Have you ever uploaded an image to your favorite photo sharing site just to come back the next day and discover that there are certain features in it that you don’t like? Maybe the sky is too dark, the colors have too much saturation, or the contrast is too low. The reason for this is not necessarily your technical workflow – it may be your artistic workflow that needs improvement.
In this recipe, I am going to propose an artistic workflow that helps you in picking the right images to process and in getting the most out of them in your post-processing work.
Introduction to the Artistics Workflow
You are probably (more or less) familiar with the technicalities of producing an HDR image – the different steps from taking the shots all the way to the final post-processing. This is your technical workflow. Of course, it is imperative to optimize this technical workflow if you want to produce high-quality images. However, there is another ingredient that may be equally important here: The process in which you develop a vision of the image, and in which you carefully select the images to process and the means for processing them. This is what I call the artistic workflow. This is a workflow at a different level, a workflow in which your technical workflow is embedded.
What exactly do I mean by this? I will explain that in a minute. But first let us agree on the assumptions and requirements.
Assumptions and Requirements
I assume that you have a bunch of exposure series that are waiting on your hard drive to be processed. So, we are talking about the post-processing, not the actual shooting of the photos. There is a number of rules for shooting too, but here I suppose that you know how to do this. The basic question that I will answer here is: How do you produce the highest possible quality output from what are potentially thousands of unprocessed source images?
Your artistic workflow is a combination of careful selection at different stages and letting time pass. Being critical with yourself is very important. But to be critical with yourself, you need objectivity, and this is where the time comes in: If you let some time pass and revisit your images later to improve it, you gain some distance to your own work, and you are able to judge it more objectively. This principle is pervasive in all creative activities, not only photography.
The Detailed Process and Considerations
The first rule for your artistic workflow is that you do not process all the images you shoot. If you are really good, you may end up publishing 5% of them. But for most people this percentage is below 1%. Remember that I am not talking about presenting your family snap shots to your grandma here. I mean photos that you decide to invest your time in, in order to turn them into a publishable piece of art that pleases your aesthetic feelings and those of your audience.
The Selection Process
So if only 1% of the images make it to the public, how do you select them? You may comb through your images from the last shoot and select a few in an ad hoc fashion to process and publish them as quickly as possible, preferably on the same day. But is that really the best way to do it? You may already guess my answer.
The selection process that I use is a bit more elaborate. It consists of multiple stages. Each stage narrows down the candidate set – the set of those images that remain in the race and could get published. Visiting the candidate sets at the different stages is a never-ending process: Whenever I have a little time, I look at these sets and look for some inspiration. This inspiration then lets me promote an image from one stage to the next. Sometimes, I see nothing but a bunch of images, and all of them stay where they are. Other times, I get a spontaneous vision about some images and promote them to the next stage.
In my artistic workflow, I have the following candidate sets and stages:
1. Source Image Pool
This is simply the set of all images you have shot. The selection process that creates this set was the shoot itself. You may delete those images from the source image pool that are out of focus, blurred or unusable due to any other problem. But don’t delete excessively!
2. Pre-selected Candidates
This set is created by going through the source image pool and coarsely selecting those images that you like best – those that you spontaneously have a vision about. We will talk about visions below. For this stage, a photo management software is essential that lets you categorize images without copying them around on your hard drive. Make a new category for the shoot and put all the images into that category that seem worth the effort of processing them. Don’t be too selective here. If in doubt, put it in!
Many people have this coarse selection process. However, some execute it by deleting those images that seemingly do not belong to the candidates. Don’t do that! Don’t throw away those images that you do not select. As your experience and your abilities grow, you will find new candidates in the source image pool and promote them to the pre-selected candidates and maybe even further.
3. Selected Candidates
I regularly look through the pre-selected candidates with an open mind, and as I scan through the images, I sometimes discover an image that immediately appeals to me. I can immediately connect to it and develop a vision – an idea of the final publishable image. These images get promoted to the selected candidate set. This is the set of images that I am actually processing. However, I create quick previews from them first. What is a quick preview?
When I am really working on an image, this can easily take 3 or more hours. Obviously, you don’t want to put this kind of effort into every image just to find out that it did not work the way you envisioned it. Therefore, I have a quick and dirty way of processing images to create quick previews. Essentially, I grab the JPEGs (not the RAW files), I merge and tone-map them in Photomatix and apply some quick global adjustments in Photoshop (mostly only saturation and contrast). Furthermore, I apply any selective editing steps that I envision very sloppily. Throughout this process, the image slowly starts showing its true character and you get a much better idea of what the finished images will look like. This process takes about 15 minutes, and after these 15 minutes, the image either makes it to the next stage, or it does not. Note that, if it is not promoted right away, it may still make it some time later. It remains in the selected candidates set. If you promote the image, put it into a dedicated category in your image management software such that you can easily browser all selected images. You may also want to store the quick preview and categorize it accordingly.
4. Candidates in Processing
If an image is promoted from the selected candidates to the next stage, I start processing it and it is put into the candidates in processing set. This is the set of images I am actively working on. At any point in time, multiple images are members of this set, and not every one of them makes it to the final stage. Whenever I am in the mood to engage in some serious processing work, I pick the image from this set that appeals to me most on that day. Hence, I never force myself to complete some image just because it is currently the one I am working on. I let my mood decide, and if my creative juices favor some older image in this set, so be it. Whenever I temporarily lose my Mojo or when I get stuck in any way, I put the image aside to continue later, possibly picking up another image to work on. This way, I am always 100% motivated and equipped with a clear vision when I am working on an image.
For each candidate in the processing stage, I create a new Photoshop project (.psd file) and store it in a central directory where all these files go.
5. Published Images
The final stage is the publishing. When I am really pleased with an image, and when I have accomplished the final look through hours of post-processing. I put it aside for another day or two. This helps me getting it out of my head to approach it more objectively after that period. When I come back to the image, I often see little things that require further work. After making those adjustments, I publish it. At that stage it leaves my artistic workflow. I never create and publish multiple versions of an image, and I never re-process an image. For me, every image has one soul to it that I try to bring out. Once it’s published, it’s published.
The Role of Time
At this point, you are probably fully aware that this whole process is not a matter of hours, sometimes not even days. It can take weeks or months before an image is promoted through the different stages and finally published. At first glance, this may seem very inefficient, but in fact, the opposite is true: By carefully selecting the images you want to work on through a well-organized process, you avoid wasting a lot of time while you ensure that your output is of high quality. Also note that at each point in time there are multiple images in each one of the sets being processed quasi-parallel such that the actual output rate (the number of images you actually publish) is only depending on the time your technical workflow consumes. In computer science, this is called a pipeline, and it represents one of the most efficient ways of processing large amounts of data.
This staged workflow has another very important feature: It allows images to mature! If you consider an individual images going through this process, you realize that some time passes before you promote it to the next stage. Why is that important? My personal experience is that the most ineffective way of producing images is to process and publish them directly after the shoot. The reason for this is the lack of distance and objectivity: If you are still under the impression of the shoot, you are not able to see the images as your audience would see them. You see them as you envisioned them at the shoot, and unless you have a lot of experience, there will be differences between your vision and the output of your camera that may be misleading you in your selection and processing decisions.
If, on the other hand, you let some time pass before you start selecting and processing them, you gain distance and view them more objectively. Sometimes, this means that you discard images that you had high hopes for when you shot them. Sometimes, the opposite is true and you find value in images that did not meet your initial expectations at all. It all appears in a different light.
This may appear to be a rigid process, but it isn’t. There is no obligation to promote an image incrementally through all the stages like a soldier is promoted through the military ranks. Sometimes, you immediately know a winning shot when you see it and you start processing it right away, which effectively lets it bypass all the stages and puts it straight into the “Candidates in Processing” set. Of course, this is perfectly fine. The staged workflow is more a help for dealing with those images that do not immediately show their potential – those that may need a clever idea to come to life. You will also find that as you grow more experienced and as your photographic abilities evolve, more and more images will take this shortcut. You get better at photography itself, at developing a vision and at taking your photos according to this vision at the shoot itself. Of course this speeds up the whole process considerably. Nevertheless, even an advanced photographer can benefit from having a good artistic workflow.
Developing a Vision
I have been talking about developing a vision a couple of times. What does that actually mean? Having a vision about an image means that you seen clearly what the finished image will look like and what you have to do to achieve this result. A vision gives you a goal that you can work towards in you processing work.
I can see you sitting there in front of your computer screen thinking: “He’s going to tell me the big secret formula now!” Right? Well, unfortunately, there is no secret formula. A vision is a very personal thing. If two people look at the same image, both may have completely different visions, and both may lead to great results. It is also nothing that automatically happens when you look at some arbitrary image. The image has to touch you in your current mood. Sometimes you look at a bunch of older images and suddenly it clicks – you see something in the image and within a second you know what you have to do to make the image a winner. Maybe you have looked at this very image a hundred times before and nothing happened. But this time it did and you start working on it.
Even though it is hard to give you a recipe for developing a vision (and we are not talking about drugs here), you can actually train it. You can learn to see the final result in a raw source image. You can achieve this by doing a lot of post-processing and learning the effects certain steps had on a particular image. Over time, you will accumulate a reservoir of building blocks. For example, you will know how a specific water surface can be processed to look good or which type of water surfaces will not look good at all.
As You Gain Experience
As you gain experience in shooting and processing images, you will get better in making the right judgements and decisions. You will develop your ability of envisioning the final result much better. Therefore, the time the whole process takes will shorten as you do not need the same amount of time to gain the necessary distance. Another very important thing here is that by revisiting older images again and again, your growing ability enables you to promote new ones that you could not have dealt with before. This is why you should not delete the images that you do not promote right away.
I know that the idea of maintaining an artistic workflow can be quite daunting if you are still trying to come to terms with your technical workflow. Let me summarize the workflow again in a few simple statements. The basic idea is not too difficult to grasp and implement.
- Do not process and publish every shot you take. Select them carefully.
- Use photo management software to categorize your photos. Make categories named “Pre-selected Candidates” and “Selected Candidates”. Put those images that you generally like in the “Pre-selected Candidates” category and those that have a vision about in “Selected Candidates”.
- Maintain these image sets regularly: Whenever you have a little time, go through some of your older images and promote them to the “Pre-selected Candidates” category and/or to the “Selected Candidates” if you feel good about them. There is no hard rule when to promote. This is about your gut feeling.
- Create quick previews of your favorite images in the “Selected Candidates” category to check whether your ideas for processing them really work on those images.
- Always select the image for wich you have a clear vision for post-processing. Don’t feel forced to process an image just for publishing one. You have to be motivated to get the best results. Switch to another image from the “Selected Candidates” set if you get stuck.
- Let time work in your favor. If you think, you finished processing an image. Do not publish it just yet. Leave it alone for a day or two. Come back after that and check it critically. Usually, you will find some things that need improvement. If you still think it’s great the way it is after a day, go ahead and publish it. It’s finished.
While this seems to be a lot of overhead, adding inefficiency to your overall workflow, the opposite is true: Once you have gotten used to practicing this, you will find that it helps you work much more efficiently (less wasted processing time on images that will not become a winner) and effectively (higher output quality).