Workflow #1

Published by MJR on May 27th, 2008 in Technique | 4 Comments »

Here at MJR, we’ve got a pretty diverse line-up of dudes. So this week, we’ll be outlining our workflow from start to finish. Feel free to ask questions. As my focus is documentary photojournalism, please keep in mind that everything below will reflect that. All links are to show you what the heck I may be using.

1. Gearbox

Mainly, I use a Canon 5D with 24-70 f/2.835mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4 lens’. For film, I use Canon EOS-1V and EOS-1N cameras. Fuji Superia is my color film of choice, Kodak Tri-x 400 for b+w.

2. Desk

Since 90% of my work is now digital, all my photographs are funneled onto my laptop, a Apple MacBook Pro. I use redundant external hard drives by Seagate and Western Digital. I’ve experienced solid results from both companies, even in larger capacities. While on the road, I use a portable external HD to backup my files and a private FTP and one from MJR for selects. I scan at Philadelphia Photographics, who do a good enough job albeit abhorrently overpriced.

I use PhotoMechanic to sort, categorize and caption, Adobe Lightroom to import, edit, and export RAW files and negatives, and Adobe Photoshop CS3 for any resizing and b+w conversions. Oh, and I rock out to iTunes and procrastinate via Twitter.

3. In the field

Now for the good stuff. In a lot of my images, you’ll notice a wide range of tones and exposure control. I like to see a difference in lines and textures; some people dig flat black+whites and don’t get me wrong, all the power to them. But it’s not my cup of tea. So when I’m shooting, mainly in color, I employ a somewhat modified version of the infamous Zone System with a final objective being a well-toned black & white image.

This process starts from the moment I eye up my subject to the final output via LR and CS3. Because of the nature of digital, it is often difficult to yield certain results. Often times, the selection and specific usage of various films can be the palette from which a photographer projects their authorship. Since in digital, the palette is defaulted to the sensor, so to speak, I’ve decided to use everything from exposure to perspective to produce my vision. This what makes my images mine.

The sensor on the 5D is pretty amazing, and so it’s given me the ability to use a wide range of exposure combinations to work with. I’ve had the fortune of really growing within photography using digital (for news, commission and personal work) as well as film for the same. This has taught me some of the limitations and possibilities that the digital SLR sensor can produce. Understanding this, and how far you can push your files, is paramount in my photographic process. This is much akin to film photographers understanding how to push and pull their film to suit both their vision, content, and final output.

Since there’s not a bit of sense in using anything but RAW, go for it. Hard drives are getting cheaper by the month and since all are bound to fail, backing up in multiple sources and making prints can make that problem a more easily navigated transition.

4. Process

Once backed up, I sort through my take using PhotoMechanic (PM), a wicked fast program that’s light on the system. They’re marked as Winner (overall), Winner Alt (best of overall), and Superior (best single selects). Then they’re imported as RAWs into Lightroom (LR), given a blanket set of exposure corrections and color corrected, then exported as hi-res JPEGs to be resorted and captioned in PM. These JPEGs are what I mess with and print from.

Once the pic is in JPEG, it’s pretty basic. I try to avoid dodging and burning unless I need something specific, and when I do, it’s nothing too fancy. Levels and Curves are my friend, both in LR and PS. This allows me to more finely control the exposure of my photographs in a way I aimed for in the moments leading up to the shutter being clicked.

With this picture, I was aiming to get good shadow detail, but also a good amount of contrast to show difference between the cage and the police and coach. So in my final b+w edit, I’m lightly dodging the faces to differentiate. To do so when taking the picture would be to use flashes, something that isn’t my fancy.

By the time the conversion happens, the image has just the right edit for my final picture.

Then everything edited is backed up again and I’m pretty much done. Some photographers lecture for TIFFs. That’s awesome, but since I have the original RAWs I see no reason to have yet another set of images in a space-consuming format. If something is mighty special, I’ll put them on gold archival DVDs. But only if the image is whispering sweet nothings in my ear. Otherwise, to the HD with it.

When shooting negs, I’m using the same Zone System with a mind for the final image. This image, taken in Buenos Aires, is an example of my process. From the negative, it’s scanned as the highest-resolution that can be done (usually yielding a 50MB+ file) on a range of scanners: Minolta DiMage, Pacific Scan, or a Imacon I pay by the frame.

This was Kodak Tri-x 400 rated at 250 then developed at normal rating in Rodinal, hence the brown tint. And this is my process using Superia 100, rated at 160. Chemicals are typical store stuff.

Nothing special. My workflow with film is rather basic. So, there it is. Let the questions rip. Just remember that this is about the process, not about how crappy my negatives are. Sand+film = no good, dudes.

4 Responses to “Workflow #1”

  1. Matt Says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    looks like we’re doing things very similarly.. i think my workflow outline will reveal a much more ignorant methodology of metering etc.. i pretty much go with what my balls are telling me to shoot at. on the drive we’ll have to discuss the zone system.

    i would love to hear your ideas about the limits of post processing. what you are comfortable with and when you think an image steps over the line.

  2. marcus Says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    Just started using lightroom myself.

    “Then they’re imported as RAWs into Lightroom (LR), given a blanket set of exposure corrections and color corrected,”

    By blanket set do you mean a set of exposure corrections for each location that you shoot (assuming your working with a single exposure setting and consistent lighting), that you choose based of one photo and apply to the whole set?

    Or do you mean a set of adjustments that you apply to every photo, like bumping the contrast, “fill light”, blacks, etc.? In order to change the “look” of the chip?

    What b&w film and processing do you use when you know you’ll be shooting somewhere dark or at night?

    Thanks for the info!

  3. Justin Ide Says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Nice post … thanks for sharing your work flow.


  4. mustafah Says:

    May 27th, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    @matt: that’ll be a great topic to touch on in a post on it’s own. as such a contested issue within our field (and without), i’m sure it’ll bring a great amount of debate.

    @marcus: sorry for not specifying, dude. my mind’s all over the place.

    first question: i usually keep three exposure settings in mind, so that when subjects shift to new locations, i can switch to the precise setting in order to yield the best possible picture. that said, when in LR, i fix my white balance, exposure (i tend to underexpose everything) as well as color correct. these setting are set at a certain amount, seeing as i’m less and less into hyper-color. i apply these presets across my entire edit, then tweak individually based on the circumstances of light.

    second question: i have self-imposed limits on how far i’ll bump anything. i base everything off the Zone System, so i’m using zone IV as my jumping off point (when shooting) and won’t drop anything past zone I in editing. maybe zone 0 if the scene warrants it. a lot of my contrast comes from how i photograph. when i “bring back” the levels from the light side (no star wars pun intended), it automatically gets rid of some flat tones. this is all part of the plan.

    third question: for general edits, i’ve created a photoshop action that used Alien Skin ( presets as well as some preset Channel Mixing. after that, if the image is worth it, i’ll tweak the Levels/Curves to finalize it all. if the picture is really good and goes to print, i use a 4 ink Quadtone aimed at Zones VIII, VII, VI, V, and IV.