Post-Production Therapy: The WorkFlow Doctor Is In

May 1, 2012

By RF Staff

It’s a familiar scenario: you return home from an amazing wedding with a mountain of CF cards, over 4,000 images, and a nearly broken back. Then Monday rolls around, and you spend the next five days in front of your computer developing carpal tunnel syndrome as you cull, adjust and retouch your images. You could get a better chair and a more ergonomic mouse, but you have a much bigger problem—you are simply wasting your time.

I travel far and wide lecturing on the topic of post production and, like a doctor, I see many sick patients who are suffering, not from a physical disease, but from a mental condition that manifests itself in physical ways. We call those who have this condition Artists. The Artist’s need to control all aspects of production, his pursuit of absolute perfection and lack of organization are the characteristics that spawn ailments such as sleepless nights, aching backs, carpel tunnel, unhappy clients, neglected children and lower incomes.

Many of today’s photographers will not even remember the film days, in which nearly all wedding and portrait photographers outsourced their post production to a lab, which developed and printed their proofs and enlargements. But digital photography changed all of that, and backward-thinking film labs had nothing to offer. So, digital photographers were forced to bring more post production in-house.
Digital, in the early 2000s, was a troublesome medium. The process was laboriously slow and many went back to film in frustration; but camera chips and software continued to improve and by mid-decade, software like Bridge, Lightroom, Aperture and Capture One made DSLR post-processing accessible to the digital photographer. By 2007, the consummate “artist” was able to seize control over the entire photographic process and he joyously proclaimed his superior quality and dramatic cost savings from his sinking raft on a river of fire in the seventh circle of post-production hell.

In February, photographers from all over the world met in Las Vegas at WPPI to seek out wisdom from instructors and to research products and services that would help them take better photographs and conduct a better business. Because of my interest in the subject, when I wasn’t lecturing on post-production workflow in Adobe Lightroom 4, I was talking to photographers about their workflow habits and walking the trade show floor in search of services that can make life easier.

One service that has been on the rise for the past six years is post production. Increasingly more photographers have realized how much time they are wasting in post production, so they have begun to outsource. Generally, those who don’t outsource often burn out, or tend to have unhappy customers.
Plenty of companies offer services to relieve photographers of the daunting task of post production. All of them offer culling, adjusting and retouching services, and some even work in tandem with major print services.

While many photographers are coming around to the concept of outsourcing the menial tasks in their business, post production has been one of the last points of control photographers have erroneously clung to. “Post production,” they claim, “is part of their artistic process” or that “outsourcing is too expensive.”

Many photographers hold onto the post-production process because they believe it is somehow unique and that only they can bring their images to their ultimate conclusion. This is the egotistical inner artist trying to maintain control for control’s sake, when an honest assessment of skills will reveal that most photographers’ work would benefit from a third-party professional’s eye in the lightroom.

It is also very common for photographers to point to the cost of outsourcing their post production as the barrier. But this objection does not take into consideration the opportunity costs associated with the photographer’s lost time, or the overhead cost of hiring an employee. Larger studios can afford to have post-production employees on staff, but the majority of the photographers in the wedding and portrait industry are just like me, and run a one-man (or woman) operation. In a small company like mine, I cannot afford to be stuck behind a computer day and night.

My business depends on me having the time and energy to attend to it. Choosing to outsource using a “when I can afford it mentality” is a self-defeating position and self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer photographers stay in front of the computer instead of spending the time building their businesses, the less likely they are to become busy enough to afford to outsource.  As the owner of your business, you should only spend your time doing things that will make you money.  Doing post production does not make you money.

The typical digital photographer will spend eight hours capturing images at a wedding and another 16 hours in post production. If the photographer’s shooting fee is $400 per hour, then her effective hourly rate is only $132 per hour, when you figure in post production. That is a $2,144 pay cut. Now a $250 editing fee doesn’t seem so expensive, does it?

Even if you are extremely fast and extremely good at post processing, your time may be better spent marketing and/or sleeping.  And of course, your best marketing is a happy client. In today’s culture, people expect things to be fast. Jason Jennings and Laurence Haughton wrote an entire book on the subject: It’s Not the Big that Eat the Small. . .It’s the Fast that Eat the Slow. And for those who recognize the need for speed, but want to maintain some control over their images, using a post-production service does not need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Many photographers let their post-production company do 90% of the heavy lifting and then fine tune the other 10% themselves.

As you would expect, for someone who teaches workshops about post-production workflow, I am extremely fast at post production, so I accomplish my own post-processing, but I will still outsource jobs when I am extremely busy. The beauty of outsourcing is that your business is completely scalable to the size of your demand from month to month. Here is my advice when outsourcing parts of your workflow:   

1. Always keep the culling in-house.
Ultimately, you are responsible for the story you’re telling. You know the couple, the event, and the family dynamics. The process of culling is as much a part of photography as is taking the actual photograph. Photography is the art of selection. This is what your client hired you to do and you cannot outsource your intimate knowledge of the details of a shoot. No post-production house will know how an infant’s mother responded at the time to a particular expression.

2. Limit the number of picks.
The most obvious reason to limit the number of picks you deliver is that each pick adds to the cost of post production. But this cost is a good thing because it adds a consequence to picking a photograph. Knowing there is a price will make you a more discriminating editor. Rather than choosing five images of the same look, you will choose one. What is less obvious—and more important—is that this financially based motivation has the side benefit of making the process of buying easier on your client. When clients see too many choices, they experience “decision paralyses” and rather than buy an image, they postpone the decision for later. If you, the photographer, cannot make a choice between the images, you cannot rationally expect an untrained client to make the decision either.

3. Outsource big jobs and keep small jobs in-house.
Outsourcing doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes it takes longer to package a job for outsourcing than it does to finish the job. For instance, a basic headshot can be culled, adjusted, retouched and delivered in ten minutes. Outsourcing something this small would be absurd.

4. Make post production priority number one.
If you are going to send a job out for post-production work, make it your first priority. Select the wedding at the first possible moment and get the images off to your post-production partner. If you are going to pay someone to do the work for you, make sure that decision is working to your ultimate advantage. Most services offer three- to-five-day turnaround, which means you could have your wedding completed and in your clients’ hands within a week of the wedding (if you outsource it right away). Imagine how happy your clients could be with very little effort on your part.

5. Adding artistry to your post production.
At the very least, your post-production partner will normalize your images for you by correcting the exposure, contrast and color balance based on your preferences. These are not necessarily artistic decisions, but they constitute the bulk of the effort and time spent in post production. Taking the job back at this point and adding your favorite presets and batch actions to the images is a great way to finish them off and make them uniquely your own. But I strongly suggest you give your post-production partner a chance to add creative editing to your RAW images early on. If you like what they do, you will literally be doing your post production in your sleep.

More post-production shops show up at WPPI each year, because more photographers recognize that they are wasting their time behind their computers.

I have the same artistic gene as most photographers, but I have learned to subdue my inner artist, knowing that my client can’t enjoy my “art” while it is held hostage on my computer.

Interestingly enough, once you let go of a little control, you will find that having a fresh eye on your work may actually improve your final images. More importantly, your client, who will never see the difference, will be thrilled with the speed of your delivery. And happy clients mean increased prices, more referrals and more repeat business. So, unless you are lightning fast, can you afford not to outsource your post production?

Jared Platt is a professional wedding and lifestyle photographer from Phoenix, AZ. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in the Photographic Studies and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Arizona State University and has been a professional photographer and college educator for the past 12 years; he has been a speaking, debating and lecturing for the past 17 years. His attention to detail and craft make him a demanding photography instructor. Jared has lectured at major trade shows and photo conferences as well as at universities around the world on the subject of photography as well as workflow. Currently, Jared is traveling the United States and Canada, teaching and lecturing on photography and post-production workflow. Join him online for his monthly “Office Hours” at