Don't have a DSLR that produces very high quality images? Read on!
Modern DSLR cameras are highly flexible, fast and produce RAW format images which contain all the data produced by the image sensor. That means none of your data is lost and most of the adjustments can be done later to achieve impressive results. But what if you only have highly compressed JPEG images only? What if you shot a photo at 14MP and it is hardly 2MB in size?
That simply means you lost a LOT of color information because JPEG compression causes loss of information.
Here's a suggested workflow: (only the post processing part. Management of your personal image database is something you must do on your own)
1. Import your photos from your camera to a local hard disk. Never use external disks for anything except backup. It reduces speed drastically.
2. Use NoiseNinza to remove noise - Try color noise reduction as 15 and smoothness at 5 if you're going to make an HDR image. Move luminance slider around till all grains disappear at 100% zoom. In all cases use sharpen radius as default 1.2px and sharpen at 30% or less. Otherwise you'll get rejected images here.
Save as TIFF. (NEVER save an image in any other format than TIFF or RAW. Save the final output as JPEG for upload. Never delete the original camera JPEG either. Mark them read only so you don't do something by mistake.)
Or you may use Topaz labs plugin for noise reduction. Though NoiseNinza is the best I think.
3. Open "denoised" TIFF in PhotoShop or GIMP, whatever you have. Both are good enough.
4. Use Spot healing tool or patch healing tool to remove "blind spots" (small white dots present in all your photos. Mainly due to damaged sensor element.) and also remove obvious dust spots (usually seen in macro lens shots with unclean lens).
5. Check at 300% for chromatic aberration or purple-green stains at places where bright pixels meet dark pixels. If they are present, create a duplicate layer, use Gaussian blur of 5px (for little stains) or 15px if there is severe problem. Set mode as "Color" instead of "Normal". Improvise on this method by yourself for now. I'd write the detailed and accurate process later some day. Finally merge the layers.
6. Do levels/shadow-highlight/curves adjustments as appropriate. It would take a book to explain these. So experiment till you get it right. Experience is the best teacher. Again, merge all layers. I rarely do these adjustments. They affect photo quality badly if you don't have a RAW file.
7. Increase the master saturation to +6 or maximum +12. I usually use +6. If you mess with this too much your photos get rejected for over application of filters or excessive post processing. For wildlife photos, increasing vibrance instead of saturation works better. Again, +6 to +10. No more.
8. Now the export part. Final stage. Check at 100% to see if focus is okay. If it looks soft, you may downsample photo. My camera gives 14MP@4320X3240. I downsample to 8MP@3240X2430. No harm. Dreamstime upscales your photos anyway and most DSLRs used to give an 8MP image.
9. Now the sharpening stage. Skip this if you're not experienced enough. If you oversharpen, your photos will be rejected. Do this by experience. This step makes your photos look better if done correctly.
10. Check again at 100% zoom. Looks good? Great! Save as JPEG with minimum compression and at highest file size.
11. I won't tell you what to do finally. This step is top secret.
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NOTE: The image on top of the article has gone through the exact workflow. Initially it was packed with noise and motion blur because of being shot with Canon SX30 from inside a running car at night at 840mm focal length, 1/8 shutter speed and ISO800 (SX30 gives noise at even ISO80 and broad daylight). Absolutely horrible shooting parameters that would shock a professional.
Image on right---->
has also been processed this way. It had lots of chromatic problems.