Check ya Flow

One thing that often concerns those who dabble with digital photography is how to deal with the files we shoot. Taking pictures is one skill, managing the resulting ”digital negatives” through to a final finished shot is another entirely. In this blog I will deal solely with the latter. More specifically I will explain what I do myself, and discuss some of the other things I have tried, what worked for me and what didn”t. Hopefully this will serve as a useful study for other togs out there who are either unsure of their current workflow or are intimidated by the myriad of complex software packages available.

Firstly I”ll explain very briefly what I want to achieve:

  1. Take great photographs in camera using RAW.
  2. Import and secure these ”digital negatives” simply and safely.
  3. Review large numbers of negatives quickly, delete, select and sort as required.
  4. Process negatives to produce final print/blog worthy photographs.

As I mentioned above I will not talk about No.1 today, except to say that shooting in RAW is of great import. Many who would have considered themselves traditionalist photographers are now moving to digital and using RAW serves well to replicate the workflow we used to follow with film. Imagine the RAW as your negative, the process of turning this into a print gives you certain license to either repair your in camera mistakes and/or modify the capture for greater creative control (colour filters, cross processing etc etc). In the same way that these various techniques in wet chemistry can effect your negative so the initial processing of your captured RAW can effect your final digital image. If you are reading this and already capture in RAW and are yawning at the sight of yet another person telling you to do so, I apologise. For those still shooting JPEGs, stop it!:)

Now to get to the crux of it! When I first started taking RAW pics I felt that I had to process these RAWs into Jpegs (or another compressed format) before putting them through their paces in editing software. So I manually copied the RAWs into a folder on my Mac. At the time, being a Nikon user, I went for the Nikon branded software Capture NX. This software was pretty cool, let me do things I didn”t know were possible; primarily the ability to modify areas of the image using ”U-Point” tools. There were cool features here, but this was purely a photo by photo process. I found myself having to scour through my imports using the thumbnails in Finder plus OSX”s ”Preview” app to chose which shots were worthy of processing.

Once I had had my way with these RAWs in NX I would take the converted Jpegs and import them into iPhoto for organisation, sharing and exporting for web/email/print etc etc. From iPhoto I could easily browse through these pics and then either do more processing using the basic features within iPhoto or do a non destructive edit using an external app (Adobe Photoshop). I liked this workflow, but was finding that my initial selection process (folder browsing with previews, one by one) sometimes had me missing potentially nice shots, or missing some altogether.

I knew what I wanted, I wanted to do all these processes in one application. Now I knew that there were things in Photoshop that I couldn”t do elsewhere, but why should I always have to use Photoshop for simple stuff like contrast adjustments, levels, tone etc? So I started looking around and trying some other things. Elements, like iPhoto is very cool, but doesn”t give me enough control over processing. So I then looked at using something called Adobe Bridge. Before I started writing this blog I went back to Bridge to take another look. I still don”t really know what Bridge is for. Its a file browser designed for images, that gives you nice thumbnails and access to meta data. Although this is kind of useful, even for basic editing I still have to open Photoshop, and I can browse these files just as easily (if not easier) inside the Finder in OSX, especially in Leopard using Quicklook. My conclusion was, and still is, that Bridge must be designed for Windows users who don”t get great functionality out of Windows Explorer. If I am missing the point of Bridge, please let me know! So, the Bridge/PS solution was not ideal. Then came Aperture.

From the feature set and great online videos it looked like Aperture had exactly what I wanted. Aperture appeared just slightly before Adobe Lightroom, because of this, and the fact that using Apple software on my Mac made sense, I chose Aperture. Aperture does not disappoint. In fact my whole workflow is now centred around this application. ”Out of the box” it let me import my iPhoto pics very easily and I started to play. It has a great feel to it, and you feel pro just using this application. Using the loupe tool and flicking between many exposures to find the good one, including the ability to quickly compare one or more pics was great. When I started to import new pics direct from my Nikon D70s I suddenly realised that I no longer had to think about RAW. Aperture deals with your RAW files natively and seamlessly. I can import and browse, modify, select, categorise etc etc etc all within the one app. And, as I mention this is all being done without the need to specifically convert an image from RAW to a compressed format.Another great thing was that I was able to make use of my mouse (which has about 12 different buttons), I have bound lots of keyboard shortcuts to the buttons on my mouse which really makes the app a joy to use and increases my productivity greatly. All the editing I do is non-destructive and to further back things up you can use the ”Vault” feature to secure all your files. You always have the option to go back to the original files and on import all your RAWs go into folders named as your projects are inside Aperture. When I need to do further editing Aperture has an ”Edit In…” option that will¬†automatically create a duplicate file then load that file into PS or any other app you want. When you finish your edit in PS click save, return to Aperture, and there is your modified file in a ”Stack” next to its parent file. This is very, very cool!

Similarly I can easily export RAWs for use in Photomatix Pro which I use for any HDR treatment I do. Once I create my HDR image I can just drag and drop the resulting tif back into Aperture, it all feels very smooth.

The built in processing features are nice too, with great B&W options which I use all the time (often producing better results than through Photoshop). There are many nice plugins you can get for Aperture too, check them out here.

Other neat stuff in Aperture includes the ability to easily add and use metadata. Quick links at the bottom of the screen let you assign common tags instantly and batch changes are also included.

I guess the point of my ramble is that Aperture has changed the way I work, and for the better, my workflow is uncomplicated, produces good images and is fun! During my recent holiday abroad I was stuck with my Windows XP laptop, which sports a copy of Adobe Lightroom. Although I was at first a little phased by the UI which was so similar to Aperture, yet handled differently, I started to love Lightroom by the end of the holiday. It has many similar features to Aperture and produces some great images. The one standout feature which I wish I had in Aperture is the quick adjustment brush, that lets you add adjustments to specific areas, like the dodge/burn tool in PS but with contrast/exposure/saturation etc etc. This is really nice feature.

Here are some links related to the apps I have mentioned:

Nikon Capture NX

Adobe Photoshop / Bridge

Adobe Lightroom

Apple Aperture

Photomatix Pro

Hopefully this will be useful to some of you, I intend to try and do more ”wordblogs” as time allows and will be more than grateful to anyone who has any comments on this and any future blogs I post.

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