Digital photography requires a solid workflow, allowing for professional preparing of digital photo files for the web and print. For the Digital Photography Workflow series, we consulted with a number of experienced professional photographers who are also stellar photo.net members and frequent contributors to the Photo.net Digital Darkroom forum, to walk us through their specific digital photography workflow.
In this article, Patrick Lavoie discusses his unique digital workflow process tailored to meet the needs of his professional career as a photo retoucher and digi-tech working with high-end fashion photographers, the set of software and tools he prefers to use, and goals he accomplishes with his digital workflow. The article is enhanced with illustrative figures and screen shots, and includes examples of photo retouched jobs from Patrick Lavoie’s portfolio. Whether you are just entering the world of digital photography and need some tips and advice on how best to post-process your images, or are a seasoned pro, the insights shared here should be helpful with your own digital photography workflow and fashion photography post-processing.
As a professional photo retoucher and digi-tech (digital assistant), my job is fairly simple yet stressful during a photo shoot.
My job is to make sure everything is under control, backed up, and retouched before delivery. I work with many different fashion photographers, and all of them during the day rely
on my expertise to create a workflow that works for them and for
me—a workflow that is easy, reliable, and effective so the photographer can quickly see anything he needs to approve over my shoulder. The following is my
workflow, the one that work for me and my client. It is by no means the
best workflow nor the only one you should consider, but its
the best for us and our needs. Let’s get started!
Depending on where the photo shoot is, on location or in a studio, my
computer setup will differ a bit; on the road I have a MacBook Pro with
3 GB of RAM.
If the shoot is in a hotel room, apartment or studio, my preferred setup is the following:
I usually arrive by about 7:30am. I set up my station in an area that will allow the client to easily review the work, but also will give me privacy during the shoot.
Since I have to open
some images during the shoot to look at them to detect potential problems, I don’t want the client to see those possible problems and make
unnecessary comments about them. I also make sure I’m not in
front of a window or close to one, as the reflection would cause bad
viewing evaluation and will be pretty disturbing all day long. If there are no other options, I use 4×8 ft foam core to block any problematic light. I place my iMac 24-inch computer (4 GB of RAM), plug it into an
APC battery backup (for protection against power outages—that APC gives me
around 27min of running time, enough to close and save the day in case of power failure). I then
plug the following into the iMac: my graphic tablet, my LaCie rugged hard drive 160 in
the Firewire 800, and the card reader in the Firewire 400. The
last step but one of the most important, I calibrate with a device on my
monitor. I’m ready to start my day!
Before we’re ready for the shoot, I pick up the camera to verify the basic settings and apply some corrections as needed. Here’s what I look for:
When those 6 checkpoints are done, I speak with the first
assistant to define a secure method for when he/she will give me the card when I’m at
my computer. I like to have the new card arrive face down on my left side so I
know they need to be copied, and after I have copied everything onto
my iMac I put them face up on my right side. This method helps me stay organized. Since the photographer normally has multiple 2, 4, or 8 GB compact flash cards, I keep the cards
until the shoot is done, and the photographer and client like what
they have on set. After I have backed everything to an external drive, I
give the card back to the assistant so they can be reformatted and
reused. Thus, I ensure that I have two copies of this first shoot—one
on my iMac, the other on an external drive. It will be like that for
ALL the shoots during the day. No one would like to stay another eight hours on
the set because I didn’t do any backup during the process.
Now that my editing station and the camera are set up and I have defined
a workflow with the assistant and have checked in with the photographer, I
open Adobe Lightroom (LR). I find this software very versatile and complete
and it’s all I need to use during and after a photo session. I used to use
Capture One Pro 3.7 before, when it was THE one to use when you shoot
tethered or to professionally develop your RAW files, but since the
apparition of Lightroom, I don’t use it anymore.
The first thing I do when I open LR is to set a reception folder for all the files I will copy
to my computer. I open the automate menu and
define a folder called RECEIVED on my desktop. This folder will be the
hot folder where I will copy the RAW images from the compact flash card
(I don’t like to import directly from a card—in the past too many major
errors happened such as missing files, slower transfers, corruption, etc.) Then I also define a reception folder with the photographer’s
name, his client name and season/year number, like this;
STEPHANEMILHOMME/BAZAAR_SPRING08. In there I will ask LR to create a
folder call BAZAARSP08_01 (client name, season, year, shot 01) and to
name all the corresponding files BAZAARSP08_01_XXXXX.cr2 (client name, season, year, shot 01, file number, extension).
Here’s a quick step-by-step list to follow:
I’m now definitely ready to get through this long day.
The first card finally arrives after 2-3 hours of waiting. The models are normally ready around 10-11am for the first
shot. I’m there since 7:30am as per the photographer’s request to
prepare my setup, although that takes less than 30min. I take the CF card
from my left side, put it in the card reader, copy its content to my
RECEIVE folder, and watch the files appear in my LR window. As
soon as the files are all imported (around 1 minute for 1 GB), I open one of
them to check the exposure, setting, focus, apply a quick development
setup, then I randomly open some of them again to check for possible problems and I have a quick talk privately with the
photographer at my station alone. I
open some of them, give him some recommendations and figure out solutions.
Here’s what I’m looking for when I open an image in LR:
The makeup artist comes and checks the hair styling, makeup, etc. The stylist asks to
see the clothes zoomed in so he/she can closely examine any details he/she might need to fix. The assistant photographer inspects the lighting results in the images so he/she can discuss it with the photographer. During the private
show amongst the team, everyone is already adjusting the problem
they see on their respective field of work on set. As for me, I’m doing my
“magic show” adjusting the image quickly. It’s important that the client
see something better than the RAW shot but not as good as the
final shot. With the photographer’s approval, the client is invited to take a look at the shot with him and the art director. Why show something not good enough or in progress to
an already nervous client who is investing thousands of $ if you don’t like
or don’t feel the shot should be shown?
When everything has been talked about, revised, and approved, the shoot
continues. I wait for the other cards and repeat the
same steps as before for copying the files to my computer. Soon we are ready for editing and adjusting the second image of a series.
After 2-3 sessions have been completed, it’s lunch time! The first session usually takes longer
to complete because everything needs to be set up. Normally, every consecutive image session is finished in around 1.5 hours each. During lunch, I re-backup
everything and then when I’m back from lunch I trash the first backup (the one
that was on the LaCie hard drive since the beginning).
Usually editorial requires 6-8 sessions, 10 for a
main campaign, 2-3 for a difficult concept that will require a lot of
post production, 1-2 for a beauty shot for a cosmetic company requiring 3-4 hours per shoot requiring at least another 5 hours of retouching to get them absolutely perfect.
After lunch, I do a first selection with the client so
the photographer can have some feedback and directives. He might not take
them, but at least he knows which ones the client chooses. I don’t apply keyword, metadata, category and other things like that during the shoot.
Folder and file naming are normally enough for their needs, and definitely enough for
me. I either create a version of a file, or stack images together, but while I wait for the next CF card, I’m already preparing catalogs that contain all the applied presets and tagged images, by using the “export as catalog” feature, to the photographer’s hard drive. This is
so he can arrive at his studio and simply import these catalogs into his
own LR and have the same thing as my version of the
file. This will make it easier to communicate later.
Once the half day is done, catalog created and saved onto the photographer’s hard drive, I continue my
afternoon just like my morning—wait for more cards to come, cleaning
up the session, apply some corrective settings on them, talk with the photographer,
have the client approve the image, and if we have time, do a quick
tag across the images, backup and finish the day!
Once the day is over, we are all go for a good night’s sleep. The day
after is image editing day, where the photographer and I will tag more images, clean the folder more seriously, and select some images to be sent to the client via a web contact sheet or simply via email.
As soon as the files have been sent, a new final backup will be created on a hard drive, a server or other similar
solution. We wait again for the final client choice.
Some days later, I will receive the
final image choice numbers from the client/agency, sometimes even with the page layout so I
can see which images will be printed together, or at what size they will
be printed. Notice that only I receive this material because I’m
normally the photo retoucher after those shoots. If I was only the digi-tech, my job will have
finished the day I sent the final JPEG to the client.
When I receive the final choice number by email, I have the client send me the JPEG images and their corresponding numbers. Why? Because
in the past some clients misstyped a number and I chose the “wrong visual”
image to be retouched. After a couple hours of working, the client
realized I had not worked on the “right number.” I now ask for the numbers AND the low-res
images that match the choices. Double protection, less time lost.
Once I have this material with me, I go directly onto my hard drive
in the specific folder to get only the images selected, copy them to
another directory to create a folder by itself call RAW_SELECTED. I
put it in the same folder as the rest of the job, but I will only
import this folder in LR since I don’t need all of the images to
be processed but only the selected one. Notice I said, “I copy them to another folder” not move them, as I still want the original to be in their respective folders
(as per the backup). Here is what my folder looks like at that
The main folder is, as described earlier, STEPHANEMILHOMME/BAZAAR_SPRING08.
The subfolder is with the client’s name, numbered for every different style, or for each time the photographer said shot done. So in that case:
In the main folder, I will create other subfolders:
When all my RAW files are in their
appropriate folders, I drag and drop them to my LR icon on my
dock bar. LR then opens and will ask for some information
before it can process the file. I create the 1:1 preview there, apply
a setting that I use basically on every image that goes into LR. I call this my basic import setting: zero sharpen, a bit of exposure, a bit of recovery, a bit of fill light, black, contrast, clarity, vibrance,
etc. This is a setting that I need and always use to start a file to get a good-looking image while it’s being imported. This setting will be
tweaked to taste later, but as a start it’s perfect. I don’t need
to add metadata or keywords, as I will not keep those images in LR
when the hi-res files are delivered to my client. I will simply do the research on the images using my client’s name on a CD/DVD/hard drive database.
When the files are imported I start my retouching journey
there by getting the best original digital negative to be exported in
Adobe Photoshop CS3 for later use. I call those RAWs “digital negatives”
because that’s what they are for me—files that need to be developed
carefully in order to be worked and printed like a traditional negative would be prepared
before going into the darkroom stage.
What I do is simple yet effective for my future use. The following covers my
own workflow for RAW processing in the LR DEVELOP module:
Voila! I just covered what I normally do in LR, which takes around 30 seconds per image to develop each to my standards. I then select them all and export
them to my pre-dedicated folder so I can finalize all those images in around 3 hours each.
3 hours?! “My God, what do you do to them?! Did you not just develop
them carefully enough?” Yes indeed, but in the fashion/beauty shot/lingerie/commercial ad industry, more have to be done on an image
to please the people who buy those styles or brands. No one will like
to buy a dress if the girl on the poster looks bad (I’m speaking of current trends—this could change in the future).
Sharpening with Adobe Photoshop CS2
I’ll share a super secret tip with you on how to create this popular high-end magazine cover color.
All that is done on the whole image, not on a local area.
Since I would have to move, remove, add, liquify, etc., many parts
of the image to get the best shape as possible, it would be a major loss
of time to locally optimize a file only to have to redo it later on the
final image, don’t you think?
For Lingerie Editorial work, for the most part, I’m redoing or optimizing the girl’s shape. This includes adding or removing anything that would make for a better image for today’s standards, and also applying some digital editing to help the clothes to look like they fit perfectly on
them. Other edits include reducing shadows in areas and softening the
skin to get this porcelain look but keeping the skin textured.
There are many plug-ins out there for learning about this type of image processing work and many techniques described on the web. Also, I highly recommend that you read
Guide to the Creative use of Photoshop for the Macintosh and PC
Martin Evening. Everyone has their own recipe for post-processing. I got my secret recipes for digital editing by reading, searching,
exploring, trial and error until I get what I want, and most importantly what my clients want.
After all is done, I do another sharpening pass but locally using
the Smart Sharpen. This is done on a background copy with a mask so I can selective emphasize only the eyes, mouth, lips, and other details that will
help bring the image on a higher level of definition. For this stage in the processing, I use
Photoshop, not because LR couldn’t do what I need as for the
darkroom portion of the editing process, but because since I know I would have to use Photoshop anyway to fix the image, I prefer to do everything I need there and
also have the ability to reduce or fine tune my settings on a retouched
I never crop my image in LR. I prefer to leave this step for
the photographer, as he may want to remove or crop his image to a
predefined magazine size. I also keep the original uncropped for his
portfolio. I also never enlarge an original in that stage. I
prefer to do it on a flattened retouched uncropped copy to conserve the
best quality original as possible.
After I’m pleased with the editing results, I send the photographer a mid-res version of the file (8 × 12 @ 200dpi JPEG compressed using quality 10, sRGB profile). I resend the file when we are at the last stage of fine tuning. The photographer comes to my studio and we finalize the coloration and other fine details that may have been overlooked. That stage can take about one hour per image and it is crucial that the photographer sees the final image on
my calibrated monitor. Once it’s done, the photographer sends it to his
client for the final approval. My editing workflow is pretty fast but to the point. When I get the approval, I prepare the file for the final export that I will put on my FTP.
To speed up the exporting process, I created an action that does everything I need to my
final hi-res images, instead of opening every image one by one to apply some settings to them. It’s easier and faster that way. The steps I take to finalize images are always the same. An action is fairly simple to create and, when combined with Bridge and Photoshop Image Processor, saves me a huge amount of time.
If I deliver to a photographer only, I will give him the best file
If I deliver directly to a magazine instead, more steps are required. I’ve been using this action for many years to send material to high-end fashion magazines.
I use IMAGE PROCESSOR a lot because it can do multiple steps in
one window. To access it, I go into BRIDGE, select the file to be
processed, then in the top menu bar I go into TOOLS
→ PHOTOSHOP→ IMAGE
In there I will do the following:
A moment later, I have my 8 hi-res TIFF 8-bit sRGB files ready for
delivery. Perfect. If I had needed to also create JPEGs, I would have
selected the option in #2, converted to sRGB, quality 10, and resized to
the size I needed in pixels. If you have horizontal and vertical images
in the same folder and want them at a specific width or height just
enter the same value in both the empty boxes and the final files will all
have the same pixel size on their longer side.
When the final hi-res images are finished, I open them all individually
in Photoshop to crop them and apply a final sharpen know as OUTPUT
SHARPEN. I crop them as per the photographer’s instruction, leaving a
1/4 inch more around the image to give bleed latitude to the
magazine’s graphic designer. As for the sharpening I do it at the very end after the
file is cropped and is applied when my image is at ACTUAL PIXELS (100%).
When done, the image is judged at 25% to see if the sharpening was too strong or not strong enough. As needed, I will go back one step and refine my settings.
Now I’m ready to send the images to my client via DVD or FTP. Usually, they
like both methods—the speed of the FTP and the backup of DVD by
express courier, the cost of both are included in my fee.
I use Transmit for my FTP transfer. It’s reliable and easy to
use. Before I send the TIFFs, I create a folder with the photographer’s name
and compress this folder using Stuffit 12 in a zip format to make
sure that the client has only one file to download.
I have set an INPUT and OUTPUT folder on my FTP so all my outgoing
files go into the same folder, but into different subfolder names. For example, OUTPUT —> BAZAAR —> JOHNSMITH —> JOHNSMITH_BAZAARP08.zip
I have a fast connection so it’s pretty quick to upload this
folder. Once it’s finished, I send the information to my client so they
can download the folder and I ask for a receipt confirmation. The file
stays there for 48 hrs as a security measure for me and the magazine. I
have defined a flat rate for FTP delivery so it helps cover the
expense of maintaining a web site, a fast connection, and a dedicated
server. I’m in business to stay in business so there’s nothing to be
shy to ask your client to pay for that service.
When I deliver by DVD, I produce a nice little jacket with the
small thumbnail and a nice cover, basically a 10×5 that could be
easily cut and folded and inserted in a plastic sleeve. All my DVDs have
been previously printed with my logo and information. I only have to
handwrite the project name on it. I also create Avery
stickers with my info and my client’s name and address. In the end, the delivered DVD looks slick, professional and it shows that I care about the project up to the finer minute details. This is a small price to pay to keep your client for a long period of time.
When the files have been delivered by FTP and DVD, it’s now time for me
to backup those files for future use or simply to keep track of what I
have done for that client.
My archiving strategy is simple. I have two
kinds of backup methods: the first is an everyday backup for my in-progress jobs and the second is the job-is-finished backup.
This is the most important backup, because I’m the only one with
the in-progress PSD files and I don’t want to loose anything and thus have to rework everything if that were to happen. I’m pretty paranoid about it. It may appear way too time consuming and perhaps a little excessive, but I’d rather take ten minutes to back up an image for security reasons rather than have to redo the three hours of work that went into the editing to get back to where I was before the file was lost.
I work on a Mac Pro that has a 4x 250G internal hard drive, #1
and 2 are set as a RAID 0 drive; it’s fast but not secure. Everything
is on it: software and client’s files. Since I know that it’s not
secure, the #3 disk acts as the backup one. Once a month, I format it
and clone my entire system: software, mail, music, client files to it
using Intego Personal Backup so I know that every month I have a fresh
system with all my work backed up in case the RAID fails. Every
night, I copy only (or replace) the file I’m working on in the client
directory. I like this manual approach since it give me control on what
to replace or not. I also copy those in-progress files
every night onto an external Lacie 500GB Firewire 800 drive that I
bring home with me. I told you I was paranoid.
Thus, if the RAID fails, I’m backed up. If the second hard drive fails
I’m backed up. If my whole computer crashes or gets damaged, stolen, or lost, I’m
backed up. The #4 internal drive serves as a scratch disk for Photoshop use
only. I format it once in a while when I think about it. Perhaps formatting the #4 internal drive is not important, but it gives me something to do in my spare time.
Since the files have already been sent to the photographer and the
magazine (two existing copies outside my studio), I just burn DVDs that have
specific names: DVD_132, 133, 134, etc.
On those DVDs I will have the complete folder, for example
STEPHANEMILHOMME/BAZAAR_SPRING08, that contains everything except the RAW files I did not use (sometimes a photo session could total around 1-2 GB per
style/shot, for an editorial that has 8 images equals about 16 GB)
Since the photographer is responsible to do his own backup, I don’t need
to have them myself.
The DVD will be labeled: STEPHANEMILHOMME/BAZAAR_SPRING08.
In the main folder, those sub folders are called RAW_SELECTED, PSD_HIREZ,
TIF_HIREZ, and JPEG_LOWREZ. I could simply delete the
TIFF and the JPEG folder if I needed space, but it will save me time in need of those files if
I keep them.
When the DVD is ready to burn I use Roxio Toast and when finished I
trash the folder from my computer. I then use a cataloging software to
keep my list of DVDs. This is pretty useful when you want to do research
on a particular client without having to manually open all your DVDs
to find your file. It’s pretty rare, and never has happened yet that a
client calls me after a shoot to get a copy of the image again. Since
I work mainly on fashion photoshoots, the images are useful for one season only, same with commercial ads for the most part. I don’t really have to make sure
I will still have the material in 50 years. That said, all my
personal images are kept on CDs/DVDs/Hard drives, and are still in perfect condition after 12 years. I keep them in an acid free folder, in
a drawer. As of last week, all of them (randomly
chosen) were opening correctly.
How do I charge for my work?
I first discuss with the agency or the photographer about their needs for a specific project: what they expect, what the image should look like, what they have in mind. From there we see what their budget is. I prefer to work with a budget—rarely do I charge by the hour as I sometimes have to make a package deal. Even if I’m pretty good at estimating how long it should take, I prefer working (and my clients prefer this also) with a fixed budget. They know how much it will cost and it’s easier to have it approved by their accounting department.
To give you an idea, I just finished a retouching job for a high-end hair and cosmetic client. They required 8 images, and my job entailed mainly skin retouching and darkroom enhancement. I billed them $3000CAN for a 24-hr-long job. Pretty decent!
Keep in mind that the prices are for the Canadian market. I know that we are less expensive than in the US for the same quality of service. There’s not much I can do about that. For example, I know that a same level photo retoucher in the US makes around 2x what I make per hour, plus the exchange rate—unbelievable! What can I do, move to Paris?! That’s one option, but the living cost over there is 4x what it costs me to live really really well in Canada. So I stay here and stop thinking about what I could do elsewhere since I don’t live there.
For some projects, I have fixed amounts, like when I do editorial for some fashion magazines. They usually don’t pay the photographer much, and thus I also have to make a little curve in my fee in exchange for having my name in the magazine, a kind of a free publicity. The more you show your work around, the more you look busy and well-represented, the more clients will contact you because it looks like you’re the one on top. Photographers do it, make up artists do it, I do it. For editorial, I bill per image, regardless of how long it will take, but I have the privilege to turn down the job if I don’t feel like it could help me by doing it. I normally do one editorial assignment per month, with different photographers and different magazines.
As a digi-tech (part-time, when I’m not booked for photo retouching or as part of a combo), I bill on a per-day basis. My fee includes my equipment: iMac calibrated, APC battery backup, hard drive, DVD, graphic tablet, basically anything I would need to do my job like a pro. I only do basic retouching and darkroom editing as I’m not there as a photo retoucher but as a digi-tech. I normally accept a digi-tech job knowing that I will also get the photo retouching part. The client/photographer likes to have me on set so when they have a complex setup that requires a lot of combination, collage and difficult work, I’m there already to get the missing puzzle pieces and make sure that I have everything that I will need later to cover myself for the photo retouching portion of the job.
My regular fee is for a 10-hour-a-day job, and if we need to go over time then I have a per-hour rate. It’s pretty rare that I have to charge more. Everybody likes it when the job is done quickly—in 10 hours! If I have to travel out of town within a radius of a couple hours, I don’t charge the client for it, but all the expenses such as hotel room, gas, meals, etc., are charged to the client. If I need to travel by plane, I will also add a per diem budget for meals and a special fee, normally a half-day rate, for my travel time.
Over the years, I’ve developed a process that is simplified, quick, and delivers professional results to my clients. I’ve tailored my system and workflow to suit my needs and the needs of my clients. I suggest doing your own experimentation, research, trial and error to find the methods that work best for you.
Patrick Lavoie has a degree in photography from Cégep du Vieux-Montréal. Over the past several years, Patrick has put his knowledge of photography to work as Art Director and designer for the BOHA design agency in Montreal. His diverse background has led him towards a specialization in photo retouching, digital darkroom and fine art printing.
Text ©2008 Patrick Lavoie. Photos ©2008 the respective photographers, digital editing and post-processing by Patrick Lavoie.