At this point, we’ve established why shooting in RAW is probably the best idea. Now let’s get started on editing this photo! I use Adobe Photoshop CC (PS) for my entire editing workflow. If you use something else, feel free to follow along, but I won’t guarantee everything can translate to your program. My disclaimer: I don’t actually use Adobe Lightroom (CC) for any part of my process. It’s a personal preference; I just don’t like the workflow or the catalog organization. Photoshop has valuable tools and resources that are not available in LR, so if you’re an Adobe software user, I would recommend learning how to use it. That will be the main focus of this series, but rest assured – if you don’t want to use PS for any reason, you can still apply some of the concepts we talk about.
The first thing I always do is open the file in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). This is the editing screen you see in Lightroom CC (LR). It’s also the application that automatically opens RAW files in Photoshop CC (PS). No actual editing is happening at this point; all I do here is apply a lens profile, merge any panorama frames, straighten horizons, and once in a while apply a crop (I’ll usually do this later, but it depends).
Every lens has optical shortcomings such as barrel distortion and vignetting. Because of this reality, almost every lens manufacturer publishes a “lens profile” which contains corrections to these issues. Most profiles are automatically loaded into PS/LR. If you’re using the CC version, you’ll get constant updates. If you purchased and are using an older version of Photoshop, you may need to install the lens profile for a newer lens manually. This is an easy step and it’s the first thing I do for every photograph. By starting with this, you eliminate one type of horizon distortion that ruins a great landscape photograph when uncorrected.
ACR has come a long way with automatic merging. Almost all my recent panoramas were flawlessly merged in ACR, so I’m going to assume that your panorama frames are consistent and overlapping enough to be properly merged (not a topic I decided to write about, but feel free to ask me a question if you have trouble with this). To me it makes sense to stitch any files before editing, because I prefer not to waste time touching up files only to find out that they are not compatible for merging. Hint – apply your lens profile before merging.
If you’re working on a single frame, or you’ve done a good job with your panorama, you can use the straightening tool to apply any rotation necessary to achieve a level horizon. Please do this. I can’t tell you how many great photographs I see that are published with a cringe-worthy tilt. It may seem like a subtlety, but an off-kilter photograph can quickly become an assault on a keen viewers’ eyes. Using the straighten tool might take a few pixels off the corners of your image, but it should be negligible if you had the camera relatively level when you took the photograph.
Generally, I frame my photographs carefully so that my single frame files don’t need to be cropped. Sometimes, when panorama frames are slightly offset, there will be some blank space that needs to be cropped out. If the image is exactly how you want it to look, go ahead and crop it in ACR. If you want to do any type of transformation (distortion), open the file in PS and make those changes before you crop – otherwise you may lose valuable pixels that could have been included.
It's now time to open the file into Photoshop to start the editing process. What are the very first things you do when you sit down to edit? Let me know in the comments!