Tonal adjustment workflow, small test and comparison

Marko RosicPost-production1 Comment


Over the past few years I’ve developed workflow that works for me but inevitably as I develop as a photographer, see and learn new stuff, mature as person I step back to from time to time to reflect on experiences and think of ways to improve myself. As you probably noticed there are numerous ways and combinations to achieve similar effects, and there is no one right workflow or technique except for some really bad. This time I was inspired by Joey L’s workflow mentioned in his amazing creativeLIVE workshop, where he did things quite differently than the way I’m used to work and what seems to be the tendency.

My workflow

What I generally try to do and what Scott Kelby recommends is to do as much as possible in Lightroom And only use Photoshop for “advanced” retouching, compositing and something that really can’t be achieved in Lightroom. I used Lightroom from version 3 to current version 5 for majority of my work. I keep all of my raw files neatly organized in it and it makes finding, selecting, batch editing really easy. Because of non destructiveness and flexibility of editing process I also try to keep a majority of my tonal adjustments in it. It’s also easy to create variations without need to create new 200MB files.

What I generally do is that I more or less finish all tonal adjustments using basic panel which became quite powerful since version 4.  Here and there I adjust curve to gain some extra contrast but rarely. I can later add sharpening, and other effects to further tweak the image. If there is a need I then export to Photoshop where I retouch using dodge and burn technique as explained in this tutorial, and do some minor changes on pixels.

Photoshop + curves workflow and my test

On the other hand Joey L. uses Capture One  just to adjust exposure if necessary and sharpen the image, then exports to Photoshop for all tonal and color changes which he achieves with curves to get the best possible quality out of photo.

This all made me wonder can I achieve same or similar effects in Lightroom:

  • with basic panel adjustments,
  • with curves.

For this test I have used one of my recent, reasonably well exposed photos to which I intended to make just some minor adjustment, nothing extreme.

Original photo

Original photo

As a first step I’ve used Photoshop and curves to edit this original photo only with white balance corrected, second I tried to do the same with curves in Lightroom, and last I used Lightroom basic sliders.

As you can see below results are pretty much similar, and you can see also what settings I used.

Output Comparison

Settings Comparison

What I did as test is probably not spectacular nor it is by any means scientific. It does not show how each method is good in recovering extreme lights and darks, but rather my average scenario. It was however useful to me to assess these methods, and if there is any apparent difference in quality. I have found that curves in Photoshop are probably the quickest way to get results that you want, basic Lightroom sliders give you great deal of control over details, but its curves are much more sensitive and harder to achieve subtle effects with.

Below you can see my final image made with first method.


Final photo

Finally I’d love to hear about your workflow and experience.