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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.
More Gear Recommendations

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There are 25 comments

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  1. Sasa T.

    Love the fact you shared workflow with us. I need to come up with a naming convention of some sort in order to be easier to locate images later on. hope you could do a blog post more in-depth about PhotoMechanic as I’m unfamiliar with this software. And what do you mean by PhotoMechanic edit? I taught you did all of your processing in Lightroom?

  2. Fabien Blackwater

    Wow, this is great! Especially steps 1-3 are very helpful; I will apply them to my workflow as soon as possible. Have been doing the whole thing in Lightroom until now. This finally gives me a reason to update my catalogues and re-sort the database on my NAS.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Todd. It is highly appreciated :)

    • Todd

      Hi Fabien, thanks for the comment. Glad to hear this was useful to you. If you try Photo Mechanic, you will love you. You’ll never go back to Lightroom, that’s how fast it is for editing RAW files. Cheers.

  3. Jan

    Hi Tod, thanks for the article, some really great takeaways! I have for a long time tried to find some information on how the pros tag, and it is surprisingly hard to unearth, so I am especially grateful for you sharing something on this topic. I would be extremely glad if you had the time to elaborate a little further on this, though.

    Do you utilise EXIF or IPTC or XMP or all? Or each one for a different purpose? Which fields do you use? What for? Do you have a set taxonomy? Or make terms up on the fly? Or a mix? If you use a fixed taxonomy, could you share some tips on how to come up with a useful system and how to keep on top of it?
    Thanks again, and all the best from Vienna!

    • Todd

      Hey Jan, thanks for the comment, I glad to hear that this article was interesting to you.

      I use IPTC for Headline, Caption, and Keyword metadata, as IPTC is basically the standard for pulling those three pieces of metadata. My clients use IPTC as well for their organization, so that makes it the clear choice for me as well. As far as the taxonomy, the main values I enter are the performer, venue, other descriptors (“fans,” “dj,” etc), tour, stuff like that. I don’t go as in-depth as some might, (tagging every drummer shot “drummer, or “solo performer,” “group shot”) but I may shift to this in the future to increase the usability of my archive.

      • Jan

        Todd, thanks ever so much for getting back – with even more useful information. I’m just starting out and already find it hard to find shots when I am not looking for a shoot but a subject. Also, only tagging images from 1 star upwards really makes sense, this way the library should be manageable much more easily!

        Cheers and take care!

  4. Roy Dunn

    Todd – Any reason you don’t convert to DNG? I do this, and embed the original RAW file. This negates the need for XMP files – an ancillary file that is prone to disappear, disconnect etc. Would much prefer to deal with one file per image, rather than two. Your mileage may vary. An option to Photo Mechanic is the free! Faststone Image Viewer – it is capable of ingesting and previewing RAW files at an astonishing rate. I tag ‘keepers’ then ingest those into LR.

    • Todd

      Hey Roy! Nice to hear from you on this. Previously my issue with converting to DNG was that it seemed like only one camera profile was embedded. But now I see that the full array (camera standard, camera neutral, etc) are included. I will definitely have to consider using a DNG workflow in the future.

      I haven’t heard of Fastone Image Viewer before, but I have been meaning to check out Fast RAW Viewer. Similarly, very fast rendering of RAW files with interesting features such as focus peaking, which I think would be very handle for quickly determining focus point in an edit!

      Nice to hear from you, Roy!

      • Ian

        Hi Todd! I really like your workflow, and I agree with you on checking out FastRawViewer, I think you might really like it. I’ve been using it for a few months now (since it was in beta), both with and without PhotoMechanic. It’s quite useful, and you can actually connect the two programs directly when you go to Preferences -> Launching -> Assign Default Application: FastRawViewer, which will create a shortcut (E) which will open files you have in open in PM in FRV. I stopped using them together, because PM just has slow support updating, plus it displays JPEGS and JPEG histograms (much like FastStone, in fact – FS will ingest RAW and spit out JPEG). FRV also has many useful tools for adjustment and culling, such as Over- and Underexposure display, shadow boosting, fine details, etc. Moreover, and this is my favorite part, the corrections that you make in FRV are saved in XMP sidecar files, which then let you continue from where you left off when you open the RAW file in LR or ACR.

      • Roy Dunn

        Hi Todd,
        Just downloaded the FastRawViewer for a quick comparison. I have to say that the Faststone Viewer *appears* to be significantly faster than FastRawViewer on my fairly powerful PC. No, you don’t get focus peaking, but I found that the Faststone rendering to be *way* superior to that of the FastRawViewer. Images that appear soft in the latter appear sharper in the former (and Lightroom). Secondly, the viewing controls are much more intuitive – scroll the mouse wheel back/fwd to change images – left mouse click for zoom in etc. Very, very quick.

        I just looked at 345 hummingbird images taken this morning – raced through them – tagged 6 as keepers (simple hotkey click). Selected all non-tagged images (direct menu item), deleted them, then ingested the 6 images into LR – probably under 3 minutes. If I am shooting a client portrait, (say 1000 images) I will copy the card folder to my desktop, then have Faststone viewer look at that. I then tag the rejects – probably 75% of them at least – select the tagged pics this time, delete them and ingest the remainder into LR. Ingestion involves copying to a date folder and converting to DNG.

        The rendering, redraw and file handling with Faststone is really excellent. Of course your mileage may vary – I am not affiliated with either. But the Faststone system has *many* inherent capabilities – more for those who wouldn’t use LR, but nonetheless, excellent in my opinion.

        Cheers,
        Roy.

        http://www.roypix.com

        • Ian

          Hi Roy,
          I must respectfully disagree with your argument. I’ve been a heavy user of FRV for a long time, so I was slightly bewildered to read your comment about its speed. What does your benchmark tell you about your hard drive, what’s its speed? When you plug a large folder of RAW files into FRV, how long does it take for you to cycle through it while just holding down the space bar? For me, it goes at a rate of about 6 images per second, how about you? If it’s displaying less than 4 files a second, you should contact tech support, because that’s highly abnormal from what I’ve seen.

          But on the other hand, this entire point is moot – we’re comparing apples and oranges here, since FS displays embedded JPEG, while FRV displays RAW, and if you are shooting in RAW, you have no need for a JPEG viewer :)

          https://photographylife.com/why-bother-shooting-raw-if-you-are-culling-jpegs

          An interesting article I recently read, I think you may find it very illuminating. (Pun intended)

          As to sharpness, an embedded JPEG will certainly appear sharpened because sharpening is already applied by the camera in the process of converting RAW to JPEG. Moreover, if you really want to see that JPEG, you could just press “J”, and FRV will show it to you. Incidentally, I feel that you would benefit greatly from taking a look at the manual – there’s an entire section there on how to set keyboard and mouse shortcuts to whatever you like. Goodness knows, it helped me a lot. However, I must point out that there’s a difference between what is intuitive and what is a habit, because using a mouse scroller to change images seems very bizarre to me.

          At the end of the day though, if you shoot in JPEG, you have absolutely no need for anything more advanced than the free FS.

          • Roy Dunn

            Hi Ian,

            Thanks so much for your insight and the fascinating article (and subsequent comments) you cited. I will return to FRV and do due diligence.

            I have shot in RAW since the research program that Canon had me do with pre-production 1D and 1Ds cameras about a hundred years ago to test their sensors with high speed flash – that being said, I always used to ingest into ACR/PS or subsequently LR and work from there.

            Faststone could never read a RAW file when I was first introduced to it some years back so I left it alone. I then recently uploaded it for a fast’n’dirty way to do timelapse videos, and found that it displayed RAW files. (Or at least what I *thought* were RAW files!) I stand corrected. It explains a lot.

            My culling is very rarely based on exposure. I shoot portraits, fashion and high speed images – principally of hummingbirds. Portraits and fashion are culled based on ‘look’, ‘pose’ and/or ‘expression’ and that can be performed very quickly and ruthlessly. Hummers are based principally on focus and the pose of the birds. Exposure tweaks are pretty easy downstream.

            However, I am enlightened by the information you provided, and as I said, will return to FRV with more authority.

            All that being said, don’t knock advancing images with the mouse wheel until you have tried it. It is probably the very best feature of Faststone for me :) FRV may be flexible, and *become* intuitive when tailored, but FS out of the box has it beaten for user interface, IMHO. Of course, what we are familiar with biases our definition of intuitive.

            Anyway, thanks for your response – much appreciated.

            Roy.

  5. Mike

    Hi Todd,

    Thanks for sharing this, it’s a great incite.

    Quick, question; Do you operate Lightroom and Photo Mechanic directly from the NAS?

    I’m trying to work out a data workflow and am contemplating NAS/RAID but it’s expensive so I want to get it right first time. If you’re working from the NAS is it via ethernet/wireless or direct USB connection? I guess speed is a factor here.

    Thanks in advance
    Mike

    • Todd

      Hi Mike,

      Yes, my files are all on my NAS and being read from there by Lightroom and Photo Mechanic. I’m working off the NAS via ethernet. Hope this helps.

      • George

        Hi Todd
        I’m new to building a good photo site to sell my photos. Why a NAS instead of a standalone multi drive? Is there a reason you use the NAS rather then something that isn’t network accessible? I use a Drobo D, and wondered if the NAS would be better. Also what do you you think of DROBO products, Im about to invest in another raid storage for my photo work, cause my Drobro 5D is being used as a media server storage. I just trying out Zenfolio, and was thinking of not using my Lightroom 5 and upgrading to the Cloud LR /PS for 10 bucks a month. What would Photo Mechanic do for me. I new at this and Im trying to use your great article to help develop good workflow and right tools.
        Thank You
        George

        • Todd Owyoung

          Hi George,

          I went with a NAS solution for the instances when I’m working remotely and need access to a RAW file or something that I haven’t uploaded to my PhotoShelter account. As far as Photo Mechanic, it’s much faster for editing than Lightroom. That’s the main advantage.

  6. Patrick

    Hi Todd, thanks so much for sharing. Such a big help.
    I notice you have the performers name at the start of the file name. Could you tell me at which point in the process you input this. Cheers.

    • Todd

      If I’m importing images with the same subject, this is done at the time of ingest with Photo Mechanic. Otherwise, I will rename selects in Photo Mechanic before importing to Lightroom.

      • Patrick

        Thanks Todd, I just tried this within PM’s rename photos and used {persons}_{filename} to change the selected images. Worked great!! Thanks so much for the response. Just one thing more thing if I may…you said in regards to not ingesting the full import with Lightroom.. “instead of a catalog that includes every image from a shoot, only the best images are indexed” how do you just import the images with 3 stars etc.. don’t you have to import all into lightroom before you can even see which images have been chosen (stars). I’m sure I missed something. You’ve been a great help to so many. I’m sure I can work this one out!

  7. Scott

    Todd I enjoyed the info you presented here. I even did a trial, and then purchased PM. Question on exporting (I’m new to a lot of this), I have a D810, shot an event using full size RAW, it took LR what seemed like for ever to export the JPGs (granted it was over 200 images). Is there anything that you do to expedite the export of the JPGs and the upload to the cloud?


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