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Digital Photography Workflow: Event Photography

by Jeff Spirer, May 2008


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, Jeff Spirer discusses his unique digital workflow process tailored to meet the needs of his professional event photography career, 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 example images from Jeff Spirer'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.

Event Photography: Pre-Capturing and Capturing

I photograph performance events in San Francisco. These include music in clubs, burlesque and vaudeville shows, theatre, and some events that defy description. Most performance events take place under sub-optimal lighting conditions. Stages are often poorly lit, lit with lights through colored gels, and a multitude of distracting background elements. This presents a challenge for the photographer, as the results are often blurred, impossible to white balance in the camera, and very cluttered. It's common to have a very large number of images due to the difficulty of capturing something just right. For me, the role of post-processing is to obtain a number of images that are viewable, printable, and marketable.

Because some venues are too dark, it is sometimes necessary to capture with flash. One of the benefits of photographing with a digital camera is that the ISO can be flipped quickly for capturing with and without flash. I prefer to photograph both with and without flash in order to present a variety of images, especially if they are being published. RAW provides some significant benefits in this situation. With the right tools, the difficult lighting can be balanced better than a JPEG, even with a custom white balance setting.

When I go out to photograph, I pack a fairly simple kit. I use a Canon EOS 1D Mark III most of the time due to its low light capability. The weather proofing has been useful also; occasionally, liquids fly in the venues where I photograph. I almost always take just two lenses: a 35mm and a 50mm. Zooms are too slow. If I am going to be working on the stage, I will pack a 20mm lens. If there is a balcony, I take my 85mm. A Canon flash goes along too, as well as lots of batteries for everything and 8 memory cards with 48GB total of storage. I've never come close to using all the capacity, but it's good to have backup. I also pack two pairs of earplugs, a flashlight, and business cards. (Figure 1: Equipment Bag)

I also photograph outdoor events including street festivals, demonstrations and music stages. These present far fewer problems with post-processing and are generally easier to deal with.

Photography Equipment List

Digital Post-Processing Programs

Organizing

When I get back from photographing an event, I immediately download if it isn't too late. All my cards are numbered and I photograph in order, which helps if there is something that needs to be processed immediately. I download the cards using Canon's Zoombrowser software. I've been using it since my first digital camera, and am comfortable with its folder/file naming conventions. Although I usually file everything by date (more on that in a minute), events that will present additional sales opportunities are usually stored with the event name also. Zoombrowser allows me to do that.

All files are stored in date-specific folders, as I mentioned above. Rather than tagging, I create web galleries for each event, some of which are stored only locally. The web galleries contain all the processed images and either have the original file name or full EXIF data so that the original images can be quickly located at a later date. If images are prepared for a client or printing, the final images reside in a separate folder. While this means asset management is somewhat manual, my own desire to control every step drives the organizational methodology.

At this point, I will mention that I work on a PC. There are several reasons for this, but I won't go into that in detail here. Because I work on a PC, I am able to use the shareware program Irfanview as my file browser. Irfanview renders Canon RAW images faster than any other tool I have tried, other than the Canon software that I believe it uses for rendering, and I am able to browse full-screen images faster than most applications provide thumbnails. I prefer full-screen viewing, particularly if it's in the early morning immediately after an event and I'm fatigued. A second window with thumbnails can be opened in Irfanview with rapid scaling of the thumbs. Although I do no processing in Irfanview, it is color-managed and has reasonable processing capabilities for a free program. A single keystroke opens the current image in Photoshop.

I use a dual-monitor setup with a color-managed monitor for image files and a second older monitor for tools and other things like email that I usually keep open. (Figure 2: Workstation)

Editing

Images are chosen for use and then processed directly into Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). (Editing Examples 1 and 1.1: RAW Conversion)

Editing Example 1: This is a RAW image displayed in Irfanview. It's flat and doesn't really strike me as interesting like this.

Editing Example 1.1: This is the final image after tonal modifications with a little background cleanup.

White Balance

In ACR, the first step is white balance with the dropper. Most images from the events I photograph, unless flash was used, require white balancing. The default is almost never useable and the settings from the dropper are usually fairly extreme. (Editing Example 2 and 2.1: White Balance). Most of the time I balance for as neutral a skin tone as possible, although there are times when the off-color appearance has look. White balance really is the most critical step in ACR for club/event shots. I also do some mild exposure control and use the vibrance and clarity controls cautiously. A mild sharpening is also done at this point along with minor tonal adjustments.

Editing Example 2: a stage photograph in dire need of white balancing. The stage lighting has created some terrible color casts.

Editing Example 2.1: the image after white balancing for skin tones. A simple click of the white balance eyedropper gave me decent skin tones. The green background is less of a problem than the amber skin tones in the original. Note that this puts the color temperature all the way down. I would do some further processing on this to get tones a bit better.

Adjustments in Photoshop

I prefer to do most adjustments in Photoshop CS3. The primary reason is that I use layers for almost all images, which simplifies making changes later in the processing. Also, I do a lot of local adjustments and quite a bit of cloning for performance and events. In a situation where there is no control over the background and the photos are not being published as news or journalism, this activity can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the results. Typical cloning will be for distracting lights, microphone stands, and clutter on the stage. (Editing Examples 3 and 3.1: Cloning)

For photos that will end up in color, the process is:

  1. curves layer, adjust for overall appearance
  2. clone layer to take out clutter and distractions
  3. layer for localized contrast adjustment
  4. layer for localized sharpening
  5. sometimes a layer for blurring background elements

The layer for localized contrast adjustment is often one of the most important. In quite a few images, light value relationships need to be adjusted to emphasize a subject that was photographed in changing and sometimes weak light.

If the image is going to be multi-purposed:

  1. the file is saved back in a folder inside the date folder with the original
  2. resize to purpose, flatten, and global sharpening, if necessary
  3. additional local sharpening as required
  4. final global sharpening is done with PhotoShop's Smart Sharpen, which I find quite effective, even with slightly blurred images

Editing Example 3: This is an image with a lot of clutter. I am going to use both cloning and a burn/dodge layer to make it cleaner. I cloned out the lights, a small color spot on the performer's hair, and some of the drum stands. I used a soft light layer with a black brush to darken down the drums.

Editing Example 3.1: This is the result after post-processing.

B&W Conversions

Quite a few photographs end up in black and white. The process here is somewhat different. I do my conversion to black and white with The Imaging Factory's Convert to Black and White Pro Photoshop plug-in. What's nice about this tool is that it uses darkroom analogies for its operations. For someone like me who was originally trained in the darkroom, it's quite easy to use. It has a lot of range along with toning and filtering options. Unfortunately, it's no longer available, so I am starting to work with the black and white conversion adjustment that arrived in CS3. It can produce equivalent conversions to the plug-in, but there is a learning curve. (Editing Example 4, 4.1 and 4.2: B&W Conversion)

Editing Example 4: an image that did not look particularly good in color due to the stage lighting

Editing Example 4.1: after being put through the converter B&W Pro

Editing Example 4.2: final image after post-processing to add some spark

After the conversion, I use an action of my own that layers scanned Tri-X grain on the image and adds a curves layer. After that, the process is similar to the color image process except that I may add another layer of grain to enhance the effect. I also usually add a layer for dodge and burn and a soft light layer with the brush for dodge and burn.

Given that most of my photography is in dark places, one would expect high ISO usage to result in the need for a noise reduction program. However, with the camera I currently use for most performance photography (Canon EOS 1D Mark III), this is not necessary due to the quality of the high ISO images. It's useful when capturing at 6400, but I can generally make do with 3200.

Although I own Adobe Lightroom 2 (review), I don't use it. I find its gallery software too limiting, and because I use layers on most photos I find the type of image manipulation I do to be difficult or impossible. It does have some nice benefits for asset management, but it adds time over my current workflow.

Exporting

I manage my own web site on a private server and use a mix of software to generate galleries. Because my galleries are event-specific and I have to put up client galleries, I am constantly building them rather than having one site that I change every few years. At the time this is being written, I use Jalbum, a very flexible free gallery generator that is programmable. I'm not knowledgeable enough to program my own skins so I use a programmed gallery skin called Chameleon that provides plenty of options. One of my favorite features with Jalbum is Smart Upload. If you make some changes to a gallery you have already uploaded, it only uploads files that have changed so you do not have to upload an entire gallery every time. This is a feature that other software makers (hint, Adobe!) should emulate as it can speed up workflow significantly. I link galleries together and create splash pages through my own hand-coded html. (Figure 3: Jalbum Web Gallery Example)

Archiving and Backup

All original files are backed up in at least four locations and cards are not scrubbed until there are at least three of the four backups are performed. I archive to external hard drives and two DVDs. One of the DVDs is shipped off to a relative 3000 miles away. When hard drives fill up, one is sent to the same relative who also copies it to tape. I have yet to lose a file, but it's always better to be on the cautious side with backup. In my case, living in an earthquake-prone area drives the remote storage strategy, but there are plenty of other reasons to do similarly. Also, the hard drives are disconnected from power when not writing or reading. All the drives and DVDs are logged by date and an index number.

Conclusion

Event photography is a fun and challenging profession. Digital photography has made many aspects of the profession more accessible, including toggling between using flash and available light photography. My workflow is unique to the type of photography I do and the tools I use to post-process.

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About the Author

Jeff Spirer is a San Francisco-based photographer who captures sports (primarily boxing and mixed martial arts), performance art, music, and portraits. Jeff's work is published in newspapers, magazines, advertisements and books and he exhibits regularly. He began photographing at 12 years old and was trained in darkroom work by his father who photographed constantly. Self-taught in Photoshop, originally for web site design and occasional scan management, Jeff has been doing serious post-processing work for about six years. More »

Example Event Photographs from Jeff's Gallery


Original text ©2008 Jeff Spirer, screen shots and photography ©2008 by Jeff Spirer.

Article created May 2008

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



doug long , June 19, 2008; 03:56 P.M.

Jeff, I really appreciated the writing and images you posted. Is always interesting to what flow and tools other pros are using and you did a particularly effective job of presenting the info. Having done a fair amount dance and theater myself in the film days am impressed and delighted to see your performance images. Carry on, doug long.

Pooria Koleyni , June 19, 2008; 10:30 P.M.

Thank you so much , it was veery useful but can how can i find detail information or some step-by-step for the following actions curves layer, adjust for overall appearance clone layer to take out clutter and distractions layer for localized contrast adjustment layer for localized sharpening sometimes a layer for blurring background elements

Juan Trinidad , June 20, 2008; 10:55 A.M.

I am an amateur. But I really liked reading this workflow article. Very useful. I tried Irfanview. It works very well. I had no idea that drew CR2 files. Thank you very much.

/bing

Jim Mucklin , June 21, 2008; 04:08 P.M.

Jeff, Thanks for taking your time to put up this article. I got my first taste of Zoombrowser, I have always been adobe, but we had 5 shooters into two stations and the nice feature was to be able tag each image, so that you could use the seach feature. There were two display stations for the customers and it made life so much easier for the girls printing.

Tim Holte , June 30, 2008; 08:17 P.M.

A lot of good information, much of which I will try to use to clean up my jumbled way of doing things. Thanks PN and thanks Jeff!

Marc Williams , July 10, 2008; 06:16 A.M.

NIce job, great info, and excellent work as always Jeff. Kudo's.

John Guest , July 18, 2008; 07:37 P.M.

Jeff,

Great article. Very informative. I am really interested in Event Photography. I have tried it, but I find that it is difficult because I wonder about permission issues. I would really like to hear from you about taking pictures of "strangers" and using their images and what are the pitfalls, issues, etc. that are involved. Thanks again for a great piece.

John

Don Nieman , July 20, 2008; 07:53 A.M.

Helpful, well written, easy to follow. Thanks.

Jeff Spirer , July 21, 2008; 10:07 A.M.

John, I recommend reading the Street & Documentary Forum for the kinds of questions you are asking, there has been quite a bit of discussion there on them. This article is strictly on workflow.

Thanks for the comments here, good to know it's helpful.

Kristina Kraft , September 13, 2008; 06:32 A.M.

You gave very nice insight into your own work flow. I also sometimes photograph events, but only when I got the chance, of course.

Mikal Grass , December 31, 2008; 08:48 P.M.

Jeff,

I always admired your photography, and when I emailed you with questions, you were always kind enough to respond.

Your digital work looks like your old film work; always great.

Mikal

Dan Lovell - Orange County, California , December 31, 2008; 11:04 P.M.

Jeff, I enjoyed your article and find your workflow excellent. I might just suggest you add a paragraph about the importance of having a calibrated monitor. I tend to not add sharpening until a mastered photo is needed, because while mastering I might not know how big it will be printed, if it will be published to the net, and if so, how big, etc. I suggest this because once USM is applied, it's there forever. I realize you might archive as a native PS file so maybe this might be moot, as layers can be preserved. Just a few nits, but over all I find your workflow very sound. I like that you use layers and masks when applying tweeks. Too often people apply tweeks to the entire picture...like you I prefer the surgical approach.

David Havkin , June 23, 2009; 09:08 A.M.


Concert Photography

Great article. I have only one thing to add. When photographing live shows, the best way you can capture the atmosphere of the moment is to use the existing lighting. Stage decorators and technicians go to great lengths to organize impressive stage lighting, probably coordinated with sound effects. It would be a pity to zap all that creativity away by using a fill flash or on-camera flash. So turn off your flash and turn up the ISO!


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