The Digital Photographer’s Workflow For RAW Files

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As a music photographer, I'm often in a position where I shoot a large volume of images and have to turn them around in very short order. An efficient workflow for editing, processing, and delivering digital photography is therefore critical.

Whether I'm shooting on assignment, for the band, or for a corporate client, my workflow is largely the same. Here's what I've found to be an extremely efficient digital photography workflow, from file import to delivery and backup.

Here are the 9 main steps I'll discuss in my photography workflow:

  1. Ingest
  2. Metatag
  3. Edit
  4. Catalog
  5. Process
  6. Export
  7. Upload
  8. Deliver
  9. Backup

1. Ingest

The first thing I do with my photos is to download all images to my to my Synology DS1813+ NAS using the application Photo Mechanic by Camera Bits. All images from a single shoot are downloaded to a date-marked folder (2015-02-15 Example Photo Shoot). I have Photo Mechanic set to also automatically append the filename to include the date (YYYYMMDD format) as well as the hour (24 hour format), minute and second. This file naming allows for easy file sorting during editing and prevents any confusion about the creation of date of the image.

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2. Metatag

Following import, I will apply metadata to images based on the content. This includes, but is not limited to, IPTC data for the title, caption, and keywords, which are the three most important fields for image use and discovery. The reason metatagging is not done at the time of import, which Photo Mechanic is capable of doing, is because different images from the same shoot may possess different metadata. If the same metadata applies to all images, then I will perform metatagging for all images at the time of import.

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3. Edit

After ingest, I perform editing in Photo Mechanic. The reason Photo Mechanic is used for editing instead of Lightroom is that it's far faster to load and render RAW files. Unlike Lightroom, which will by default render its own image preview for every image, Photo Mechanic uses the built-in JPG of RAW files, which dramatically cuts down on processing time needed to display each image. Editing is done using a star rating system. I will generally go to the level of three stars, which translates to three combined scans of the images for positive selection. Starting at one star and reviewing all images, I'll select images for compelling subject, timing, and lighting. All one-star images are then reviewed and the best and most unique images will be promoted two stars. This process is repeated again for the three-star rating, with an even more critical eye on the content and uniqueness of the images. While editing, I will also do negative culling as well, deleting any images have no possible use — images that are remarkable out of focus, accidental exposures, grossly under/overexposed images beyond saving, etc.

4. Catalog

After the editing process reaches the level of three stars, I'll import the images into Adobe Lightroom for cataloging. Another benefit of not ingesting the full import with Lightroom is that its catalogs are kept much smaller. Instead of a catalog that includes every image from a shoot, only the best images are indexed, which makes greatly increases efficiency and creates much smaller catalog files. If you work with set image presets for sharpening, noise reduction, and so forth, now is also the time to apply those adjustments either automatically upon import or manually via batch application.

workflow-processing

5. Processing & Retouching

Adobe Lightroom handles all imaging adjustments for the majority of my images, and Lightroom offers extremely capable RAW processing. Most of my processing needs are met by Lightroom's basic RAW adjustment panel, including white balance, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, and black levels.* Beyond RAW processing, Lightroom also offers sharpening and other image adjustments that are generally more than sufficient for my needs. When dedicated retouching is needed, as in the case of promotional portraits or images intended for commercial use, I'll turn to Adobe PhotoShop for extra polish.

For Lightroom users, one setting I encourage everyone use is the use of .XMP sidecar files; by default this feature is turned off in Lightroom's Preferences, but enabling it will write all RAW adjustments to a .XMP file that can be easily read in the future. The standard is for Lightroom to write all RAW adjustments to the master catalogue, but should the catalogue file become corrupt or if you frequently change catalogues, using .XMP files to store adjustments can make working much smoother.

6. Export

Following processing, all final images are exported to a subfolder marked “High Res Output.” Images files are saved as 100% quality JPGs at their full resolution. I prefer to use JPG because of the universal nature of the image file — very rarely is the quality of a TIF needed, and should that be the case, I'll almost always go back to the original RAW file anyway to really dial in the processing and retouching. All of this export is done with a single Lightroom export preset. If there are specific output needs, creating export presets in Lightroom for your most commonly used settings will help streamline your workflow immensely.

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7. Upload

The high res JPGs are then uploaded to my cloud photo service, PhotoShelter, into an individual gallery. Images can added to other galleries and further organized, as well as be priced for print sales or rights-managed licensing. Absolutely all final selects from my shoots are uploaded to PhotoShelter — even if the end goal is simply for having a cloud archive or client delivery without any forward-facing, public use. In this sense, I'm able to have a complete online archive of my work that's accessible anywhere with an internet connection.

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8. Deliver

Once images are online with PhotoShelter, I can deliver images to clients as a gallery link with download privileges, send via FTP, email individual images, and more. Since all images are uploaded to PhotoShelter, which also powers my portfolio, it's also incredibly easy to make updates and showcase new work at this stage. I'm also able to easily embed images to www.ishootshows.com, making PhotoShelter effectively act as a CDN for this site, thereby reducing overall web server resources and bandwidth usage.

9. Backup

The last stage is backing up. Whether it's an automated system handled by software or a manual backup of copying over files to secondary storage, all photographers should be backing up their files regularly and reliably. My current backup plan includes bare drives stored off-site from my primary storage and using WD 4TB drives with the Anker Drive Dock with USB 3.0 and eSATA. Backup can be performed by the application SuperDuper!, which can make scheduled copies and verify data fidelity after each backup, or manually backing up new files.

End Notes on a Digital Photography Workflow

To review, these are the steps for my digital photography workflow:

  1. Ingest
  2. Metatag
  3. Edit
  4. Catalog
  5. Process
  6. Export
  7. Upload
  8. Deliver
  9. Backup

The above workflow is what I use for 99% of all my photography work. It's the series of steps that I've found to be most efficient for high volume, short turn-around photography — and needless to say, it works well for less intensive needs just as well.

Whatever system you use for your photography, it should be just that — a system. Experimentation aside, using the same repeatable steps will allow for the most efficiency and the least time in front of the computer. After all, the less unnecessary time we spend on our digital workflow, the most we have time for the fun stuff — shooting.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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