raw files

Revisiting my workflow

It is impossible to work digitally without having some sort of workflow. Most are a bit better than adequate, some are good and some are blindingly awful. I think that it is important to have a look at the way you do things every once in a while to make sure that yours is as good as it can be and achieves the four goals of being;

  • Efficient in terms of both time and memory
  • Repeatable so that the purely functional bits can be done almost on auto-pilot
  • Non destructive so that you don’t lose valuable RAW files or save changes to Jpegs shot in camera
  • Able to be short-cut for jobs where time is even more of an issue

I’ve written about my workflow before and I often teach workshops based on the “photographer’s twelve step plan” – a process with 12 distinct stages from camera to client including backing up and having a coffee! In this blog post I’m simply going to go through my basic workflow with a few hints and tips as I go. I normally use Photo Mechanic to import, sort, caption, rename and export my files and Adobe Photoshop CC to convert RAW (Canon CR2 most of the time) files into the required format. The whole process is colour-managed and I do as much as I can in-camera to save myself time when editing. I work on either a MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air or a Mac Mini depending on where I am and what the job is. Anyway, let’s kick off…

pm_preferences

Before I insert a card into the card reader I launch Photo Mechanic. This screen grab shows the “general” preferences for the application including what I want to happen when I load a memory card. I have checked the box “Open as contact sheet(s)” which means that as soon as the card goes in I see the images in a standard window. In the past I often used “show ingest dialogue” but I have found that ingesting every single frame doesn’t suit me and that it slows the whole process down drastically. Typically I only want between 25% and 35% of the images and so I go through them using the “tag” function (cmd T on a Mac or ctrl T on a PC) to identify those that I’m interested in or those which have unique content.

Once I’ve been through that card and tagged the images I want I use the “copy” function (cmd Y on the Mac and ctrl Y on a PC) and copy those tagged files to a new folder. I use a simple formula YYMMDD-jobname-RAW for those files and then repeat this process with every card used on that job. Photo Mechanic can be set to automatically open and update a new contact sheet with the copied files. I always eject the cards without deleting anything just in case there are problems during the process and put those cards to one side to be deleted later.

pm-preview

pm_contact_sheet

The preview and contact sheet windows are extremely easy ways to look at and select pictures. Once I have my first edit done I apply a generic caption using the Photo mechanic stationery pad (cmd I or ctrl I). At this point I’d like to mention two enormously useful features of Photo Mechanic (available on some other applications too).

The first is variables. These are simple ways of automatically adding information to your captions or filenames. Many are derived from the EXIF data applied in the camera. These include time, day and date as well as other shooting data. Some cameras allow you to set copyright information in the camera and others apply GPS location data too. Other variables might include camera serial numbers, original filenames as well as items that you can add yourself from pre-loaded drop-down menus. I have every county in the United Kingdom loaded as well as a large number of towns and cities and I also have some specific locations where I work regularly pre-loaded. By choosing a specific city from one drop-down menu you can use variables to add it to relevant other areas of the IPTC automatically. You can see some examples of variables in the caption below.

pm_stationery_pad

My main caption starts with {city}, {state}. {iptcday0} {iptcmonthname} {iptcyear4} which will then become something like Brighton, East Sussex. 12 December 2013 if I have all of the right information ready to go. If there are more details to add to the generic caption it is easy enough to do those in batches using the stationery pad.

Variables can also be used in the renaming of files.

pm-rename

This requires you to add the IPTC caption before you rename the files because using the {headline} variable automatically includes the headline you have used in the filename. I find this to be very useful and very good for saving time. In practice Photo Mechanic will sequentially rename 100 files in about ten seconds using this method.

The other really useful feature that Photo Mechanic has for helping with captions is code replacement. The idea is similar to variables except you create your won shortcuts. Sports photographers use this a lot and it saves a great deal of time. Imagine a football (that’s soccer to everyone in north America) team with 22 squad players – many of whom have unfamiliar and difficult to spell names. Using code replacement you can preload a text file with the teams before the game using shirt numbers. The England team, for example, would have numbers from EN01 to EN22 with the names of the players set against those numbers. Using code replacement you would type \EN08\ and the software would immediately recognise that as 8 Wayne Rooney or whatever you have set it to say. I use it for political figures so \dcam\ automatically becomes The Rt Hon David Cameron MP. I can add a second part to that if I so wish \pm\ would add Prime Minister.

I also use code replacement for shooting musicians and bands. It is really easy to create a text file with the names of all of the band members and then use the shortcuts to add the relevant people to each frame. You select the shortcuts yourself and the long versions yourself. Once you get the hang of code replacement, it becomes a central part of your workflow.

At this point I’ll often do a second tighter edit. I’ll keep all of the RAW files that I have copied over from the cards but only convert and send the best to the client. For some news jobs that is only 6-10 images and for other editorial assignments anything between a dozen and thirty. Some of the corporate jobs I shoot end up with a couple of hundred files and working on those proves the efficiency of this workflow because it is scaleable and repeatable.

Once I have my RAW (CR2 or RAF) images selected, captioned and renamed it is time to highlight them all and open them in Adobe Camera RAW in Adobe Photoshop. There are a number of great RAW conversion options out there and whether you use Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One or any of the others you need to make sure that the one you use doesn’t strip your carefully added caption information during the RAW conversion process.

acr-window

This is what the Adobe camera RAW window looks like. You can select a number of images from the strip down the left hand side and apply the same adjustments to all of them. I don’t want to run a complete ACR tutorial here but I would like to mention the straighten, sharpen, crop and lens correction adjustments as well worth learning. Of course those are secondary to the basic correction options such as colour temperature and tint, exposure, contrast, highlight and shadows etc. I find that I rarely need to open an image into Photoshop itself simply because all of the things that I’d normally do to a picture can be done right here in Camera Raw. Every few frames I will highlight those that have been corrected but not yet saved and save them. A decent computer with enough RAM will happily save the adjusted RAW files into whatever format you choose in the background whilst you continue to work on the rest. Once I have hit the “save” button on the last files I then click on “done”. Most of the time I am saving files at their default size as high quality Jpegs with some sharpening into the same folder as the RAW files. Photo Mechanic then updates the folder to show the RAW and Jpeg files together (you can separate them if you wish to) with a thumbnail from the newly saved Jpeg.

One of the best improvements between Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop CS6 and Photoshop CC is an improved and expanded “save” dialogue window. You now have the option to set a target size, target amount of compression and apply a set degree of sharpening. With modern cameras producing pictures of over 60 megabytes and many of my clients wanting their photographs to be considerably smaller than that I am now using the target size more and more. My default setting is 4800 pixels along the longest side and with a maximum compressed file of 3200 kilobytes.

acr-save

Once I have my images all saved I return to Photo Mechanic and copy the Jpeg files into a new folder ready to send to the client. More and more that folder is a Dropbox one and I will give the link to the images to the client. For news jobs I can simply FTP the images (having saved them at a smaller size) and for some commercial clients that means burning the pictures to a DVD or CD. However they are delivered, the images are correctly sized, nicely prepared from the RAW files and properly captioned and renamed. All of this is done quickly and efficiently without damaging any originals.

When the urgency of the edit is over, I copy the files to a RAID drive in my office, to a portable drive that lives in my car and to a third drive which is away from my office ‘just in case’. I might then treat myself to a coffee…

Capture One Pro and other workflows…

One of the subjects that I teach is workflow. I know that I’ve mentioned that before but I thought that I’d remind you of that when I explain why and how I have been learning all about Capture One Pro – the professional RAW conversion, tethered shooting and image enhancement tool from Phase One. I am on version 6.3.5 (the latest available) and this is the first time that I have seen it since version 4 a few years ago.

Principally designed to make the most of Phase One’s own imaging systems, it also works rather well with the whole gamut of professional file formats. I have been using it for quite a few days now and I thought that I’d post some thoughts on here.

Before I get down to my opinions on Capture One Pro I need to say that every piece of software that I’ve used has needed quite a long time to get used to and anyone who does “full reviews” based on a few hours of use is kidding both themselves and their readers. I also need to make it clear that I paid for this software and that I have absolutely no ties to Phase One.

I have now used Aperture, Lightroom, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Canon DPP, Graphics Converter and a few others and Capture One Pro is probably the easiest of the lot to get to like. My knowledge of Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop has been gained over many years and many thousands of edits and it has only taken me a few days to feel almost as comfortable with Capture One. I’m still learning more and the more that I learn the more I like it. That isn’t always true of new software packages – even if you really want to like them…

The workspace that I'm currently using on a 15" MacBook Pro

I like lots of things about the way it works, about the interface and about how good the customer support and instruction manual are. Every time I think that I’ve found a flaw in the feature set of this software I search the knowledge bank or put a note on Twitter and there it is – the answer that tells me that everything I wanted was there all along. That is great but there seems to be one feature from Adobe Camera RAW that I use all of the time that isn’t there with Capture One Pro – good and accurate profiles of all of my Canon lenses ready to apply corrections.

My first impressions of the user interface centred around my inability to find the tools that I actually wanted. I knew that most were there because the literature told me they were and a very brief exchange on Twitter with the workflow genius that is Nick Wilcox-Brown let me know how to find them and add them to my custom user interface or “workspace” as the application calls it. Better still, you can create a range of custom workspaces and save them alongside the suggested ones for dual monitors, simple workflow, black & white or even a replica of the previous version (5) of the software. Being able to customise the workspace is not unique to this application but I believe that they have implemented it really well.

All of the adjustments and all of the options have easily controlled and finely adjustable controls (mostly sliders) and I found myself easing very quickly into the Phase One way of doing things.

Time for a short list of likes:

  • Customisable user interface
  • Easy to learn how to use
  • Extraordinary range of functions
  • Tethered shooting
  • Fantastic image quality
  • Value for money
  • Web contact sheets
  • Output of files to specific sizes

… and dislikes

  • Cannot find profiles for my Canon lenses
  • The sessions menus
  • Applying adjustment “recipes” seems hit and miss
  • The way that it handles IPTC metadata (I know that the sister app Media Pro does that better)
  • Speed of processing batches of files
  • Not recognising the simple tags that I can apply in camera or by using the ‘tag’ function in Photo Mechanic

That is a short list of dislikes and you have to actually use it to decide if you agree about the sessions menus – the way that Capture One likes to create a virtual time bubble for each job in much the same way that Aperture does by default. I may be doing something wrong when I’m trying to create, save and apply “recipes” which are a great idea (again shared with Aperture and others) that allow you to copy all of the adjustments that you have applied to one image to one or more others as well as keeping that set of adjustments for future use/adaptation. Sometimes the recipes worked and other times they didn’t.

My background is in news and editorial photography and IPTC metadata is a fundamental requirement for me and it forms a big part of my own workflow and the personal workflows of people that I work with when I’m doing coaching. Capture One Pro handles IPTC and is compliant with all of the IPTC fundamentals – it just doesn’t do it very well. The same can be said for quite a few image processing applications and I still love good old Photo Mechanic for the speed, accuracy and flexible way that it handles everything except RAW conversions and long term storage.

My final dislike is the speed when processing batches of files. On a two year old Apple MacBook Pro with an i5 2.4Ghz processor, 8GB or RAM it takes 50-60% longer to process a batch of 36 CR2 images from a Canon EOS5D MkII than Adobe Camera RAW inside Photoshop CS5 does. Individual files are shot through in almost the same time but batches are slower. I tried very hard to be scientific when comparing like with like but I am prepared to be proved wrong on this.

This isn’t really a full review – just some thoughts on an application that I am sure to have to teach very soon. Several people have already asked what advantages Capture One would give them over Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop and, to be honest, I couldn’t really name any. If you already use and are happy with either Adobe product for processing RAW files then it doesn’t really make sense to spend more money and get Capture One Pro. BUT (and it is a but worthy of being in upper case) if you are looking at designing a new workflow for news and editorial work from the ground up and you don’t already have licenses for anything else I would strongly recommend getting Capture One Pro and using it in tandem with Photo Mechanic. Between the two you have a solid, reliable and well priced set of options that will, without doubt, deliver the goods. That would leave you in need of an archiving option and for that Phase One’s Media Pro might be a good solution. There are those who’d argue that between the two Phase One applications you have everything you’d need and they would be right but there is no getting away from the fact that Photo Mechanic does what it does so well that it is worth the money and then some. The same goes for Capture One Pro too.

Re-working old files

With all of the time that I have spent recently trying to get used to the beta versions of Photoshop CS6 and Adobe Camera RAW 7 I have been having quite a few conversations on forums and over email with others going through the same process. One conversation led me to think about even older versions of the software and how I used them and in turn that got thinking about finding an old CR2 two file that I was never truly happy with and having another go with the up-to-date version of ACR. Without looking at the original “finished” JPEG I grabbed a CR2 file from 2008 that I remember being unhappy with and gave it “the treatment”.

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 2008 - RAW file straight out of the camera

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 2008. RAW file Converted with using .xmp settings from 2008 in Photoshop CS5

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 2008. RAW converted today using ACR 7 in Photoshop CS6 Beta

Whilst I was doing the conversion it became obvious to me that I wasn’t really comparing versions of the software – it was that my taste in the way images look has changed. I have no doubt that knowing far more about converting RAW files than I did four years ago helps enormously. You can also factor in the improvements in the adjustment tools available as well but the sum total of all of that means that the newer version is far more subtle and (in my eyes) far better. I made use of the fill-light and the graduated filters. I used a much warmer white balance and my approach to both noise reduction and sharpening has moved on too – although you’d never notice that from these 620 pixel samples.

So there we go. If it wasn’t blindingly obvious before, it is now. RAW conversions depend on a mixture of software and taste and this little experiment has proved to me that my tastes have changed and so, therefore, must the tastes of other people. The final conclusion has to be that every time you create a new folio, make changes to your website or supply a picture you have to make a choice between re-working the files to bring everything up to they way you like things now or leave well alone and allow your images to be “of their time”. Fat chance of the latter happening here…

Adobe Photoshop CS6 Beta

Like half of the photo geeks around the world, I have downloaded and started to play with the public beta version of Adobe’s latest version of Photoshop: CS6. This is a major revision of the software in terms of the interface which looks a lot more like Lightroom than ever before and is also a lot less “freestyle” than those used to versions such as CS3 and earlier would be familiar with. We now have a fixed window rather than the floating elements of previous versions and this will take quite a bit of time for me to get used to. It isn’t that I don’t like it, it’s just that it is a change.

Screen shot of the main window

 

To be honest, my main use of Photoshop is Adobe Camera RAW. I use it to convert the RAW files that I shoot into whatever file format the job requires, fine tuning the colours, composition and various other elements as I go. At first sight Camera RAW 7 is very little changed from Camera RAW 6xx that I use every day in Photoshop CS5. At least that’s what I thought until I used it in anger on a proper edit.

Screen shot of Adobe Camera RAW 7

 

If you look closely at the main adjustments palette to the right of the window, you suddenly see what the changes are and what they will mean for every day workflow. Gone are the labels such as Recovery, Fill-light and Brightness to be replaced with a set including Highlights, Shadows and Whites. So far, they seem to perform very similar functions when used on every day files but I have only edited two sets of pictures (neither of which have been “live” jobs) and so it may well be that I have missed something. Here are the two palettes side by side:

Adobe Camera RAW adjustments palettes from CS5 (ACR6) on the left and CS6 beta (ACR7) on the right.

 

I will continue to play with CS6 and ACR7 as long as the beta phase continues and I’m sure that I will come up with plenty more observations. I only use Photoshop as an optimisation tool and I don’t do any serious retouching or image manipulation with it so don’t expect an in-depth assessment of layers, filters and content aware fill from me – there are plenty of other photo geeks out there who will be able to blog about that kind of stuff!

Colour calibrating digital camera bodies

When you work with one camera and you shoot RAW all of the time it really doesn’t matter if that camera has a tendency towards magenta, yellow or cyan – the shift will be consistent and you can cope with it very easily in post-production. If, on the other hand, you work with more than one camera and each of them has a subtle shift in a different direction then your workflow can be slowed down when you have to constantly colour correct images shot under identical lighting in different directions. Like all things in photography, there is more than one way to solve this problem.

As you can see from the top row of images above – the three cameras that I use have different colour shifts with my slightly newer 5D MkII (codename yellow strap… because it has a yellow strap!) displaying quite a strong magenta shift whilst the 7D (codename blue strap, you can guess why) is a little cold and my oldest 5D MkII (red strap) is pretty neutral but maybe 1/3 of an f-stop brighter. I am going to use the red strap body as my basis for changing the colours on the other two a) because it is the most neutral to start with and b) because it has been serviced and cleaned by Canon quite recently.

Obviously these pictures were shot under controlled conditions using the same light source, the same lens on a tripod and have been converted from their RAW using no adjustments whatsoever. I shot multiple frames using each body as a sample just to make sure that there was no shift between frames on the same camera.

The second row of examples are the same RAW files with a white balance applied to exactly the same spot on the white box between Mickey and Minnie’s ears. As you can see this gets us a whole lot closer to matching the pictures for colour and this technique is fine when you have something in the frame which allows you to use the eye-dropper tool in Adobe Camera RAW (and in other similar raw conversion applications) and it is also fine when you only have a few images to process in this way. If you shoot an event where there are hundreds of frames, then you would spend an unnecessary amount of time balancing in this way.

The third row of examples utilises one of the cool features of the latest versions of Adobe Camera RAW in either Photoshop or Lightroom (and I’m sure that other software does this too) which allows you to set a default set of settings ranging from white balance to black levels, contrast, saturation to sharpening and noise control for each camera which the software detects from the serial number in the EXIF data as you bring it into the RAW conversion control pane. This is great for a lot of work and is a good option if you usually shoot on a fixed white balance.

These three techniques work for pretty much every digital camera and every scan. Some, more modern and more expensive, cameras allow you to go one crucial step further and that is to tell the camera to automatically shift by a fixed amount of colour for every frame – so that if your camera has a magenta shift like my yellow strap camera you can counterbalance that in camera and your images will show up as they should – no matter which white balance you are using at the time. The next few illustrations are based on a Canon 5D MkII using Canon’s own EOS Utility:

The illustration above top left of the three shows the home screen of the EOS Utility application and the “camera settings/remote shooting option is what you need.

This brings up the window on the top right which has an option marked WB shift that allows you to control the cross hairs and set an exact shift for the camera that is connected at the time. It is simple and very, very useful.

The illustration bottom left refers to the technique in Adobe Camera RAW (Photoshop CS4 in this case) in which you set a custom import for each camera and this is the preference pane that you need to find it.

It would be great if there was some software that allowed you to perform an exact “chip” calibration in the same way that you can calibrate a computer screen. Of course, the ability to calibrate the LCD on the back of a DSLR would be cool too but in the mean time here are three ways that you can use the combination of a good RAW converter and your camera’s built-in options to get all of your cameras working the same way as each other. It takes time, it’s fiddly but will save you a great deal of hassle over the course of a few weeks work.