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Howie's workflow

I've found that, over the years as a strictly amateur photographer, having a defined and structured workflow has helped me a great deal in increasing the number of sucessful photos I've been able to take, process, print, and find again when I needed them!

This has become even more important to me since switching to digital capture, as the number and variety of photos I am now taking is maybe twentyfold that which I was producing back in the dark ages of film. You can read more about my photographic history here.

Anyhow, in the following paragraphs I will describe how I organise myself, from pre-planning a shoot to the final printing and presentation of the artwork. Of course, you might do things completely different to me, and all power to your elbow, but fundamentally what I am trying to get across is the importance and benefits to be gained by being organised and disciplined in one's approach to photography. Well then - on with the story...

Before the shoot

Most of my photography is of the landscape variety, and I've found that it's very rare that I can just turn up somewhere and take decent pictures without a fair bit of homework beforehand. Studying the methods of professional landscape photographers, such as David Noton, has taught me the importance of pre-visualisation. These guys will photograph in the optimum light, around sunrise and sunset, and spend the in-between hours scouting around for the best viewpoints, angles and foreground interest. What a life eh! I spend my daytime hours behind a desk in a factory, and while I'm not complaining, it does tend to hamper the ability to seek out exciting new photo opportunities on a regular basis.

Barafundle Bay, Pembroke, South Wales

So what do I do instead? Well over a number of years now I've developed a list of local locations that I know will look good under certain lighting conditions or at certain times of the year and so on. Then, when the conditions are right I know where to head to to take best advantage. For instance, I know that from April to September the sun will rise in the northeast and set in the northwest, so if I head to the North Wales coast then I'll be able to take a sunrise or sunset photo looking out to sea. Then if the tide is falling at these times, I'll have an expanse of clean wet beach with pools to reflect what's going on in the sky. Also, if there's a weather front in the area I might just get that elusive storm lighting that I love, where the sun rises or sets into a gap on the horizon below a bank of cloud which then lights up dramatically from underneath.

To help me get these things right I use a number of resources, including Ordinance Survey maps of the area I'm interested in, a sun compass that shows me where the sun will rise and set in any given month of the year, sunrise and sunset time tables, tide tables, weather forecasts and so on. I've included links to the websites that I use for these bits of information on the 'stuff' page on this website.

On top of that there's the obvious stuff like making sure your battery is charged, and you've got a charged spare as well, that you've got enough clean memory cards, torch, hat, gloves, tripod, filters, remote control, mobile phone and so on.... as if we'd ever forget anything as important as this lot!! I never have (ha ha)! I now help myself by making sure my Lowepro is packed and ready to go with all essential items beforehand, so I'm not rushing round trying to find stuff while my available time is being used up.

Setting up the camera

So, you've arrived at your breathtaking location, at least half an hour before your 'before the shoot' planning tells you the best conditions will occur...what do you do now? Well I spend a few minutes making sure the camera is set up how I want it, that the best lens for the job is attached and the camera is firmly and securely fixed to my tripod. I once had my camera fall off my tripod while I was carrying it due to lack of care in this department - I won't be making that mistake again! Ouch!

Louvre, Paris, by night

So what, for me, is a typical landscaping setup? Well starting with the lens, I make sure that the image stabilisation and auto focus are both switched off. Image stabilisation doesn't work with tripods, even if the manufacturer's blurb says it does. I once lost an entire shoot of the Louvre (Paris) at night by leaving IS enabled on my 'tripod sensing' 24-105 'L' series zoom. Similarly for the auto focus, which is great when taking pictures of the grandchildren running about but no use for landscape photography where you want to precisely control the focus point in your composition.

Moving onto the camera settings, I take all my photos, even family snapshots, in RAW format. This gives me the maximum amount of unprocessed data to play with later on in post-processing. Next I make sure that my jpeg setting is set to 'neutral' or 'faithful' and the colour space is set to Adobe RGB, not sRGB. This is so that the histogram display and highlight alerts (blinkies) are a reasonable match to the actual RAW data I'm recording, and I'm not being fooled into thinking I'm overexposing an image when I'm not. Next I set the display to show the image histogram as separate colour channels. Photographing at dawn and dusk, as I usually do, it's easy to blow out the red channel due to the colour temperature of the light being on the warm side, and a monochrome histogram may not show this, being the average of the red, green and blue channels.

As far as setting shutter speed, aperture and ISO goes, I use the camera in fully manual mode and set each of these functions separately to give me the effect I want. One thing I always try and do is, if I have any spare room at the highlight end of the histogram, I will increase the exposure so that the image is as bright as possible without blowing the highlights out. This is known as 'expose to the right' or 'ETTR', and maximises the quality of the data you are capuring with the sensor in your camera. Noise and other undesireable artifacts live at the dark, left hand, end of the histogram, and if I can lift the image exposure away from this area then post-processing the image is easier and gives a higher quality final result.

As far as white balance is concerned, I leave this set to 'daylight' for all shots. This gives me consistency if I'm bracketing exposures or taking shots for a stitched panoramic image, and to be honest, I prefer photos that haven't had the camera try and correct the WB according to the whims of a software engineer in Japan!

The one other setting I use all the time for landscape work is 'Mirror Lock-up Enabled', in conjuction with either the camera's self-timer or a remote release. Mirror lock up reduces vibration when the shutter is pressed and thus improves the overall sharpness of the image.

Taking the shots

I'm not going to go into the minutae of how to compose a sucessful photo here. That's a subject for a whole website! Instead, I'll go through the mental checklist I run through before taking the final media/images. Having a checklist is really helpful in ensuring my media/images are sharp, in focus and correctly exposed. This then leaves my limited brain free to concentrate on the artistic side of photography, without worrying about the technical so much.

Step 1 - A firm foundation. I make sure that the ground I've plonked my tripod on is firm and reasonably level and out of the wind as much as possible. Having the tripod moving, even ever so slightly, during the exposure is a recipe for disaster, and if you're taking multiple exposures of the same image for later blending in post-processing they won't line up!

Step 2 - Tighten everything! I've made some wonderful, but unintentional, abstract media/images as the head on my tripod has slowly rotated under the weight of the camera during a long exposure. Not recommended unless that's the effect you're after!

Step 3 - Take a test shot. Use the camera's metering system to set the initial exposure for the photo, but don't rely on it to give you what you want. Instead, take a test shot and look at the histogram. Any blinkies? Any single channel blown out? Any room to increase exposure and maximise quality? Is the contrast range too great for the sensor? Is an ND grad filter needed? Would bracketing exposures help? All these questions can be answered, and the correct exposures set, simply by looking at the histogram and making the necessary adjustments.

Step 4 - Check composition. Using the test shot, look for unbalanced compositions, stuff intruding into your frame that you didn't notice, rubbish and so on. Most cameras don't give a full 100% view in the viewfinder and things can arrive in your composition that you didn't see when setting up the shot.

Step 5 - Check focusing. With my aging eyes I find it impossible to tell what's properly in focus and what's not by looking through the viewfinder, especially in the low light levels of dawn and dusk. The autofocus seems to have the same problem as I do at these times as well! However, using the test shot you can zoom in and check the focus and sharpness at the critical areas of the image and make focusing and depth of field (aperture) adjustments as necessary. Isn't digital brilliant!!

Wave crash, St Martin, Carribean

Step 6 - Take lots - it's free! If the light's good, take lots of shots. If the light gets better, take even more! Taking multiple shots of the same scene is good practise, especially if the light or weather is changing rapidly, or if the wind is blowing and stuff is moving in the frame. I think this is the aspect of digital photography that has most revolutionised my work ethic and quality compared with the days of film. For instance, at the coast I'll take dozens of media/images without moving the camera at all, just recording different wave patterns as they break and recede. Then I'll delete all but the best later on once I've downloaded them.

So that's it for taking the photos - next step is the post processing...

Post processing

Having a logical and relevant workflow is just as important when processing your media/images as it is before and during the actual shoot.

As when taking the shots, I follow quite a rigid procedure when post-processing, otherwise I would be overwhelmed with the sheer volume of media/images floating around on my hard drives. No doubt there are different ways of doing things that I describe here, and I'm always up for adopting new ways of working so long as they make my life easier and my precious time more productive. So at the moment, this is what I do, laid out in easy to follow steps....

Step 1 - Downloading the media/images. I never connect the camera direct to the computer, but always use a card reader to download the media/images. I download the RAW files from the card into separate directories on my external hard drive. Each different shooting date or location gets a separate directory with a name that relates to the date and location of the shoot.

Step 2 - Next I view the RAW files at 100% magnification using Adobe camera raw and delete the obvious rubbish photos. The good RAW files then get copied to DVD and stored in case of a hard drive failure.

Step 3 - I then convert the camera RAW files to Adobe DNG format using Adobe's free DNG converter. I convert to DNG so that all the files I am going to work on subsequently are in the same format, regardless of which camera they've been taken on. The DNG files are saved in a separate directory on my external hard drive.

Step 4 - Now I start to add value to the DNG media/images by attaching metadata. Metadata is wonderful stuff! It doesn't make any difference to the actual image itself, but using it makes your life so much easier in the long run, and, as your photo library builds up, it becomes indispensible if you ever want to find a specific photo or a group of photos on the same theme. Working in Adobe Bridge, I start by adding copyright and contact information to every DNG file. There's an automatic way of doing that but I won't bore you with the details here! Next I colour code the files if they've been shot with exposure blending or panoramic stitching in mind. I personally use purple for files shot for exposure blending, and yellow for files shot for stitching together. Then I add keywords to the files, covering details such as weather, time, theme, type, subject and so on. Finally I view the files again at full screen size and give each image a star rating depending on how much I like it, and how 'good' it is technically. These keyworded DNG files form the heart of my image collection, and whenever I need an image I can just tell Bridge to find - say - all my DNG files containing the keyword 'mountain' and a rating of 2 stars - I'm sure you see how this works and what a benefit it can be! All DNG files with metadata are then backed up to DVD for safety.

Step 5 - Processing the media/images. Needless to say, I don't process every image that ends up in my DNG library! I do have a life away from the computer and so I only process an image when I need it for a competition or to print out for a friend's birthday etc..

I curently use Adobe camera raw to process DNG files into viewable or printable media/images, optimising the image as much as I can at this stage before exporting to Photoshop for extra work. Don't worry - I'm not going to describe every Photoshop action I use to bring out a final image! Just to say that I always create a .psd master file of media/images that I work on, containing all the layers that I've used to give me the final version, optimised for either print or web use. This means that I can re-visit the master file and make improvements or adjustments as my Photoshop skills grow.

Jetty at Llandudno, North Wales

Step 6 - Printing. Printing is expensive! So I only print media/images that are really worth it, you know, the ones to hang on the walls or to give away as Christmas presents. So if I'm going to spend a lot of money printing an image I want to get it right first time. To help me do that I use specific printer profiles for the particular printer/paper/inkset combination I'm using at the time, together with soft-proofing in Photoshop so I don't get any nasty suprises when I hit the print button. Oh - and of course, I use a calibrated monitor so the colours I see in front of me on the screen are reasonably true, and not some gruesomely oversaturated rendition designed to sell monitors in a computer store!

Well that's about it as far as describing my workflow goes. It may seem well over the top for an amateur photographer like me but I've proved it works, and, who knows, I may not be an amateur forever!

Perhaps you have comments or suggestions (polite ones I trust!) about my workflow. If so, you can pass them onto me via the contact page on this site. Thanks for reading and I wish you happy and productive snapping!