Just ask Donald Pettit, NASA astronaut and "amateur" photographer. Donald…
by Antonio Rosario
Believe it or not, there was a time when photographers bought strips of material called “film.” They’d put this flimsy stuff inside their cameras and go take pictures. When they were done, they’d take it to a special place called a “lab.” Here, people in white coats would process it and return in a few hours with actual photographs embedded in cardboard. Incredible, huh?
Today, many of us don’t use film. We have sensors, chips, flash cards, megapixels, and files. We don’t edit over light boxes, mail chromes to our clients, or store them in filing cabinets. Instead, we sit at a computer “managing digital assets.” We’ve become experts in IT, dealing with geeky concepts such as metadata, DAM software, and workflow….
the sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.
What did I shoot and where? Where are my images stored and are they safe? Having a solid workflow keeps you organized, and allows you to focus more on the creative process than worry about the disposition of your images.
So what is an effective workflow? It’s not just about how you manage your photographic files once you sit down at the computer. Workflow begins before you pick up your camera to shoot (or “capture files,” as the photo geeks like to say). You need to consider all sorts of things: Will you shoot raw files, JPEGs, or both? Is your camera’s clock set to the right time and time zone? If you’re using more than one camera, are their clocks synced? Is the color space correct? Will you back up your images while on location or leave them on your memory cards? I could go on.
A basic and thorough workflow can consist of the following steps:
- Shooting images
- Downloading images to the computer
- Backing up raw (untouched/unedited) images
- Importing photos into image-management software
- Organizing images into an image library, with keywords and virtual photo albums
- Processing/retouching images to get a desired look
- Outputting images for clients, printing, or Web sites
- Backing up processed images and the image library
- Archiving images for permanent (offline or online) storage
This is one framework you can use to set up your own system. Breaking it down into a series of steps helps to simplify workflow and keep it consistent, which increases the likelihood that you’ll get through all the steps efficiently and quickly.
Some Key Workflow Considerations:
Choose your hardware wisely – this will be a large investment in time and money. Nikon vs. Canon, Macintosh vs. Windows, debating about which is better is beyond the scope of this article. Besides, these comparisons have very little meaning. Use whatever tools you are most comfortable with to get the job done. Rent the camera you’re thinking of buying and shoot with it for a week. Is it comfortable in your hands? Do the menus make sense? Can you easily navigate and change all the camera’s options? Any impediments to capturing images will slow up your workflow. Do your research!
Stick to one image management system. But before you choose a software solution to manage your library, think about how you work. If you shoot only a few images at a time, or prefer to manage your files with one program and process them in another, bundling Adobe’s Photoshop CS4 with something like Adobe’s Bridge, Microsoft’s Expression Media might give you the level of control you’re after. However, if you come back from a job with thousands of image files, you might prefer the simplicity of an all-in-one program that lets you both process images and manage your library, like Apple’s Aperture, Adobe’s Lightroom, or Phase One’s Capture One. Download demo versions to see what fits your style. Once you’ve chosen, stick to it. Changing image management software whenever a company creates a new program is a sure ticket to the funny farm. You don’t have to blindly stick with one system forever, but as your library grows, you’ll have invested lots of time into it, entering keywords and organizing. Make sure that the value you’ll get from the new program is worth the time you’ll have to reinvest in reorganizing your library. And never, ever switch systems when you’re in the middle of a project!
Manage your images only from the image management software. Once you move image files at the desktop level of your computer, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. Use your image management program to move, copy and delete your images, or risk the software loosing track of where your images are. Also, consider centralizing where your images are physically stored on your computer system. Backing up from one location is a time saver, and keeping everything on an external hard drive is handy if you need to grab and go.
Back up everything. And when you’re done, back up again. Then, take a short coffee break and back it up yet again. Believe me, you’ll be glad you have a third (or forth) backup someday. Backing up is cheaper than reshooting a job or recovering dead hard drives. All storage media will fail eventually. Having multiple backups on differing media types (like DVD, hard drives, RAID disks, online archives, etc.) gives you a better chance to have at least a single copy of your images preserved in case of a disaster. Keep in mind that as storage media formats change in the future, you’ll need to migrate your images to these new formats. Also, invest in a heavy duty battery backup system and plug your computer and all of your external hard drives into it. The one thing you don’t need is getting a power hiccup when you’re copying your images from one hard drive to another. A UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is as useful in urban environs as it is where the power fails often. This device will absorb power spikes or buy you a few minutes to shut down your computer safely if your power goes out.
Whatever you start, finish. Leave yourself a block of time to deal exclusively with image management. Don’t come back from a late shoot and start importing your images at night, thinking you’ll finish in the morning. Working piecemeal increases the risk of forgetting steps and getting totally disorganized. If you know you can’t finish the job in the time you have, back up your images from the flash cards to a computer until you can give the job the level of attention required to properly import, sort, and organize all the images.
Having said all that, here’s my personal (abbreviated) workflow:
My camera system is all Nikon (except for my fantastic Canon G9 point-and-shoot). I shoot raw files, and create JPEGs only when I need to. Macintosh is my computer of choice, and I use both Lightroom and Aperture to manage my files. (Although I said you should use just one system for image management, I use both because I teach workflow to photographers and need to know how both programs work.)
– After I download images to my computer, I copy the original files to at least four places – a hard drive, a RAID1 drive, and two DVDs (on two different brands, to avoid manufacturing issues).
– Images then are renamed to a format like “D300-090514-0001.” I use a program called A Better Finder Rename to rename images at the desktop level.
– Native camera raw files are converted to Adobe’s DNG raw format (settings at “compressed,” “small preview,” and “not embedding original raw”). I toss the original NEF raw files because they’re redundant now (and already backed up). For a great article about why converting your raw images to DNG format makes sense, read this article by Peter Krogh. (http://www.thedambook.com/pages/Why_Use_DNG.pdf)
– Import all the images into Lightroom/Aperture by allowing the program to copy images to a new location (another external hard drive) where all my raw images are stored. This is my main online library. With Aperture, I always use referenced images and never store them inside Aperture’s database. (By the way, my entire image archive is backed up daily to a Drobo external drive!)
– Organize and process/develop the images inside Lightroom/Aperture.
– Final images are uploaded to PhotoShelter for client use, to Flickr for general sharing, or to the portfolio gallery on my Web site. With PhotoShelter, clients can access both a nice gallery and the original files. Recently I’ve started adding hi-res TIFF selects to my PhotoShelter archive. Uploading all my raw files wouldn’t be practical, but choosing select images to be stored in “the cloud” with PhotoShelter becomes yet another layer of backup. Flickr has become an important part my workflow too, as I get a lot of exposure and have connected with some important clients there. But, hey, that’s another article.
Antonio M. Rosario is a professional photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. His client list includes the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, Barnes & Noble, Americas Quarterly magazine and St. Martin’s Press, and his commercial photography is marketed through stock agencies such as Getty, Jupiter Images, iStockPhoto and Alamy. Antonio is also a digital imaging and workflow consultant, training industry professionals, advanced amateurs and traditional film photographers as they transition to the digital realm. You can see Antonio’s “tipcasts” on his blog, or view his portfolio at www.amrosario.com.