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Photography workflows

November 29th, 2010 by Nate
Every photographer has his or her own workflow, some more efficient than others. Proper organization and redundancy can save a lot of time in the long run, and it doesn't have to be complicated.

A good organizational system is unobtrusive, fast, and easy to use. It fits in so well that it becomes habit and provides grounds for further process improvement. I’ve always been on the hunt for the magic bullet when it comes to file organization on my machine… Unfortunately, that probably doesn’t exist. But it has led me to continuously improve and refine my own workflow to a point where I have a set system in place every time I come back from a photoshoot.

When I get back from a photo shoot, the first thing I want to do is load up the photos on the computer and take a look at them, and start editing. I don’t want to worry about backing up my files or organizing them perfectly yet, I just want to get to work. If you shoot in RAW most of the time, and these large files aren’t delivered to the client, why not archive them right away when you bring them in from your camera cards? It’s always good to keep these files around as backups in case your finished JPEGs get lost or damaged. Plus, you never know if you’ll revisit some of those photos a year or two later because you learned a new trick or gotten better at editing. In that case, it’s always nice to have a clean slate to work with. I’ve set up a folder on my internal backup storage drive called “Archived RAW photos” where I dump all the raw files all into a single folder labeled with the date and project upon import.

Lightroom makes working with batches of RAW files both extremely fast and non-destructive, and I just do my editing right from the archive. Rather than importing every single photo into one catalog in Lightroom (which can get slow and cumbersome), I create a separate catalog for each project and then place it into a “cat” folder alongside the RAW photos. Once my photos are imported into that catalog, the basic editing begins. I like to get the photos to a sort of “baseline” level in Lightroom with color correction and levels adjustments first. While I’m editing, I’ll mark my favorites with a red label and other ones I like with a yellow label. This helps to sort the images so I’m only exporting the ones I want to deliver.

Once complete, the photos are exported my projects folder and labeled with the date and name of shoot. I can then take these photos and continue processing them individually or batch in Photoshop, where my creative vision isn’t limited by available tools. If there are any especially outstanding photos, I’ll place copies of them in a “Portfolio” folder where I can have quick access to my best work. The simple goal at the end is to have the RAW files backed up in a place where they won’t be touched, and the final JPEG files neatly catalogued in my photo projects folder where they are easy to find and share, without any extraneous files scattered about. This is especially useful when it comes time to backup your computer or find a shot from a specific shoot.

I guess this method of organization could be considered somewhat old-school… Programs like lightroom have built-in ways of tagging and organizing your photos for you. I find these systems inconsistent and untrustworthy – what happens when you lose all that information? Much like what happens when your iTunes library has to be redone, you lose all that hard work and time you spent organizing and tagging, etc. A logical and optimized system of folders is pretty bulletproof, and won’t change with new software or operating sytems.

Anyone else use lightroom for processing photos? What does your workflow look like – do you only use one catalog? Any other simple systems out there you’ve come up with?

More on organizational systems for designers in a future article.