I have had a few folks ask about my workflow and I know when I was first starting out I felt disorganized and researched the workflow of other photographers. So I thought I would share mine. My workflow still needs some fine tuning, but it is working for me at the moment.
First, I shoot in RAW. For those not familiar, RAW format is a file format available on most DLSRs, mirrorless, and some higher end point-n-shoot cameras. With RAW, all of the data collected on the camera sensor is saved to the file. Most people are used to their pictures being JPG (“J-peg”) file format. Most cameras (and phones) save their images in JPG files. The camera processes the data that comes off the sensor and compresses the data to create the file. When I say process the image, the camera will apply a white balance correction and potentially slightly boost the saturation of the colors to make them pop a little. All of this is fine for your typical snapshot or social media post, but as an artist, I want more control over the look of the image. I don’t want the camera making decisions for me about what the image will look like.
By shooting in RAW I have to process the images on my computer after shooting, and this is where the concept of a workflow comes in. My workflow actually starts before I even head out to shoot. My workflow is laid out below by stage.
Before leaving the house, I make sure my batteries are charged and I have memory cards in my camera(s). If I have a planned outing, say a dawn sunrise shoot, I will do all the prep work the night before. I check the weather and assure I have the needed clothing and gear for the conditions I will be shooting in. I’ll check Google maps, my weather app, the Photographer’s Ephemeris, and other planning resources to assure I can take the best advantage of the location and conditions I will find in the field.
In the Field
If I don’t already have a planned subject and composition in mind, I will spend time looking for interesting subjects and effective compositions. Even the most beautiful scene in the world does not necessarily make a successful image. Once I have my subject and composition, I’ll setup my tripod and camera, then fine tune the composition. I often have to remind myself that my feet can move and I can pick up and shift the tripod and camera over a few inches or even a few feet to refine the composition. Photography is a reductive art form. The artist removes things from the image by changing composition and position. In this way, photographer is more like a stone or wood carver than a painter. Painters create additive art, applying paint to a blank canvas until the vision is realized.
It continues to be an area of focus for me to slow down and look at the background and around all of the edges of the frame to assure there are no distractions sneaking in to steal the viewer’s eye away from my intended subject. I have come home countless times with what I thought was a good image, only to find that there are elements in the frame I had not seen that distract from my vision for the image. So in terms of workflow, I have added a step to specifically inspect the frame for such intruders, and move the camera and recompose to eliminate them.
In terms of camera settings and actually making the image capture, I try to “expose to the right” without blowing out the highlights. To do this, I take a couple of test shots and look at the histogram on the back of my camera. If you have not worked with exposure histograms, check out my blog post, Be Ready to Take Advantage of the Weather, where I provide a little background on making proper exposures. Exposing to the right (slightly over exposing the image) allows the camera sensor to capture more detail in the shadows and since I am shooting in RAW and will process the image when I get back, I can adjust the exposure back down to an ideal level later, as long as I have not over exposed the highlights some much as to lose all detail, so called “blowing out the highlights”.
I should also note that both camera bodies I shoot with (Nikon D7100 and D750) have two memory card slots. I use two high speed SD cards (currently Lexar Pro 64GB 1000X cards) in each camera and set the camera to write the RAW files to both cards. This gives me a backup copy from the moment I press the shutter. I have never had a card fail (it is only a matter of time), but if it did, I would still have my images that in some cases I worked very hard to get. At the end of the shoot, I’ll pack up my camera and other gear in my backpack and head home.
Transferring Images from Camera to Computer
I remove the memory card from slot #1 in the camera and insert it into the card reader in my computer. I then use Adobe Lightroom Classic CC to import (copy) the files to my PC hard drive. I also have a network attached storage (NAS) server and use file syncing software to make a copy of all files of my computer on the NAS. So as Lightroom is copying the files and adding them to my Lightroom Catalog, my PC is also making a copy of the image files on my NAS. More on backups and archives later. Once the card has been emptied and Lightroom has imported them into the catalog, I can begin to process the images. I should note that I initially started by keeping my RAW files in their original Nikon RAW file format, NEF. Recently, after reading several articles on the topic, I have elected to have Lightroom convert the NEF files into DNG format during the copying process. So at this point, I still have the RAW images on two memory cards as well as now a DNG version on my PC hard drive and once the synchronization to the NAS is complete, I will have a copy there as well.
First step is tagging the images. This is the best and easiest time to add the keywords and other tags to the image. You will thank yourself later when you want to try to find a specific image. I will apply keywords starting with tags that are relevant for all the images from this shoot, typically the name of the place, then move on to tag groups of images with common elements (sunrise, sunset, lake, river, ocean, beach, bird, mammal, reptile, etc.). Lastly, I’ll tag specific images with any remaining relevant tags, such as the species of bird or type of mammal. My next step is to do a first pass review of the images and give them star ratings. At this stage, I’m just giving 1, 2, or 3 stars. A three star image is one that I really like and I think has real potential. I’ll give two stars to images that I like, but am not immediately in love with. I rarely tag something with one star, I’ll use this to note an image that I want to come back to later and see if I can make something from it. Many images will not get a star rating. Also, if an image is clearly bad (blurred, out of focus, or unrecoverable over or under exposed, I will delete it. If it is junk, why take up disk space with it. I will begin the adjustment phase of the process by filtering the image list to just the 3 star images and pick one and go into the Develop module of Lightroom.
I do nearly all my image adjustments/processing in Lightroom. Only rarely moving over to Photoshop for very specific tasks. I won’t go into full detail on my Lightroom processing workflow here. I’ll save that for a future post. Briefly, I will set white balance, adjust the crop (if needed), adjust exposure, set white point and black point (if the image in fact has pure white and/or pure black). I’ll then move on to remove any dust or water spots from the image, apply the lens profile to remove any chromatic aberration and any lens distortion. Finally, I’ll add some sharpening and address any noise.
One of the great things about Lightroom is that all adjustments are non-destructive. This means that everything you do to an image does NOT actually change the RAW file itself. Your changes are stored in the Lightroom Catalog and are applied when you view the image. I will often make virtual copies of an image which simply saves a second set of adjustments for the same image. This way I can experiment with different crops, B&W vs. color, or more artistic manipulations, knowing I can always go back to the original image and start again.
Final Image: Print or Post
My final images end up either online (on this site, Instagram, or Facebook) or as a print. If it is an image that will be printed, I then move to the Print module within Lightroom. If the image follows one of my standard aspect ratios and print sizes, I will use one of my presets for page layout and paper. I print nearly exclusively on Canson-Infinity papers. My go to paper is Canson® Infinity Rag Photographique 310gsm. I love this paper. It provides an exceptionally smooth matte finish while still delivering deep blacks and fine detail.
If an image is destined for life online, I will export it as a JPG, resized so the long edge is 2,000 pixels and I add my copyright watermark to the lower right corner.
Archiving and Offsite Backup
As I noted above, I maintain two copies of the original RAW file, one on my PC hard drive, the other on my NAS. Although this is a good start to avoid the disaster of losing one or more images, it does not address the loss of my house. Last year, I began backing up to the cloud as well. There are a number of options from Google Drive, iCloud, and Microsoft OneDrive, to Adobe CC, Carbonite, and Backblaze, to name a few. I encourage everyone to keep an off-site backup, and with the ease and affordability of cloud services, there is no better option. Each service has it pros and cons, depending on your needs. I recommend using one that will make the backups automatically to avoid having to remember to perform the backup yourself.
So there you have it. My workflow, start to finish. I welcome your questions and suggestions in the comments below.