Because I use Lightroom to develop and manage my digital photos I can save my collection wherever I like. I am not limited to a confined Vault or cramped Library like I am with Aperture or iPhoto. The directory hierarchies and naming conventions I use to organize my photos are my own. My workflow may not be suitable for all photographers, but it is one I have developed over the course of several years to fit my style of shooting and the subjects I shoot most. These are the practices I have adopted to get my photos imported, rated, developed, categorized, and shared.
Before opening Lightroom I remove my camera’s memory card and insert it into my computer’s card reader. I drag the entire DCIM folder from the memory card onto my computer’s Desktop. If I have more than one memory card to unload, I label the DCIM directories sequentially. I use Quicklook in the Finder to quickly assess my photos, deleting any out-of-focus images or unintended shots. If I have taken any photos of markers or signs I remove them from my workflow now and come back to them later when it is time to assign keywords and labels to my photographs. At this point I have two copies of my most recent photographs. One on my computer desktop, and one on my camera’s memory card.
After I have performed the unloading process with all of my cameras laden memory cards it is time to launch Lightroom. I keep all of my photographs, along with my Lightroom catalog, in a Lightroom folder I created at the root of my home folder. I use SpiderOak and Time Machine to backup my Lightroom photographs and Lightroom catalog, but exclude the multi-gigabyte “Lightroom 3 Catalog Previews.lrdata” directory from being part of the backup.
All of my photographs are captured in RAW for the flexibility it provides. All of my photographs are developed in Adobe DNG for the consolidation it provides. I am not concerned with opening my RAW files in a program other than Adobe Lightroom. I have been using Lightroom for the last three years and consider DNG part of the development, and archival process, not the final product of my photography. DNG has the added benefits of reducing the space used by each photograph, and removing the need for extraneous XMP sidecar files required by conventional RAW formats. With DNG my photograph, my adjustments, and my metadata are all saved together in one file.
I do not assign presets during the import process, but I do give my photographs some vague keywords indicating where a batch of photos was taken. The DNG conversion process copies my photos from the DCIM folders on my Desktop to a Import directory I created at the root of my Lightroom folder. It is important to have Lightroom render 1:1 previews during the import process to speed up the time it takes rating and developing my photos later. Converting photos to DNG, applying keywords, and rendering 1:1 previews can take several minutes on even the fastest Mac. It is best to get a snack and wait while Lightroom does its thing.
After all of my photos have converted to DNG and saved to my Lightroom folder I no longer need the originals stored in the DCIM folders on the Desktop. I wait until SpiderOak, and Time Machine have archived my Lightroom directory before deleting the originals. This leaves me with 4 copies of my newest photos. One on my memory cards, one in my Lightroom directory, one on SpiderOak, and one on Time Machine. I will format my memory cards in camera the next time I use them.
Just like iTunes I rate my photos on a 5 Star scale. 5 star photos are very rare, and are always the best shot of a particular subject. 4 star photos are more common, and may be the best shots from a particular trip. 3 star photos are still desirable, but are never printed, and rarely shared. 2 and 1 star photos are considered rejects and are only preserved as examples of what I need to do better next time. During the rating phase I quickly assign star ratings to prioritize my development process, but wait until my photos are fully developed before giving them their final rating.
Developing photographs is a personal process, but Lightroom makes it easy by recording each of my actions as History States. Any adjustments I make are non-destructive, and I can easily revert back to an earlier point in time if I make a mistake. I start my development process by manually organizing my photos by subject. This allows me to look at all of the photos of a particular subject together, and concentrate on the 4 and 5 star rated photos first.
Sometimes I have a particular vision when I take a photograph and sometimes I don’t. If I know how I want a photo to turn out I go about adjusting the development sliders until I arrive at the end result I pictured in my head when I pressed the shutter button. If I don’t know where I want a photo to go I use Lightroom’s auto setting to show me how the software would develop my photo and work my way up from there. If I am conflicted by which direction a particular photo should go I can always make a virtual duplicate and develop both paths to their final destination.
There are two adjustments I refrain from committing during the development phase, they are cropping, and sharpening. Cropping because I shoot to fill the frame. If I have to crop to bring out my subject I failed to do my job as a photographer. Sharpening because the degree in which I sharpen depends on the destination of my photograph. Print requires more sharpening than web, and the size of the finished piece determines the amount of sharpening for both. Of course cropping and sharpening are methods of artistic expression. Don’t let my self-imposed standards hold you back from realizing your image.
Good developing, just like good photography, is about trying new techniques and seeing what works best for you and your subject. If you are not taking risks with your development process you are not learning, and as I said before you can always go back if you make a mistake. It is rare for a photo to make it out of my Import folder without receiving some sort of adjustment.
I am a location photographer, not an event photographer. All of my photographs are organized by the location they were taken starting with the state, or country and moving down to the town, attraction, or neighborhood. For instance shots taken at my local aquarium are located in the Massachusetts folder, then the Boston folder, and finally the New England Aquarium folder. I even go so far to give specific subjects their own folders. The Golden Gate Bridge has its own folder in the San Francisco directory. The Lion has his own folder in the Franklin Park Zoo directory. During the course of categorization all of my new photos will be moved from the Import folder to their respective subfolders. It is during the categorization phase that I give my photos a final rating, and assign keywords describing their subject. It is easy to apply keywords when all of the photos of a particular subject are located in their own folder. I simply select all of the photos in a folder and apply the same keywords to the entire group. Keywords describing the subject are important for comparing similar subjects shot at different locations like bridges, and lions.
The time it takes to import, rate, develop, and categorize my photos would be wasted if I did not share the final results. Lightroom is not only a tool for the prep aration and organization of photos, but for their presentation as well. My Lightroom workflow is optimized for three presentation destinations, Flickr, iPad, and print.
Lightroom’s built-in publishing services makes posting my 5 star photos to Flickr simple. I sign into my Flickr account, choose my export quality, sharpen for screen, and apply an optional watermark. Any photo I add to my Flickr publishing service gets uploaded automatically, and if I modify my local copy the revised version replaces the original on Flickr. iPhoto duplicates the photos you export to Flickr meaning you have twice as may photos to maintain without the automatic uploading of revisions. I export my photos to Flickr watermark-free, and in a 1080p HD resolution suitable for full screen viewing on my Apple TV.
I use Lightroom’s publishing services to prepare the same 5 star photographs for full screen viewing on my iPad. My output settings are the same as before, but instead of Flickr my photos are exported to a local directory inside my Mac OS X Pictures folder suitable for syncing to my iPad over iTunes. These 1080px wide versions of my best photographs also make convenient attachments to email to my friends and family.
Lightroom’s printing engine it strong, and yet due to the price of supplies I do none of my own printing. All of my print jobs get exported through Lightroom’s Publishing Services to 300 DPI press ready tiffs suitable for large format printing at the service bureau of my choice.
Lightroom doesn’t help me produce great photos. My camera, my subject, and my vision do that. Lightroom merely makes the development process faster, bringing my best work forward while helping me learn from my mistakes. A good photography workflow is not about filters, keywords, or folders. It is about teaching us how to shoot by showing us what we need to do better the next time we are behind the camera.