A ‘Smart’ Approach

Nikon D800

Nikon D800

Fair warning: This post is total tech and if you’re not interested in camera geek talk, enjoy the pretty new camera and please stop back tomorrow. However, if you’d like to know a little about my typical workflow … read on.

I’ve been a loyal Canon shooter since changing from film to digital over 10 years ago, that’s my trusty 1Ds mkIII lurking in the background above. Dependable cameras and their tilt/shift lenses are some of the sharpest glass out there.  So, why change? In recent years Canon seems to have focused more and more on good high ISO quality and video, neither of which are important to me. Most of time my camera is on a tripod and what’s most important to me regarding image quality is the dynamic range. With the introduction of Nikon’s D800 early this Spring, dynamic range was raised to a whole new level. The amount of detail, especially in the shadows, that one can pull out of these files is amazing. There are dozens of reviews out there that can explain the camera’s attributes far better than I can. This post is about a specific challenge the D800 brings to a workflow like mine.

My approach to photographing architecture and landscapes involves a lot of layering and masking in Photoshop. I prefer to work in 16 bit and with my 21mp Canons, a final file with 12 or more layers will approach 2 or more gigabytes. With the 36mp Nikon, the files would be unmanageable. So, about a month ago I rented a D800 to experiment with a different approach to processing that involved Photoshop’s Smart Objects. I’m certainly not an expert on PS or Smart Objects … there are plenty gurus out there to learn from. What I do know is that SO’s are non destructive and allow you to resize an image all day long with no loss of image quality. You can take a file from its native size, reduce it to a postage stamp, work on it and then take it back up to the native dimensions and retain all of its original quality. So I had my solution.

I do all of my source image adjustments in Lightroom, and then bring them into PS as Smart Objects. I have an action made to reduce the size from its native 16×24 at 300 dpi to approximately 4×6 inches (300 dpi). Each additional file that is brought in gets the same treatment. A click of a button, it’s down to 4×6 and I drag and drop it onto the base layer. When I’m finished with all of the layering and masking, I take the size back up to 16×24 (it’s enormous now, but I don’t have any work to do on it). I make a duplicate, rename it, and then flatten the whole file. I can now apply finishing touches to a reasonably sized file of about 200 to 400 mb. then I go back to the layered version, which can easily be over 3gb, reduce it back to the 4×6 version and save it to refer back to if needed.

One important note: Make sure to return the file to its native size before flattening. Once flattened, it’s no longer a Smart Object, so if you’d then try to take it from 4×6 to 16×24 it would look like mush.

So, here’s the drill: 1) Open the raw file from Lightroom or ACR as a Smart Object. 2) Reduce the file to a manageable size (No smaller than 4×6 @ 300 dpi or it will be difficult to see detail when zooming in). 3) As you bring each new file in for layering, reduce it to the same size. 4) When all of the layering and masking is complete, return the file to its native size. 5) Now you can either flatten and continue to work on the image, or duplicate it and save the layered version after reducing it for archiving.

Do I like the Nikon? So far. Am I selling all of my Canon gear? Not yet. Who knows … maybe Canon will bring something back to the table some day for photographers like myself, so I’ll sit tight for a little while.

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