Processing Digital Photos, from the Camera to Screen or Print

Anyone who takes a lot of photos knows that the time spent behind the camera is only one small step to getting an image you are proud of onto the web or printed.  Higher-end cameras tempt you to make this process harder by capturing your photos in their RAW format whihc requires processing to get the photo into the industry standard JPEG format which you can send to your friends and your mom.

The leader in RAW processing is Adobe with their popular Adobe Photoshop Lightroom application, now in version 2.  Lightroom makes it possible to assign tags to your photos, rate them and apply improvements to the colors, brightness and contrast before exporting a JPEG file to post to your blog or to send to the printer. 

While Lightroom is more powerful and easier to use than some of it’s competitors, I would hardly call it “easy”.  Photographers describe the myriad of steps they use to take a RAW digital photo on the camera and turn it into something that they can share “Workflow”.

My workflow is probably less complex than most professional photographers, but it is still cimbersome enough that I regularly get months behind in processing my photos.  My workflow begins in the first tab in Lightroom labeled “Library”.  In this phase, my goal is to 1) label the photos appropriately so I can get back to them in the future and 2) identify those photos which are good enough to share, and those which look like they could be great.

1) Labeling
To label the photos, I assign tags to the people in the photo, and will sometimes add a short description of the photo.  This is also when I try to assign the location where the set of photos was taken by specifying the Country/State/City/Location.   Recently, I have tried to assign coordinates to my photos by using clever software that uses a tracklog with the timestamp on the photo to interpolate where the photo was taken. (A tracklog is a recording on a GPS device of where you are every 30 seconds.)  Lightroom should really include built-in support for this, but in the meantime a person named Jeffrey Friedl has created a Lightroom plugin to assign the coordinates where a given photo was taken based on a tracklog from the same period. 

I also assign a Star rating to the photos which I like.  Roughly speaking, I assign 2 stars to any photo which is either decent, or a poor quality image that is important to tell the complete story of an event.  I try to assign 3 stars to the best 2 to 4 photos of a given event.  These are good photos, but not my best.  4 stars is meant to mean “excellent”, a photo which is great both in subject and composition.  5 stars is a concept I challenge with.  I know my photos could always be better so I am hesitant to give anything this rating.  I do take good photos, so I should me more willing to rate a few photos a year “5 stars”

2) Processing
After tagging, I must process the photos.  This varies greatly from photo to photo, but the most common changes I make are an adjustment to the brightness of the image, the increase of Contrast, and tweaking the balance of brightness and contrast in the shadows.  I also use the Neutral Density Gradient filters pretty often to correct a blow-out sky.  If none of this is enough to make the subject, usually someone’s face, bright enough or having enough contrast, then I will use the localized tools to correct the broghtness / contrast in an area of the image.  Both of these localized edits are new to Lightroom Version 2

Finally, after tagging and processing, I export my photos which are 2 stars or greater into my public photo library.  This generally yields 1/2 to 3/4 of the original photos.  When I export photos, I keep the standard resolution and set the JPEG compression settings to 80 of 100.

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