Wrapping Your Head Around Workflow

Do you have a genuine workflow?

One of the many benefits of shooting digital is the freedom to fire away at will. After all, there is no cost of processing as with film. Or is there?

Well, if you're a professional shooter, your time is money. So, in no uncertain terms, there are costs involved. But, for the most part, if you're an amateur photographer enjoying the many benefits digital photography has brought to your life, shooting a few hundred frames of your kid's soccer game ranks right up at the top of the list.

But there are downsides... or at least challenges brought on by this new found freedom. I call it "digital asset management." A shoe box holding a bunch of 4x6 prints from the drugstore is a thing of the past.

Here's what we're faced with:

  • Downloading
  • Sorting
  • Editing
  • Storing
  • Backing up

Of course, all of these items represent time. Total them up and it's a lot of time.

Thumbanil grid in Aperture's viewing pane.Early in the digital game, having knowledge of a photo editing program like Photoshop, immediately gave you an edge. Believe me, a lot of the nay-sayers that originally cast negative dispersions onto digital photography probably did so out of fear.... fear that they would not be able to make the transition because they had no computer skills. Fortunately, I had fairly strong computer skills and a full working knowledge of Photoshop, so I was in the bonus. Even prior to DSLRs making their way into the hands of working photographers, knowing Photoshop was huge. My first digital camera was an Olympus 600. Let me tell you, dumping that 16mb smartcard into my PC was mind blowing. And popping out prints on a little thermal printer was like looking into Polaroid's dismal future at warp-speed.

So, fast forward 11 years, 14 DSLRs, at least a half dozen point n' shoots, six versions of Photoshop and we're editing 5000 images per week with up to four terabytes of desktop file storage. Did someone mention warp-speed?

Window view with thumbnail strip.

Life in the digital world is more than talking dog-years. It's not just man making smarter technology, it's man using smart technology to make even smarter technology. Exponentially, we're on a tear. So, no matter if your a hobbyist or a pro, you've got to get organized. If you're not overwhelmed yet, you will be. It's one thing to shoot at burst rates of 3-4 frames per second or even 6-10, but editing them takes considerably longer.

Going back to my list, you notice that editing is just one phase of the process. There are four other steps to consider. And for pros, we also need to consider the ultimate output or distribution steps too.

So, what we're getting at here is that you need a WORKFLOW. You need a consistent process that will self-generate fail safe measures to organize, process and store your photos safely and systematically. Consistency is the key.

Using Aperture's magnifying Loupe in "cursor" mode.

By now you're probably saying... "yeah, I know all this... but I don't want to think about it." Trust me, I know pro-shooters saying the same thing. It seems daunting regardless if you're working with 1000 images or 100,000 images. But, it needs to be done.

Enter Apple's Aperture and Adobe's Lightroom. Lightroom is available for either Windows or Mac while Aperture is proprietary to Macs. These two programs, in my opinion, represent the future of photography and digital asset management. They are designed to manage your photos from import to output. More importantly, both programs are designed with a tremendous amount of flexibility that allows the user to tailor their desktop and tools to suit their workflow.

Now, the first response I get when people learn I use Aperture is; "Well, how does it compare to Photoshop?" The answer is, in many ways, it doesn't. The reason I can say that is most of you only use about 10%-15% of Photoshop's capabilities and power. For most photographers, their basic needs are cropping, adjusting color, contrast, levels and a little bit of sharpening. Granted some get into heavy masking and selections etc... but for the most part, photographers are simply doing basic darkroom edits. Both Lightroom and Aperture handle those things swimmingly... and in some cases, even better. Finding your comfort level with those adjustments (as they relate to similar steps in Photoshop) is simply a matter of getting your mental muscles around the friction differences in each program's sliders and you're back in the groove in no time flat.

Thumbnail view filtered for 3 star ranked images.

So... understand this; These are WORKLFOW programs. They allow you to import your photos from your memory card into a database. While importing, you can take the opportunity to give the files a file name that suits a convention you've established for yourself. You can also have the program add your contact information and copyright notice to the EXIF data or IPTC headers of the file... all from fields you've tailored and set up in advance. So, once those files are in your system, they're basically electronically branded and yours. You can even create additional data to the metadata before you import... say the name of the event or subject your shooting. It's all fully customizable to your needs.

Now, the next step... with no opening or closing of any other program, we have a screen full of thumbnails imported from our memory card. All visually ready for their fate to be decided... yay or nay. Each of the programs has a ranking system. The examples I'll use come from Aperture because that's what I use. As I look at the thumbnails, I can hit different key strokes that will change my view of the screen. Toggling the "V" key will give me a thumbnail grid or a large window view. Hitting the "F" key will fill my screen with the image. As I look at the images I'll either reject the image, give it no rank or give it a 3 star rank. All via one single key stroke. The rejects are simply images I don't want. Complete misses. The zero rank are images I'll keep. The 3 star ranked images are images I like. Keep in mind, as I do this, I'm looking at the full screen of the image. I can hit "Z" to zoom in at 100% or I hit the "~" (tilde key) to bring up a magnifying loupe. The loupe will even work as I roll my cursor over a row of thumbnails giving me a full magnified view.

Full screen view utilizing Aperture's HUD (heads up display) adjustment pallet.

When I've completed the sorting process, I can now change the screen view of thumbnails to show me just 3 star images. Now I can take a closer look at each. As I do this, if I REALLY like an image, I can hit the "H" key and bring up a HUD (floating display) of Aperture's adjustment pallet. I will now make my adjustments to the iage and then promote it to 4 stars. If the adjustments made are going to be similar to a group of images... say a location that I had shot slightly underexposed, I can "lift" the adjustments off the first image, then "stamp" them to another image.. or even a batch of images. And I can still tweak each image individually. Very efficient.

Now... this is one of the most important aspects of these programs. The process I just described ADJUSTING my images did NOT affect the original or "MASTER" image. It created what is called a new Version. However, a Version is not a complete copy of the image file. It is merely a small XML (text) file describing the changes I made. So, in essence, when that Version is called up in the future, the XML file is combined with the Master to provide an image. This is referred to as NON DESTRUCTIVE editing. The biggest benefit is obvious... you always keep your original file right out of the camera. Think of the Master the same as you would a film negative. Additionally, you're not wading through a bunch of duplicate files and/or keeping track of them. Again, very efficient.

I should also mention, these programs (at least it's this way in Aperture) handle RAW files seamlessly. Other than a couple of extra sliders on my Adjustment HUD, I have no reason to change my workflow just because I'm shooting RAW.

Now my images are sorted, ranked and adjusted, Aperture will allow me to do different things with them. I can make web galleries, books, send images via email, organize albums and smart albums... all very much like the way you make playlists on your iPod. The files never move... you're simply writing shopping lists of instructions.

Exporting images can be done via FTP or various other plug-ins for different needs. Most online services like Flickr etc. all have automatic plug-ins for Aperture. What this means is you simply select the album of thumbnails you want to upload, Aperture presents you with a dialog box of sizing choices (that are editable) with format choices and watermark options etc. and you just push submit. The best part of all of this is those image files NEVER reside on your local machine. When I transmit images to the Gallery software on my server, I have Aperture size them to 800x800 on the longest side, add my watermark and let it go. Those 800 pixel images NEVER exist locally. They're created an transmitted in one fell swoop. And, of course, my Master files are still intact.

This is the workflow I use on an event weekend. I will easily go through 5000 images getting everything paired down to final selections and ready to transmit or output to their final destination. It's very rare that my work is not complete before boarding my flight for home. It wasn't always that way. As an added incentive, I find the sooner I "touch" my images, the easier time I have with the process. So the workflow instills good habits too!

Lastly, backing up in the program is typically a one button operation. Aperture creates what is known as a Vault. A small icon reflects green, yellow or red to tell you the back up status of your Library. If it's Red, you have images that are not backed up. If it's Yellow, you have changes or Versions that are not backed up. It it's Green... it's Miller Time.

There are lot more features these programs will do and hopefully in the coming months I'll have time to touch on more. But I hope this gives you a sense of how important a good workflow is and how painless it can be to adapt.