I’ve been asked several times for my workflow for RAW image processing. I have several but this is my most used for web images for my blog.
Disclaimer — This is my workflow. There are many like it but this one is mine. I am sure there are other methods and some may be faster or better but this one works for me. As some of you may already know, I am over 50% color blind. I depend on WhiBal cards to set my WB or use the presets (Daylight, Shade, etc). Since I cannot determine color shifts too well I completely stay away from the HSL/Color settings. I am sure that I could get much better images if I used those settings but since I cannot determine the proper color I rather not touch them.
I shoot RAW pretty much 100% of the time. I may shoot RAW+JPG if I have to shoot for deadline or I need quick edits but that is very rare. RAW is a bit slower to edit than JPG but I prefer the quality and flexibility. Some will argue that RAW is not much better than JPG but don’t preach to me about it. This is about my workflow and not about what format is better.
This workflow uses Lightroom but it is based on the CameraRAW settings so if you use Photoshop+CameraRAW it is basically the same.
(Click on images to open the full sized version in a different window/tab)
1. This is the RAW image with absolutely no settings applied at all. Here you can see what my image looks like straight out of the camera (OOC). From the histogram you can say that the image is about 1/2 stop under exposed but I will argue that the image is properly exposed to save any highlight clipping. I have my clipping indicators turned on in Lightroom (you can also do it in Photoshop+CameraRAW) and you can see that there is no highlight clipping anywhere (it shows up as red dots). There is some black crush on the upper left corner (you can see the blue dots) but I don’t worry too much about crushed/clipping blacks as those can be saved better than clipped highlights. My white balance is set as AUTO in the camera so it will change from image-to-image. I do find that AUTO is pretty darn close but not close enough.
2. I use a WhiBal card to set my white balance. I either shoot it at half-time (if I can) or at the end of the game. I don’t shoot the card at the beginning of the game since there may be some ambient light still in the air and it may change by the end of the game. If this was an indoor shoot then it won’t matter when you shoot the card. I try to shoot the card with every lens that I will be using since each lens may have subtle difference in color rendition but lately I have noticed that the difference is so subtle that its not even worth it. So I shoot the white balance card with the lens I use the most and in this case it’s my 400mm f/2.8. I try to properly expose the white balance shot but you can be off as far as one stop and it will still work fine. Just try to be dead on but in a hurry you can fudge it.
3. I click on at least 4 different spots on the white balance card to make sure I am getting a proper WB. You will see subtle differences in each reading but if I see more than one spot with the same WB settings that will be the setting I use.
4. Most lights cycle up & down at 60hz so you will have different WB settings from shot-to-shot. I try to shoot 10-15 shots in the highest FPS my camera can take so I can get a least two or three different cycles. This will give you different WB settings but you will have different samples just in case one of your shots does not look right with the WB setting on the first card.
5. Here is the WB setting that I got for this field. 4000K with a tint of +10. There was also another setting from a different cycle that was 3850K with a tint of +7 but for this image I used the one here.
6. I also set Clarity at +25 and saturation at +10. Those are not very strong settings but are the ones that are most pleasing to me.
7. This is the sync settings that I apply to all the images that I plan to edit. Select all your images and click on the Sync button. Above is my default sync but sometimes I also add “Lens Correction” if I have chosen to fix those all at once. Usually I do them individually since some images I prefer a little lens vignetting in my images. This image has a bit on the left side but I prefer that in the final image.
8. This step is a personal preference and some of you may disagree with it. After I have WB set I click on the AUTO button (just above the exposure slider) to see what CameraRAW will do with the image. Most of the time (almost 100% of the time) the AUTO settings are so off that I never use them for the final image but they give me an idea where to fix them. Clicking AUTO here made the image a bit too bright and there is severe highlight clipping in the white jerseys (see all the red indicators?). The shadows are also way to weak for my taste.
The other method would be to set each of the sliders from their zero position but I have found that this is more time consuming for me.
9. My usual workflow for the sliders is as follow and in this order:
10. Here I set the exposure and the contrast so that it looked closed to what I want them to be in the final image. Since changing the Blacks/Whites/Shadows/Highlights sliders will also change the exposure this may need to be changed a bit later but for now this is what I am going for.
11. The Black slider has been turned way down (from -7 to -40) to see what the crushed/clipping blacks look like. Depending on the final output (print, web, etc) you will want to keep the crushed black to a minimum but they may vary a bit. For web output I try to keep the clipping a bare minimum but still some to get true blacks.
12. Here I set the Blacks to +4 and in the full-sized image you can see there is minor clipping in the blacks in the background but very little (if any) in the jerseys or shadows.
13. I have now moved the White slider almost all the way up so you can see what white clipping looks like with the clipping indicator. Went from the +19 AUTO setting to +81. You can see all the red clipping indicator in all the white areas and a lot of the bright colors.
14. I brought the whites down to +24 and you can now see almost no clipping anywhere. There is minor clipping in the #2 white jersey in the highlight areas and in the green helmet in the highlights of the stadium light reflections.
15. Dropping the Shadows slider all the way down you can see the crushed shadows in the jerseys, pants, and under the helmets. But what you don’t see is that there is no clipping in those areas like you saw when you moved the Black slider all the way down above. There is some clipping in the background but that is normal due that area being at least 2-stops darker than the shadows. You want to see some clipping in those areas.
16. I raised the Shadows slider until I am happy with the amount of shadow detail in the uniforms. This ended up being +68 for web output. You may like deeper shadows (less detail) but I prefer to see a bit more detail. You can also use selective shadow settings using a brush but that is way too much work for web output. For a large print I may do that but not for a 1024-pixel wide image.
17. I raised the Highlights slider almost all the way up so you can see the clipping in the white jerseys but also in the green jersey yellow numbers.
18. Now I turned off the highlight clipping indicator (on the upper right corner of the histogram window) so you can see the effects of clipping on the white jersey detail….or lack thereof. Highlights slider pretty much determines the amount of detail in white areas so playing with this slider will show you how much or little detail you can have in the white areas. I prefer to keep as much detail as possible without making whites look muddy (if you turn the slider way too far down).
19. Setting the Highlights slider to -52 leaves me with white jerseys that have full detail but are not muddy (the far right jersey is NOT muddy, that’s the vignette from the 400mm since I did not do any lens correction for this image). This is a personal preference as I am sure some of you would prefer a bit more white in this area. Play with it and see what you prefer.
20. Now crop as desire. I did a horizon fix using the top fence line in the background. I prefer straight horizon whenever I can.
21. Here’s the final adjusted & cropped image. I then apply very minor noise reduction to the background only (never apply noise reduction to the grass…ever!!!), and resize to the desire web output.
BTW, here’s the final web resized image with noise reduction & slight sharpening applied: