I'm assuming that (given the option) you record your images as RAW files, and that you're using either Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, with the (free) Adobe Camera Raw plugin, and in a version which is sufficiently recent to offer Colour Curves (I use Elements 10). If not, none of this will make sense.
- First, I open the RAW file in the Elements editor. The Camera Raw plugin opens automatically.
- I have the Shadow and Highlight Clipping warnings active, so that blown highlights show as bright red areas, and clipped shadows as bright blue. Don't you? If you don't, this may be the most important tip I have to share.
- I adjust the Exposure, Recovery, and Fill Light sliders until all or most of the red and blue alerts have disappeared. I'm mostly bothered about the highlights. I rarely fiddle with any of the other settings.
- Once opened in Elements, I adjust the Levels, by sliding the black and white point indicators to meet the furthest left and right data on the histogram, and then adjust the grey slider to give a good overall "look".
- I then use the Colour Curves tool to adjust the highlights, midtones, and shadows to give an even better overall look.
- Then -- and you may find this surprising -- I click "Auto Levels" to see where Elements thinks I'm going wrong. Sometimes it's an improvement, sometimes it's not.
- That gives me a standard, "good enough" starting point, which I save as a new TIFF file.
1. "High Pass" sharpening. That is:
- Make a new layer which is a duplicate of the background layer
- Apply the High Pass filter to it, generally with a Radius between 1.5 and 2.0, just enough to show edges but no colours
- Change the layer type to Overlay, Soft or Hard Light, with an Opacity somewhere between 75% and 95%
- Flatten the image (my hard drive is too small to keep unnecessary layers hanging around).
2. A useful trick for dull images is to apply "local contrast" via the Unsharp Mask tool. Make a note of your usual settings, then change the Radius to 50 and the Threshold to 0, and then try applying various amounts starting around 20%. I don't use this so much these days, but it's a genuine free lunch. But don't forget to change the settings back!
When it comes to printing, there is no substitute for
- Calibrating your monitor (I use Spyder2 Express)
- Getting custom ICC profiles made for your usual printer/paper combinations (see this post)
For my printer (an Epson Stylus Photo 1400), I usually increase the brightness by 20 and the contrast by 5. It looks awful on screen, but good on paper. If you've got loads of storage, you could add an adjustment layer for Brightness and Contrast to each image, but I tend to make the adjustments just before printing, then discard them.
Finally, make backups. Lots of backups. Duplicate your backups on CD, DVD, portable hard-drives, in rented cloud storage, whatever you have access to. It's insane to have all your image files in one place. USB-connected hard drives are relatively cheap, and you can simply reproduce the same folder structure on a couple. It's then just a question of remembering to copy files, or running backup software.
Oh, and never overwrite or delete your RAW files (or your original unedited JPG files, if that's all you have). I'm always amazed how many people do that. But then most people used to discard their negatives, too.
No highlight left behind...