Lightroom workflow

Bear about to catch salmon in mouth

A few years ago, I started doing all my photographic post-processing in Lightroom. It’s the program used by most professional photographers and is reasonably user-friendly, I got to grips with Lightroom mostly by watching a very useful series of YouTube videos by Anthony Morganti, but this article is just a description of my basic workflow. I pay around £10 a month for access to Lightroom Classic (which I use almost all the time) and Photoshop (which I rarely use except for model releases that need thumbnail images superimposing on them).

What does ‘workflow’ mean?

Your workflow is simply the steps you go through in order to choose your best shots and make them look as good as possible. You might be on a cruise ship in the Antarctic or in a tent in Chobe National Park or back at home in Blighty, but – wherever you are – you should have a standard approach to cataloguing and post-processing your shots. This is my system, but feel free to change it or add to it according to what you prefer:

  1. Import to computer
    I like to keep up-to-date with editing my pictures, so I usually work on them every day after I get back from the game drive (or whatever the shoot happens to be). I’m usually out all day shooting, so I take the first chance I get to go through everything before lunch or dinner back at camp. To do that, I first of all connect my camera to my MacBook Pro and import all the RAW files to a new folder in Pictures using Image Capture. I have two cameras, so I usually have a shower or something while the first one’s chugging away, and then I work on the first batch of images while the second is being copied across from my other camera. I usually take over 1,000 images in a day, so this can take a while, and I get very impatient at this point! I’ve done my best to buy Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) cards with the fastest possible read and write speeds just to help speed up the process, and I now have an extra-fast XQD (eXperimental Quality Determination) card for my D850, but it’s never enough. I have a Mac, so Image Capture is the default program for importing files, but it will obviously be different if you have a PC. I could import my shots directly using Lightroom, but I’ve had a couple of bad experiences when Lightroom has crashed while trying to import thousands of files, so I use Image Capture just to be on the safe side.
  2. Import to Lightroom
    I then import the files to Lightroom. This doesn’t involve any actual copying of files, so it only takes a few seconds. I usually do it without any of the custom ‘Import’ settings, but you could set this up if you wanted to. It’s a trade-off between speed and convenience. If you always want a vignette, for example, then you could create a preset and import using that preset. That way, every shot has the same vignette. However, it makes the import process last that bit longer, so it’s up to you. The other thing you can do is create 1:1 previews. This again is more time-consuming, but it makes a huge difference when it comes to viewing and editing each file in full-screen mode. It’s extremely frustrating when Lightroom keeps displaying the ‘Loading…’ message for each new file, particularly when you just want to check sharpness at 1:1, but those messages disappear if you build the previews during the import process. Try it and see for yourself.
  3. Rate images
    I only end up trying to sell about 1% of the shots I take, so rating the images I like is generally much quicker than rejecting the ones I don’t! (If your hit rate is more than 50%, you can always type ‘x’ to reject images and delete them later all in one go.) To rate pictures, you simply type a number between 1 and 5, and the equivalent star rating is added to all the selected images. (You can press 0 to remove the rating or 6 to add the colour red, which I used to do for people shots.) In my system, I give 3 stars generally to shots of my friends or fellow guests worth putting on Facebook, 4 stars to shots worth selling and 5 stars to my all-time favourites. (To give you an idea, I currently have over 5,000 shots I’ve rated 4 stars or more, but only 142 5-star shots!) During the rating process, I sometimes have to crop an image or do some very basic editing to see if it’s worth keeping, but I try to keep it ‘quick and dirty’ to save time.
  4. Check ratings
    Once I’ve rated all my shots, I go over all the 4- or 5-star images again to check the rating. This crucially includes checking the sharpness at 100% because agencies are very quick to reject images that aren’t quite sharp enough. It also means checking for duplicates. It’s very easy to end up with several shots of the same subject from the same angle, especially if the shots were taken at different times so they don’t end up right next to each other. Agencies again tend to reject images that are too similar to each other, so it’s worth going through with a fine-tooth comb at this point. Otherwise, you’ll end up duplicating all your later work for a file that ends up in the trash…!
  5. Post-process images
    Digital images don’t generally look their best straight out of the box, so this is when I spend a bit of time making basic adjustments to my 4- and 5-star images. I make a couple of global changes, but the rest are local. The global changes are Dehaze and Post-crop vignetting. The Dehaze slider in the basic panel of Lightroom can remove haze, but it’s also useful for any shot that just needs a little bit more contrast, clarity, saturation and vibrance. I generally set it to +25, and I’ve created a preset that allows me to apply the change to all of my images at the same time. I do the same with Post-crop vignetting. Vignettes tend to focus the viewer’s eyes on the subject by darkening the corners of the image, so I generally set the slider to +20. As most of my pictures are wildlife portraits, that works just fine, but I generally won’t use a vignette when there’s a large expanse of sky as it just looks plain daft! The local adjustments I make to each file generally involve using the tools in the basic panel (such as cropping, changing the exposure and choosing different black and white points to avoid clipping of highlights and shadows), so I tend to click the ‘Auto’ button to begin with and then only make further changes where I have to.
  6. Add metadata
    The most time-consuming part of this whole process is adding the metadata. If you’re not a serious photographer aiming to sell your shots to stock agencies, then you obviously don’t need to do much at this point, but the more data you add, the easier it is to find files when you need to. For example, if you’ve just come back from Botswana and someone asks to see all your elephant shots, you’ll feel a bit daft if you’ve never even bothered to add any tags! I take all my 4- and 5-star images and add titles, captions and keywords. Stock agencies have rules on the type and number of characters in each metadata field, so I avoid apostrophes and give all my images seven-word titles that are no longer than 50 characters. In theory, captions should be different from titles, but I find it too time-consuming to do that for all my files, so I keep them the same except for any 5-star images. I put those on my website and tend to enter those in competitions, so it’s worth expending a little extra effort to sell the sizzle! Keywords are essential for Search Engine Optimisation, so I use at least 10 but more often 20 or 30, including tags describing the location, content and theme of the image (plus obvious synonyms). After each trip, I set up a metadata preset for Design Pics (my main stock agency) in order to add the data they require, such as city, country and copyright status. I also create a location in the Maps module and drag all my images to it in order to geotag them with GPS data. It’s worth noting that I set the time zone, date, time and copyright information on my cameras before I go on a trip so I don’t have to worry about any of that when I get home.
  7. Export images
    Lightroom is what they call a ‘non-destructive’ program, which means that the RAW files that you edit aren’t actually changed when you edit them. Instead, Lightroom keeps a list of editing instructions that it follows every time you want to view a file. As a result, it’s essential to export any files that you intend to view outside Lightroom or upload to any stock agencies. I’ve set up presets for all the folders I usually export to, but stock agencies generally want JPEG files no more than 20MB in size, so I’ve used that as my limit. Most agencies also have minimum quality thresholds, so I try not to crop so much that the image is less than 6.3 megapixels. I initially export all my 4- and 5-star images as 20MB sRGB JPEGs at the highest quality setting to three folders: ‘4*’, ‘5*’ and ‘Favourites’ – which holds both. (These files automatically show up in Lightroom as I’ve set it up that way in Preferences.) I then export the same files to my ‘To upload’ folder using a special low-resolution preset that follows the Design Pics guidelines. I have an exclusive agreement with Design Pics, and I give them first refusal on all my photographs. However, the metadata requirements for Design Pics are different from those of the other agencies, so I have to be careful to get it right. The main difference is in the Headline and Caption fields. Design Pics requires Headline to be ‘NA’, and I write a long description in the Caption field of my 5* images in order to put it on my website, but some agencies take the title of the image from the Headline and Caption fields, so I have to copy and paste the correct data several hundred times! (There is a plug-in that copies data from one field to another, but the free version only works on 10 files at a time…)
  8. Upload to agencies
    Once I’ve exported all my 4* and 5* files, I upload them to Design Pics via FTP using Filezilla. It usually takes them a few weeks to decide which ones they want. When I’ve received a list of their ‘selects’, I export high-resolution versions and upload them via FTP again. Sometimes, these files don’t pass QA due to lack of sharpness or some other issue, so I have to wait another week or so before I know exactly which files I can send to the other agencies. Once I have the definitive list, I upload them to all the other agencies using Filezilla, websites or DeepMeta (for Getty Images). Buyers tend to search among the newest images, so I’ve taken to uploading 100 files each month in order to maximise the chances of a sale. We’ll see if it works…! I keep track of the whole process on a spreadsheet. Each image has a row, and each agency has a column, and I note the current status by putting ‘u’ for ‘uploaded’, ‘s’ for ‘submitted’ and ‘y’ for accepted. I’ve also created quite a few extra columns for continent, country, type of image, exhibitions, online galleries and competitions. Managing over 5,000 images is a complicated process, so I rely on Excel to make sure I know what’s going on!
  9. Delete images
    Once all my images are copied across to my laptop and properly edited and catalogued, I can format the memory cards and delete any unrated files in Lightroom. File management should always be done in Lightroom rather than Finder in order to make sure that the changes are synchronised properly. If you do it the other way round, Lightroom will flag deleted images as ‘missing’. This also applies to any changes you make to the metadata. If you select the right settings in Lightroom, these will automatically be copied to the underlying files in Finder, and that’s a huge time-saver. For example, if you suddenly realise you’ve spelt ‘elephant’ wrong in some of your elephant pictures, you can simply search for the wrong spelling, highlight all the pictures that pop up and correct it globally in the keywords window.
  10. Back up
    Backing up all my pictures and documents is absolutely essential, so I use a cloud storage service called CrashPlan from Code42. It runs in the background and simply copies any changes or deletions to the back-up servers in real time. If I realise I’ve deleted a file by accident, I can search for it on CrashPlan and restore whichever version I want – either the latest version or the version before I made a mistake with my edits. CrashPlan works fine as long as I have a working internet connection, but it did take a few weeks to sync all my files when I first started using it, and it doesn’t help me when I’m in Africa or in the Arctic Circle without any wi-fi! My biggest fear is losing all the pictures I’ve taken while I’m on a trip, and I still haven’t worked out a solution to the problem. I guess I could take a spare hard drive or USB stick, but I’ve been too lazy so far. Let’s hope I don’t pay the ultimate price…!

Lightroom is a subject I’m learning all the time, but I hope this will give you a head start!


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