Unfortunately, the process of having a "printable image" does not end after you push the shutter release button. The sad truth is that it is just beginning. Ansel Adams himself was often known to spend an entire day in the darkroom just to produce one printable image. While I have never spent that much time post-processing an image, the unavoidable ugly reality is that you have to spend some time post-processing any image for it to reach an acceptable quality as a print. Following are the processes I currently use and some of the different tools that help me produce my final images. Exciting right!? Nope, not really. Hopefully you will enjoy it nonetheless. Muah y muah.
Take the picture!...but take care in taking it well. Fortunately enough, I started snapping pics before the digital age where firing off several hundred/thousand frames during an outing was not an option (for me anyways). With a roll of beloved Fujichrome Velvia costing $6-7 and then spending the same to process; you made dagnabbin sure that you weren't trigger happy and that your settings were dialed in before any picturizing took place. Even now with a digital camera in my hands, I tend to my old cautious ways of picture taking even though it doesn't really cost anything to take a thousand snaps. (except for your dignity)
I always shoot RAW. The exception being that sometimes I will use the on-board HDR setting in my camera which will produce a jpg image from three exposure bracketed RAW files. I really only use the HDR image as a reference to the dynamic range while editing my RAW files. The reason I don't really use the HDR image or produce an HDR image in post, is that I have found that the images tend towards not realistic and the process tends to produce a lot of wonky artifacts. You will notice them mostly in high contrast areas. Most notably is the halo effect around darker subjects with a brighter background or vice-versa. There is also weird fringing that happens as well along ridge lines and especially leaves with a brighter sky background . Now, I get that there are ways to post process a "great" HDR image, but it's not really my thing probably because I am not good at it. Besides, I think the look often tends to extend beyond the natural dynamic range of our eyes and almost takes on a surreal look. While it is still art, which I can fully appreciate, it's just not the kind of art I am personally into creating. Having said that, I do currently have one HDR image on my website ONLY because my camera settings were messed up during one of my outings and I wasn't recording any RAW files...only JPG :( :( :( I captured a whole slew of images from that outing that I really love, but there was one image in particular that I loved extra hard and couldn't not share with the world. Anyhow, the moral of this tangent rant is that you should ALWAYS CHECK YOUR SETTINGS before shooting. It is an easy five second check that could help you avoid living out the rest of your life full of regret and sadness...like me. Cool. now on to the next step.
Import and organize. I import all my files directly into Adobe Lightroom and use it for managing all of my files. Beyond simply organizing and keywording, I have found that I use it for 95%+ of all my editing as well. Not having to export and then re-import files is really convenient. Although, many of the other more powerful editing programs usually have a Lightroom plugin, which makes the round trip process relatively painless in case you need to use some tools that are not available in Lightroom. Despite having had several aneurysms trying to figure Lightroom out, it has been well worth taking the time to understand how versatile and powerful it is. I can't imagine using anything else and would definitely recommend looking into it if you are serious about photography.
Process the image. The goal for me is to process the RAW file and make it look as close to what the scene was when I shot the picture. I generally start that process by applying a lens correction, then I'll adjust the white balance if needs be, add a little contrast and sharpening, and I'll almost always increase the detail in the shadows and highlights in order to help bring back some of the detail lost by the limited dynamic range of the camera. While an unprocessed RAW image looks pretty bland and awful compared to it's jpg counterpart, it captures much more data and effectively allows you to create an image with a dynamic range that is akin to film. The endless hours that Ansel spent dodging and burning his images with paper cutouts taped to sticks in the darkroom, can now be done in much less time and more simply using Lightroom or most any other editing software.
One other incredibly important step that I always take is using the spot removal tool to clean up image dust spots. If you ever print anything over 20 inches then you know that any sensor or lens dust will undoubtedly show up, especially in the sky. I typically zoom into 100% and go over every "inch" of the sky looking for dust. I correct with a healing brush and voila!...done.
This is the process for most of my images. Although for panoramas and focus stacked images there are a few additional steps i take to produce the final image. As a side note to those interested in Panoramic Photography: I have found that the Adobe engines have a hard time stitching some images into a panorama, which led me to seek out alternate stitching software. I have found Autopano Giga to be the answer to some of my pictures prayers and consider it a much more capable software when stitching together difficult images for a panorama.
I will also often use Photoshop for certain things that Lightroom can't handle i.e. the layers/masks tools to create a focus stacked image. There are plenty of resources on line to explain what this is exactly, but basically it is a way to increase the depth-of-field in an image by merging together multiple frames of the same image, but that have different points of focus. The reason one would choose to do this rather than just bumping up your aperture to say f/22 to increase the depth of field, is to avoid diffraction. Diffraction starts to occur when you use smaller apertures to increase your depeth of field and, in turn, will soften the entire image. While it probably isn't noticeable to most folks and may even be an artistic technique for others...there are times where you will want an image that is tack sharp from the foreground all the way to back. And really the only way to accomplish this is through focus stacking. To get a good focus stacked image you must realize that all lenses have a "sweet spot" or an aperture where the it is most sharp. That aperture varies from lens to lens, but is generally in the f/5.6-f/11ish range. This technique allows you to take advantage of the "sweet spot" of the lens, by shooting multiple frames of the same image (easiest on a tripod) and moving the point of focus throughout the frame until everything is covered. Next, you align all those images in photoshop and merge them together as a stacked image. The result is a final image where the depth of field is sharp from the foreground to infinity. Fun huh? Yep, it is and thanks for coming along with me on another tangent rant.
Finalizing the image and getting it printed. Cross your fingers, crack a cold one, and hope that your monitors are/were calibrated correctly...otherwise you may have prints coming back that look nothing like that finalized masterpiece you spent hours laboring over and staring at on your computer screen. I have been here...several times. This is also the place where I have thrown up my hands, said a handful of swears, and thought that maybe I would be better suited being the guy that gathers shopping carts at Costco. The irony is that I would actually be way better at gathering shopping carts at Costco than I ever will be at photography. Despite this humbling revelation, I have pressed on with this photo thing and now here I am...writing boring nonsense that nobody really cares about, Including myself. I mean, maybe someone does and here's to hoping that they can find at least 1 thing that may be relevant and helpful. (insert cheers emoji)
Welp people, its been real fun hanging out and blabbing about all of this. We did have fun, right? I think we did. In any case, thanks again for spending time with me and feel free email me if you have any questions about anything. Please also remember to check back periodically for any really important updates. Rumor has it that a step 5 and 6 are in the making. Yay! Fun.