Even though Canon Digital SLR Cameras produce exceptional image quality, most pictures can be improved by varying extents through post-processing. Mundane pictures can be given the extra POP needed to become exceptional. Exceptional pictures can be tweaked to perfection. To take advantage of the benefits of post procesing, you should create your own digital workflow.
The insect that chose to fly past your subject as the shutter opened can be removed. The shot you grabbed with time to do nothing but press the shutter release can have its exposure corrected. Blemishes can be removed from your loved ones (or from those paying you). The shot taken with improper white balance can be adjusted to perfection. OK - close to perfection. Sometimes I'm never satisfied.
Following are the typical steps I am using in my digital workflow. Keep in mind that the following list of steps is not conclusive as MANY other steps become involved when necessary, but this digital workflow should get you started.
The obvious start to a post-processing workflow is to get the images onto the computer hard drive. I am using a free, easy-to-setup program called Digital Image Mover (DIM) written by Alan Light for this purpose. DIM automatically copies the .CR2 files (or any other files you specify a filename extension for - including .MOV) from any device mounted to the computer as a drive letter. This includes most memory card readers and many cameras can be directly attached to a computer this way as well.
Image files are copied to a designated location on the computer's hard drive. During the process, DIM can rename the files using values in the EXIF data of the picture file. I rename the files to a date/time code in the format of yyyy-mm-dd_hh-mm-ss". Multiple shots taken during one second get an incrementing number appended to their name. This name format allows easy sorting of pictures chronologically - which is especially nice when using more than one camera simultaneously (as long as the date/time is precisely set on both).
I currently shoot in Canon's RAW/.CR2 format 100 percent of the time. Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP - included with current Canon Digital SLR's) is my current choice for RAW conversion software. DPP is relatively easy to use, has the functionality I need for processing most of my images, non-destructively stores the image modifications right in the RAW file and produces excellent quality JPG and TIFF conversions. Once learned, DPP is also relatively fast to use. That DPP is free with the camera is appealing to all.
I generally shoot more pictures than I need, so my first DPP task is to selectively delete pictures. I delete liberally (thought others recommend against such). If a picture is blurred or out of focus, it gets deleted. If the exposure of a non-exceptional-otherwise image is off by more than a small amount, good-bye. If I have a couple of similar shots, only the best is/are saved. You will find that you need to continuously raise the bar on the minimal acceptable image quality as your skills progress - all of your photos may now be better than your best were three years ago.
For the delete task, I usually open a large batch of images (click on the first image and shift-click on the last image, CTRL-click to omit or add images, or press CTRL-A to select all images) in the DPP Quick Check tool (Alt-Q). As I use my right hand to navigate the photos using the right/left arrow keys, I give images to be deleted a "rejected" rating with my left hand by pressing the X key, and if I see one I really like at this point, a rating of 5. When through the selected photos, I go back to the main window (Alt-F4), select all rejected images (CTRL-SHFT-X) and delete them (press the Delete key).
DPP makes use of the Recycle Bin - You get a second chance if you delete something you really wanted.
Cropping and horizon leveling comes next in my digital workflow - if needed. Images taken with a fixed focal length (prime) lens typically need cropped more frequently than those taken with a zoom lens. As I have said before, I have HLD Syndrome (Horizon-Level Deficiency Syndrome). It doesn't seem to matter how hard I try, I frequently end up with a horizon that is not level. The angle adjustment within the trimming tool rescues me from this deficiency.
Select the images you want to work on and press ALT-C ("C" for "Crop") to start to Trimming tool. I often maintain the original 2:3/3:2 aspect ratio, but not always - there can be good reasons for not doing so. Click and drag to select the cropped area. Drag the crop frame around and stretch the corners to fine tune the selection. Click outside the crop area and drag to rotationally align the image (turning on the grid feature helps in this task).
If a group of images needs a similar crop, select the Copy button. You can then selectively Paste the crop into other images within the selected group or - select the Apply All button to paste the crop into all selected images. For example, if you know that all selected images need a 2:3 crop, simply use the Apply All function and then adjust the position and size of the pasted crop on each image. Use CTRL-Right-Arrow and CTRL-Left-Arrow to navigate between selected images. Click OK when finished and CTRL-S to save the changes.
At this point in my processing, I make sure I am using a calibrated monitor (external to my laptop). My current setup is the Datacolor Spyder3Elite Display Calibration System and the NEC MultiSync 2690WUXi2 25.5" LCD Display. I work only from a laptop (personal preference/need).
Why is a calibrated monitor important? Monitors do not universally display colors correctly or the same. You can go to great lengths to get your colors and exposures exactly right on your monitor, but your picture may look terrible on a different monitor - or when printed. If you are not using a monitor calibrated to a standard for your post processing, you are probably wasting your time. A calibrated monitor insures that reds will be red, greens will be green ... Be sure to instruct Digital Photo Pro to use your custom monitor profile in the preferences settings (CTRL-K, Color Management tab, Color matching settings and I use the "Use the OS settings" - but some setups may require the monitor profile to be specified).
I next begin adjusting the individual images. I select all similar images - typically all shot in similar conditions - and not more than a manageable quantity. Open these images in the Edit Image Window (CTRL-Right-Arrow) In the Edit window, I have the "Thumbnails" and "Tools" palettes displayed. The RAW tab of the Tools palette is where I perform most of my adjustments.
Of the images selected, I pick one that is most-representative of the group. I am going to adjust this image and copy the adjustment "recipe" to the rest.
I'll next give you some general image adjustment steps to try, but keep in mind that these steps vary from picture to picture and that this can be an iterative process to completely fine tune an image. The first thing I will determine is if I still want to keep the image - if not, I rate it as "Rejected", press CTRL-S (Save) and then press ALT-Delete to remove the image from the batch I am working on (it will need to be physically deleted later in the Main Window).
I usually begin by selecting the "Standard" Picture Style and setting sharpness to what is appropiate for the camera and lens I'm using (usually between 1 and 3). These settings can also be made the default in-camera settings. Be careful to not over-sharpen your images (I see this frequently).
Adjusting brightness is often the next if-needed setting adjustment my digital workflow. I prefer to expose my images in-camera so they are between ideally exposed and overexposed such that the brightest pixels are very near 255 (R,G and/or B) for the lowest noise results. This method is often referred to as "exposed to the right" or ETTR. The brightest pixels in the image will show on the very right side of the histogram - but will not be stacked against the right wall indicating blown highlights (pure white - no detail).
I vary this practice based a lot on the subject and situation, but often I will have a few pixels blinking overexposed on my camera LCD. This practice often means that my images are somewhat overexposed and need a little -EV correction. I will often turn on the Highlight and Shadow alerts (ALT-M and ALT-N respectively) in DPP to insure that not too much of the image is blown or blocked (respectively).
Setting proper white balance is usually my next workflow task. Don't rule out using the auto white balance setting, but a custom white balance often works best. Is there something neutral gray or white (but not over-exposed) in the image or in another image shot in the same light conditions as the primary subject? If so, select the Eye Dropper tool and then click around on the gray or white object until the preferred white balance is reached and again click on the Eye Dropper tool to de-select it. You might want to get this setting from another image instead - such as a Gray Card shot.
Certain subjects lend themselves very well to the white balance task. For example, soccer balls are often mostly neutral white and since they are round, you can select from the side of the ball that best represents the light your subjects is receiving (potentially ranging from warm sun-lit to cool shade). If you find a custom white balance setting that works well, you might want to register it as a preset for the next similar image.
If not using auto or custom white balance settings, I most frequently use a Kelvin setting. Select Color Temperature in the drop-down box, click on the drag bar and roll your mouse scroll wheel up and down until you are happy with the result. A specific color temperature setting is easy to make slight adjustments to later - perhaps when reviewing the image a second time. Remember (or write down) the ideal color temperature setting for the various situations you frequently encounter - such as at a church or in your living room at night.
After adjusting white balance, re-evaluate brightness.
I frequently will make a small contrast adjustment to my images. For small adjustments, drag the left bar of the histogram (in the RAW tab of the Tools palette) from left to right until the desired change is made. For stronger contrast adjustments, use the Contrast slider - experiment with how this adjustment affects the image.
Some images will respond nicely to a boost in saturation - and others may look great with less saturation. I most frequently use the "0" setting (especially with people in the picture), but again, experiment with this setting. For a finer saturation adjustment, use the Saturation setting on the RGB tools tab.
The NR/ALO/Lens tools tab allows for noise reduction and lens correction adjustments. I usually use no noise reduction until high ISO settings are reached (noise reduction can negatively affect image detail) and then I tend to only use a small amount of noise reduction. Of the Tune options, I most frequently use the chromatic aberration correction adjustment.
Remember that CTRL-Z is the Digital Photo Professional Undo / Redo keyboard shortcut. Use this frequently to view your image before and after changes. You can also right-click on the image and select Copy recipe to clipboard, then press CTRL-Shift-Z to revert to shot settings, then right-click on the image and select paste recipe. Now you can press CTRL-Z to toggle between the adjusted image and the original image.
After I am satisfied with my image, I save it (CTRL-S). Note: keyboard shortcuts, when available, are usually faster than using a mouse - learn to use them to save yourself time.
If working with more than one image that needs similar processing done to it, I copy the recipe to the clipboard (right-click on the image and select Copy recipe to clipboard) and again right click on the image and select the Paste recipe to all images option. All of your images in the edit window should have the same adjustment settings at this point (but they remain unsaved). Simply navigate to each one (press CTRL-Down-Arrow), make any tweaks needed and press CTRL-S to save the recipe to the file.
When finished with all selected images, press CTRL-Left-Arrow to return to the Digital Photo Professional Main Window. I usually press CTRL-S again at this point to make sure I remembered to save all of my adjusted images.
At this point in my digital workflow, I run the images that need something removed from them through the Stamp tool. This something can be sensor dust, blemishes on someone's face, ... nearly anything. Select the images and press Alt-S.
In the stamp tool, double-click on the area of the image needing stamp adjustment and drag the enlarged image around to make the proper area visible. Alt-click on the image to select the source for the stamping tool, roll the mouse scroll wheel to size the copied area (large sizes have a softer edge with brush selected), and click where the replacement needs to be made. The tool will remember the offset between the source and the first stamp made, so not all subsequent stampings may need a new source. With the space bar held down, click and drag to pan around the image.
Be sure to save the images again (in the Main Window) after making stamp tool adjustments.
At this point in my digital workflow, it is often helpful to stop - and review my work at a later time. Fresh eyes can pick up things I missed the first time.
When finished with the DPP image editing, I separate (drag and drop) the RAW images into two category folders: "To-JPEG" and "To-TIFF"). Since JPEG is a lossy-compression image format, opening a JPEG file, editing it and re-saving it as a JPEG again results in a second generation of data loss. So, my images that need further processing in Adobe Photoshop are converted from RAW to 16-bit TIFF files.
The images in the To-JPEG folder are ready to process, so I select all of these files (Ctrl-A) and click on the Batch Process button in the Digital Photo Professional Main Window. Select the folder you want the .JPG files created in, select "EXIF-JPEG" as the File Format and select the quality level you prefer. Higher quality means larger file sizes, but ... disk is cheap. I usually use a setting of 8-10 depending on the images and their purpose. Change any other settings you desire. The "Embed ICC Profile" is one box I check. Click Execute when ready. The files will be processed in the background - you are free to continue working on other tasks.
My To-TIFF folder contains the files I want to further process in Photoshop. Select all of these files and click on the Batch Process button in the Digital Photo Professional Main Window. Select the folder you want the .TIF files created in, select "TIFF 16-bit" as the File Format.
At this point, I use Adobe Photoshop to make any adjustments desired and save the image as a very high quality JPG.
With my high quality JPGs created, I now move them into my permanent storage folder structure. This folder structure is date-based (\YYYY\YYYY-MM\ under a YYYY folder). The RAW files that I am keeping (I only keep the more important ones) are stored in the same folder structure but under a separate main folder. I use Windows Explorer for the manual copying procedure.
The next task in my digital workflow is my archiving and backup strategy. Digital pictures can last forever - and they can also be lost in an instant! Hard drives fail or get corrupted (more frequently than you may think), CD-Rs and DVDs fail (especially over time), equipment gets stolen, fires happen. If you do not backup your files, it is only a matter of time until they are lost - plan on it.
I am currently using portable hard drives exclusively for my backup strategy (primarily small Western Digital Passport Drives). I firmly believe that one backup is not enough - it will inevitably be near your main computer's hard drive at some point - such as when backing up. At that point, a disaster could strike and eliminate both your master drive and your backup drive.
My current backup strategy may be overkill, but ... I maintain at least 5 complete sets of backup drives - with at least 2 at a distant off-site location at all times. These backups are completely refreshed periodically (every couple of years) to prevent failure over time. This refresh usually accompanies a capacity upgrade - a new backup drive.
Then it is time to use the photos however you wish to use them.
There is a great deal of flexibility in a digital workflow - hopefully you have gleaned some useful tips for creating your own digital workflow. And if you are not shooting RAW, I highly recommend you give it a try.