My Mid-2011 Photography Workflow

Self Portrait in a Moving Mirror

My photography workflow has evolved significantly over the last couple of years – “evolved” being perhaps a euphemism for “gotten more complicated”! I’ve been influenced by paying attention to the workflow of others – picking up tips especially from watching Trey Ratcliff and others as they’ve shared their approaches. I’ve wanted to write this down for my own reference – and, now that I’ve written it up, thought it might be worth sharing as well. So, read on for my photography workflow – as it stands today.

Basic configuration

My primary computer is a 15-inch MacBook Pro with the higher resolution matte display and 8 GB of memory. Recently, I added a 27-inch LED Cinema Display – which I’m really enjoying for my photography work.

My photo master files are on an portable external 1 TB drive which is backed up to a second external drive at home. The MBP is backed up regularly with SuperDuper and continuously with Time Machine.

My primary photography database – Lightroom 3 – is on the MBP, not on the external drives. For serious blending and image tweaking, I use Photoshop CS5. I also have Nik and Topaz tools installed in both Lightroom and Photoshop. For HDR work, I use Photomatix Pro.

I’m currently using three cameras: my iPhone 4, a Canon PowerShot S95, and a Canon 5D Mark II. The iPhone shoots JPEG format images while I’m almost always shooting in RAW on the two Canons. I used to switch more often between RAW and JPEG on the Canons – before finding out how successful single image RAW shots could be when post-processed in HDR (High Dynamic Range). Since realizing that, I’ve defaulted to always shooting in RAW when it’s available in the camera.

Post-Shooting Workflow – Import and Quick Review

After coming back from a day of shooting images, I’ll remove the SD or CompactFlash card from the camera and import the images into Lightroom 3. Lightroom copies the images to my external photo masters hard drive when my images are organized into folders by year and year-month-day. On import, I also add keywords and copyright information – although when keywording I’ll only add those that apply to the whole collection of about to be imported photos. More specific image key wording comes later – when and if I get around to it!

After importing the images to Lightroom, I’ll usually make a quick pass through them, perhaps rating those that I particularly like as either 4 or 5 stars – and deleting any that I think are obviously weak shoots. At this point, I can be finished and move on to other things – and that’s what I usually do. I’ll come back to the images later – later that day or, sometimes, days or weeks later. It all depends on what else is going on in my life and the time available for post-processing! If I’ve been to a family event and want to share the images (usually on Flickr in a private family-only album), I’ll quickly post-process and upload the images. If the photos were just for me, then I’ll typically get back to them “eventually”.

Post-Processing Workflow – Time for Serious Editing

When I’m ready to do some serious editing and post-processing, I’ll once again use Lightroom 3 to review the images and decide which one(s) to process.

For non-HDR related work, I’ll often make almost all of the tweaks using the Develop module in Lightroom. Typically, those tweaks involve adjusting the white balance, basic exposure, adding some clarity, sharpening, reducing noise, and, often, adding a subtle vignette to the image. If an image needs more serious tweaking, I have both the Nik and Topaz suites of tools available from Lightroom and can make use of them as required – but that’s usually rare.

For HDR-related work, the flow depends upon whether I’ve shot a series of exposure bracketed images (traditional HDR) or whether I’m processing a single image RAW file into an HDR image.

For single image RAW processing, I will use Lightroom’s Show in Finder to open a Finder window with the particular image highlighted and then drag that image to Photomatix in my dock. Photomatix will open the image and I can then proceed to make the adjustments to turn it into a nice looking HDR image. Importantly, when using this technique for processing images from, in particular, the Canon S95, there will be camera lens barrel distortion that hasn’t been removed from the original RAW file. Whether that matters or not depends on the image. If its an architectural shot where the edges of buildings shouldn’t be bending, I’ll finish the HDR work in Photomatix, save the result as a JPEG and import the JPEG into Lightroom. I’ll then use Lightroom’s Lens Calibration feature to tweak the image manually.

For traditional bracketed HDR shots, I’ll export the group of images from Lightroom to disk in full quality and then import them into Photomatix for HDR processing. Once tweaked in Photomatix, I’ll save the final result to JPEG and import the tone-mapped image to Lightroom. That way, I have the originals and the tone mapped HDR version together in Lightroom. When doing this import, I’m using Lightroom to Copy the image into my photo masters folder on the external hard drive.

Ultimate Processing – Diving into Photoshop

For many images, that’s enough – they’ll look great, they won’t need more work, and you’ll be very happy with them.

But for those very special HDR images where you really want near perfection, you’ll want to bring the images into Photoshop as layers and work some additional magic to get there. The simplest was to do this, as taught by Trey Ratcliff, is to export the images from Lightroom to a folder. Then, using Adobe Bridge, select the tone mapped HDR and the original images and use Bridge’s Tools/Photoshop/Open as Photoshop Layers menu command to bring the images into a single, layered Photoshop image. From there, you’ll work the layers, blend modes, etc. – making your adjustments – and then save the final result as a maximum quality JPEG file. I will then import the result back into Lightroom so that it’s saved along with the originals in my photo masters folder.

The Master Portfolio – Back to iPhoto

As you might suspect, my Lightroom photo collection/database is very large as it contains all of the original images from right out of the camera along with any intermediate and final results from the post-processing I’ve described above. So, again following a bit of Trey’s advice, I’ve begun using iPhoto to preserve my best results – a portfolio of what I consider my best images. Using iPhoto for this offers the advantage of its great integration with Mac software and also with my iPhone and iPad devices. I can get the best use out of my best images by having them in iPhoto rather than being just buried in Lightroom. Also, my iPhoto images are on my MBP’s hard drive, not on the external drive – so they’re always with me and independent of the external drive (which is usually tucked away in my backpack).

Sharing Your Best – Uploading

I enjoy sharing what I think are my best photos – and will use the tools in either Lightroom or iPhoto to upload them to various online services. Flickr has been my primary online sharing site. More recently, I’ve enjoyed Google+ and its Picasa integration and have been doing some sharing there too. When I upload, I’m typically uploading images with a maximum resolution of 1024 pixels on the longest edge and at 90% JPEG quality. That minimizes the upload time while presenting a decent enough version for sharing with friends and family.

Having Fun!

So, the basics of my photography workflow. Now that I’ve written it down, it seems like a lot. But, like a lot of things, once you’re in the flow it works well for me. I enjoy the process and continue to learn from others new approaches to creating great images. That’s the fun in it all.

Now, It’s Your Turn!

How about you – what’s your photography workflow? How can I learn from you about ways to improve? Let me know in the comments here!

[Cross-posted to Google+]

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