A reliable and efficient workflow for digital photography

Categories:

Introduction

Taking photos is wonderful. Taking MANY photos even more. Not knowing where they disappeared or, god forbid, losing them defintively, is awful.

In this article I want to describe my own workflow for digital photography. Don’t expect to find the perfect guide to digital assets management, because it simply doesn’t exist. I’ve just found that this method works for me and, with a little luck, could work for you, too.

Why

Working every day with computers and new technologies exposes you to this fact: the power of information technology can easily go beyond our control. People tend to consider computers, USB keys, disks, whatever as simple “physical” boxes that need to be filled with “things”, which that can be retrieved anytime as needed; they don’t realize that those “things” actually are informations. And there are also a lot of them, and soo much fragile. With any digital camera o mobile phone it’s easy to pile up thousands of pictures and hours of videos. Creating huge archives of our memories is, at least theoretically, much easier.

Unfortunately, many of these expectation are going to stay unsatisfied. Everybody, sooner or later, will lose some or all of his or her data. Computers and disks will eventually break down, thunders are… thundering, thieves love to visit houses full of tech gadgets and grab things like PCs, laptops and disks!

Having an efficient, choerent, stable workflow can help us minimize the effect of those catastrophes, but also to better leverage our digital assets.

How

Here are the steps of my own personal photograpic workflow:

  • 1 - Shot
  • 2 - Transfer to computer
  • 3 - (optional) temporary backup: be it a CD- or DVD-RW, an external disk, etc.
  • 4 - editing: selection and rating
  • 5 - (optional) processing and sharing
  • 6 - tagging
  • 7 - archival and backup

Believe me, it such much less complicated than it sounds. Let’s see practically how it works.

0 - Preparation

One of the key aspects of this method is that it is almost entirely based on files and directories, so it doesn’t require any specific software to work. Let’s start creating this directory structure:

/1_select_and_rating
/2_keywords
/3_archive

The key of this method is this very directory structure. After each step you just move the files to the next one, so you can interrupt your work anytime without fear of lose control over the workflow. You can easily go back to where you left, just by looking at the contents of those directories!

1 - Shot

This is the most amusing part, and of course essential… without photos, there’s no workflow, right?

At this stage I have just one advice: shot in RAW, if possible.

RAW can be seen as the digital counterpart of traditional film negatives, and it is the basis for a couple of fundamental operations in digital photography: white balance and exposition tweaking, without the risk of losing information as can happen with TIFF or, even worse, JPEG files. They’re precious also because any time you don’t feel you achieved the desired result you can take back the original RAW file and start from scratch. Very useful.

2 - Transfer to computer

Copy (don’t delete them yet!) your files from the card to the folder:

/1_select_and_rating

I also strongly recommend to create sub-folders for each session, following a date_topic naming. This has many advantages:

  • you can further divide the effort to process your photos
  • you can give priority to important ones
  • it’s easy to sort folders by date or by name

Here is an example:

/1_select_and_rating
  /2009_08_04_ibiza
  /2009_10_12_milano
  /2009_11_20_blues_festival
  /2009_11_25_alice_wedding
  /...

Notice that the date pattern follows this schema: yyyy_mm_dd where:

  • yyyy: year
  • mm: month, from 01 to 12
  • dd: day, from 01 to 31

I put here all original material, be it RAW and/or JPEGs created by camera itself.

File transfer is an easy operation on most equipment, nonetheless usual care must be used: a small error and you can say hello to your beloved shots! Just a couple of quick notes:

  • I prefer to copy files instead of moving them: there’s plenty of time for deleting!
  • pay attention to computer viruses. Too often I’ve found viruses and trojans on SD cards borrowed from friends…
  • when done, make sure you use the “disconnect USB device” function provided by your operating system

As for memory cards, I have a couple of tips, too:

  • when you’re finished transferring data, I suggest to plug-in a different card in the camera, so the old one will remain around untouched for a few more days before being overwritten (did you forgot something? Your PC broke?)
  • whenever you insert a card in the camera, format it at low level. This will reveal card fails as early as possible, so you don’t discover them after the damage is done!

3 - Temporary backup

For the data safety paranoid, IT consultants and (more seriously) professional photographers, there’s nothing worse than loosing data. Especially those precious wedding shots. Depending on your luck, you can receive the visit of an attorney or a couple of angry (and kick-boxing experts) cousins of the spouse!

You can easily do a quick backup on a revwriteable media such a CD-RW, DVD-RW or external hard disk. If those shot are not so vital and/or you’re short of time you can skip this step. You make the decision!

4 - Editing: selection and rating

In this step I usually delete obviously wrong shots, plus I assign a rating to pictures. I have a quite hard threshold: any shot below a 3-star rating gets deleted, period.

To make te process as smooth and quick as possible I suggest to avoid processing your photos at this stage: it will make it slower, you can lose your work, there’s a risk of making confusion and mess up things. A quick star-rating will be enough.

Processing and Sharing

These days being quick and efficient is a requirement, especially if you want to document events as soon as they happen. As soon as you’ve rated your photos you can start retouching them (if needed) and sharing them to your clients, social networks or your website.

Some hints:

  • work on copies of your shots, not the originals
  • if your software produces so-called sidecar files with the processing profiles you used, copy them back to the original folder: this way they will be carried around together with their original.

6 - Tagging

It’s time to move files to the next directory:

/2_keywords

This phase is, without doubt, the most boring and burdensome, but it’s crucial for correct archival of the pictures. We need to attach tags to our photos to ease searching and retrieval afterwards, when the archive will be big and impossible to search by hand.

There are many options to execute the tagging operations in a quick and comfortable way, often the operating system itself has some kind of tools (i.e. Windows Explorer), but many people (me included) are more inclined to using more specific software that can handle many files in batch. Maybe in another article I can tell you something about the one I use.

6 - Archival and 7 - Backup

Move all processed and tagged files to the last folder:

/3_archive

For the organization-inclined, I suggest to group folders in a numbered sequence of sub-folders, so each is roughly the size of a DVD (4.7 Gb):

/01
  /2009_08_04_ibiza
  /2009_10_12_milano
/02
  /2009_11_20_blues_festival
/03
  /2009_11_25_alice_wedding
...

Whenever a folder is big enough, back it up on DVD.

Conclusion

What about you? What is your workflow? Do you actually have one? Let me know!

Here are some articles I’ve found on the same subject: