Visual Acoustics VII - Silence and Light - Erasmus Bridge-small-min

Nondestructive and destructive editing in Photoshop

Around 10 years ago when I first released my B&W editing workflow for Photoshop, called iSGM (iterative Selective Gradient Masking), many people, not familiar with the how and why of my workflow, have been referring to this manual and structured method for B&W post-processing, as a destructive method when seeing it for the first time. Despite the negative qualifications, this manual method has gained many followers worldwide over the years as it proved to be a structured and efficient way to have full control over B&W images and create the type of images I’ve had many successes with.

Very recently when I released the fully automated successor of the manual iSGM method with the Artisan Pro X panel, the negative qualifications, have only increased. Perhaps because the Youtube videos on the panel made my workflow more visible to a wider audience. And simply put, they didn’t understand the constant merging of layers and thought it to be destructive. But there are very good reasons for doing so and use an alternative workflow. Reasons that go beyond ‘destructive’ or ‘nondestructive’ qualifications and demonstrate that other criteria should be more important in the process of creation.

With this article, I’d like to shed some light on the reasons for alternative ways of post-processing, that are not the traditional ways of post-processing, and illustrate that the fact that they aren’t traditional, doesn’t mean they are destructive. And I’m not only referring to my alternative way of processing, because from what I’ve seen there are many of you out there, not working according to the traditional Photoshop way. Including many award-winning photographers, as I am myself. So they, we, must be doing something right.

Those alternative ways of post-processing aren’t born out of ignorance, lack of professionalism or plain stubbornness, but are born out of a necessity to match and enable an artistic style or preference that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

Your artistic intentions and the visual result you’re aiming for to match your artistic intentions should never be limited by adhering to a recommended and traditional way of working, just for the sake of adhering to it without any insight into its pros and cons. And more importantly: by totally forgetting that it’s just a recommended method. There are alternative ways of processing that are just as non-destructive and might bring you closer, faster and more accurately to realizing your artistic vision than with the traditional way.

What is this traditional method of processing in Photoshop? The ‘grand’ and traditional method, encouraged by Adobe and all its protagonists, that is considered nondestructive, is a way of post-processing where each adjustment is being represented by an adjustment layer. It’s a linear sequence of adjustment layers stacked upon each other where each adjustment layer has a linear and causal effect on subsequent adjustments (layers). Change one adjustment layer and its change will cascade throughout all subsequent layers, affecting each layer. The thought being here, that the first layer is the original layer to which you can always revert to.

[...]subtlety is a  key feature of my work and of my method. And this cannot as easily be achieved, practically and technically with the traditional method[...]

But this traditional workflow cannot be applied to my individual way of working that is built around the idea of creating many series of small subtle changes that lead to one bigger adjustment that has all the subtlety that I find important in the type of work I create. Subtlety is quintessential in my work and I find that an alternative workflow enables and supports that goal much better and more intuitively than the traditional workflow.

An alternative workflow such as my iSGM method that I developed in 2009-2010 is a non-traditional and also non-destructive workflow, that deviates from the traditional method with adjustment layers fundamentally because my method is designed to enable a very large amount of subtle, small changes to come to a specific end-result that over time has become my personal style. A personal style that puts emphasis on subtlety in tonal ranges, contrasts and especially transitions, in, across, throughout and between, the darkest, the brightest and all midrange tones. That subtlety is a  key feature of my work and of my method. And this cannot as easily be achieved, practically and technically with the traditional method.

An example of practicality: adjustment layers can feel counterintuitive in my workflow and they make some essential corrections more difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, than working with layers and masks that need to be merged down first at specific points in the process before I can do a restore of an area (correction) and then saved as an iteration that I can go back to. After that, I build up a new set of iterations, merge down again, and save under a different file name. Therefore, I can always go back to iteration 1 or iteration zero, which is represented by the original color file that only contains selections (masks).

In the next image, you see how I save a series of adjustments as separate iterations with corresponding filenames (in this case numbered chronologically from 1 to 50) at key moments in the process of editing. Each saved iteration typically represents an adjustment to one specific area or sub-area, object or sub-object or detail in an image. An area can be the sky for example. A sub-area would then be the top part of the sky or the part with clouds. An object is, for example, a building, while a sub-object would be one side/plane of a building. A detail can be traffic signs in the foreground. Each saved iteration can have anything between a few subtle adjustments to a few hundred subtle adjustments, depending on the area/object/detail. Each subtle adjustment is a separate layer. Before saving the iteration the layers are merged down to on average 5 different layers, each layer representing a group of multiple subtle adjustments.

Also present in the working folder, the original color file, iteration zero, (indicated by the green arrow) that remains unchanged and contains all masks to which I can revert to in case I make a mistake. The RAW file is backed up on various drives. Usually, if I make a mistake in iteration 41, I would go back to iteration 40 maybe 39, but never all the way back to iteration 25 or 15, let alone to the color file or RAW file. If I didn’t see the mistake at iteration 41 I should find myself another profession. After I’m finished, and the image is ready to be presented and printed large, and that is always the objective, not just the online image, I would remove iteration 2 to 49 and only keep iteration 1, representing the neutral B&W conversion without any adjustments (indicated by the blue arrow) the final iteration 50 (red arrow) and the color file.

An important technical reason for not working according to the traditional workflow: with the traditional workflow I would end up with anything between 500 to a few thousand layers due to the way I build up a specific result through many small subtle changes instead of one big change. Add to that the channels that contain your masks and you’re setting yourself up for a PS crash, or at the very minimum, substantially decreased computer performance, even though PS has no restrictions anymore to file size.

Here are some numbers to illustrate what PS can handle, but looking at the maximum numbers and filesizes, they are very academic – most computers will already significantly slow down between 5 and 10 Gb.

  • PSD file: 2Gb and 30,000 pixels on any side
  • PSB file:  4 million Tb (4 Billion Gb) and 300,000 pixels on any side
  • TIF file  :  4 Gb
  • Max number of channels: 53 (57 with RGB channels included)
  • Max number of layers with PSB files: unlimited

In the following screenshots, you see how I set up my files and even though I only have 6 layers in the B&W photo and no channels, it’s already 2.5Gb. The color photo shows the original TIF file in which I save all my hard masks, usually around 10 on average, and off of which I generate the luminosity masks. That’s the file I never touch and that I can always revert to and is already 1.7 Gb with no layers and only masks to keep it lean and relatively small.

So now the traditional and alternative workflows have been summarized, what type of workflow should you go for? What is better? The traditional non-destructive workflow or the workflow that has alternative principles and looks destructive at first sight, and I hope I demonstrated that is not the case but is designed to enable large amounts of subtle changes and to work with unaffected computer performance?

First off, the phrase nondestructive workflow is such a misnomer as basically every workflow is non-destructive as soon as you decide to save the original RAW file. Therefore I prefer to talk about traditional or non-traditional workflow to avoid biased qualifications and uninformed opinions.

I would recommend going for one that suits your needs and that qualifications as destructive or nondestructive should play a less important role than generally recommended. Because what’s destructive or nondestructive is less obvious than you might think. Isn’t the end-result more important? And what if the end result is so incredibly good and fantastic, so inspiring, so beyond everything that has ever been created, but has been created in a so-called destructive workflow? I would always prefer that end-result created in that way.

Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement

The purists, swearing by the traditional ‘non-destructive workflow’ remind me too much of the people who find gear, megapixels, sharpness, and such, more important than just creating and enjoying great art. To paraphrase Cole Thompson in his entertaining and imaginary conversation between Van Gogh and Picasso: you’re not going to ask Van Gogh or Picasso what brushes, canvas or easels they used. And you’d be a fool to disqualify the importance of Jackson Pollock’s work simply because he didn’t follow the traditional way of brushing the paint on a canvas on an easel but instead threw and dripped his paint from buckets and added cigarette butts and shards of glass to the mix while standing on the canvas. ‘Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement‘, to quote Jackson Pollock.