrected, sharpened, tinted, etc.
What this means is that post-processing isn’t something that can be easily bypassed, especially if you shoot in RAW, which I recommend.
That isn’t to say that every photographer today has to love post-processing. Some photographers, I consider myself to be among them, greatly prefer working in the field to working on the computer. But while it’s possible to shorten one’s post-processing workflow, a minimum amount of editing is necessary to keep up with today’s artistic and technological standards.
In this article, I will discuss that minimum and explain the six essential steps in any post-processing workflow. My examples are done in Lightroom, but this applies to all photographers, no matter what software you use.
Once you’ve gone through these steps, you may declare your images complete, and that’s okay. Or you may choose to work on them further, which is okay, too. The point here is only to suggest the six core elements that all post-processing workflows should include—after that, the choice is yours.
1. Crop (and straighten)
The first thing that I do as soon as I have opened my images in Lightroom is to crop and straighten them.
While it’s best to compose properly in camera, sometimes you see a slightly better composition when your image comes up on the screen. However, it isn’t good to rely on this too heavily. Cropping heavily reduces image resolution while also magnifying image imperfections.
Furthermore, when hand-holding your camera, it’s easy to take a slightly crooked image. This isn’t a problem, as long as you remember to straighten it out later.
A word of warning: especially if you are a wildlife or bird photographer, you will be tempted to use cropping to compensate for a distant subject. Resist this temptation and focus on your stalking skills instead. If you find yourself consistently cropping a significant amount, recognize that you should probably make some changes while you’re in the field (get closer or use a longer lens).
2. Check the White Balance
I shoot in RAW. Thus, when I’m in the field, I leave my camera’s White Balance on Auto. Because the RAW file format allows for you to change the image temperature without any image degradation, this is perfectly acceptable (though it does mean slightly more time behind the computer).
Sometimes the goal is to reproduce the color temperature that you saw in the field. Other times, you might be trying to achieve an artistic look. Higher temperatures (high degrees K) make for a warmer image and counteract colder light, whereas lower temperatures (low K) make for a cooler image and balance out a warmer color cast.
3. Check the exposure
After adjusting the White Balance, I generally turn to the exposure. This is an aspect of a post-processing workflow that is often forgotten. Yet you should scrutinize your image carefully before moving on. Is it too bright? Too dark? Just right?
This is where the histogram is your friend. It’s to your benefit to learn to read it. Look for blown out highlights or crushed blacks as peaks pressing up against either end of the graph, as well as gaps that indicate a lack of darker or lighter tones in your image.
While it is ideal to expose perfectly while in the field, post-processing allows for a bit of leeway here. For instance, you can use the general Exposure slider in Lightroom to correct small exposure mistakes. And if you want to take this further, you can also work with the more narrowly focused Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks sliders.
4. Check the Vibrance and Saturation
Saturation allows you to increase the intensity of all colors in the image, and Vibrance allows you to increase the intensity of the less saturated colors only. In most photo-editing programs, these are easy to change.
Saturation and Vibrance can provide a slight punch to your images when done subtly. These are also quite easy to overdo, so be careful. You don’t want to slam the viewer with so much saturation that they are forced to look away!
5. Check for noise
Next, be sure to check the noise levels in your image. This is especially important if you’re working with a long exposure or an image that was shot at a high ISO. Increasing the exposure in post-processing may also introduce unintended noise.
If you find unpleasant levels of noise, you can generally use noise reduction software to remove it. Removing noise does decrease the overall image sharpness (if removing luminance noise) and saturation (if removing color noise). So, once again, this is a correction that should be used minimally.
6. Check the sharpness
Finally, I like to end my basic post-processing workflow by considering the complement of noise – sharpness. If working with a program such as Lightroom, this often needs little adjustment. With a good lens and good camera technique, your images will be rendered sharp simply by the photo-conversion presets.
For example, I rarely alter Lightroom’s Amount: 25 Sharpening preset. If your image is slightly soft, you may want to work with overall sharpness. You might also consider a second round of carefully applied sharpening in order to enhance specific features like the faces of birds, the center of flowers, etc.
However, even once you’ve sharpened for your original image, the sharpening work isn’t over. Before you export for printing or web viewing, you will likely need to sharpen again. Otherwise, you’ll find that your new image is slightly soft.
Lightroom has a neat little way of completing this post-processing step. Upon exporting files, you have the option to choose a level of sharpening. I generally choose Low or Standard.
These tips should give you an idea of what a very minimalist post-processing workflow looks like. If you follow this guide closely—even if you do nothing else to your images—you’ll find that your images reach a higher standard.
What is your post-processing workflow like? Please feel free to share in the comments area below.