Workflow 2009

I was talking to a friend about workflow and I realized that I've typed the same set of steps a few times for different people recently, so I might as well post it here. I'm coming to digital photography with a fair amount of experience in the Information Technology area so I have a fair idea of how to safely and efficiently deal data.   I also have an eye towards longevity of my data regardless of what software comes and goes.  Above all, I don't want to be tied to any particular tool since I've been burned by that before.

First, a couple of key points:

  • My workflow is probably more described as "data management" than "artistic workflow". :-)  How very unartistic of me...
  • I use Adobe's Lightroom a lot.  Once I realized I needed a "workflow system", there were only two choices:  Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture.  The first versions of Aperture were quirky (remember how it wouldn't manage your photos unless you imported them into its own universe?) and Apple (a former employer of mine) has a real attitude problem around metadata management, exporting, and openness; so it was Lightroom for me.  No, I haven't used Aperture recently, so I'm not sure if it's changed or not.
  • I shoot Canon RAW files.  Anything worth getting the camera out for is probably worth capturing RAW.  It's easier to throw data away later than it is to get it back, so I start with as much data as possible.  Still photography is the most data-intensive thing I do, so I'm in no danger of running out of space.  Hard drives keep getting bigger, faster than I can fill mine up.  I don't expect I'll ever fill a whole hard drive, based on the rate that I take pictures.  Perhaps after I get into video...
  • I throw things out if I'm sure I'm never going to want them again.   Sure, I shoot wildlife on High Speed motor drive, but I throw out the bad ones.  If it's blurry, it goes.  If I have 6 shots that are virtually identical, I pick the best one or two and toss the rest.  Life's too short to sort through this stuff more than once!
  • I don't want very much of my metadata tied up in any particular tool, like in a Lightroom or Aperture database.  I want to be able to maintain my organization of pictures for a long time, even if those tools cease to exist.  For that reason I use lots of folders with descriptive names so I can probably find things just from a file browser.  Long live the hierarchical filesystem!
  • Similarly, I use sidecar XMP files for editing data.  After importing and geotagging, the RAW file never gets changed - all changes happen in the small .xmp file.  This jives with my backup solution (rsync) really well.
  • I make lots of backups to various external hard drives, using rsync.  Everything's on one drive, so it's easy.  I don't do incrementals - I just rsync the whole thing.
  • I love geotagging.  I've written about geotagging on this blog before, and I really like having that data attached to my pictures.

So, having said that, here are the steps:

  1. Shoot some pictures.  On my Canon dSLR, to 8 GB Compact Flash cards, preferably UDMA for faster uploads to the computer.  Clearing cards out on vacation and re-using them is for weenies.  Cards are cheap these days, so I can have the luxury of not erasing cards until the pictures have been imported into my home computer and backed up.  When I travel I sync to a laptop every night but I prefer not to erase the cards, just in case something happens to the laptop.
  2. Import Using the Finder in Mac OS.  Yes, I know Lightroom has some really cool import features and I've used it before.  I would probably use it more if it started copying to the hard drive AS SOON as I insert the card.  In other words, don't wait until I finish with the import dialog box to start copying - start it NOW!In the meantime, I copy to a directory like "/Volumes/Photos/2009/TahoeSkiTrip/card1" by hand, using the Finder or rsync if I'm running low on battery, because rsync is as fast as it gets.
  3. Copy gps track files from the Garmin, over USB in Mass Storage Mode.  Sometimes this doesn't happen until later.
  4. Use GPSPhotoLinker to write GPS data into the RAW files.  This step is kind of scary, since the RAW file gets modified by something not written by Canon, but I haven't corrupted a RAW file yet, and I've got the original on Compact Flash still, right? Sometimes geotagging doesn't happen until after I've edited and sorted and culled in Lightroom.  That's OK - you just select all the files in Lightroom, Save Metadata, geotag them in GPSPhotoLinker, then Read Meatadata in Lightroom.
  5. Batch rename to make a useful filename.  I start with something like IMG-6354.CR2 and end up with something like YosemiteBear-6354.CR2.  The sequence number stays in place for referring to the image easily but the useless IMG tag changes to something more human (and search engine) friendly.
  6. Time-sync multiple cameras.  If I'm shooting with more than one body (like at a football game) or when I'm shooting with the point and shoot as well as an SLR, I like the have the clocks on all the cameras synced.   But you don't really have to set the clocks on the cameras - you can sync the times later with Lightroom's batch editing of capture times.  When I'm out shooting I try to take pictures of a clock with a second hand with each camera.  The best is to take a picture of the time display on the GPS, because then I can batch-correct the pictures from all the bodies to GPS time, which makes geocoding pictures more accurate. In the case of my recent wedding, I had lots of people send me their pictures but the clocks on all the cameras were slightly out of sync.  It turns out that EVERYONE took a picture of our first kiss, so I just used that as my sync point.  Now I can look through all the photos that everyone took sorted by capture time and see things in order.  I usually review things sorted by capture time since that's how my brain remembers things.
  7. Backup to external drive if I'm at home.  rsync is my friend.  This first backup takes a while because it's copying the RAW files.  From here on out, the RAW files shouldn't change and further backups should be just the small xmp files.  If I move files into subdirectories while I sort then the files will get re-copied during the next backup.  Oh Well...
  8. Sort and edit.  This is where I flag up, flag down, and sort into lots of sub-folders, using Lightroom.  Sometimes I can't wait and I start sorting and editing immediately, like while files are still importing.  Often I keep editing and tweaking years after I take a photo as my tastes change, my skill level increases, my tools get better, etc.
  9. Make some prints.  I mostly shoot with the idea that I'm going to print it out.  I'm aiming to hang things on the wall and to me, nothing beats looking at something in hard copy.  At 29 cents for a 4x6 print, it's easy to upload a batch of photos exported from Lightroom and get a set of "proofs".  On the last Wyoming trip I even uploaded the prints from the first half of the trip while we were still in Wyoming, so I had a set of 4x6's waiting for me when we got home!
  10. Do fine-tuning on images I like.  Sometimes I bring them into Photoshop for editing, sometimes I make HDRs with Photomatix, sometimes I just use lots of targeted adjustments in Lightroom until I like what I've got.  Certain images deserve more attention and certain images are "problematic" and I'll probably never end up with a version I'm really happy with.   Some images will probably never be finished with the "edit, print, re-edit" cycle of life.  I keep jpgs of most of the prints I made so I can see how the image has progressed over time and compare screen versions to hard copy.
  11. Backup again.  Since I just rsync the whole drive all at once, any changes I've made to any photos from the current shoot or any earlier shoot get backed up automatically.  I also occasionally send hard drives to family for safe keeping.
  12. Keyword.  Doing the keywording really sucks, but pays huge dividends later.  For the sports I shoot I end up tagging all the good pictures with every identifiable player or coach in the frame.   That really pays off when searching for things later.   For landscape or other personal work it's less straightforward.  I do what I can and hope that it'll pay off eventually.

Wow - It looks like a lot (and it is when there are thousands fo images from a shoot) but the process is sound. Doing a good job takes a certain amount of work and shortcuts don't pay off in the long run.

I'm sure something will change and there will be a new version of this document next year or the year after.   This is just a snapshot of how I do things now.  You're mileage may vary, and I'm not going to get into any arguments about how your way is wrong, or my way is better, etc.  It works for me and matches my needs - it might not work for you.