Digital RAW Workflow for Beginners

Having an efficient work flow is essential for photographers. In the days of film, many of the tasks in the film work flow were handled by the lab. Now, more and more photographers are switching to digital and have to handle many of these tasks themselves. The purpose of this document is to provide a basic digital work flow for working with RAW images that is camera and system independent.

Most modern digital SLR cameras, and some point and shoot models, have the ability to record the RAW data from an exposure, allowing the photographer to process the images as they see fit. This can be a daunting task, especially for those who don't have a work flow in place to handle the images from the camera. The following steps will take you through the process of setting up your own RAW digital work flow.

Work flow Step 1: Compose and Expose

Your digital work flow begins before you ever sit down at your computer. One of the best things you can do to make your work flow more efficient is to get as much of your image perfect in the camera as possible. Many digital photographers have fallen into the "I can fix it on the computer" trap. This costs you time and money. The more time you spend "fixing" a photo after you've tripped the shutter, the less time you are spending with clients.

Here are a few tips to help reduce your workload from the time you make your exposure:

  • Set your white-balance to match your scene. If you get the proper white-balance in the camera, you won't have to adjust it later on the computer. See your camera documentation for how to set a custom white-balance. Remember to set your white balance whenever you change lenses, or the quality of light. If you change modifiers, or lenses, change your white-balance as well.
  • Expose for the highlights. Since digital acts similar to slide film, its easy to accidentally blow your highlights. By exposing for the hot parts of the image, you'll save yourself some time in the long run.
  • Scan your frame. Get in the habit of doing a top-to-bottom scan of your frame before you trip the shutter. This will help you avoid stray hairs, lights in your frame, reflectors being visible, and anything that you might have to clone out of the image later.


Work flow Step 2: Importing and Backing Up Your Images

There are many ways to get your images from your camera to your computer. Some people use a card reader that will read the images off the memory card from the camera. Others connect the camera directly to the computer and import the images directly. No matter how you get the images to the computer, your first step is to setup an organizational structure for the images and create a backup copy of the RAW files for safety.

First, create a folder to store your image files. In our studio, we use the folder name to organize our images. For instance, let's say we are importing images from a portrait session with Jane Doe that took place on January 1st, 2005. Our folder name for this session would be P_2005_DoeJane_0101. If we also did a portrait session with John Doe on the same date, our folder would be named P_2005_DoeJohn_0101. This allows us to keep our images organized in a way that we are familiar with. Use whatever folder structure you like, as long as it helps you keep things organized.

Next, we will create the folders under our P_2005_DoeJane_0101 folder that we will use during the course of processing the images. We create the following folders: RAW, WORK, and JPEG. The final file structure looks like this:

-+P_2005_DoeJane_0101 -|-RAW -|-WORK -|-JPEG

The RAW folder holds our RAW image files, the WORK directory holds the processed TIFF files where we will do all of our editing, and the JPEG folder holds the completed files, ready to be uploaded to the lab.

Copy the images from your camera to the RAW folder using whichever method you prefer. As soon as this initial copy is complete, make a backup copy of these images. Some photographers backup to writable CD-ROM or DVD discs. Other photographers backup to a separate backup hard drive. No matter what method you choose for your backups, they are CRITICAL. Make sure you can recover your images if something should happen to your memory card.

Work flow Step 3: Verify Your Backup

Your backup copy of the RAW images files is important. Take a moment to verify that you can read the images you copied to your backup medium. Once you have verified your backup medium, you may proceed with the work flow.

Work flow Step 4: Culling the Herd

Converting the images you never want the client to see wastes time and money. Use your preferred image browser to go through the RAW images and delete any that you know you won't use. Don't worry about deleting the wrong file, that is why we made a backup. If you delete a file you wanted, just bring it back from your backup.

Once you have selected your "keepers" from the RAW images, it is time to move on to the next step.


Work flow Step 5: File Conversion

Most cameras come with software specifically designed to convert the RAW image data from its native format into TIFF files, JPEG files, or some other format that is compatible with the popular image editing software.

At our studio, we convert the RAW images into 16-bit TIFF files, because we like to have the maximum amount of data available for editing and processing. Your needs may vary. There are many articles on the Internet that deal with the different file formats and the pros and cons of each. For the purpose of this tutorial, we are going to assume that the files are being converted to 16-bit TIFF files.

We now open the software that came with our camera and set it to convert our RAW image data to 16-bit TIFF files, and save them in the TIFF folder we created in Work flow Step 2. This step can be time consuming, so we often go out to eat while the images from a session are converting.

Once the conversion is finished, you will have a folder of 16-bit TIFF files to do editing and retouching on. We use TIFF at our studio because it is a loss less format. That is, we can save the file as many times as we like without degrading the image quality. JPEG is a lossy format, every time you save a JPEG file, you lose a little more data to compression.

Work flow Step 6: Editing and Retouching

This step of our work flow is where the real work is done. You will open each TIFF file in the image editor of your choice and make sure your colors and exposure are correct, the crop is the way you want it, and the image is ready for printing. At this point you will make any edits to the image, such as changing the crop, converting it to black and white, or doing any needed retouching.

If you use the TIFF file format, you can save as many times as you need to during this process without having to worry about losing image quality.

Once editing and retouching is done, save your work file and move on to the next step.


Work flow Step 7: Saving the Production File

One of the cons to working with 16-bit TIFF files is that they take up an incredible amount of disk space. Once we have reviewed the images with the client and ensured that no further edits/retouching need to be made, we convert the TIFF file to a JPEG production file for archive purposes and sending to the lab.

Open the TIFF file in your preferred image editor and save your file as a Baseline Level 10 JPEG in the JPEG folder we created earlier. Why not save as a Level 12 JPEG, you might ask. When printing your image, there is no discernible difference between a level 10 JPEG and a level 12 JPEG. Try it for yourself and see.

Once your files are saved as JPEGs, move on the the next step.


Work flow Step 8: Backup Your Production Files

This is a good time to make a backup (either to CD/DVD, or to another hard disk) of your JPEG production files. This ensures that you have a copy of all your hard work and if something should happen to the original files, you know you have a good backup.


Work flow Step 9: Cleaning Up the RAW and Work Files

Once we know we have a good backup of our production JPEGs, we delete the entire WORK folder and the entire RAW. This frees up the large amount of space that TIFF files require and leaves us with a manageable set of files from the job. However, we have already made backup copies of the RAW files and the JPEG files, so if we ever need to re-edit an image, we have the materials to do so.


Work flow Step 10: Final Touches

At this point our production JPEG images are ready to print or send to the lab. Make any final adjustments to the image size and print or upload your images.


Final Thoughts

With an efficient digital work flow, handling large amounts of digital images is easy and relatively stress free. I hope this tutorial has given you some ideas on how to best setup your own RAW digital work flow.

Martin F. Hengst has been a professional photographer for more than a decade. He and his wife Barbara run Captured Radiance Photography, a studio dedicated to glamour, boudoir, and intimate portraiture. His online portfolio can be found at: http://www.capturedradiance.com

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