Note, see my revised CS6 workflow here:
Assume a well focused well exposed image at ISO100 that does not require multi-shot blend for this work flow. For blends, see “three image blend with Gaussian blur”. But this workflow is still my starting place prior to blending and often I find that I don’t need to blend. For ISO above 400, I convert without NR or sharpening and use Topaz for NR and sharpen later.
I convert in 16bit ProPhoto RGB at native resolution and 240ppi.
I do as much in ACR as possible, including sharpening.
Camera calibration. I have a camera profile for both my cameras, so I have this set as my camera profile.
Lens correction. I enable lens profile corrections.
Detail. I do capture sharpening in ACR6 and the settings are as follows:
If my image is higher than ISO100, I slide the masking slider to reduce/eliminate sharpening in sky/water or other blank areas.
I leave noise at zero. I use it selectively at ISO400 and above, or treat such images very differently with NR and sharpening done after raw conversion. I don’t do many high ISO shots.
I set the tone curve dialog box to linear. I do curves in CS6
Main dialog box, I have the following set as default.
20 It was causing a blue cast.
I now set vibrance at 0 for my 5d-mkIII,
First try auto to see what it suggests. Sometimes I can’t beat it, other times I just back the sliders off a bit. But if I don’t like it, here is my manual method.
The following sliders are done on an image by image basis.
Exposure. If I like the overall brightness, I leave this at zero. I use whites and highlights first to solve any blown highlights. But if I want a somewhat darker image, this is where I adjust it. I also use this to fix blown highlights if I need more than 50 in the white/highlight sliders.
Highlights and whites. Holding down the alt key, first adjust white until all clipping is resolved. You can often go plus without clipping but I have never done this. I try to balance clipping adjustments between the white and highlight sliders IE -20/-20 rather than -40/0 (the later seldom works anyway). If I need more than 50, I do some exposure adjustment. Of course a sun might be so bright it can’t be fixed, so I ignore minor blown areas or use a blend.
Shadows: This is the wonder child of ACR6. I find I can do artifact free shadow recover that was never possible prior to ACR6. It almost always means a positive direction, I have not had an image where I wanted to darken shadows, but I suppose anything is possible. But often I leave it at zero
Blacks: This is another fine addition. I hold down the alt key and slide until all clipping is removed. In older versions, I never adjusted past 10, in ACR6 I have no limit.
Once open in CS6, I do as little as required. The image is already pretty mature.
I first do a curve where I make sure I have the histogram filled using 5 to 250. I either alt slide it to the edge of clipping, or use the black eye dropper to set a black point and sometimes a white point. In that case, I need to first use threshold to find the darkest and lightest place in the image which is my black/white point targets.
If the hue is off after this step, change the layer to luminosity.
Next I flatten and apply another curve. Each image is different and using curves is too big a subject for this project, but for easy images , I usually pull down the left side and move the right side up keeping the crossover on the mid point of the graph. This adds a bit of pop. Small movements make big changes. This is a layer and the opacity slider is your friend for final amount. Well exposed images seldom need fancy curve adjustments.
Edit: A new trick. In CS6, curves has some presets. I sometimes use the lighter preset instead of shadows/highlight. I then may fade it or brush it where required. It is usually too flat so I follow with another curve using the linear preset. This provided a very subtle shadows boost with good black point.
Next job is to clean up dust and any other junk. I usually can’t see it very well until this stage so I wait until it gets prominent enough to find.
I sometimes do a levels adjustment at this point and often darken the image a bit, my typical setting is about 0.90. My monitor is a calibrated NEC2690WUXi sat at 80CD/MM^2. (was 150)
Next step is to run a Topaz Photo Pop step. This adds saturation, microcontrast and has a slight shadow/highlight effect. I adjust the slider to taste. 70% is typical. If it adds any visible halo, I delete the layer. I set this to luminance which makes this action mainly a shadows/highlights step.
I then run Topaz Photo Pop to get a bit of added saturation. Again I use the slider to adjust to taste.
Many images are better off without either Topaz step.
I usually need to desaturate blue.
Next I do a haze buster USM 12.50,1 and put on a layer.
Then I do a Smart sharpen 300,0.3,0 and put on a layer.
I merge the layers and adjust to 50%.
Purists will prefer the pre Topaz look. Some even prefer my ACR conversion before I add the curve. But those are too flat for my current taste.
The final image has a clean look, with fine detail and none of the over sharpened look which is either gritty or has large halos. It will have lots of pop, but not an HDR look. The POP is easy to control.
Some darker images need a bit of Shadow highlight before I run Topaz. I typically run the action on a layer and adjust to 20% or more.
My current settings for S/H are :
Tonal width 50
Tonal width 50
Midtone contrast 0
Black clip 0.01
White Clip 0.01
I do S/H globally using an action. I adjust the amount with the opacity slider and in some cases use a gradient mask or a brush to paint it where required.
Same image after applying 70% Topaz Photo Pop