My Photography Workflow Pt. 1: Import to Editing

Earlier this year, I registered my photography business, fadetowhite photography. I have been messing around with photography for as long as I can remember, and I finally started taking it seriously a couple of years ago. Moving from hobby to paid gigs presents several challenges and brings added costs. The financial costs have been mostly covered by the income, but the time costs are the biggest struggle. Juggling home, work, hobbies, and paid photography means I need to streamline as much of the process as possible.

In this first post of four, I will detail my current photography workflow from import to basic editing. In the subsequent posts I will touch on HDR, retouching, sharing, and I will also talk about a few of the other tools I use to stay organized. All of this helps me concentrate on the photography, and spend as little time as possible on the time-suckers that take away from enjoying the craft.

Gear

First up, let’s talk gear. I currently shoot with a Canon 60D, and a 50D as backup. This means 18mp and 15mp files, respectively. The vast majority of the time, I shoot RAW. For paid gigs, I always shoot RAW. So now we’re looking at 20mb+ for each photo.

My computer is a 15.4″ MacBook Pro – 2.53ghz i5, 8gb RAM, 500gb 7200rpm HDD. This is a great machine, but I’m already feeling the pinch when editing these large files. Next time (hopefully within the next twelve months), I am going to get an iMac – a lot more power for the money, and it can be just for my photography. Since my MBP is also my personal machine, 500gb can disappear quickly when you’re talking thousands of photos, songs, video clips, applications, and so forth.

My main piece of photography software is Apple’s Aperture. I have tried Adobe Lightroom, but I really like the UI of Aperture and some of the organization tools.

At first, I was using one Aperture library for all my photos. I would ingest every single photo and then comb through them to delete/rate/etc. This meant my library was huge and a lot of that data was unnecessary photos sitting in trash or marked with one star, etc. (more on ratings in a bit). I soon ran out of space when I had a 320gb hard drive. Then, even with a 500gb drive I was struggling.

When I upgraded the hard drive, I also bought an external caddy for the old drive (MacAlly PHR-S250UAB USB + Firewire 800, $60 from CanadaRAM).

Then I had a light bulb moment:

Multiple Libraries

I now store my RAW files from gigs in separate libraries. If I have a few shoots in a row, I put them in one library, but for the most part each shoot has its own library. Once I finish combing through the images, editing them, and exporting them for the client, I export JPEGs of the best of the best and import those into my main Aperture library. I then move the RAW library to my external drive.

Tip: Hold the Option key when clicking on the Aperture icon to bring up the Library options. Here you can create a new library or choose which library to open.

This gives me several benefits:

  • much less space taken up on my internal drive
  • I retain all RAW files for further editing
  • I have two copies of important photos (even if one is only JPEGs)
  • I have easy access to my best photos from every shoot

Once I started this process, I realized that I was still ingesting multiple gigabytes of unusable or bad photos – out of focus, blurry, poorly framed, photobombed, repeats of the same shot, etc. Since I was working quickly in the separate libraries and then exporting the best and filing the other libraries away on the external drive, I was getting lazy and leaving those unused photos on the drive.

This lead to the next evolution in my workflow:

Ratings and Rejections

I have always used the ratings tool in Aperture to distinguish okay photos from the best ones, but I realized it was a very powerful tool and that I could use it to really clean up my library and cut down on clutter. When I ingest photos, I take the whole lot of them all at once. I just Aperture do its thing and I wait until the process is complete before I start viewing the images.

Once import and preview generation is complete, I make sure I’m in preview mode (P key), and I start going through the photos. My rating system on the first go:

  • 9 – Rejects the photo and removes it from view
  • 2 – To be kept for posterity, not a great photo, but client might want it
  • 3 – Decent shot, could be salvageable, or I may need to decide between multiple similar shots
  • 4 – Excellent shot, a keeper for sure

Notice I do not rate anything with a 1 or a 5 here. I rarely, if ever use the 1 rating. If a photo is that bad, I reject it. If it’s decent at all, it’s going to get a 2 or a 3. Some photographers use 1 as a special rating to organize photos in a certain way, but I just avoid it altogether.

At this point, I go into the Rejected smart folder, take one final peek, trash all the rejects, and then empty the trash.

I know have an excellent starting point – only photos that are usable. I then have Aperture show only the 2’s. I do some trimming here, making sure I’m only keeping shots that someone would actually want. Some of these become 3’s, most of them become rejects.

I then take a look at the 3-star photos. This is where I spend the bulk of my time. The tough decisions are only beginning. I fire through these and upgrade them to 4-star, downgrade to 2, reject, or leave them as 3-star photos. For weddings, 2’s and 3’s are still usable – I will put all decent shots on a CD/DVD for the client. These will most likely not get the royal editing treatment, but I am confident enough in them that I can still offer them to the client for archival purposes. You never know – you may have taken a shot of a relative who passes away a few months later and this could be the last photo of that person…

Now the real work begins. At this point, I almost always take a break from the session. Several days at minimum, and ideally a few weeks. During this time, I will repeat the above process for new projects, or start on the nitty gritty with existing projects.

The Nitty Gritty

So this is the part of my workflow that already existed – deciding between good and great. The evolution was doing the rejections and making use of 2 and 3 on ingest, and deleting the images immediately.

The nitty gritty is the hardest part, and it requires fresh eyes – thus the break between the first rating session and this bit. I now have a huge amount of 3-star photos, several 4’s and a handful of 5’s.

Sidenote: Some folks will say 5-star ratings should be reserved for your very bestest of the best photos and used sparingly. I agree. In my main library, 5-star ratings are reserved for such photos. However, with the multiple library setup, I use 5-star ratings to differentiate the best of the best in each project. Then, when I export the best 4’s and 5’s into my main library, I re-rate them accordingly.

I labour over these decisions for hours, comparing photos side-by-side, viewing them full-screen, turning away from my computer and looking back quickly to get an instant feel for a photo, giving up and playing Angry Birds, and so forth. Eventually I have a nice set of final images to edit.

Editing

You’ll note that I have not done any editing to these images whatsoever at this point. There is no point editing a photo that may not be used. If you have bucketloads of time on your hands to do that, that’s great – I can think of about two hundred things I would rather spend my time doing. I reserve hands-on editing for the best photos. For a wedding, this could be 50-150 images. For headshots, maybe 10, and for a typical shoot with a model, 25.

There is also a bit of “hands-off” editing that I do sometimes. If a batch of photos needs the same adjustment(s), like white balance, colour correction, rotation, noise reduction, etc., I will perform the task once and then lift and stamp the adjustments to the others. This is a great feature of Aperture and makes life much easier! For the most part however, the editing I am doing is hands-on and specific to that particular image.

I enjoy editing, but I’d rather not do it. To that end, I try and create the best possible image when I shoot it. This sounds like common sense, but unfortunately with the rise of cheap/free editing software and the abundance of cheap cameras, a lot of people are becoming “photographers” based on their editing skills. I’ve heard stories of couples fooled by nicely-edited photos uploaded to Facebook who book a photographer for their wedding and are then horrified and dismayed with the results. I am not a pro. I am not the best. But I do have the confidence to say that I know how to take good photos, and often I am able to use my eye and my skills that I have built up over the past several years to take some good photos that are worth paying for.

So, often my photos require very little editing. With RAW, the possibilities are endless, but I strive to create situations where the vast majority of my shots only require basic adjustments if any at all. A little white balance tweak, a boost in contrast, and some sharpening are the baseline adjustments. If there are indoor shots with high ISO, a bit of noise reduction maybe. I tend to keep my camera settings (Picture Style on Canons) on standard settings, so I may boost saturation as well if the colours are a bit dull. But overall, I like to shoot with the intention of doing as little as possible to the image afterwards.

There will be shots that I have taken with specific edits in mind. For instance, I may take a close-up of a bride holding her bouquet, and know that I will emphasize it with a bit of a vignette and some colour correction or curves. But these shots are the exception, and the less editing I have to do, the happier I am.

Sidenote: Cropping. I hate it. I absolutely love the 4×6 frame and between that aspect ratio and 16×9, it’s how I see the world. Every once in a while, a photo will scream “square.” Sometimes there are elements in the frame that you didn’t notice when shooting, or the viewfinder didn’t show. And sometimes something pops out at you, and a re-framing makes the photo really pop. Overall, I frame for the aspect ratio and avoid cropping. It’s tempting with such large images – you can crop without loss of quality – but I still don’t like to do it.

All of my basic editing is done with Aperture. No Photoshop, no exporting to edit with another program, no use of plugins. I am not saying those things don’t happen, just that I try and keep things as simple as possible. If I can complete my workflow within Aperture, I do so. One thing I cannot do within Aperture currently is add my logo to images. I will discuss this is a future post.

Basics = Done

So, now the basics are done. I will now add metadata to the images if I haven’t done so already – copyright notice, location notes, file names, etc., as well as tags.

I now have separate Aperture libraries full of RAW files that I have sorted through. I have rejected the unusable photos, rated the rest, and edited the best. At this point, I export the very best photos as JPEG files and burn a DVD or CD for the client if need be. I then import those into a new Project in my main Aperture library. Within that project, I may create albums or smart albums to separate the photos (pre-wedding, ceremony, reception / vertical vs. horizontal / good vs. best / etc.).

I then move the library with the RAW files to my external drive. I open that library in Aperture once more to ensure everything is peachy-keen, and I then format my SD card in the camera if I have a shoot coming up. A Time Machine backup of my computer is a great idea at this point, and I will also often make a backup of any new Aperture libraries from the 320gb external drive to my 1.5TB external drive.

I now have lots of great-looking images. Some have been tweaked to bring out their potential. I have further separated the good from the great. A lot of the photos are ready to share. There are some, however, that need a bit more work.

In the next three posts I will discuss retouching photos of people, doing some hardcore editing and creating HDR images, and the various ways to share images out to clients and the world at large. I’ll also touch on some mobile tools, and share the ways I stay organized. We’ll look at Pixelmator, Portrait Professional, Photomatix, Flickr, DropBox, and much more.

Stay tuned!

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