digital workflow: working files

Last week we processed our selected RAW images into TIFF files. This week we will convert them to Photoshop psd “working files”. If you process RAW images in an Adobe product you may be skipping the TIFF step entirely, going straight from RAW to psd. This week is where the roads converge once again and most everyone gets back on the same page.

working stage dig wkflwThis is also where the bit depth debate can go a bit deeper (I wasn’t trying for a pun there, honestly). As Eric S. mentioned in the comments last week, he gets the best possible quality by working in 16-bit color. He actually sees the difference in the final images and, really, that‘s what it comes down to with any of these suggestions. Try things for yourself and compare results.

For our studio work we find that 8-bit is generally an acceptable compromise between quality and file size. On some images, especially with gradients, we do use 16-bit depth. That does double the file size and we don’t always deem it necessary. With our next generation of computers and software upgrades, though, and with the price of storage coming down, I would expect we’ll be migrating more to a 16-bit workflow. It just makes sense. (Anybody want a deal on six Mac G5 computers?).

The following information may be basic for many Photoshop users but, in the context of detailing a workflow, it’s good to go over it here, I think. It never hurts to bring things back to the basics.

So now our files have been converted to psd files (either 8- or 16-bit, whatever your preference, but still in the Adobe RGB workspace) through a batch action and saved in the “working“ folder on the desktop. During this batch action we also create a duplicate layer of the image that rests immediately above the background layer. This new layer receives all of the retouching. The original image always remains as the background layer, completely untouched, just in case we ever have to revert to the very beginning, original file. It’s our fail-safe, fallback backup. Dave Cross has a great video tutorial on this over at Layers Magazine.

Huge, physical file corrections, like perspective control, may be made right now (at the beginning) or saved until the very end of the process. Let’s save that till the very end, just before outputting our “final” file.

The next step is to check the file at 100% for any dust spotting needs. Obvious flaws in products and people are also retouched at this point.

All color, curve and hue and saturation adjustments are made using non-destructive adjustment layers. If it is possible to make a correction using an adjustment layer then we avoid altering the actual pixels of the image, preserving quality and making later adjustments much easier. If you’re not currently using adjustment layers then it will immediately improve your quality and workflow by doing so.

For commercial print reproduction with an average subject, we generally set our white point to 245(ish) and black point to 8(ish). Here it kind of gets into a “feel thing”, depending on our experience with the client, printer and subject. For a complete tutorial on color-correction here’s a great article at the go-to resource (again), Layers Magazine.

Okay, so we’ve made our adjustments and the file is looking much better. Retouching has been done and the color and contrast have been corrected. Starting from the bottom up, we first see the original, unretouched image as the background layer. Immediately above that is the retouched version of the original image with physical flaws removed. Then follow our series of adjustment layers for color, curves, hue and saturation. This is our completed working file. No sharpening or resizing will be done to this “working” file, that happens when it is output as a “final” for the intended, specified use.

We always save this layered “working” file at this stage, preserved in it’s many layers. From this point we can go back in and trace what we’ve changed and easily make any minor corrections to color or contrast at any point. For our studio, we may be outputting this file for multiple uses: printing in a brochure, web use and tradeshow, for example. These uses will require that different sizing, sharpening and color spaces be applied to the file. That is why we stop at this point for the “working” image, preserving it at this stage, and eventually applying specific tweaks depending on the application of each “final” file.

Next week, let’s make the final files…and get this job delivered and billed!