I’m frequently asked about the sequence of steps required to process landscape images and the software I have chosen to manage and optimise my own digital workflow.

This article attempts to answer these questions.  Using the above image as an example, I have provided a high-level overview of the workflow process that I have adopted to handle most of my landscape shots.  Starting with the RAW files transferred from my camera, I have mapped out the steps and described the tools and adjustments needed to prepare images for printing, publication and sharing.

Although individual steps and techniques will evolve as new software tools become available, the same basic workflow will continue to underpin the overall process.

Future articles will focus on specific tools and techniques.


Software toolkit

ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2020

    • Import and rename files transferred from camera
    • Management of image library (across all file types) assignment of categories, keywords and meta data
    • Final adjustments, resizing and sharpening of images prior to printing, sharing and publication

Adobe Photoshop CC 2019

    • Initial processing of RAW image files using Adobe Camera Raw
    • Creation and editing of DNG (digital negative) and PSD (Photoshop) files
    • Removal of unwanted artefacts using clone tool, spot healing brush and content-aware fill
    • Transformations, rotation and skew adjustments to correct geometric distortions and perspective
    • Exposure/contrast, curves/levels and hue/saturation adjustments using layers, selections and masks
    • Apply filters and effects – Topaz Labs, ON1 Effects, Nik Collection etc.
    • Save processed image as JPG file

Topaz Labs – Topaz Adjust AI

ON1 – Effects

Nik Collection – Silver Efex Pro

    • Apply filters to adjust global and local contrast levels, convert images to monochrome and add special effects

Workflow overview

Image Processing Workflow

Image Processing Workflow



Step-by-step

Before you start

A key consideration when implementing an effective workflow is managing the system settings and colour spaces so they can be applied consistently throughout the process and the results replicated as required.  I work with a calibrated monitor and have set my workflow options to use the default sRGB colour management profile and a bit depth of 16-bits per channel.

1.  Import and rename RAW files in ACDSee Photo Studio

The RAW files transferred from the camera can be renamed programmatically in ACDSee Photo Studio and stored in a new set of folders.  I find it helpful to rename my image files using 3 alphabetic characters followed by an underscore and a 4-digit sequence number – e.g. ABC_0001.  This unique identifier (with the appropriate file type extension) is retained throughout the image processing workflow and beyond.  The leading 3 characters identify the batch of images taken at a given location, event or shoot.  Starting several years ago with AAA – followed in sequence by AAB – I have now reached ARX and suspect it will be some time before I get to ZZZ.

Image Processing Workflow | ACDSee batch rename

ACDSee Photo Studio batch rename


The 3-character identifier is also used as part of the folder name.  I use the following convention to name my folders – YYYY-MM [XXX] description.  This ensures the folders are stored in date and batch order when accessed using the computer’s native file system or from ACDSee Photo Studio. 

2.  Open a RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw

Although RAW files can be processed directly in ACDSee Photo Studio, I prefer to use Adobe Camera Raw.  Individual and multiple RAW files can be selected in ACDSee Photo Studio and opened in Adobe Camera Raw by configuring Photoshop as an external editor.

Image Processing Workflow | Open Photoshop as external editor

Open Photoshop as external editor


3.  Initial processing of RAW file

The first step after opening the selected file in Adobe Camera Raw is to pick a suitable profile to use as a starting point for processing the RAW image.  I tend to choose one of the Adobe RAW or Camera Matching profiles after considering the type of image and the effect I want to achieve.  My favourites include ‘Adobe Colour’ and ‘Camera Standard’.  From time to time, I have a quick look at the monochrome options as these can be helpful when deciding whether to convert an image to black and white – although I don’t use these profiles to process the RAW images at this stage.

I then make any necessary adjustments to the white balance (by selecting the white balance tool and clicking on a neutral grey area of the image) and review the overall saturation levels.

Using the histogram (and the associated highlight and shadow clipping warnings) as a guide, I make the required global adjustments to the exposure, contrast, highlight, shadows, whites and blacks.

Local refinements can be made using the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter.  These tools can be used to lighten and darken selected areas of the image.  If required, adjustments can also be made to correct the hue, saturation and luminance of selected colours.

It makes sense to invest time and effort at this stage in the workflow and use the comprehensive tools in Adobe Camera Raw to make all the preliminary adjustments.  That said, I tend to ignore the tools for cropping, straightening and geometric transformations and apply these changes at a later step in Photoshop.

The changes you make in Adobe Camera Raw are non-destructive and can be saved as a DNG (digital negative) file and modified as required.  You can also apply these changes to other similar images using the Sync Settings function.  This can save you time if you need to process a set of images that were taken with the same camera settings under similar conditions.

I save the DNG file (with the same filename and a different extension) alongside the original RAW file.

Image Processing Workflow | Adobe Camera Raw adjustments

Adobe Camera Raw adjustments


4.  Open the image in Photoshop

After saving or opening the DNG file in Adobe Camera Raw you can open the image in Photoshop and save this as a PSD file (alongside the RAW and DNG files).  All subsequent changes made in Photoshop can be saved to this PSD file.  The PSD file can be selected in ACDSee Photo Studio and opened in Photoshop (after configuring Photoshop as an external editor).

5.  Remove unwanted artefacts

After opening the image in Photoshop, I duplicate the background layer and rename the new layer as ‘Remove clutter’ or something similar.  I then remove any unwanted artefacts, marks or spots using various tools.  In addition to the spot healing brush and clone stamp tool, I frequently use Content-Aware fill after selecting a small area of an image using the Polygonal Lasso or Quick Select tool.  This replaces the contents of the selected area and ensures the fill colours and patterns blend seamlessly with the surrounding areas.

6.  Straighten image and apply geometric transformations

After removing any unwanted artefacts, I duplicate the edited layer and use the new layer to straighten the horizon and apply the appropriate lens correction filter to remove any geometric distortion.  I also make extensive use of the skew transform tool (with the image grid enabled) to manually correct perspective, fix converging verticals and ensure horizonal surfaces are level.  I prefer this approach as applying transformations at an earlier stage in Adobe Camera Raw can result in the loss of valuable sections of an image when these are cropped to a rectangle.  These losses can be minimised if you drag the anchor points used to apply the skew outside the original image area.  Within reasonable limits, higher resolution images can be stretched without a perceptible deterioration in quality.

7.  Apply adjustments

Although the duplication of layers significantly increases the size of the associated PSD file, I find it helpful to create a copy of the layer edited at the previous step and use the new (and suitably renamed) layer as a base for applying any subsequent adjustments.  Changes to exposure, contrast, curves, levels, hue and saturation can be applied and refined non-destructively and efficiently using adjustment layers, layer masks, blending options and opacity settings.

I won’t attempt to describe each of these options as these well documented elsewhere and the subject of countless articles, books and videos.

Image Processing Workflow | Photoshop adjustments

Photoshop adjustments


8.  Apply special filters and effects

When the need arises, I use a selection of specialist filters to apply global and local adjustments to contrast levels and clarity and to perform some monochrome conversions. 

These include Topaz Labs, ON1 Effects and Nik Collection.

Each filter is installed and applied as a Photoshop plug-in.  The most recent versions incorporate AI components powered by artificial intelligence software.

I currently use Topaz Adjust AI to boost contrast and clarity levels, ON1 Effects for creative results and Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversions.

Image Processing Workflow | Topaz Adjust AI adjustments

Topaz Adjust AI adjustments


9.  Save processed image as JPG

Once I have finished making all the edits and adjustments in Photoshop, I save the processed image as a JPG along with the final version of the PSD file.

10.  Final adjustments and resizing in ACDSee Photo Studio

The final step in my workflow involves cropping and resizing the JPG image in ACDSee Photo Studio.  Some minor sharpening may be appropriate at this stage – dependent on the output medium and the size of the image when printed or displayed.

ACDSee Photo Studio provides some useful tools for applying vignettes and borders to the final image.

Image Processing Workflow | ACDSee final adjustments

ACDSee Photo Studio final adjustments


Summary

I hope this article has helped you to think differently about image processing and to consider the software tools available as part of a comprehensive workflow.  The choice of tools is personal and perhaps less important than using them consistently and in a logical order.  For example, some of the functions performed by ACDSee Photo Studio in my own workflow could be substituted by Adobe Bridge or Lightroom.

If we want to improve our results and learn from previous mistakes, we need move beyond fragmented methods that focus on individual software features and adopt a more holistic approach to the entire image processing workflow.


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