Workflow – What is it good for?

If you read the musings here you’ll know that I like to co-opt song titles and lyrics. So, with a nod to Edwin Starr we’re going to talk about the idea of ‘workflow’.

What is workflow? It’s a term used a lot in photography but is it a term that people generally know what it means?

Very simply, workflow is the way we complete a task. The steps one takes from start to finish. In photography it is typically used to discuss the post-capture editing process. The idea is that by creating a repeatable set of steps – a workflow – we don’t forget anything and we can work more quickly and efficiently. Time is money, after all. If we charge by the hour then we may be incentivized to take more time in editing but that is doing a disservice to the client. For non-working photographers, the more efficient the editing process, the more time is available for other important things like family. Not that family isn’t important to working photographers and for that reason, keeping the editing process more efficient is beneficial too, even if it does come at the expense of a few billable hours. Really, it is much more than just the editing process though. It is, or at least I think it should be, a mindset of how we approach the overall task of photography.

Have you ever gone out to shoot, opened up your kit bag to discover you’ve forgot something at home or the office? Have you ever had camera settings that weren’t right for the situation, left over from the last shoot? Have you ever had batteries die very soon after turning the camera on? These too are workflow issues. It’s a matter of getting into a routine not just for editing but for the entire process. Forming good habits.

What I’ll outline is the essence of my approach to a workflow. It may be more or less extensive than yours. You may feel that I’ve missed some important steps. You may feel that I do things you consider unimportant. That’s all right. The idea is to develop a process that works for you. It doesn’t have to be the same for everyone.

Pre-Shoot

My pre-shoot and post-shoot routines overlap in some respects. If I know I’m going out on a specific date, I’ll start a day in advance and make sure that my batteries are charged and/or charging. I’ll make a note of what gear I’ll need/want for the situation and pack that the night before. Whatever accessories I need will also be packed the night before. This includes things like tripods, filters, flashes and such.

The day of, before I leave the office, freshly charged batteries will be put in the camera(s). Memory cards will be inserted and formatted. Spare batteries – spare batteries are a must – get packed in the bag before leaving. Extra memory cards – unformatted – will go into the kit bag. I’ll double-check that I have everything I think I’ll need. In a case where I am shooting in multiple locations during a single trip (e.g., multiple properties for a contractor) I will use different memory cards for each location. This allows me to more easily import the images into the proper project folder and not have to bother with the tedious checking and unchecking of images on a single card when importing into Lightroom.

Shot lists are also a good idea. These are not necessary in every situation, but for more ‘structured’ shoots like in a studio, at an event, a wedding, senior portraits and similar situations, creating a shot list will help ensure that an important shot is not forgotten. Think of it like a grocery list for photographers. How many times have you come home from the grocery store and realized you forgot something because you didn’t have a list? Trust me, as you get older, it happens with increasing frequency. In situations where you are going out for a hike and plan to take photos along the way, or in street photography, a shot list is less important because your shooting will be governed more by what you see along the way rather than a need to get certain shots. When you are working with a client, talk with them to find out what they want/need and incorporate that into your shot list.

Sometimes we may get a call to go out last minute. This changes the process a bit, but not significantly. By following a good post-shoot workflow, we can be confident that we are ready even on short notice. Packing the bag for a last minute outing will still need to be done with care to make sure everything needed or anticipated to maybe be needed is there.

Post-Shoot

All the gear I used will be packed away and the bag will be checked to verify that everything is there. I’ll do a final look around of the area – room, ground, studio – to make sure I’ve not left anything laying around.

Back in the office, the camera will be unpacked and put back on the shelf. Same with lenses. Memory cards will be taken out of the camera and put on the desk by the card reader. If I used additional memory cards, those will be taken out and also put by the card reader. All the various accessories that were packed will be put back in the proper storage area. Batteries that are in the camera will get taken out and put on to charge. This happens even if the battery is at 50% or 90% charge. It’s part of the habit-forming process. The batteries we use today do not suffer from the memory issues that older batteries did so charging a battery that isn’t fully discharged will not affect the charge capacity. Other batteries, used or not, are put on the shelf by the charger and are swapped out when the charging is complete. Even batteries that were not used are put on the charger just to be sure. Again, part of the habit-forming process. If I were to try to remember which batteries were used and which weren’t, I know I’d miss something and end up with a dead battery at some point.

When the cameras are being put away, I make sure to reset the various settings to a ‘default’. This way, I always know what the camera is set at before I go out and I don’t get surprised by some odd ISO or shutter speed. For me, the ‘default’ settings are aperture priority, ISO 100 (or 200, or whichever is the ‘base’ ISO for the camera), Auto White Balance and single-shot autofocus. From there, I can change as needed for the specific situation. But I always know that the cameras are at those base settings when I leave the office. That way, I also know to verify the settings when I get to the location to make sure I have the right ones for the conditions.

With all the gear put away and batteries on to charge, I begin the process of downloading the pictures to the computer. I use Lightroom as my primary data management package. The images are imported from the cards into the folders on the hard drive and into the Lightroom catalogue simultaneously.

Applying Presets on Importing

You can apply develop, or keyword, or other metadata information to the images at the time of importing into Lightroom. I don’t do this all the time, but will on occasion. When I will do it is when I’ve been shooting everything for a single purpose or in a single location. I’ll apply keywords on import and some very cursory develop settings. I have created develop presets that have capture sharpening tied to each different camera I use and apply lens corrections on import. Other than that, nothing else is done from a develop standpoint at the time of importing. My preference is to develop each image individually, or if there are groups of images that can have the same settings applied, do so by processing one and syncing those edits to the rest, rather than doing it on import. I want to actually see the images and decide what to do to them rather than applying edits sight unseen.

The Importance of Organization

Reading the above, you’ll be getting the idea that I’m of the opinion that organizing things is important. And it is. Not just gear but also our pictures. I’ve dedicated a fair bit of space to the idea of image organization in my two prior books and do in my new HDR book that’s coming out as well.

Keywording images is an important part of the organization process. It will help us find photos across folders or hard drives and can speed up the process of finding multiple images. But when we only need to find a few photos, a strong folder hierarchy can make doing so without using keywords much simpler. Long before we had Lightroom or Bridge, photographers kept binders of negatives and had to come up with a way to organize these and be able to find negatives or transparencies quickly. They developed a cataloguing system that worked for them. I strongly recommend doing the same with images on your computer. Come up with a folder architecture that works for what and how you shoot. Below is a screen shot from Lightroom that shows a section of my folder hierarchy. It’s broken down quite finely and I am able to easily find images without having to use keywords and search tools.

LR Folder Hierarchy

LR Folder Hierarchy

With the image files downloaded onto the computer and into Lightroom, I can begin the editing process. If I have not applied keywords on import, that is the first step. Personally I don’t do an initial cull of photos, I leave that till after keywording. I also don’t use star rankings or color ratings in my organizational process. That is a personal preference and I have just not found it useful – for my purposes. If I were to do that, it would be done after keywording and culling. As much as possible, I work from the most images to the fewest when applying keywords. That is, I start with keywords that will apply to the largest number, perhaps all, of the downloaded images then gradually work my way down to keywords that may apply to just a few images. This makes the process more efficient.

Once keywording is done, I can move on to initial review and culling. I don’t tend to remove many. Typically I’ll only delete those that are obviously mis-focused or misframed, or that have subject/camera movement that makes them unusable.

Culling complete, I can move on to editing. How you edit is really a personal matter. The order of operations is something you can determine for yourself. Adobe, in its Lightroom and Camera Raw applications, has put the tools in the order it thinks is best. Interestingly, the order of operations is different in the two applications. Not sure why Adobe has maintained this inconsistency between the two.

My own approach is to, again, start from most and work to least. What I mean by that is, there are some edits that can be applied to all images. These include capture sharpening and lens corrections. If you did not do those at the import stage, you can do them now in batch through the Sync feature. If I want to use a profile other than Adobe Standard, that can be done at this early stage as well and synced to all the images in the set.

With the global edits done, the work begins of editing individual images or applying edits to smaller groups of photos.

Any editing that will be done in Photoshop is done after this stage by exporting the image to PS and making sure that when I save the it, I use the Save As command and save it back to the proper sub-folder on the hard drive. That way various file types are kept separate from the RAW files.

It does not make sense to go through the image-specific part of the process because that will differ depending on what each photo needs. Converting to black-and-white is a different process from keeping the image in color.

Images will be resized and output sharpening will be applied depending on the end use.

That is a quick look at a workflow. It is what works for me. What works for you will be different and I encourage you to think about and develop a good workflow and good work habits so that the time spent shooting and editing is as productive and efficient as possible.

How do you approach the idea of workflow?

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