The Digital Pipeline

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend who was explaining to me the concept of the “The Digital Pipeline”.  It was a concept that really intrigued me and as such I wanted to portray some of those details here.

What is the Digital Pipeline?

Any time an image is digitized and brought into an editing program such as Photoshop, the digital pipeline has begun.  Although Photoshop is referenced here, the exact program used really isn’t important.  What is important is the set of processes that take an image from a raw capture to (hopefully) a beautiful finished master file that is ready for output.

You might be thinking, what exactly is so special about this?  Well, the key lesson that I learned with this is that photographers have very different opinions on what should be encompassed within this process.  Some work under the mentality that almost no digital processing should be done – they would rather spend every available second in the field capturing new images.  Others spend a great deal of time working in the digital dark room merging files together, touching up colors, removing distracting elements and much more.

Is one approach better than the other?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Instead I believe that you should follow the process that you enjoy the most and adds the most benefit to your discipline.  If you are making a specialty in Panoramic vistas, then you will spend a good deal of time in the Digital Pipeline arranging and merging images together.  You may even venture to the automated MegaPanos that combine hundreds of high-resolution photos together using an automated capture device.

Elements of the Digital Pipeline

In a general sense I believe that most Digital Pipelines follow a rough sketch as outlined below:

  • Image Processing
  • Image Cleanup
  • Image Enhancement
  • Image Output

I will only be able to cover a small sketch of each step here – hopefully in the future I can write more.

Image Processing

Image processing can most easily be described as any technical steps to get your image into the pipeline.  This might require some kind of conversion process to/from certain file types or formats.  For example this could be the scanning process of a slide or negative.  Importing images into your editing suites.  Converting from one file type to another.  The key thing about this step is to ensure that your process allows you to retain as high a quality file as possible.  If you are scanning negatives – then this means scanning the file with as high a resolution as possible so that you have plenty of data to work with after the scan.

Image Cleanup

Image cleanup encompasses all of the tweaks and modifications you make, but don’t actually really change the composition, color, etc… of an image.  I like to often call this step the dust busting step.  Meaning this is when you blow off the dust of your image – which does not actually change the image.  When in this step it is often best to zoom in really deep and get a good view of your image.  You may notice little pieces of “dust” on the image that were caused by small specs of dirt on your lens, artifacts from the digital scan, etc.  Your two primary tools for this step really are the Clone Tool and the Healing Brush (or equivalent in other programs).  The clone tool allows you to sample pixels from one area of the photo and replace them on another.  The healing brush tool does essentially the same thing although it allows you to preserve the texture information of the area you area painting which is very useful in patterns of regularity (such as pavement, brick, etc…).

Image Enhancement

The image enhancement phase is what I believe most photographers have differences about.  This phase includes items such as cropping, color correction, lighting improvements, etc.  The truth of the matter is to do whatever it is that you want to do – just be honest with yourself and your audience.  I remember a few years back a photo of helicopter rescue pilot barely escaping the jaws of a huge great white shark with a beautiful shot of the Golden gate bridge in the background.  This shot was a composite of 3 different images.  The problem was that the individual who created the photo portrayed it as an original capture.  In all honesty – it was a fantastic composite photo – really took good skill in Photoshop to create the final image.  If the person had claimed it as a composite then they would have gotten the recognition as a great Photoshop artist.  Rather the person is shamed for lying to the world.  So in short – edit away to accomplish your goals – but be honest with your audience about what you did and did not do.

Image Output

The image output phase is much like the image processing phase – except in reverse.  Instead of getting the file into your image editing program you are exporting it out.  During the image processing phase the important part was keeping quality in mind.  The same is the case with the output phase.  If you are exporting your print for enlargement there are distinct resolution guidelines that you want to follow.  If you are given an image to a website – you want to ensure to compress the image yourself so that you can provide as high a quality image within the file size restrictions that you need to work in.  These exported versions of your file are very different from each other and will not suffice as replacements.  If you print an image that was formatted for the web you will end up with a  very low quality print.  Keep in mind – even when exporting – keep as high a quality and as high a resolution as you can.


Doing a deep dive explanation of all these phases is really not possible in this post.  Rather the goal is to help inspire you to evaluate your own Digital Pipeline. All of our processes are unique to our software, our style and our preferences.  The goal is to understand what we want to get out of each step and use it as a tool to help us make the best images possible.


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