Workflow Friday: Scotty Graham

Photoshop Workflows

This week’s Workflow Friday comes from the other side of the world from my humble home here in the states. Scotty Graham lives in Indonesia and takes some tremendous shots from all over the world, both above and below the water. Today’s workflow contribution gets us beneath the surface of Scotty’s process and will surely offer some info and inspiration as you approach your own work.

Scotty, they’re all yours!

From Dive To Print

I am honored to be Jason’s guest blogger today on Workflow Friday. My name is Scotty Graham, and I am a professional photographer. Although a professional, I do not make my living taking photos, thankfully. I am a teacher, and my hope is that you can learn something new today.

I enjoy all forms of photography. However, my passion for the past 25 years has been underwater photography. My workflow is different with my underwater photography than it is for my work above ground. In fact, my workflow for my “land” photography is not much different than the other professionals that have shared their workflow on this blog. Today, let’s change the pace just a bit, and let me describe my typical workflow for an underwater photograph. Let me warn you, this is a lengthy post, but in reality, it only takes me a few minutes to actually edit my photographs. Learning short cuts in Photoshop, and using pre-recorded actions helps save heaps of time.

Before I start, I must thank Scott Kelby and his incredible staff at NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals). Virtually everything I know about Photoshop and Lightroom was learned from these incredible educators. If you are not a member of NAPP, sign up NOW….it will be the best 99 bucks you ever spent.

Ok, onto my workflow…using Scott Kelby’s style, I will go step by step…

Step 1: The first actual step is the preparation before the dive. Underwater, you cannot change lenses, and some camera functions cannot be changed either (depending on your housing). So, before I jump on the boat, I must decide if I am going to shoot wide-angle or macro or super macro. Each requires a different set-up with my equipment…ie, which ports to use, which strobes to use, which strobe arms to use, and which lens to install. My decision is really based on the amount of ambient light available at the time of my dive, the visibility, the tide, current, and the time of day. If it is a bright sunny day, I prefer to take wide-angle shots as there will be lots of ambient light that my camera can capture beyond the scope of my strobes. For the shot I am going to describe, I decided to go wide angle. It was early morning, the sky was blue with a bright sun, visibility was good, and we were going to a nice reef with many schooling fish with strong current. Strong current usually means lots of fish, but more challenging for the photographer.

Step 2: Set up your equipment, and check to be sure all camera settings are set beforehand, and that your camera and strobes are working. Check all dive equipment to be sure all is in good working order, and that your tank is full of air. Again, once underwater, if something is not working, you are stuck. Your SCUBA equipment should be in good working order, and your dive skills (especially buoyancy skills) should be top rate. Don’t take photographs underwater until you are an experienced diver or an accident is ready to happen.

My equipment for this shot: Nikon D300, Nexus housing, two Nikonos SB-105 strobes, Nexus dome port and Nikon 10.5 mm DX lens.

Step 3: Plan your dive with your buddy. Make sure he/she knows your plan for what you are going to shoot, and to be prepared to hang around while you take many shots of the same subject from many different angles. Diving with another photographer is usually better as other photographers understand that sometimes an entire dive is spent around one small area of the reef.

Step 4: Dive your plan. When I entered the water, I looked down and saw a gorgeous reef and schooling Yellowstriped Snappers. I instantly knew what I wanted. I wanted a photo of the Snappers swimming across the reef with a blue water background.

Step 5: Get the shot. This is the tough part. Fish are not cooperative models. They rarely swim where you want them, they are always moving, and they are shy and don’t like to get close to your camera. There is also current, surge, and other environmental hurdles trying to prevent your from taking a photo. The key is to stay relaxed, to be patient, and to be a “quiet” diver.

I was able to find a nice sandy spot on the bottom behind a reef that blocked the current. I set my aperture to f-11 (I had decent ambient light for a mid-range f-stop), and my strobes to maximum power. For wide angle underwater, you need to be within inches of your subject to be sure your subject is well lit, and doesn’t appear too small. I waited for the fish to circle the reef, and then slowly approached the reef trying not to disturb the fish. I also wanted the sun in the photo. While viewing my composition in the small viewfinder of my housing, I drift as  close to the fish as I can, and fire. Of course, as soon as my strobes fire, the fish scatter…I go back to my spot in the sand, check my photo in my small screen for correct exposure, composition and focus.

Usually, something is off, so I keep repeating the above with different settings and perhaps from a different angle until I get a shot I am happy with. This is the beauty of digital photography. In the old days, I would shoot an entire roll of film on one spot bracketing every shot in hopes of getting one keeper. Digital saves heaps of time as I can just delete underwater if I missed the shot, and I don’t have to wait a week after my dive trip to see if I got the shot or not. What a great time to be an underwater photographer.

Step 6: After the dive, I remove my CF card and download my photos to my EPSON P-5000 (one of the best things I have ever bought). I soak my camera in fresh water (with the housing, of course), go to the nearest hammock, turn on my ipod, and check out the photos I just took looking for keepers. I never delete photos in the EPSON P-5000 unless they are total crap…sometimes a photo that looks like crap turns out to be a good photograph, so I usually keep everything until I see them on my big screen at home (I have a 24-inch iMac).

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 7: The dive trip is over, and I am home. I hook my EPSON P-5000 to my computer, and download all the photos to a folder on my hard drive named after the dive trip and date…example, RajaAmpat_March2009. I then burn a back-up copy of the photos onto a DVD.

Step 8: I import the photos from this folder into Lightroom, assign key words to all the photos, and keep them in the original folder.

Step 9: I have two monitors, so I have set up Lightroom so that I can view each of my photos in my Apple 23-inch cinema display, and the rest of Lightroom on my 24-inch monitor of my i-Mac. My 23-inch monitor is profiled and calibrated using Spyder3 software (and hardware) for my EPSON 9880 printer, so any adjustments to my photo should be viewed on my calibrated monitor so that accurate prints can be made later.

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

I then browse through my images and flag the shots I like and delete the totally awful shots (believe me, there are tons of the latter).

Step 10: I then go to the shots that I have flagged as possible keepers, and start the editing process. I chose this photo to edit. All my photos are taken in RAW, and this particular shot is the best I got of the Snappers swimming over the reef.  My settings are f-11 at 1/60 sec at ISO 200…10.5mm lens.

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 11: Move to the develop module in Lightroom. This is where my workflow differs somewhat from my land shots. Color underwater is a mess. You lose color very quickly underwater. The color is lost in order of the spectrum of light…remember ROY G BIV? First, you lose your reds, oranges and yellows, then greens, then Blues, Indigo and violets. Get to a depth of just 10 meters and everything looks grey until you artificially add light, and then the color comes bursting at you. This is why it is imperative you shoot with strobes underwater. Even with strobes, my photo above looks washed out and drab. My goal in Lightroom is to bring back the color and make my image “pop”.

Step 12: I first look at the histogram and check for proper exposure. In this case, the photo is a bit underexposed but with some “spikes” on the extreme right. So, the first thing I do is slide the exposure slider to the right slightly, and then slide the recovery slider to the right to bring down those spikes and to gain back any detail lost from over-exposed parts of my photo (mainly the fish bellies in the top left)

Here is my original histogram…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Here is my new histogram…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Now my photo looks like this…not too different…

Step 13: Crop. I don’t like the light from my strobes showing in the top left of the photo and the right side of the photo. I will crop those areas out of the photo.

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 14: Now for the color. This is the most difficult part of the process. Above ground, I usually make my photos warmer. Underwater, if you move the temp slider to a warmer temp, you will lose the nice blues in the water. On the other hand, if you cool the photo down to bring out the blue water, you lose the nice yellows in the fish. Since reds are the first colors that are lost underwater, I almost always need to move the tint slider to the right for more magenta. The trick is finding the right balance between the two sliders…and I usually do this by eye. I know what the scene is supposed to look like, so I just mess with the sliders until I get close to what I want. I also will use the eye-dropper and click on a neutral gray, and see what Lightroom gives me, and then tweak from there…I settled on these settings…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 15: Now go to the color palette and the Tone Curve. I go through each color and move the sliders to bring out each individual color, and then move to the Tone Curve to darken or lighten the highlights, lights, darks and shadows. The most important color to play with is the blue. Here I darkened the blues and added more saturation.

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 16: Now I go to the other fun sliders…fill light, blacks, contrast, clarity and vibrance. I rarely touch the saturation slider…I just play with these to add contrast and to give the photo some punch. Here are my settings…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 17: The last thing I do in Lightroom is to darken the edges with a Lightroom preset that I got from Matt Kloskowski’s website…called Edge Darkening. After darkening the edges, I sometimes have to increase the exposure or fill light to balance.

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 18: Time to move into Photoshop. Press Cmd + E, and my photo opens in Photoshop with the changes I made in Lightroom.

Step 19: I have some actions that I created that does some magic with colors…in this particular action, I have done the following  with one click of the mouse…
A curves adjustment layer to brighten the scene…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

A levels adjustment layer to intensify the contrast…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

And a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer to boost the colors…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Here is my layers palette…I group all of these adjustments, and then lower the opacity of the group so that it is not over done…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Step 20: Now for some dodging and burning. I want to lighten some of the coral in the foreground, and the school of fish, and darken some of the coral in the background. I do this by creating two new curves adjustment layers with a mask. Once again, I have actions that create these two layers and masks with a single click of the mouse. One brightens the exposure, and the other darkens the exposure. I then paint in both masks where I want the photo brighter and where I want the photo darker. Here is my layers palette. Notice the white parts of my two masks….where I have painted white is where light has been painted or where darkness is painted…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Notice in the photo how the foreground is now brighter, and there is more depth to the school of fish making it appear almost 3-D. The image really pops now as well…

Step 21: My final step in Photoshop is sharpening. I have many sharpening techniques. One of my favorites is a third party filter called Lucis Art. It is like sharpening on steroids. I use the sculpture filter, and sometimes the wyeth filter. The wyeth filter has a tendency to make your photos have an HDR look to them… sometimes good, and sometimes not good. For underwater, I don’t really care for the HDR look, so I usually just use the sculpture filter from Lucis Art. Of course, Photoshop’s unsharp mask works really well too if you don’t have Lucis Art. Anyway, I flatten my image, then duplicate the layer (cmd+J on a mac), and apply the filter, and then reduce the opacity if the effect is too strong.

Step 22: I am finished editing, and am now ready to print or save to the web for my website. I save my changes in Photoshop, which then saves the changes to the copy of the photo in Lightroom. I then print from Lightroom to my EPSON 9880. Printing is an entirely different tutorial…but Lightroom does make it easy, and the nice thing about printing from Lightroom is that it has built-in output sharpening developed by Jeff Schewe and Bruce Fraser who are legends in fine art printing.

Here is the before image…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

Here is the final image…

Scotty Graham - Photoshop Workflow

If you are interested in seeing more of Scotty’s work, check out his photo blog at or his website

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  • Really interesting stuff Scotty. The final image is just brilliant (the original was great too of course!). It’s amazing what you can do in Lightroom and PS, but its still a tallent to be able to produce these kinds of shots.

    April 3, 2009 at 7:03 am
  • Awesome – I love scuba diving too (that was actually my dream assignment: to shoot 7 aquatic wonders of the world). Nice to see your work and how you get from point A to point B

    April 3, 2009 at 12:42 pm
  • Interesting stuff Scotty, Indonesia has some very rich underwater life and your shots are already beautiful even without the additional touch ups. Please post more of your underwater shots. Thanks.

    April 3, 2009 at 5:10 pm
  • Hali

    Thank you Scotty, that was very informative, impressive and the final result is just fantastic. Seeing how you got from A to Z is really useful and it made me think more about creating actions for simple things I do (and maybe droplets for LR2 as well). Thank you again!

    April 3, 2009 at 10:12 pm

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