Updated: Feb 27
I recently shared a blog post explaining the necessity for processing photos in the digital age. In this follow-up post, I’m going to share the workflow that I use to get my photos from RAW file, to my website; My digital photography processing workflow. Whilst the previous post was an introduction to the concept of RAW files, aimed at non-photographers, this post is aimed at other photographers who may be interested to know how someone else manages this process.
STEP 1 – SHOOTING RAW
I shoot with a Nikon D800, which has a dual memory card (1xSD, 1xCF) setup. I set the camera to save images to its memory cards in RAW format. So for each photo taken, one file is written to each card. At the end of a short shoot, I might have 50 photos on each. At the end of a good day’s shooting I may have a couple of hundred. By the end of a week or two away, I may have over a thousand photos on each card. This means that the biggest job initially is to iteratively try to reduce the number of photos I keep.
STEP 2 – IN-CAMERA LCD
After a shot, or a series of shots, I’ll check the LCD on the back of the camera, to see if I got what I wanted. I’m mainly checking that the focus was accurate, and that the histogram confirms that the exposure was as I intended. If i have time, I’ll delete any obvious wasted shots at this stage. Very out of focus, or very over-exposed shots. Only the RAW files though. Weeding them out now saves some card space, and some time later.
STEP 3 – IPAD PREVIEW
You would think, as a nature photographer, that I have a lot of patience. Well that’s true, when patience is required in the field. But when it comes to waiting to look at the photos I’ve taken, I’m like a 6-year-old child on Christmas morning. I have to see them as soon as I’m done shooting. The LCD on the back of the camera isn’t that great for really seeing how a photos looks, so I don’t tend to judge photos on that other than for obvious ones in step 2.
At the end of the day, I import the raw photos onto my iPad. I use the Apple Camera Connection Kit to transfer the photos from the CF card to the iPad. I’d rather be able to view the photos directly from the card, but Apple won’t have that. They insist I import the images to the iPad. So that effects how the process goes from here on in.
SD cards are prone to short-circuiting during insert/removal, meaning that every time you remove the card or insert it back into the camera, you risk losing all the data on it. The percentage is low (~0.1%), but it’s enough to discourage me from removing the card unless necessary. For this reason, I connect the camera to the iPad to import via USB, and avoid removing the SD card.
Once on the iPad, I can take my first proper look through them to get a sense of how successful the shoot has been, and whether I got the shots I wanted.
STEP 4 – REJECTS
The aim of this stage is to wean out any remaining obviously useless photos. I go through the new photos on the iPad, deleting any photos which are obviously not worth keeping. Next, I repeat the process more slowly, rejecting in a slightly more refined way, to further cut down the number of ‘keepers’ I have. I also try to remove ‘similars’ – meaning that if I have two or more photos which are almost identical, I’ll remove all but one of that set. Sometimes they’re so similar it’s almost arbitrary which one I keep and which I delete.
At the end of this stage, I should only have photos which are sharp, well-exposed, interesting, and of note, with no ‘similars’.
STEP 5 – IMPORTING TO LIGHTROOM
I use Lightroom for organising my image library, and for 95% of my post-processing. I import to Lightroom directly from the iPad, using the standard Lightroom Import feature. After I’ve checked all the files are selected for import, I add as many keywords as possible for this stage (they will be applied to all the photos, so I can’t add anything too specific). Then I import.
I have set Lightroom to automatically generate previews after an import, so this process should now run through.
The last stage of importing is to rename the folder they’re imported to, retaining the date but also adding a location and/or subject. This helps me pick out folders from the library at a glance, or by browsing the directory tree. I use the default file structure of [year]\[day].
STEP 6 – FIRST PROCESSING
I start with the first file, and quickly process each one, attempting to replicate either the scene as I remember it, or as I intended the shot to look. This includes converting to black & white if required, or processing onto black, etc. This gives me a ‘first-draft’ for each photo.
STEP 7 – IPAD REVIEW
I export each photo, using a Lightroom preset (setting the image size to match the iPad screen resolution) to a ‘review folder’, which is synced to the cloud, using DropBox. I use the DropBox iPad app to look at the photos, and they can sit in this cloud storage until I have time to move to the next stage. Sometimes it’s right away. Other times it’s a few days or more. I like to view them on the iPad as the screen is very good, and super-sharp, and having them in the cloud is a handy way to take a look at my convenience, rather than sat in front of a PC.
STEP 8 – SECOND PROCESSING
Returning to the photos in Lightroom, I make any tweaks necessary or make further rejections, based on the iPad Review. Sometimes I’ll change the style of processing used first time around, such as switching to black & white if I think that’ll work better, or changes to white balance, cropping, etc. Then I export again to DropBox.
STEP 9 – STAR RATINGS
By this point, I’m fairly familiar with the photos. I grade each one with a star rating, based on the following:
1 star = Of interest for some reason, so not to be deleted, but not good enough to be used. (eg interesting behaviour, but bad background or poorly exposed / framed).
2 stars = OK, but not worth sharing.
3 stars = Flickr standard. Nice, worth sharing, but not brilliant.
4 stars = 500px.com standard, or higher end of Flickr standard.
5 stars = Website portfolio standard. Only a handful make this rating every year, and they’re the top standard I aim for.
This might all sound very OCD (guilty as charged), but I’ve found that by assigning each star rating a concrete value in my mind, it makes the rating process easier, and the results much more usable.
Now I can remove them all from the ‘review folder’ on DropBox, and re-export just those rated 3-star or higher (using a Lightroom Library star filter).
STEP 10 – MULLING OVER
Nearly there now. Once the photos have been rated and synced to the cloud / iPad, they stay there for a week or so. When I return to them with a fresh pair of eyes, it’s easy to pick out what’s good / bad, working / not working. I will continue to tweak the processing decisions and export to DropBox in an iterative processes until I’m happy with all of the photos. I may change the star ratings during this process too. Once I’m happy that they look their best, and as I intended they would, this stage is finished.
STEP 11 – KEYWORDING
At this stage, I keyword the photos to make them searchable in the Lightroom catalog, and so that this data is included as tags in the exif file properties. This means that I won’t have to keyword for each site I share them on.
STEP 12 – EXPORT TO WEB
Now I use Lightroom export presets to export the images into folders for sharing online.
I filter to show all the 3-star or greater photos, and export for Flickr. These are exported at only 1024px wide, as Flickr is regularly used to steal photos, so I can’t share at high-res. They also include a watermark to retain credit when people share without linking back to my photostream, and to clarify the origin of the photo should anyone want to use it or see more from me. I don’t like watermarks, but they are a necessary evil in my opinion.
Next I filter to show all the 4-star or greater photos, and export for 500px.com & GooglePlus. I export these at 2048 (iPad retina resolution), so they look nice on the popular 500px iPad app, and I include a watermark for the same reason as on Flickr.
Lastly, I filter to show any 5-star photos, and export them for uploading to my Website.
The photos sit in these holding folders until I get around to posting them up online. These are also DropBox folders, so I can conveniently check what’s waiting without having to be at my PC. Typically, I have 10-20 photos sitting in the Flickr queue, if not more. But I don’t like to share too many too often, so I get through the backlog slowly and consistently, sharing a batch of around five new photos once or twice a week.
So there you have it. That’s my digital photography processing workflow. It sounds very convoluted, but it’s simple, iterative, flexible, and it works for me. I’ve developed this workflow as a way of spreading out the process, over time. This is quite intentional, as I find that if I process quickly and share straight away, I’m rarely happy with the photos even a few days later. Sometimes just hours later. This longer processing workflow affords me a lot of time to reflect and consider the images rather than rushing them out.
This is not intended to be a lecture on how you must spend your time post-shooting. It’s simply a run-through of what I have found works for me. But if you have any questions or comments, please use the Comments section below, or get in touch via email. I’d especially love to hear from anyone who has any tips or additions to make to the workflow process.