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RAW Workflow: A Pro’s Approach

20070327191350The following post was submitted by Carl Ebrey from Carl Ebrey Photography.

Following on from the recent JPEG vs RAW discussion, I offered to write a short article for the Digital Photography School on my RAW workflow. So, here it is. First of all, though, some background and disclaimers:

I am a wedding photographer in the UK. I shoot entirely digitally on a Canon EOS 5D. A typical wedding (if there is such a thing) uses around 5 to 6GB of Compact Flash. The images are processed on a 20″ iMac with 2GB RAM. This article is about my workflow. It works for me; it may or may not work for you. If, after reading this article, you feel you want to go out and shoot RAW, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. I’ll tell you what I can fit into some sort of logical order, but don’t expect this to be a crash course in wedding photography.

Let’s also get something out of the way about “why RAW”:

1) RAW images have (more often than not) greater colour depth than JPEGs. The RAW output of most cameras is 12 or 16bit, whereas the JPEGs are only 8bit. This means that there can be a greater tonal range in the resulting image. It doesn’t mean that there always *will* be, as you’ll learn from many people who’ll tell you that they’ve compared the same image taken as JPEG and as RAW, but there are situations (usually higher contrast images) where it will be the case. This also means that you’ve got a little bit more room to move. In terms of nailing the exposure, digital cameras have a similar exposure latitude as slide film. That is, you have to get it bang on to get the most out of it. Negative film has a greater latitude, which means that any minor mistakes in the exposure can be corrected during the printing stage. When we come back to digital shooting, that just means that with RAW you can recover from any minor mistakes you make. As a landscape photographer that might not bother you, but as a wedding photographer I can’t go back and ask them to just do that again (well OK, sometimes I can).

2) Everyone shoots RAW. Yes, you do. The only difference is that if you think you shoot JPEG, actually you just leave the RAW processing to your camera. Given that once you’ve taken the photos you’re more than likely going to view them on your [far higher powered] computer afterwards, it seems a bit strange to me that you’d let your camera deal with the RAWs.

3) Saving RAW for special occasions, like the “Sunday Best” of digital photography seems crazy to me. When I first got into photography I took an awesome landscape. The sun was setting, I had some lovely warm-up filters on the front of the lens. Everything was Just Right. The resulting image, as fantastic as it was, was a JPEG. The large print which came from it wasn’t so hot. It’s now a canvas print hanging on my wall downstairs, and it does look good, but it’s only around 20×16″. The point is that you never really know when that awesome shot’s going to come, and once you’ve got the Compact Flash (or SD or whatever) then shooting on it’s free.

4) Processing RAW images doesn’t take forever, so there’s no reason not to use it all the time. Admittedly it’s not necessarily as quick as just dropping the shots into iPhoto (or whatever package you choose to use), but given the advantages abound when it comes to adjusting photos, the short time penalty is one which I’m more than willing to pay.

In the interests of balance, there are a few good reasons to shoot JPEG instead. The biggest one for me is brought up by sports photographers who have to shoot many frames very quickly. That’s fair game: shooting RAW can slow down the continuous drive of a digital camera, and the buffer can fill up quickly. However, newer cameras coming onto the market are addressing that issue, and whilst they might still be well out of some people’s price brackets, they will get cheaper over time.

Let’s talk about processing RAW Images

Let’s pretend that we’ve got back from a successful day’s shooting with our Compact Flash cards all ready to go…

Obviously, the first thing we need to do is get the photos off the card. For this I use a dedicated card reader, rather than having to plug my camera into my computer and sit there draining camera batteries. Each wedding has its own folder in my Photos directory. Inside there are (usually) three more sub-directories: RAW, TIFF and Finished. Obviously, the shots straight from the camera (none of which are deleted during the day, despite how bad some of them might look on the camera’s screen) go straight into the RAW directory.

Once we’ve got the shots onto the computer, the RAW directory is backed up to DVD. Twice. The first copy goes in my storage case. The second one is sent up to what I lovingly refer to as my “offsite backup storage facility”. It’s my parents’ house! What can I say? If it ain’t broke… This is a massively important stage. It ensures (as best as we can) that we can always revert to the original shots taken on the day if we need to. There’s the obvious (though fairly unlikely really) risk of my house burning down and losing the shots, right through to the slightly less obvious but probably more likely event of my hard drive dying sometime during the editing process, leaving me with a bunch of useless, corrupt bits! Repeat after me, “backups are good.”

Right, got those backups sorted? Great. Let’s do some editing. I use Adobe’s Lightroom for my RAW processing. It’s not the cheapest RAW management package, but I’ve been using it since it was first released as a beta and now have a full copy of version 1.0. If you have it, great, but there are other equally capable, I’m sure, RAW processors available. Anyway, back to it. We need to remove the crap from the good stuff. A slideshow is best for that, where you can rate each shot as it’s shown. This way you can plough through the shots fairly quickly and opt to delete all those which scored less than a certain value. Once that’s done, we can start to work on the “keepers”.

Picture 1-3

It’s now time to work through each of the remaining shots in turn. I do any colour correction that might be needed, along with some exposure tweaking. I might convert an image to B&W, or tone it, or maybe add a vignette. I also do my cropping at this stage. I rarely find myself needing to do “spot” changes to an image, such as cloning, so the vast majority of manipulation happens to the RAW before it’s made it any further. Incidentally, everything gets cropped to 10×8. That’s the most common size that I sell, and I can either crop it further to get an 8×6 or go back to the original if I’m not happy with that (another advantage of RAW is that the changes you make are non-destructive, so you can revert to the original shot at any time). This is the longest stage in my workflow, but it’s also the one which deals with the majority of the processing. Everything from here on in is plain sailing…

Once the photos have been edited, it’s time to convert them from RAW to something else. Lightroom takes each RAW image in turn and applies the changes you’ve made to a copy which is then saves as either JPEG or TIFF. I save everything as a 16bit TIFF, because the job’s not quite done yet. This part can take a little while, if you’re processing 200-300 images, so it’s the perfect time for a cup of tea (well I /am/ a Brit).

So let’s recap as to where we are. We’ve backed up everything from the day, so that’s safe. We’ve been through the shots and removed anything we know we don’t want to keep. We’ve been through the rest of the shots colour correcting, changing exposure, converting to B&W etc and cropping. Now we’re happy after our cup of tea and are looking at a directory full of 16bit TIFFs.

If there are any shots which need to be worked on in Photoshop, this is when it happens. A 16bit TIFF is typically a big file, but it’s lossless (meaning the file doesn’t degrade every time you save it like a JPEG does) and is full of yummy data to play with. The TIFF is loaded into Photoshop and the work is done.

Most of the time, though, there’s no Photoshop work to be done. In that case I just skip straight to the next step, which is Noise Ninja. This little beauty is a noise reduction package. I set it to batch process the images, profiling each one as it goes. It loads each of the 16bit TIFFs, identifies the areas of noise and filters it out, saving the result as a JPEG file in my JPEG directory. This is another process that I can leave running, so it’s another good time for tea.

Finally, I can delete that bulky TIFF directory, though I’ll want to save any that have been worked on in Photoshop. The rest of them can be recreated by simply re-exporting the shots from Lightroom again. The finished JPEGs are backed up to DVD and stored with the DVD of the RAWs (again, two copies are made) and I can send them off to my clients knowing that they’ll be thrilled with their fabulous wedding photos.

That’s it. It’s easy when you stand back and look at it: Lightroom -> Noise Ninja -> done. And there’s no reason that you can’t do this with the occasional snapshot either. Just drop your RAW file into Lightroom, export it straight away and there you have it: a beautiful JPEG.

I hope that hasn’t bored you too much, and hopefully one or two people will take something from it. A key thing to remember here, I guess, is that taking a photo is just the start of photography really. Before digital came along a lot of time was spent in the dark room making test prints, playing with chemicals, tweaking temperatures, cropping and so on. All we have now is the same process but in an office.

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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