No pictures today. Just talk. So gather ’round the fire and let me spin you a yarn. I originally wrote this post in June of 2010, but I only posted it as a note on Facebook, not as a blog post. I’ve gone through and made a couple updates, but overall, my workflow hasn’t changed much in a year and a half. Enjoy, and as always, don’t hesitate to ask questions!
I’ll never forget when I first started this whole photography thing… the things that eluded me and were such a mystery. The two big things that came to mind were:
1. Lenses. The differences, what the ƒ/1.4 thingy, what focal length actually meant in the real world, etc. Who would blame anyone when you read a lens like alphabet soup! Nikon Nikkor 70–200mm f/2.8 G ED N AF-S VR II.… I mean, seriously? We were all there, and I’m sure most of us just realized it’s a matter of just getting out there and taking pictures and figuring it out for ourselves… at least that was my case. No one really ever could explain anything to me except “get a 50mm f/1.8 and go from there.”
2. Workflow. So you’ve been subjected to figuring out which camera you’re going to buy, getting lenses to go with it, learning how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together in a triangle of balance to achieve an exposure… you may have done the whole RAW vs. JPEG deal… So now what. From the moment you press your shutter, the second you hand a print to a client, or you put a picture in a Facebook album… that’s your workflow.
Cameras themselves are pretty much self explanitory. Any modern digital camera is good enough. The only serious issue is crop sensor vs full frame (DX vs FX for Nikon users). It’s almost as big as picking Nikon or Canon, because you invest into a lens system designed for it. Sure FX lenses work on DX… but that’s extra size, weight, and money. And you can use DX lenses on FX… but you’re only using a small part of that sensor you paid big bucks for. But anyway, again, another post for another day. 🙂
Back in the point and shoot days, my workflow was making a folder in My Pictures with the event, and dragging the pictures off the camera into that folder… and uploading them to the internet. But in this crazy mixed up world of RAW we live in now… what’s a budding photographer to do?
Had I been a professional starting five years ago, I probably wouldn’t be using a Lightroom-based workflow for absolute optimal image quality. Nikon’s Capture NX software was well-regarded as having noticeably superior RAW rendering over any of Adobe’s offerings, especially with higher ISO images. Adobe’s recent release of Lightroom 3 with a totally re-written RAW rendering process has leveled the playing field, and the clunky, archaic interface and integration of Capture NX doesn’t look appealing anymore, even to seasoned image professionals.
Adobe Lightroom is just where it’s at. From complete metadata control, and unparalleled integration with Photoshop and a myriad of third-party plugins, it’s the hub in my system. It literally is the darkroom of the digital age, and I am able to keep 90% of my work entirely within Lightroom without having to send anywhere else.
*note* If you’d been torn between Aperture and Lightroom (which is another topic all to itself), I’ll just say this: I trust Adobe to support the concerns of a professional photographer for the long run. Apple has a history of abandoning their hardcore pro user-base… Final Cut being a notable example. Lightroom is not only, I think, a better system that integrates with Adobe and updates more frequently, but since we’re talking about a whole *system* much like choosing Nikon or Canon… Lightroom is definitely the better long-term choice.
With that said here’s my Lightroom-based workflow:
If I’m in the field with a laptop, I’ll periodically dump memory cards into Lightroom so that if a card were to fail, I wouldn’t lose much work. At this time I won’t do much other than add keywords and file names. When I get home, I’ll export that event as a catalog, and then import that new catalog into my workstation in my home office.
For most shoots though, I just save the importing for when I get home. I do my renaming and tagging at import. Now Lightroom 3 has made it easier for me to make a big change to my import process, and that’s enabling me to do rejections at import. Previously I would import ALL images, and then I would go through one by one flagging for picks and rejection… but if I can start doing so without blatantly out of focus/missed exposure images, that sure would make the process much better!
2. Flag Picks/Rejections
I’m not going to spend my time editing images that won’t be used, so it’s imperative that I whittle my selections down to what’s going to be used. I consider images falling into three categories: Rejection, Keep, Pick. In Lightroom the keyboard shortcut ‘x’ rejects and image. These are bad compositions, out of focus, or some other attribute that makes an image not worth having on any level. When I’m all done, Lightroom can permanently delete all rejections. Keeps are images that are technically fine, but maybe I took images that are similar that are just better. I don’t feel I should delete these images, so they just sit there. Picks are what will be published. The ‘p’ shortcut flags images as picks, and then I can toggle the “Flagged” filter to just see those.
The next step in this workflow, I haven’t been disciplined enough to do thus far.. but I plan on starting immediately, and that is rating my images on a scale from 1 to 5. To quote Thom Hogan:
“Use the ABCs. Galen [Rowell] used to use an ABC ranking and storage system with his slides, and I think it still works fine. Trying to get further discrimination amongst how good one image is versus another takes too much time and gives you too little additional usefulness (quick, when would choose an E image over an F image?). As for how you mark them, I tend to use stars (5=winner, 3=stock, 1=keep), this gives me the ability to put shots I have questions about in the tween categories for later final determination (usually with someone else giving me their opinion).
A images are your winners (5 Stars). For Galen, these were images he either was going to put in a book he was working on or have printed for the gallery. Make sure they’re really winners. Here’s a hint: you don’t have very many. Ansel Adams once said that if you shoot a dozen great images a year, you’re doing well.
B images are what you sell (3). For Galen, this was the bulk of the images he sold for stock. My definition here is “it’s very publishable and it’s an image that I’m proud to have my name associated with.”
C images are ones that someone would find publishable, but you wouldn’t care if your name was or wasn’t associated with them (1). Some photographers often call these “reference photos,” as they tend to be styleless recordings of some thing or event. ”
4. Basic Editing
Exposure, color, etc. This is all personal preference, and I have made/borrowed/modified a list of presets that I have categorized into different tiers depending on what style I’m going for. 90% of the time the presets I have are just a starting point, and they are further modified afterward to suit a specific image.
5. External Editing
For images that require heavy lifting (skin smoothing, major background distractions, masking) I will take my image that has been otherwise completely edited in Lightroom, and I will export it to either Photoshop, or using a Lightroom compatible plugin. In the past, some images would go through several plugins such as Imagenomic Portraiture, Topaz Denoise, Nik Viveza, etc. In those cases, I would export to the first plugin as a copy with Lightroom adjustments in TIFF at 300dpi. I know that I’m never going to print more than 300dpi, but I want to make sure I’m always doing edits in the highest quality, most lossless way possible. After the first edit is saved back into Lightroom as a TIFF stacked with the original negative, I will unflag the negative, and flag the new final image (actually, it’s already flagged by default because of the copy). If it needs to go into another plugin, I will export the TIFF as an original so I don’t have a million copies of the image as it goes along it’s merry workflow way.
(UPDATE: I don’t like to delete extra images for a year or two… just in case I would ever need to revisit them. So, I mark the original negatives with a RED color label. That way, in the future when I go to clean out my catalog and I want to delete EVERY image that wasn’t flagged… I don’t delete any DNG/RAW files. I can be sure to make sure it only deletes anything not flagged AND red.)
A note about external editing with Lightroom 3: …again the game has changed. I think I can cut down on a LOT of external editing previously required. For many people (depending on your gear), exporting to a third-party noise reduction plugin was just part of your workflow. For others, exporting to Photoshop just to do a lens distortion correction was… both of these are now part of the RAW workflow. If I need to do skin smoothing and it’s not mission-critical work (i.e. paid shoot), I could actually even get by just with the new noise reduction, and then do an edge sharpen.
The greatest concept of a program like Lightroom is that it’s an organized catalog of your work where you have ultra-high quality negatives sitting around, and then you just export copies that are tailored to your need at the moment. If I’m exporting samples of a senior portrait shoot to Facebook, I’ll go ahead and select the images in my filmstrip, and then select “export.” For the web, I export quality JPEG 84, resized long edge 1250px, sharpen for screen “normal”. When exporting for screen, the resolution doesn’t matter. 72 or 300 both display the same on a screen. I use a plugin called LR2/Mogrify that automatically adds borders, my watermark, and resizes them accordingly.
If I’m exporting to print, I first go crop the image to the size it needs to be before exporting. That way it’s both a perfect fit for ROES (ordering software from my print lab), and I can optimize the crop for content. Since Lightroom does non-destructive editing and it’s saved in history, I can just go back and undo the crop for a later print output. If I’m doing an 8×10, for example, I will export quality JPEG 84 (which is the equivalent of a JPEG 10 in Photoshop), resized long edge 3000px, 300dpi (300dpi x 10 inches = 3000px. *gasp*), and I do a sharpen for matte (which is what i usually print to) “low”. Since I do the sharpening I want prior to output, I allow Lightroom to give me just a tid bit extra optimized for the type of paper I’m going to.
(UPDATE: Now instead of cropping, I export images based on the dimensions of the *short* side. Then I just position the image for “crop” in the ordering software. This saves me a step of having to go back and uncrop the images.)
As of late, I’ve been using the Flickr publish plugin in Facebook. I just drag the images I want to display in Flickr over to the plugin box, and then use the EXACT same settings I use for normal web export, and it generates and uploads them automatically.
(UPDATE: I don’t use the Flickr export plugin anymore, because there was no way to prevent it from overwriting descriptions when you made a change. Stupid.)
I hope that maybe answers some questions for some of you who have been stuck in that awkward “I know how to take a picture but now what?” stage. If you have any questions, please never hesitate to ask me for advice. Assuming I have the time, I never have problems helping people become better photographers themselves.