Stylus and Tablet

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Today’s Question: Which stylus and tablet do you recommend for working in Photoshop CC?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Personally I recommend the Wacom Intuos Pro in the medium size (https://amzn.to/2MmOmw8) as an excellent tablet. Another option worth considering is the Wacom Cintiq (https://amzn.to/2Mr6ogD), which is a monitor display with integrated stylus support.

More Detail: There are a variety of different tablet and stylus options available, but I have long considered Wacom to offer the best. The Intuos Pro line of tablets are standalone tablets that enable you to use a stylus to “write” directly on the tablet. This is somewhat similar to using a mouse on a mousepad, but with the additional benefit of working with a “pen” rather than a mouse.

There are several sizes of tablet available, but I find the medium size works best for me. The small size tends to feel a little cramped, and with the large size I find it often feels a bit too sprawling. That said, different photographers will prefer a different size, so I recommend testing out the various options before making a purchase decision.

In addition to the tablets, there are monitor displays that have integrated stylus support. These are somewhat similar to the use of a touch-enabled display, such as you may be familiar with on a smartphone or a variety of laptops and other devices. The difference is that with the Wacom Cintiq display, you can use a stylus with a variety of customization options to draw directly on the display.

It can certainly take a little bit of time to get accustomed to using a stylus. That said, I feel the time is worthwhile, as using a pen to write on a tablet (or display) provides you with much greater control and accuracy. This is especially helpful when you need to paint or draw with precision, such as when creating selections or painting on a layer mask for targeted adjustments or when creating composite images.

Compression Clarification

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Today’s Question: Am I correct that image degradation to a JPEG only occurs if some sort of file manipulation takes place and it is re-saved? But if a file is just opened to see the contents and then re-saved (closed) without any change then the image is not subject to further lossy changes? And what about JPEG 2000?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Yes, you are correct about JPEG compression. A JPEG image always represents some degree of quality loss compared to a non-compressed image. However, additional degradation of image quality will only occur if the image is changed and then saved. Re-saving the same image with no changes will not result in additional quality loss. And JPEG 2000, by the way, provides improvements over JPEG (including an option for lossless compression), but has not been widely adopted.

More Detail: JPEG compression is always “lossy”, meaning some degree of quality will be lost when a photo is saved in the JPEG format. The Quality setting for the JPEG image determines the degree of compression applied to the image, and thus the degree to which quality is lost.

If you make changes to an image and then save it again as a JPEG image, there will be an additional loss of quality. However, that loss in quality only applies if the pixel values were changed. So, if you open a JPEG image, don’t make any changes, but re-save the same image multiple times, there will be no additional loss of quality for the image.

But again, making changes to the image and then saving again as a JPEG will cause an increased degradation in quality for the image compared to the “original” version of the JPEG, because the compression would then be applied again to the image.

The JPEG 2000 file format provides advantages in terms of compression and image quality compared to the JPEG file format. However, JPEG 2000 has not been widely adopted and therefore is not supported in all software applications. It is supported by Photoshop, for example, but not Lightroom.

Batch Conversion

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Today’s Question: I want to take a large number of TIFF files and convert all of them to 72 ppi [pixels per inch resolution] and into JPEG files. Is there a way to do this in Lightroom, and if so, how?

Tim’s Quick Answer: You can convert photos from one file format to another using the Export feature in Lightroom. If you want to include the converted images in your Lightroom catalog, you can turn on the “Add to This Catalog” checkbox in the Export dialog.

More Detail: Lightroom doesn’t provide an option to directly convert photos from one file format to another, other than the option to convert to the Adobe DNG file format. However, you can convert files to a different format using the Export feature. This includes the ability to add the exported images back to your Lightroom catalog if you want both versions included in the catalog, or if you then want to delete the originals.

Generally speaking I would keep all of the original file formats for my photos in the Lightroom catalog. When I export copies of my photos, those are generally “extra” copies of the images being used for some other purpose, such as to send images to a client.

That said, the Export feature can be very helpful for converting photos from one file format to another for a variety of different purposes. To get started, select the images you want to convert. Then click the Export button at the bottom of the left panel in the Library module. In the Export dialog you can specify where you want the new files to be created, what file format to use, the resolution to be used, along with a verity of other options available.

If you simply want to create copies of your original photos for some other purpose, you can simply configure the desired settings in the Export dialog and then click the Export button at the bottom-right of that dialog.

If, however, you want the new copies of your photos to also be included in your Lightroom catalog, you can turn on the “Add to This Catalog” checkbox in the Export Location section of the Export dialog. This will cause the new versions of your photos to be included in your Lightroom catalog, along with the original source photos. Of course, if you want both versions of your photos included in your catalog, you might also want to export the new versions of the photos to the same folder as the source images you’ve selected for export.

Why JPEG is “Lossy”

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Today’s Question: I recently received some files from a local museum that looked to be very small at less than 1 MB in size. When I opened them they had more data than I expected. They were saved originally with a Quality setting of “8”. What data quality is lost when images are saved at a lower JPEG quality setting? When the file is reopened do we get the lost detail back?

Tim’s Quick Answer: When you save an image as a JPEG file, the Quality setting determines how much compression is applied. The number of pixels does not change, but the actual pixel values do. Thus, quality is lost, and that quality can’t be improved for that version of the image file.

More Detail: Compression for JPEG images operates by essentially “simplifying” the pixel values in the image. This is typically done by dividing the image into blocks of pixels in a 16×16 grid. That means there are 256 pixels within each block. The JPEG compression will actually alter the pixel values within each block of pixels. The pixel values are “simplified” so those pixel values can be described more efficiently. This is how a smaller file size is achieved.

When a lower Quality setting is used, there is more simplification of the data applied for each block in the pixel grid. In other words, the file size is compressed more, but the quality is reduced in the process.

When you save a JPEG image, the compression is applied to the actual pixel data. That data can’t be magically reconstructed when the image is opened again. In other words, compression will permanently reduce the quality of a JPEG image. This is why JPEG compression is referred to as “lossy” compression. Quality is lost to at least some extent whenever you save an image as a JPEG file.

Flattening Workaround

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Today’s Question: I totally agree with you that I never want to use the flatten function in Photoshop. Sometimes, though, I want to select exactly what I see on the screen for an area, but going to the top layer, even with “Current and Below” it doesn’t grab what I’m seeing. I have to flatten the image, make my selection, copy the pixels, and then undo the flattening. This works but it’s both inconvenient and a little risky that I’ll somehow do something wrong and lose the layers.

Tim’s Quick Answer: This is a good example of a situation where you would want to use a new “Merge Visible” layer. This is a layer that represents the composite contents of all layers below, which you can then add a layer mask to if you only want the effect to impact a portion of the photo.

More Detail: This question was a follow-up to an answer earlier this week about flattening images in Photoshop. As I mentioned in my original answer, I prefer to never flatten a master image. Instead, I keep all layers intact to maximize the flexibility of my workflow.

In some cases you may find that you can’t really work with certain features (such as filters) when you have multiple image layers. In that type of scenario you can instead use the “Merge Visible” command to create a layer that represents the net result of all layers below.

To get started, click on the thumbnail for the top-most layer on the Layers panel to make that layer active. Then click the “Create New Layer” button (the blank sheet of paper icon) at the bottom of the Layer panel to create a new empty layer at the top of the layer stack.

Next, go to the Layer menu on the menu bar. Press and hold the Alt key on Windows or the Option key on Macintosh, while selecting “Merge Visible” from the Layer menu. This will cause the composite contents of all visible layers below to be created on this new layer (rather than flattening all visible layers).

Note that because the “Merge Visible” command applies only to visible layers, you can prevent certain layers from being included by simply turning off the visibility for those layers.

You can then apply any effects you’d like to the new composite layer. If needed, you can also add a layer mask so this layer is only visible in certain areas of the image. Note that because this layer will block all layers below, if you need to make changes to any work you performed before creating the “Merge Visible” layer, you’ll need to turn off the visibility for the “Merge Visible” layer to be able to see the effect. You might also need to create a new version of the “Merge Visible” layer so that it will reflect any changes you’ve made to layers below.

Import Backup Limitations

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Today’s Question: Does the GoodSync backup work better than making a second copy upon import [into Lightroom]?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The advantage of using backup software like GoodSync (http://timgrey.me/greybackup) is that the backup will be an exact copy of your source photos, including folder structure. The option to create a backup copy while importing photos into Lightroom will not provide a folder structure that matches your source photos.

More Detail: I am certainly grateful that there is an option to create a second copy of the photos you are downloading as part of the process of importing new photos into your Lightroom catalog. However, I do wish that this backup reflected the same folder structure as the source photos. Instead of making a second copy of the photos into a folder with the same name being used for the original photos, a folder will be created with the name “Imported On” (with the date of import appended to that text).

The result is that the backup copy created during import isn’t an exact reflection of the source photos. Therefore, while I do make use of the option to create a second copy of the photos being imported during the import process, I treat that as a “temporary” backup.

After the import is complete, at my earliest opportunity I will use GoodSync (http://timgrey.me/greybackup) to synchronize the external hard drive containing my photos with a backup drive. The result is that the backup of my photos drive is an exact copy of the primary drive, including folder structure and filenames.

Once you have configured a backup job using GoodSync, you can simply run that job to have the backup drive updated to once again represent an exact copy of the source drive. To me this is an ideal scenario for a backup, since it greatly streamlines the process of recovering from a hard drive failure.

Note, by the way, that I have produced a video course with lessons that outline the approach I use for GoodSync, which you can find on the GreyLearning website here:

https://www.greylearning.com/courses/goodsync

Flatten or Not?

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Today’s Question: When I return a photo back from Photoshop to Lightroom, I first flatten the image, then Save and Close. Am I wrong to flatten the image?

Tim’s Quick Answer: In my opinion, with very few exceptions, you should never flatten your original “master” image in Photoshop. Instead, I feel the layers should be preserved so you can always make changes to any of the layers at a later time.

More Detail: There are certainly scenarios where an image needs to be in a “flattened” state, without any layers. For example, if you are sending an image to a client you probably don’t want them to be able to see or modify any of the layers in your source image, so you would send them a flattened version of the image.

However, for the “master” image you are using as the basis of any output you produce for a photo (such as printing or sharing online), I recommend keeping the layers intact. In other words, you should not flatten the master image.

To be sure, an image with layers will have a larger file size than a flattened image. However, by keeping the layers intact you are retaining the ability to open the image in Photoshop once again, and make modifications to any of the layers. For example, you might find that some of your image cleanup work resulted in some visual artifacts that you need to correct. Or you might change your mind about one or more of the adjustments you’ve applied to the image. Keeping the layers intact provides you with that flexibility.

So, while you might flatten a copy of an image (or simply use the Save As command to save a new copy of the image without layers), I always recommend retaining the layers in the “master” version of your image. I’m more than happy to have a larger file size in return for the greater workflow flexibility that layers provide.

Task-Based Keywords

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Today’s Question: Do you use any of Lightroom’s features to keep track of photos printed, published, delivered to clients, or with “to-do” tasks? Perhaps collections?

Tim’s Quick Answer: For this type of task-based purpose I actually use what I refer to as “fake keywords”. These are keywords that identify a particular status for a photo, rather than the typical use of identifying subjects that appear within a photo.

More Detail: Keywords are typically used to identify the subjects (and even concepts) that appear in a photo. This “normal” use for keywords provides two basic benefits. First, these keywords enable you to locate photos by searching for specific keywords. Second, when reviewing a photo, keywords can help remind you about details of the photo, such as the subjects that appear in the photo.

The “fake keywords” I use are a variation on this concept. Instead of identifying the contents of a photo, however, they identify a context or task for the image. One example of a “fake keyword” that I use is to identify photos that I have shared to my Instagram feed (https://www.instagram.com/timgreyphoto/). I happen to use “InstagramShare” for this purpose.

With other “fake keywords” I will identify that photos have been used in particular projects, and I might include a category for the project as part of that keyword. For example, photos used in a book project might have a “fake keyword” that begins with”BOOK-“.

I prefer using keywords for this type of purpose rather than other features, such as collections in Lightroom. The reason for this is that keywords are part of a metadata standard, while collections in Lightroom are only part of the Lightroom catalog. That means that by using keywords (and saving metadata for my photos out to the actual files on my hard drive) I can still have access to that information even outside of Lightroom.

In other words, if for any reason I couldn’t use Lightroom anymore, I would lose all of the information about collections for my photos. With keywords that have been written to the actual image files, any other software that enables me to view metadata for image files could be used as a tool to organize my photos.

Updated Catalog Confusion

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Today’s Question: All of a sudden there appeared a “Lightroom Catalog-2.lrcat”, which is now my catalog [in Adobe Lightroom Classic CC]. How did that happen? Is it a problem?

Tim’s Quick Answer: When you see a dash and a number at the end of the filename for a catalog, that indicates that your catalog had been updated for a newer version of Lightroom. It is certainly not a problem, as long as you don’t open the wrong catalog by mistake.

More Detail: With most updates to Lightroom, your existing catalog will still perfectly fine with the updated version. However, with major updates to Lightroom there is often a change in the catalog file format. When that is the case, Lightroom will prompt you to update the existing catalog (or a catalog you’re trying to open) so it supports the latest Lightroom features.

By default when your Lightroom catalog is updated in this way, a dash and a number will be added to the existing filename. So, for example, the first time this happens a catalog called “Lightroom Catalog.lrcat” will be upgraded to “Lightroom Catalog-2.lrcat”. Note that the original catalog file will remain in the same folder, providing a backup of the prior catalog. The next time an update is required, the new catalog would be “Lightroom Catalog-3.lrcat”.

Once a catalog has been updated the new copy of the catalog will of course work with the newly updated version of Lightroom. The critical thing at this stage is to make sure you are always using the correct catalog file. Fortunately, in this type of scenario where the catalog file needed to be updated, you won’t be able to directly open the older version of the catalog in the newly updated version of Lightroom. So you’ll at least get a clear indication of an issue should you attempt to open an outdated catalog version.

I prefer to move the “outdated” catalog files to a separate backup folder. In other words, I prefer to retain these files at least for a period of time as an additional backup. However, I don’t want those unnecessary files creating any clutter or confusion in the folder that contains my active Lightroom catalog.

Sensor Cleaning Technique

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Today’s Question: I would appreciate any advice you could offer for actually cleaning the sensor regarding wipe technique and the loupe you recently recommended.

Tim’s Quick Answer: The approach I use is to use sensor swabs with a cleaning solution to swab the sensor. I then use a sensor loupe to confirm the sensor is clean, repeating the cleaning as needed until the sensor looks completely clean.

More Detail: In many cases you may discover that you need to clean the sensor on your camera because you notice dust spots in your photos. However, it is also a good idea to periodically check the sensor using a loupe with illumination, such as the Carson SensorMag loupe that I use (https://amzn.to/2LDw4cQ).

When cleaning is necessary, I recommend using swabs with a special cleaning solution. I use the Visible Dust sensor cleaning kit (https://amzn.to/2OhSwGU), though you need to be sure to order the correct swab size based on the size of your image sensor. For example, full frame cameras require a larger swab than a camera with a cropped sensor.

You’ll want to follow the instructions for the sensor swabs carefully. That includes not using too much solution on the swab, only using each side of the swab once, and only swiping the swab in one direction on the image sensor.

In most cases I’m able to get the sensor clean with a single swab. However, at times you may find that not all blemishes were removed with a single cleaning. In that case, resist the urge to re-use the swab, as you will very likely add debris back to the sensor. Instead, use a clean swab and begin the cleaning procedure again.

Continue this process until the sensor looks perfectly clean when using a sensor loupe to get a direct look at the filter on the front of the actual image sensor in your camera.