Technique: Basic image processing workflow with Aperture and additional tools

I’m still experimenting and, similar to old time printer testing new chemicals in the darkroom, I think digital photographers have not finished testing new techniques, new tricks and will never really settle on a specific workflow. Still there are a number of typical steps which I tend to follow for each images and I believe that some structure can only help beginners and advanced photographers alike…


Basic image processing workflow

I generally split my work in three phases

  1. Exposure optimization
  2. Image tweaking
  3. Image mood and finalisation

Exposure optimisation is all about ensuring that the image total dynamic range is well spread over the full available range but avoiding to either burn any area or lose details in the darkest shadows, it is nearly exclusively done within Aperture. I strive to expose my images to the right, generally using exposure compensation during the capture, a very quick method. It however happens, when I’ve not done my work properly or when I’m taken by surprise and I keep the previous compensation dialed-in, that I have to salvage an image where small areas are burned and this operation will occur during this phase. If I need to apply noise reduction it will be at this stage too, though with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III I won’t reduce noise below ISO 800 unless I have to lighten large shadow areas.

Image tweaking, depending on the complexity of the intended work will be done using Aperture or Photoshop. This phase is about enhancing the details of the subject, working on the eyes and eliminating distractions from the background. The principle I follow is to create a pleasing image, eliminating distractions and preserving the natural history character of the original capture.

Finally, in Aperture I will tweak the global mood, mostly using the vibrancy selector to give the punch I want and as last step I will apply some global sharpening. The advantage of keeping these specific changes in Aperture is to be able to re-tweak them later without retouching the master itself. At this stage, the image is ready to be finalised for print or for the web.


Additional tools

The detailed steps will be the object of future posts. Before jumping into these details however I’d like to give some pointers on using Aperture or Lightroom together with external tools.

I don’t rely solely on Aperture for my work as I have complemented it with some additional tools in the form of plugins and up to using Photoshop for the trickiest cases. Typically whenever I intend to make corrections that go beyond the simple spot correction, good enough in Aperture but lacking for bigger areas especially areas with patterns. When it comes to noise correction, enhancements or black and white conversions I use the Nik Collection plugins, either from Aperture or as a layer in Photoshop.

Also there are other valuable plugins that I use with Aperture

  • For HDR images I will either use Nik HDR Efex or Photomatix
  • For geometric lens or perspective correction PTLens is a great tool, together with a number of lenses already profiled
  • For de-fisheye the Fisheye-Hemi plugin is very handy

I should also mention some alternative plugins collections: onOne Perfect Photo Suite and Topaz Labs’ collection which I have used as well. I find both series useful, particularly for some effects not available in the Nik Collection such as miniature effects and others, and of good quality but I feel more comfortable using the Nik plugins and I do 90% of my work with both Nik Dfine for noise correction and Nik Color Efex for image enhancement.


Integration of tools with Aperture or Lightroom collection

When using such tools on an image, your library will contain at least two duplicates: the original RAW image with its eventual non destructive edits and a TIF image developed from the original and passed to the plugin or to the external editor. Successive edits will take place on the same TIF file. Adding any reversible step to the workflow will require you to create a duplicate of the file and go on from there. This will then give you the ability to work on multiple branches to experiment or whether the same image has to be processed differently for different use (B&W and colour being an obvious example) at the cost of additional storage space. Doing so you probably want to organise your workflow to apply first the edits which are common for each versions as to avoid redoing the same corrections on multiple versions. Obvious point but actually easy to oversee during the action…

As an example, let’s imagine that you need to process an image of a bird both in colour and in B&W and that a disturbing leaf is visible on the image. Optimising the exposure, the leaf is removed and the resulting image becomes the root that can be branched into a colour version and a black and white version. Thus performing common actions first will be the preferred, and least time consuming, approach.

Not so long ago I posted about the rumoured Aperture Pro X and what features I expect (rather fantasise about), if such features would materialise working with plugins and external editors would become much easier, maybe not saving much storage space (which nowadays is a commodity easy to get) but at least improving on the clarity of the workflow used. As workflows tend to change over time and returning to older images happen more often than one might think getting a better clarity on how an image was processed would surely be an advantage.

Of course either using Aperture or Lightroom, if you stick with the standard edits such issues will not occur but you won’t benefit from the power of these plugins, here is the trade-off.


The next post will focus on the Exposure optimisation phase. Stay tuned…


Technique: Basic image processing workflow with Aperture and additional toolsChristian C. Berclaz

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