The Workflow I Use To Ensure I Always Make A Great Photo :: Digital Photo Secrets

The Workflow I Use To Ensure I Always Make A Great Photo

by David Peterson 11 comments

Every photographer has a preferred process. From taking a photo to processing it in photoshop, every little step can add to your success or become the reason for a failure. We call this process your photography workflow. Though it is largely a preference, there are some things you can do to ensure you always make a great photo. Consider these tips for improving your photography workflow.

Great photos aren't taken - They're made

You're probably used to hearing people speak as if all great photos just come that way straight from the camera. There is a sense in which this is partly true, but I fear it betrays the real photographic process that goes into professional-looking images. The truth is they're a lot of work. Making a great photo takes preparation, a fantastic eye for what's in front of you, and plenty of hours in front of a computer afterward.

Even the photographers of the early days had to do some amount of processing to get their pictures to look just right. They needed to make sure the chemicals and methods they used were just so, otherwise their pictures might not turn out right. To say any image is formed purely in the camera is definitely not true. Great images are made in post-processing.

Starting with a capture, ending with a professional image

It all starts before you press the shutter. If the capture part doesn't work for you, it's going to go downhill from there. It is possible to save an image that doesn't turn out quite right, but it's difficult to create something outstanding from something you're trying to simply salvage. When you're out in the field, it's important to consider the following.

Have you set your camera to the highest possible quality setting?

You're going to want the maximum allowable number of pixels. You might need to crop your image later on, and if you ever plan to print your image in a large format, you'll need the extra detail.

Have you captured the right kind of light for this image?

This is yet another "point of no return" in photography. Ask yourself which colors are the most important to capture, and adjust your camera settings to capture them. Here's an example. Let's say I want the grass in my photo to be really really green. When I'm out in the field, I'll keep adjusting my shutter speed, checking the image, and once it's a nice green, I pick that photo as my "keeper." I can adjust everything else later on.

Think of your captured image as a sort of digital negative. Focus on the most important aspects of it while you're out in the field, and make sure you always get those right. Ask yourself, "Is this communicating my point?" If it is, you're ready to process it. You can always tweak the rest in software later on.

The importance of non-destructive editing

Before we start talking about software, we need to discuss some potential pitfalls that can happen when you're working with digital image files. Most pictures you're used to taking are likely to be JPEGs. That's because the JPEG is the default image file created by most point-and-shoot, digital SLR, and smartphone cameras. It works really well because it compresses the image and makes it easy to send over the Internet.

There's just one problem. Because JPEGs are so compression-oriented (and Internet friendly), they can lose quality pretty easily. Every time you open a JPEG, edit it, and save it, you are adding more compression (which reduces quality). Opening a JPEG and saving it over and over again will eventually destroy the image.

So what can you do to prevent this from happening? Here are a few ideas.

Always, always, always keep an unaltered copy of the original.

This is your one and only insurance policy against the degradation that can happen from saving over the same photo again and again. If you over-compress your edited versions, you can always return to the original you've saved somewhere.

Use Adobe Photoshop's .psd file format.

I like this format because it doesn't introduce any compression to the image. It also keeps track of any filters and changes you've applied over time. I usually save one edited copy of each image in this format, just so I can go back and make adjustments later on if I want to. Feel free to save your photo as much as you want with the .psd format. Nothing will get re-compressed.

Learn how to do all of your photo editing with adjustment layers. Non-destructive editing is all about keeping a copy of the original image, no matter how many filters and changes you apply. An adjustment layer is a kind of adjustment (sharpening, contrast, saturation, etc.) that sits on top of the original image. When you want to get rid of the effect, you simply get rid of the layer. Have a look at my article on adjustment layers to get a better picture of how this works.

Shoot all of your images in the RAW file format. If your camera allows it, I suggest shooting your pictures in the RAW file format. The RAW file is the quintessential digital negative. You have no choice but to process it into a JPEG in order for others to view it on their device of choice. If you are worried about losing track of compression with JPEG images, you should start shooting in RAW. It's impossible to compress RAW files, so you'll always know which image is the original.

Non-destructive editing in action.
Each adjustment is a layer that you can easily delete
(by dragging it to the trashcan) without
affecting the underlying original image.

What sort of editing should you do?

Almost every image needs some change of lighting, sharpening, contrast, and saturation. This article isn't exactly the place to discuss all of these in detail (see my Photoshop Elements course for full details), but I should mention that out of all of these adjustments, the most important one to do last is sharpening. Why is that? Everyone will tell you it's because effect is more or less "irreversible." Once you've sharpened, it's really difficult to bring the image back to the state it was in before you sharpened (I'd probably just start over with the original).

And this brings me back to my original point. If you've been following the tenets of non-destructive editing (especially using adjustment layers instead of specific adjustments), you shouldn't have to worry about the order in which you're applying any of these adjustments. A contrast adjustment, a saturation adjustment; all of these are layers that you can add and remove until you love your finished product.

The final save

Once you are truly happy with your image, go ahead and save it as the highest quality JPEG. Then never touch it again! Do not share your original images, RAW files, or .psd files with anyone else. You should only send the final JPEG to your friends and family.

Let me reiterate this point. Do not re-edit your final jpeg. Give it a special name (add "final" to set it apart from others). If you want to make further changes, re-open the PSD version of the file. That's how you keep your photo house clean.

Not everyone is likely to, nor should, have the same workflow. The one I have suggested works if you care about preserving the quality of your images. It also gives you some leeway later on when you want to go back and edit your originals. I'd love to hear your feedback and see if it works for you.

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  1. Phil L. says:

    I have Microsoft Live Photo Gallery, P.S. Elements and Lightroom. What should I use first or at all. What is your reccomded workflow.

  2. Misty says:

    My camera's a pretty basic p&s. An older sony, but it takes good stills. I use a mac, and just the iPhoto editing so far. I always make just one copy of a photo, leaving the original otherwise untouched. Then I make several more copies from the copy so I can play around with different effects and compare them. I start with copy3, and when I'm happy with the edit I re-do it on Copy 2, and use that for my final. I never edit the original at all. In iPhoto, you always have the option to "revert to original", even if you've closed out your session. In appearance, it does exactly that - but I'm guessing the quality would've been permanently damaged. Am I right? I'm not changing my method anyway - it'd give me the creeps to work on my original, lol - way too cautious for that!

  3. David Peterson says:


    I use sRGB color space and I recommend you do too.


  4. Erica says:

    Nice synopsis Dave! I liked the reminders to save your "negative" untouched, to work in layers in a non-destruct mode, and to do sharpening last. I would add to to that avoid adding effects in camera, unless you don't care about the image or you are also shooting RAW, as those changes to the jpeg capture can't be undone. Harris, "PSD" or ".psd" means "photoshop document". Just a file ending to tell the computer and you what sort of file it is, like ".jpg" or ".doc".

  5. Jeff says:

    Thanks for the tip! :)
    May i ask, what color space settings do you use? sRGB or adobeRGB?

  6. Arturo Rodriguez says:


  7. Marco says:

    Great article on Workflow, I was most interested to read your comments on RAW versus JPEG as I have just bought 2 high capacity memory cards and Elements 10 so I could switch to RAW/JPEG with my Canon IOS.
    From your advice I am setting up a new file system to keep all the RAW in one file and the JPEG final in another. Thanks for explaining the .psd file option. Great articles and I always look forward to them.

  8. David Peterson says:

    PSD is the format Photoshop Elements and Photoshop CS uses for non-lossy storage. That is, no matter how many times you open, edit and save your image, it won't lose any quality.


  9. Harris says:

    What do you mean by PSD?

  10. jim mcgregor says:

    Seems I have been doing it right all along. Great article. I was never taught this, but I kind of had a hunch about how to do things. I always shoot raw, and only share jpg. I have two copies of everything I do. My originals are always at hand.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.