A bit about my photography workflow

2013-05-10

Preemptive apology: what follows is a 2300-word wall of text about my photography workflow. Sorry about that, but sometimes one just needs to get it all out, you know?

Shooting/developing

I shoot my film (usually ISO/ASA 400 and usually color) and then I take it to a shop to get it developed. If it’s 35mm, I’ll go anywhere. If it’s 120, I try to take it to someone who knows what 120 is.

(Regrettably, I do not (yet) develop develop my own film, nor have I ever done so. I’m not too happy about this, as I feel that I’m somewhat cheating myself out of ⅓ of the process of shooting/developing/editing. I’m also not too keen about having to learn to develop on B&W film, which I have never liked quite as much as color.)

Uncurling negatives/prepwork

When I get my negatives back from the shop, they are usually pretty curly. To undo this, I put the negatives back into film canisters reverse-rolled for 6-24 hours, depending on the strength of the curl. This gets rid of 99% of the fuss — some negatives are just tough sons-of-bitches and refuse to adequately uncurl, requiring multiple days in solitary confinement.

I then cut my negatives so as to fit my scanner’s scanning brackets. Thankfully, I purchased my scanner with the anticipation that I might one day shoot medium format film, and it has worked out wonderfully for that purpose.

Scanning/selecting

My rule is to scan and import everything I shoot. I try not to look at the picture and decide whether or not I like it based on a low-low-res preview scan. The exceptions to this rule are: massive blurriness, development errors, or blanks (accidentally tripped the shutter release, etc). I do my best to follow my rule but sometimes the editor in me makes the choice and I veto a particularly heinous picture.

I use an Epson v600, and it works well for my current needs. Would I like a v700? Sure. But it costs as much as I paid for my Mamiya, and frankly, I’d rather have my Mamiya.

As I shoot mostly ISO 400 film, the resolution on the v600 is more than adequate. I suppose if I shot a lot of slide film or super-slow B&W I might wish for a bit more tack, but even 6x7-sized Portra 400 looks great at 3200 or 4000 dpi. I’m certainly not pushing the resolution capabilities of the scanner with the types of film I scan. If I shot more ISO 100 I would definitely bump it up to 6400 dpi.

I always scan at 48-bit color depth for everything (even B&W), and my resolution will rarely if ever go below 3000 dpi. My reason for scanning B&W in color is that I don’t really trust the scanner or its software to choose the gray tones that I like. At this point in the game I’m fairly sure I’m better at choosing the tones I like than Epson is, so I try to get as much tonal information so as to give myself more options with what to throw out in Lightroom.

I try to scan as flat as possible and bring everything to my liking in Lightroom. This means no ICE to remove dust, no backlight correction, no color correction, or any other nonsense. The only thing I add in from the scanning side is the lowest possible level of unsharp masking to hopefully counter some of the noise-sharpening that goes on in every scanner.

I experimented with ICE for a while (anyone who shoots and scans film realizes that dust is hellish to get rid of) but found that it was both ineffective at removing dust and a loose cannon when it came to reducing sharpness. It was effectively a double-whammy of incompetence: poor dust removal coupled with detail-killing blur.

I was scanning into .tiff files for a while, but when I took a minute to weigh the size (hundreds of megabytes for 6x7 negatives, dozens for 35mm) against the difference in quality of minimally compressed .jpg files, I wisened up. I don’t want to have to buy a damn server farm to support my scans archive.

Upon completion of scanning any particular batch, I make a copy on an external drive as well as a cloud backup service. Personally I’m a fan of Dropbox for its excellent desktop clients, web access, and apps that I can get for my phone and tablets. Their Android support is quite lovely.

Editing

I use Adobe Lightroom to view, edit, tag and upload my pictures. Lightroom is a phenomenal piece of software. I know how to use Photoshop, and I could do all of the edits I do in Lightroom just as well in Photoshop, but Lightroom makes the process so quick and easy. Dust removal is simple, as is vignetting, color selection, toning, shadow and highlight detail modification, sharpening, etc. I’m not sure I would have the stamina to do my workflow without something as brutally utilitarian as Lightroom.

My first task in lightroom is always a general look at a reasonable size. As I shoot film, I don’t get the chance to see the pictures until I scan them. Importing the pictures into Lightroom is really the first time I see what I’ve got. I always do a few passes through the most recent batch to get a sense of what kind of vibe I’m working with, to see what themes there are, etc. From there I move to reject the chaff. I’ll X photos that are blurry, chronically out of focus, or otherwise mangled. I try not to reject anything based on subjective preference at this point; only “unusables” or bad scans. I usually make a special “needs a rescan” collection with any photos that have scanning errors or whale-sized dust particles.

My plan from this point on is one of narrowing. I will progressively go through the batch, selecting photos I think are fit to move on to the next round. Depending on the size of the batch, I will do between 2 (small batch) to 4 (large batch) rounds of narrowing, usually ending up with maybe 5-10% of the original photos remaining as ones I see fit to publish. I try to be as ruthless as I can. Anything less and I’ll end up wasting time on some “meh” photo that I eventually reject after doing 40 minutes of edits. I’ve found that it just isn’t worth wasting time on any iffy pictures. However, I am of course open to the opinions of others in this regard, and have had my mind changed on photos before.

You’ll notice that I do not do any retouching or correction until this stage has been completed. A good picture can be made better through skillful editing, a shite picture with masterful editing is still a shite picture.

Retouching

With the newly jubilant survivors, I do a number of retouching tasks, in no particular order. Lightroom is cool in that it is a non-destructive editor, meaning that you can sharpen, color correct, remove dust, tone, vignette, crop, or any variation thereof in any order your heart desires, and it doesn’t matter one lick.

Edits are only applied upon export, so any actions you take in Lightroom live only as a series of totally reversible and mutable instructions until that time. Very cool.

Some highlights from this part of the process: I will spend between 5 and 20 minutes removing dust using the clone tool. This is tedious but I find it oddly relaxing. The price you pay for avoiding ICE’s mindless sledgehammering is in the time it takes to remove each little speck manually. Lightroom does a good job of helping to pick spot-replacement candicreateds so as to preserve as much detail as possible.

All scans are naturally softer than the image your camera made on film, so everything gets sharpened. There is no exception to this rule. The amount varies, but I will almost always sharpen scanned film more than I would sharpen a picture made with a digital camera like a 7D or D90. The results will sometimes remain softer than an equivalent picture shot digitally. This is the price you pay for shooting ISO 400 film, but I like its 3D quality, so it doesn’t bother me that much. There are two exceptions to this softness rule: 1. Portra 400 is the sexiest, finest grained film I have ever used, and it renders absolutely brilliantly. Why more people are not shooting Portra I will not understand. It is photosensitive gold. 2. This really only applies to 35mm, as sharpness issues go away when you shoot with a format sized 120 or larger. You won’t ever hear 8x10 shooters complaining about softness, regardless of film speed.

Toning: photographers have been making certain parts of their images lighter and darker in the darkroom since the medium was invented, and this continues in the digital darkroom. I will dodge and burn images to draw out certain features, direct the eye in certain ways, or downplay certain distracting features. As I understand it (I could certainly be wrong), the human eye has an evolutionary proclivity to focus on brighter features in a field of dark, and this applies to photographs as well. The viewer’s eye is often drawn to the brightest feature of the image, and I try to keep this in mind while dodging and burning to understand if any enhancement is possible. Again, this is not to make a bad picture passable, but to make a good picture even better. I like [Rineke Dijkstra](http://www.americansuburbx.com/channels/r/rineke-dijkstra) and Terrence Malick’s use of light, among many others I could mention. (see “The Three of Life" for reference)

It is worthwhile to keep in mind that the line between enhancement and alteration is exceedingly sharp and thin, and one can step over it and end up in gaudy-picture hell without meaning to do so. For this reason, I rarely will publish an image at the immediate conclusion of editing. It is best to come back to allegedly finished images with a fresh set of eyes before sending off to the world, the same as one would do with any self-reflecting creation.

I don’t really have a word for the type of color I like. I’ll just provide a few examples of people who I think do color in a way that is so beautiful so as to be a heart-rending on its own, regardless of the content or composition of the picture: the classic [William Eggleston](http://www.americansuburbx.com/channels/w/william-eggleston) is one (also this) and [Alex Webb](http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO3110VForm&ERID=24KL53Y_H) is another. If you told me you had a copy of Alex Webb’s “The Suffering of Light” and the fee was one kidney, I would still be interested. I also enjoy [Lise Sarfati](http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/05/interview-interview-with-lise-sarfati.html) for her brilliant subtlety, as well as [Joel Meyerowitz](http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/10/interview-colin-westerbeck-with-joel.html) for his desaturated, painterly quality. [Stephen Shore](http://www.americansuburbx.com/channels/s/stephen-shore) is another color inspiration.

I will add and subtract certain shades of color from the picture, increasing and decreasing the saturation and luminosity until I am satisfied with the pallette as a whole. A few examples of this are this and this and this. The viewer does not know what the picture looked like in real life or on film, but I do, and I find my changes to be a (hopefully) imperceptible enhancement to the original. That Fine Line rears its head again and must always be kept in the back of one’s head.

That’s the gist of how I retouch. I try to look at great pictures by other photographers throughout the editing process for inspiration. “Oh, look at Eggleston’s yellow there…” or “look at how Dijkstra lit that guy…”. Stuff like that. Some would say that the use of the camera is the least important part of photography.

Exporting

Moving the files out of Lightroom and on the web or paper is relatively easy, too. The Flickr preset for Lightroom applies the right amount of compression and resizing so as to make sure Flickr accepts the file. I will usually apply the lowest level of what is known as “output sharpening” to files sent to Flickr to make sure they pop on the screen. I’ve found that anything over the lowest level gets compounded with Flickr’s built-in sharpening, leading to horrific oversharpening. No one wants that.

Lightroom also makes it easy to tag photos, so I’ll pop on a few tags like geographic location and format. Film type if I remember or care. Usually it’s possible to tell the difference between the good stuff (Kodak Portra 400 of Fuji Pro 400H) and the cheap stuff (Kodak Gold 400 or Fuji Superia 400) based on their dynamic range (expensive films have insanely great d-range), and between the brands based on their color: Kodaks are generally warmer with a touch of magenta, Fujis are generally cooler and greener.

I usually won’t output-sharpen anything that is going to be printed, as most of the things I would print on don’t have the resolution to demand it. Resolution is, I think, more important in that regard, and if you’re scanning at 3200 dpi or higher you won’t have a problem with that (one example 35mm scan is 4400 x 2800, one example 6x7 scan is 9900 x 8300).

That’s it!

It really isn’t that involved compared to some people out there. I try to keep my workflow as simple as possible. It can really eat up time if you don’t. I suppose it does that anyway, but you get my point, haha. I hope someone gets a little insight from this, as reading other people’s editing processes really helped me develop my own. I could certainly be goaded into providing more detail if desired. Thanks for reading!