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Photo Editing Workflow

Pressing the shutter on the camera is the simple bit. Once the photo is taken there are a large number of options around workflow. This is my current process.

Transferring the Photos

The obvious way to get photos from the camera to the computer is via USB cable. I don’t like doing this for a few reasons. One is that it drains the camera battery, the other is that it can be slow.

I use a card reader to mount the memory card on my computer and then use Lightroom (LR) to copy the files across.

Depending on my camera or the shoot, I may assign a pre-set on import. This matters more on my Point & Shoot (P&S) cameras, as the default processing is fairly bleh. Adobe’s defaults for my Canon SLRs is usually pretty good as a starting point. I also have a metadata pre-set that assigns various contact & copyright information to the image. I add additional metadata, such as keywords, as I import.

With folder structures, I’ve been through a few. My current layout is to place everything from one “Event” into a date prefixed folder. This can be assigned in the Import dialog. For example, if I went to Banff, it would be “2009-02-15 Banff”. The date indicates when I off loaded the photos, so the folder can span multiple days for an event. I can also have multiple folders per day.

The advantage of this layout is that if I stop using Lightroom, I still have a vague chance of figuring out where a particular photo is. When it was just by date, there wasn’t enough information in the file system to be helpful.

Initial Edit

After LR has built the previews, and sometimes while it is, I will do an initial edit. At this point, I’m viewing the photos for the first time on a computer. If I consider an image acceptable, it gets one star (‘1’ on the keyboard). If a photo is beyond usable, such as bad focus or lens cap on, I’ll set it as a reject (‘x’). Depending on the shoot, I’ll delete the rejects from disk (Ctrl-Backspace / Cmd-Delete). Occasionally, if I really like an image on first viewing, I will give it two stars (‘2’).

From this point, I use the filtering in LR so that I will only see 1 star photos or higher ratings.

Second Edit

The second time through, I’m more critical of the photos. Each much be interesting in its own right to receive two stars (‘2’). While I’m viewing the photos I’m in the Loupe view (‘e’). I typically have LR maximized (‘f’) and with the sidebars hidden (Shift-Tab). I also darken the user interface. I set the dim level in preferences to 50% and use this to hide most of the UI.

When there are several images that are very similar, such as in a portrait or sports shoot, I’ll use the compare (‘c’) mode so I can see images side by side. Pressing the up key while in this mode promotes an image to the left, while allowing you to continue through. Promoted images will get two stars.

If I want to see more than two images at once, I use the survey view (‘n’) after selecting the images from the grid (‘g’).

Post Production

After filtering down to two star images, I start to consider candidates for post-production. It is very rare that I’ll output an image without some level of post. Much of this I now do in LR.

Still with dim set, I switch to the Develop module (‘d’) and start applying corrections in LR. This can include things like fine tuning white balance, exposure, saturation, sharpening or applying subtle vignettes. Much of this I save in pre-sets, so can apply with a single click and preview before applying. Sometimes I use pre-sets from other sites to try out different looks.

If I have a series of similar photos, I’ll use LR to adjust one of them and then sync the settings to the other photos in the shoot. I do this often to set the white balance from a gray card (or by eye) and then make it the same for all the shots.

With the adjustment brush and gradient filter in LR2, there is much less time I spend in Photoshop (PS). There are still some images that I’ll finish in PS. These are typically composites, or portraits that require more retouching. I use LR to manage the PS files and to group the PS file in a stack with the original image.

Once I finish in Photoshop, I’ll occasionally re-adjust things further in Lightroom. At this point, I consider the image done.

Final Edit & Presentation

Once post is complete I try to leave some time before doing a final edit. At this point I’ve spent too long with the photos and am not very objective. I find more clarity after a night’s sleep. The images that are in my mind when I wake are often the stand out ones. Editing right away often means that the one I spent the most time on is foremost in my mind, and may not be the best image.

In the final edit, I’ll assign three star images (‘3’). These are ones that I consider the best of the shoot.

If I want to group images for export to a particular destination, I’ll use one of the colour labels (‘6’) or the Quick Collection (‘b’) to select them. Then I can filter based on these properties and export to external systems or print. Flickr, Gallery or Facebook all have plug-ins for LR, so can be configured as export pre-sets. Make sure to set the colour space to sRGB and set the appropriate size and sharpening for the destination. Having the destination web site re-size and (not) sharpen results in less great images.

I also have some pre-sets for exporting with the right file format and colour space for the print labs.

Now that I have a photo printer at home, I will often print a proof before sending to an external lab. This allows me to see what the photo will look like printed. It is a different experience to hold the photo in your hands than see it on the screen, and I’ll often go back to post and make changes.


Up until this point, the workflow has been carried out on one of my laptops. I have two copies of the image (one on the card, one on the computer). As I use the camera to format the cards prior to shooting, this gives me some redundancy. However, the images need to be archived.

This is an area that I can improve. My simple strategy is to copy across to an external USB mounted hard drive. Ideally, I should backup to a second hard drive and/or burn to DVD.

Future Usage

My pictures now are easy to find using Smart Collections. Any long term projects that I’m working on get specific keywords assigned and turn up in a specific Smart Collection that searches for the keyword and a particular star rating. I also have some collections based on year, so I can see how I’m progressing.

I can use search to locate images for particular projects, or select images for trying out a new Photoshop technique.

Ever few months, I’ll go back over my 3 star images to consider candidates for 4 stars. The 4 star images are ones I would consider for portfolio usage or fine art sale. To date, I have less than a handful of 5 star images. These are ones that I consider ‘wow’.

My aim is to shoot more images that make it to 5 stars.