One of the questions I get asked quite often is how I process and organize all my images. I have tried different tools, including iPhoto, Aperture, and Lightroom. Each of these tools has strengths and weaknesses. iPhoto comes preinstalled on a Mac and provides basic photo editing and organization tools. Aperture and Lightroom pick up where iPhoto leaves off, offering more advanced editing capabilities, seamless integration with third-party plugins, and much better performance when dealing with large libraries. I have been using Lightroom since January of 2010, and it has become my favorite tool for photo processing and organization.
Over the last two years, I have developed a workflow that allows me to quickly pick and process images, automatically find images that need to be processed, and locate any image quickly. My workflow can be broken down into four parts: Import, Process, Export, and Backup.
Step One: Import
The first step is to import images into Lightroom. I keep my Lightroom libraries on external mirrored hard drives, and import images into folders named by the year and month, for example “2012-03 Photos” would hold photos from March of 2012.
Some folders in Lightroom
I have Lightroom convert the images to DNG format upon import. If the images I am importing all have something in common, for example if they are all taken at the same event or location, I will specify keywords for the images at import time. Importing images into folders for each month helps to make the next step more manageable.
Step Two: Processing
Processing involves looking at the imported images, rejecting images that are unacceptable for some reason, adjusting images that I want to keep, and adding keywords. To make it easier to track which images I have not yet processed, I use Smart Collections. A Smart Collection is a virtual folder that contains all images that meet specific criteria. Smart Collections allow you to filter your images in many different ways, and the contents update in real time. I use Smart Collections to group images from specific photo shoots, images for specific projects, images that need to be processed, and images that are ready to be uploaded. Images in Smart Collections are just pointers to the images in your image library, so images can appear in multiple Smart Collections without taking up extra disk space.
I make a Smart Collection for each month of images, naming it with the year, month, and “Undeveloped”. The criteria for the Smart Collection includes all images captured that month, with a rating of less than one star, and a pick flag that is not rejected. The dialog in Lightroom looks like this:
In this example, the Smart Collection will contain all the images that I have taken in March of 2012, and that I have not yet processed. When I am ready to process images, I click on the Smart Collection that I want to work on and start looking at images. Images that I know I do not want to process get marked as Rejected by pressing the “x” key. When I reject an image, it immediately disappears from the Smart Collection, and the next image is displayed. When I find an image that I want to keep, I switch to the Develop module (option-command-2) and make adjustments. When I am satisfied with the adjustments, I switch back to the Library module (option-command-1), add Keywords to the image, add a title, and rate it with three to five stars, depending on how strong I feel the image is. Once I rate it, the photo disappears from the Smart Collection and the next image is displayed. By using this simple reject/rate technique, I let Lightroom keep track of images that need to be processed, freeing me to concentrate on the images themselves.
Some Collections in Lightroom
This workflow also ensures that I have added keywords to every single image that I have processed. Adding keywords to images is very important. Without keywords, photo management quickly becomes an impossible task. But when keywords are added to every image, it becomes a simple matter to find any image without having to remember when it was taken or what folder it might have been saved in. In addition, most photo sharing sites automatically parse the keyword data, making it easier for potential clients to find your images online. I always include the location of the image (City, County, State, and Country), information about the subject (Neon, Architecture, Graffiti), and keywords describing other things about the image. I would rather have too much information here than not enough. If you build your keywords in a hierarchy, Lightroom will automatically add parent keywords. I have created lists of location keywords from USGS data which can be imported into Lightroom. When I add “San Francisco” as a keyword, Lightroom adds “San Francisco County”, “California”, and “USA” for me.
This image contains the keywords Abstract, Architecture, Boston, Building, Cambridge, Distortion, MIT, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Reflection, USA, MA, United States, Gehry, Frank Gehry, Stata Center
You may wonder why I use three stars and higher for images that I have processed. What about one or two stars? I use one or two stars to rate images that were used as source images for other processing. For example, if I send an image out to Silver Efex Pro for processing, I will rate the resulting image with three or more stars, and the original image with one or two stars. This makes sure that I keep both the source and processed image, and removes the images from the Undeveloped Smart Collection. The images with three or more stars end up in a Smart Collection that is used in the next step.
Step Three: Export
Once I have a batch of images ready to export, I click my Smart Collection “Ready to Upload”. This collection includes all images that have a rating of three or more stars, and that do not contain the keyword “exported”. I export these images as high-quality JPEG files to a directory on my local hard drive. Once the export is completed, I add the keyword “exported” and the files disappear from the Smart Collection.
I then upload the images to various photo sharing sites. Every image that is exported will end up on Flickr. Selected images are also uploaded to other sites, such as 500px and Pure Photo. When I have uploaded the images, I delete the JPEG from my local hard drive. I know that I can export the images from Lightroom at any time, so I don’t feel that there is a need to keep the JPEG images. I know some photographers who also keep the JPEG images on external hard drives.
Step Four: Backup
My photo library represents a significant amount of time and effort over the course of many years. To ensure that my images are safe, I have a three-part backup strategy. The first part is to keep my images on external mirrored hard drives. In the event that a hard drive fails, I can simply replace it and rebuild the mirror. The second part of my backup strategy is a weekly backup of the external hard drive to a second external hard drive. The second hard drive is kept at a separate location. This helps to prevent the loss of images from theft of disaster. The third part of my backup strategy is the files that I have uploaded to photo sharing sites. If a disaster were to destroy both my working copy and backup copy, I would still be able to retrieve the JPEG images.
This workflow is the result of many hours spent in Lightroom, and reflects how I ultimately use most of my images. Some of the techniques may not work for you, or you may find ways to improve upon what I am doing. Let me know what you think, and how your own workflow compares. Happy shooting!