My Workflow: From Camera to Online Archive

As I quickly learned when beginning my photo archive project, an efficient and well-defined workflow is essential to … well, not going crazy and floundering about in a sea of high resolution images. What format should I use? How should I keyword? How much to retouch if I may never use this photo? All questions that need to be answered or you’ll be continually second-guessing yourself, stressing out, and wasting time. Once you define a workflow and stick with it (though always be open to refining it) you can start chugging through those 1500+ images from that assignment you just shot with confidence.

Shoot RAW

  • Once you get over the shock of the increased file sizes on your memory cards and hard drive (you do have a massive external hard drive, right?), the benefits are significant
  • RAW functions as a digital negative. That means no matter how many tweaks you make in Lightroom, your edits are lossless, saved in either an XMP sidecar or the LR database (or both).
  • Adobe has launched its DNG (digital negative) format for that same function, but for now I’m sticking with Nikon’s NEF
  • I also prefer setting Lightroom to automatically save the XMP sidecars so that I can open edited versions of those files in other programs if need be and not be hamstrung if something happens to my Lightroom database. Which leads me to my next point…

Process in Adobe Lightroom

  • It would be nice if it had more of Photoshop’s editing features, especially a full-featured dodge/burn tool, but it saves sooooo much time on batch editing IPTC data (keywords, title, captions, etc.) that feature alone is worth it.
  • True, you can edit those fields in other programs, but I found my free NikonView software to be extremely slow and buggy beyond belief, and using Photoshop to open, edit, and save each file’s data is out of the question when processing hundreds of files.
  • Plus the ability to flip quickly between “Library” mode for tagging and quick exposure/tint/etc. tweaks and “Develop” mode for fine-grain editing (without having to open, save, etc. between each step) is a massive time saver.
  • When editing, I remember that every image will be posted online for all the world to see — and potentially purchase prints or downloads. So though I have to often fight perfectionist impulses to preserve my sanity, I do make sure everything is at least publication quality, even if not retouched to its artistic zenith.

Export TIFFs for Photoshop fine-tuning as needed

  • Now that I’ve gotten the hang of Lightroom, I almost never do this, but if it’s needed, the TIFF format is lossless
  • Of course, there’s no need to fill your drive with mega-large TIFF files if you’ve made all the needed refinements in the RAW+XMP files in Lightroom
  • Also LZW compression is a lossless compression option that makes a big difference in TIFF filesize. Though “lossless compression” sounds like an oxymoron, I choose to believe their voodoo.

Export final versions as JPEGs

  • Export JPEGs directly from Lightroom, or if you’ve done some TIFF fine-tuning, save a version as a final JPEG
  • I export highest quality JPEGs for my SmugMug archive, and microstock sites

OK, so those are the broad strokes. Here’s the detailed version:

Shoot RAW and Download

  • Fill up the memory card on my D90 with hundreds of images
  • Download to a temporary desktop folder named: yymmdd-keyword
  • Rename files as: yymmdd-####-keyword.NEF
  • Immediately backup all files on at least one external hard drive (preferably two), so there’s a copy on the laptop in a temporary folder and a backup on the external drive.

Process in Lightroom

Import folder into LR

  • I use a preset to automatically set noise reduction and sharpening levels for all images
  • set any keywords that apply to entire folder
  • export personal snapshots (if any) to a separate folder and then delete  from the main archive

First Pass

  • perhaps counterintuitively, I start in LR’s develop mode, with loupe view on my main screen and survey view on my secondary monitor
  • this allows me to select groups of similar images and compare them in the survey view, while setting attributes individually. In library mode, setting an attribute, such as a star rating, would set that attribute for the whole group–which is annoying.
  • so I then chew through the folder, biting off chunks of similar images and setting the following attributes:
  • flagging rejects (out-of-focus, blinkers, redundant, etc.) which I then delete as a group later–this saves time (deleting as you go is very cumbersome, at least on my computer, especially with the “are you sure?” prompts each time) and allows you to change your mind more easily in the meantime
  • set star ratings ***** for future reference
  • label potential microstock images (I use green)
  • retouch images as needed (exposure, histogram, spot adjust, crop, etc.)
  • delete rejects

Second Pass

  • enter IPTC data (keywords, title, captions)
  • generally, I use the dateline format on captions for shots, since most of my work will be uploaded as editorial stock
    example:  WASHINGTON, DC – JAN. 20, 2009: Crowds fill the National Mall for the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Export Final Images

  • Export TIFFs for Photoshop fine tuning if needed, then save max quality JPEGs to subfolder
  • Export all others directly as max quality JPEGs to subfolder
  • Upload all JPEGs to SmugMug archive
  • Export microstock shots as JPEGs to separate subfolders for each site (since different sites have different requirements)
  • Upload subfolders to microstock sites
  • Blow away initial backup on external drives and replace them with edited RAW+XMPs and final JPEG subfolder

And that’s about it. This is a work in progress — I’m continually making refinements. But so far it’s working pretty well. It works about the same for processing my old archived folders — which are all JPEGs — except that instead of having XMP sidecars, I believe that the data is embedded in the JPEG and image adjustments are stored in the Lightroom database. I then export edited versions from Lightroom to a “final JPEG” subfolder and preserve the unedited original JPEGs as the closest thing to a digital negative that I have (if I haven’t already permanently marred them with over-zealous edits in the past).

I’m still working out my negative scanning workflow, but that’s another post.

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