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Post-Processing Workflow

June 13, 2009

I recently had a friend ask for my help. He needed to process a large number of images in Photoshop in a hurry. He wasn’t a wedding or a sports photographer where he had large batches of photos all taken in the same setting. This project was a retrospective of sorts with images that spanned a number of years. So I thought I’d take a moment to share my thoughts on my own workflow while this project was fresh in my mind.

While it’s not uncommon for some photographers (such as wedding photographers) to take several hundred pictures and have to process them all, there are often only a handful of unique lighting situations. Most of their images are simply different subjects in the same setting. Or at least taken using the same camera settings and under similar lighting. With these, you really only have to process the first of each batch, save your settings and apply those to the remainder of the batch. Automation makes the job easier.

To be sure, my friend did all the heavy lifting on his particular project. He culled a field of more than 6,000 photos down to less than 100 that he wanted to use. The problem was that no two of the “finalists” had anything in common. Each one would have to be processed individually!

So I stepped in and started knocking them out, freeing him to concentrate on other important tasks. I think he was truly astounded at how quickly I was able to churn through these photos. To be clear, a few needed very little done to them but most actually needed quite a bit of work. Here comes the trick though…

Almost without exception, any photo you see that hasn’t already been processed can be made about 90% “perfect” with just three or four changes.

Which three or four changes may very from one photo to the next. Some may need color correction and cropping. Others may need cropping, sharpening and saturation adjustments. Some may need contrast adjustments, straightening and color tweaking in a specific range. A few may even benefit from specialized treatments such as the Orton Effect or sepia toning. The real key is to quickly identify the three or four changes that will yield the biggest impact and get the photo closest to perfect.

Perfection is wonderful as a goal but I find that’s it’s rarely realistic or beneficial to actually pursue something to perfection. There comes a point of diminishing return. If you can make a photo “perfect” with an hour’s work but get it 90% of the way there in under ten minutes, you really have to consider the value of those remaining 50 minutes. Would they be better spent getting this one photo exactly right or getting five more damn close?

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