Photographers Workflow: Tom Bricker

By Tom Bricker on February 4th, 2011   |    Posted in:  Disney Photographers   |    16 Comments

One new feature on the site is we will be sharing the post processing methods of different contributors on the site.  Today we start with Tom Bricker who shares his workflow method.

As we develop our photographic prowess, not only do we develop signature shooting styles (I’m told mine is big picture ultra-wide angle photos), but we develop signature post processing methods. This is not to say that we don’t step outside our comfort zones and photograph or process images in manners different from our signature styles, but for the majority of the shots, we use our own unique style.

Recently, I’ve received many inquiries asking how I achieve the processing results in my images. Although most inquiries do not center around my organization–there’s a decent possibility my organization system is not the best–I’m including it anyway. Heck, if it’s sub-par, maybe someone will alert me of a better system.

On an average trip to Walt Disney World, I can take anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 photos. Many of these are burst-duplicates are throwaway shots, but in the end, I edit roughly 500-1,000 photos per trip. I use Adobe Bridge to organize my photos, giving each photo a different number of stars based upon its categorization. One star photos are photos that I collect for TouringPlans. Two star photos are food photos. Three star photos are portraits for my trip reports. Four star photos are static shots of the parks without us in them for my trip reports. Five stars are reserved for shots of the unique bathroom signs all over property. I really like bathroom signs. (Just kidding, they’re for “Flickr-worthy” photos.)

Since I don’t have nearly enough free time to thoroughly edit each of these photos, I use presets in Adobe Camera Raw. I have presets for each lens, and each category, plus some miscellaneous presets. Everyone once in a while, I will apply my “Daytime Pseudo HDR preset on a photo of Sarah, and show it to her just for kicks and grins. (Important note: much like photographing your female significant other at the edge of an ultra-wide angle lens, you should never apply HDR processing to her.) I pull up only one category (star-ranking) of photos at a time, narrowing it by lens in Bridge, and I then open that batch of photos in ACR, and apply the given preset. I then scroll through the photos and determine if any fine-tuned adjustments need to be made to any of the photos. These adjustments are usually crops and white balance. If so, I make the adjustments, and save the batch. For the 1-4 star photos, editing is usually 30 seconds or less per photo.

Substantively, these presets generally consist of adjustments to contrast, blacks, fill, brightness, vibrance, sharpness, and lens distortion. All of the presets increase fill to at least 30 initially. In the case of non-portraits, this is an even higher number, sometimes as high as 75. This is, along with the blacks increase, is probably the most identifiable characteristic of my photos. The fill increase opens up the shot, and coupled with an increase to the blacks, it gives the shot a glossy, almost “magazine-like” (for lack of a better term) appearance. It is important to be careful not to “over-fill;” this is especially true for portraits and shots with shallow depth of field and darker backgrounds/bokeh. In portraits, it can make the subject’s face look odd, and in shallow depth of field shots, it can produce harsh lines between different elements of bokeh.

The next step is increasing the blacks. All of my presets go to at least 7 on this. I usually go higher, depending on the shot and how much I increased the fill. Often, my black levels are in the 20s or 30s. Contrast similarly increases to around 40 for most presets. I usually sharpen to 50 or 60 in ACR if I won’t be opening in Photoshop, and lens distortion removal is automatic based on the lens I’m using. Vibrance is usually increased to at least 30, with individual adjustments made after that. I often find myself pulling back the saturation of the reds, yellows, and oranges, specifically.

White balance is the one thing that I typically adjust on every photo (or I control+click to adjust it for a series of photos with similar lighting. It’s just too difficult, for me at least, to develop a preset that accurately adjusts the white balance. Maybe someone more intelligent than me knows of a good way. I don’t mind adjusting it on each photo, though. Besides, I view white balance as an artistic decision, and often the technically correct white balance isn’t the best looking white balance. After I adjust the white balance, I do a quick fist pump and cheer “yipee” (yes, after every photo) and proceed to the next shot.

This sums up what I do in ACR, which is where I make my most significant changes. Ironically, I spend significantly more time editing a photo in Photoshop (that 30 seconds increases to around 30 minutes on average), but the changes are far less substantial. There, I use adjustment masks, the shadow/highlight tool, and a whole host of plugins and other tools to give the photos that little extra pop.

Now that I’ve shared some of my secrets, I’m curious to hear the methods you all use to achieve your own signature styles. Share some tips in the comments!


  1. Kurt Miller   |   Feb 4, 2011

    Probably some of this is done by your use of fill light, but I find that one of the things to easily bring out the details that are seemingly ‘lost’ in the shadows is in the Highlights menu (Image->Adjustments->Shadow/Highlights). See here for a little tutorial: It almost gives a HDR look. I typically play with the sliders until I get something that I like, especially the shadows one.

    • Tom Bricker   |   Feb 4, 2011

      Excellent point, Kurt! That is actually the “shadow/highlight tool” I mention at the bottom of the post. I used to use this tool quite a bit, but I use it exceedingly sparingly since fill light works so well in ACR. Two notes when using the shadow/highlight tool: 1) don’t bring up the highlights too much (anything more than 4% and you’re starting to grey the whites), and 2) convert your image to a smart object before applying this adjustment, and then you can mask where necessary.

  2. Charles Brabec   |   Feb 4, 2011

    I use fill for shadows a lot lately, but I almost always leave the black level at 0 or 2. My thinking being that I want all that data to bring into photoshop before I run Topaz Adjust/Detail, so I don’t want lightroom to chop it off before I get to that step. After ‘shopping, then I adjust the black level with curves, again, not as dramatically as you do. Something new for me to try, I think. Thanks for sharing.

    • Charles Brabec   |   Feb 5, 2011

      Tried it your way on my last round of processing. For the ones I didn’t plan to PS, using fill and black level really does nice things. Thanks again for the post.

  3. cleothecat   |   Feb 4, 2011

    I am primarily a portrait photographer – but love to do scenics – and also love photographing at Walt Disney World. I’ve always done a lot of post-processing – but love your suggestions to do it in ACR. I do use Lightroom – but don’t love it. I tried it on a few of my Disney images and I’m already seeing the ‘pop’ I was looking for! Thank you for sharing.

    • Tom Bricker   |   Feb 4, 2011

      I’m not much of a Lightroom fan either (partly, I think, because I’m stuck in my ways with Bridge and ACR, but it doesn’t seem like it brings much to the table beyond what Bridge and ACR offer), and have beta-tested but never actually purchased any version. My workflow may be inefficient (I don’t think it is, but everyone seems to say you MUST use Lightroom to be efficient, and I don’t), but it works well for me.

  4. Christian Lambert   |   Feb 4, 2011

    Nice job with the workflow Tom! I actually started trying your workflow with ACR back when you posted the twitter photo of you working on your shot of the fountains in France. Once I saw Bridge open, I knew you had been using ACR. So I gave it a try and it’s actually a pretty comfortable workflow! Thanks for inspiring me to try something different!

  5. Danielle   |   Feb 5, 2011

    Hey Tom!!
    LOVE your photos!! My dad and I are big amateur photographers and I’ve been looking into getting him a computer program to make his photos “pop.” I tried looking up ACR, but it keeps coming up with Lightroom, which you and CleotheCat are not fans of. Is ACR part of Lightroom?? Is Bridge included with ACR?? Is ACR just part of Photoshop?? I am sorry if these are silly or newbie questions, but I am still a little confused on all this. We have an HDR program (PhotoMatrix) already, but we still can’t get our photos to pop the way yours do. Thanks so much for your help and info!!

    • Adam Hansen   |   Feb 5, 2011

      Not sure when Tom will see this so figured I would chime in. ACR is Adobe Camera Raw, it is part of Adobe Photoshop. Bridge is also part of Adobe Photoshop, so if you purchase Photoshop both are included. If you do not have Photoshop then I would recommend Lightroom. Essentially it is the same as ACR but without needing to have Photoshop. Photoshop brand new will cost $700 while Lightroom would cost $300. Bridge is used to navigate and organize your photos, that is built into Lightroom so you would not be losing that functionality. In fact it is more robust in Lightroom and allows for more in depth tagging, collections and more.

      I am hoping to have a post up in the next week or so focusing on Lightroom. Feel free to ask any other questions you have.

    • Tom Bricker   |   Feb 5, 2011

      Adam is right on the money. If you’ve never used anything before, LR is probably a fine option. I am just used to ACR & Bridge, so it works better for me. I realize that may sound petty, but it’s just the way it is for me. I guess at 26 I’m already an old dog to whom you can’t teach new tricks?!

      For what it’s worth, if you have an @edu email address, you can get PS for CONSIDERABLY less than $700.

      • Danielle   |   Feb 5, 2011

        Thank you both so much for the reply!! I am looking into the price difference between the Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop for college student pricing. I took a photo class in high school a few years ago and we used Photoshop, on what I am sure was a basic to slightly intermediate level so I am a little familiar with it. Thanks so much guys!!

        Also, Tom I was wondering how you took your profile pic?? It is so cool and pristine. I would love to try and recreate it. I never would have thought to try to take photos on that ride, but it definitely came out great!!

        Thanks so much!! Have a great weekend!!


        • Tom Bricker   |   Feb 9, 2011

          Believe it or not, I took that photo with a point and shoot. I’ve since redone it several times with my DSLR, but I always seem to be making an idiotic facial expression, or I have a double chin, so I’ve yet to top the simple P&S version.

  6. Scott Smith   |   Feb 5, 2011

    It’s great to finally see your processing process. Your pics definitely have a certain signature look. And I’ve been wondering for quite some time of what your main adjustments were. But I know how much of a write-up it can be to describe just the ‘basic’ techniques. And I was confident you’d display it somewhere eventually.

  7. Christopher Jones   |   Feb 7, 2011

    Great blog!!
    Glad that I read your blog I found it very useful.
    Hope to see more post soon!!

  8. Dustin   |   Feb 8, 2011

    Hey Tom, LOVE your work. As an avid photographer myself on the other coast at Disneyland, I always enjoy checking out your work and loved how you captured your vision of DL perfectly during your recent visit. Thank you for sharing some of your workflow on here. You mentioned you use a few plugins. I follow a similar workflow to you as well in ACR and PS. I was wondering if you could share with me some of the plugins you use? I am always looking for new things to try out with my images. Thanks!



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