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Photographic Workflow

from camera to workspace to the eyes of others

How do I work with my photos after I click the shutter? Here's the long answer, and the short answer.

(0) The Short Answer

  • Shoot prolifically, edit ruthlessly.
  • When putting something away, put it where you will look for it.
  • Show what you shoot.
  • Do what I say, not what I do.

(1) Shoot, Shoot, Shoot; Edit, Edit, Edit

Digital cameras allow us to shoot prolifically. No more film to buy, just pixels to burn: machine-gun bursts of rapid-fire imagery. Before digital cameras were invented, John Szarkowski declared there were more photographs in the world than bricks. How many more are there now? Save the world from pixel proliferation! How? Start by deleting poor shots as you shoot them.

(2) Rename files in Adobe Bridge

Fewer photos means it is easier to find the ones you want. Giving photos good names also makes it easier.

Photos right out of a camera have names like
but I prefer names like

The rule is: put things where you will look for them. A year from now, how will I look for this photo of a sign on Harvey Road? Probably by typing the words "Harvey" and "sign" into my computer's search engine. So "signHarvey" is the first part of this image's name.

I often can remember month and year, so that info goes into the middle part of the name.

The last part of the name is the unique image identification number straight out of the camera. This makes each image unique that is called "signHarvey_0906".

Adobe Bridge makes renaming easy, especially since its Batch Rename action can automatically use the photo's date and ID number, and can have a field where the keyword can be entered. Click here to see how the Batch Rename template looks the way I have it set up in Adobe Bridge.

(3) Delete unwanted photos in Adobe Bridge

Peter Krogh and others say keep everything you shoot, that computer storage is cheap, that time spent deleting bad photos is better spent working on good ones. I say shoot prolifically, edit ruthlessly.

Do you ever want to see that photo again? If not, delete it. Did you take a photo but it's not what you hoped for? Delete it. Do you have ten or twenty versions of basically the same photo? Delete all but one or two. As the electrical engineers say, improve the signal to noise ratio!

With luck and God's grace, we will have decades to review our photos. Shall we waste our enthusiasm and our time looking at photos we never want to see again?

If a photo is especially bad, keep it. Each time you see it, you will remember that mistake again, and perhaps not make it again.

(4) Organize files, copy to an external drive

I keep photos in folders named by date. That is, all the raw photos from June, 2009 went into a folder named "2009_06". All the 2009 folders went into a folder called "2009".

Usually I can remember when I took a photo, within a year of two. The idea is to store photos where we are likely to look for them.

All my photos live on their own external hard drive. I always have at least two sets of photos, one on the computer and one on the external hard drive. Eventually, I delete the ones on the computer, but only after I have burned them to DVDs. At least one set of backup DVDs is stored at a undisclosed remote location, just in case.

(5) Add copyright, keywords, etc. using Adobe Lightroom

With the new images on the external drive and copies on my computer, I import the new photos from the external hard drive into Adobe Lightroom, which is cataloging software. The software also allows users to adjust photos without altering the underlying pixels. It can make prints, create slide shows and Web galleries. Apple Aperture software has similar capabilities.

When I import photos into Lightroom, I add copyright info to the photos. That is one of many options.

After the photographs are imported, I sometimes add keywords. Since I already have one or two keywords in each photo's title, that's seldom necessary.

Bringing photos into Lightroom is another chance to weed out the junk. If you see a photo you never want to see again, thank God for giving it to you, then send it to pixel heaven.

In Lightroom you can see many pieces of information about photos such as date and time shot, camera, lens, shutter speed, etc. Once the photo is in the catalog, you can search and sort the photos using that information or by keyword or by other criteria such as rank. I like Peter Krogh's advice about ranking images, to rank by orders of ten; that is, to have only one 3-star photo for every ten 2-star photos. That way you will have only one 5-star photo for every 100,000 no-star photos. I am still waiting to shoot a 5-star photo.

(6) Burn DVDs, move one set to external location

Once I have enough photos to fill a new DVD, I burn three: one to store in a remote location, one for my loose leaf archives (seen in photo), and one for the hell of it because I am so paranoid.

Having done that, I delete the photos from my computer, but not the external hard drive where they are cataloged.

(7) Work on images in Adobe Photoshop

Fine tuning of images happens on images I've exported from Lightroom and stored in my "Adjusted" folder. This work in Adobe Photoshop usually happens before I show them to others. Just like my original photos, I always have duplicates of my adjusted photos, which reside in folders separate from the originals.

(8) Show what you shoot.

If a photo is worth making, it's worth sharing. Hoarding cripples the soul, or so some say. Thanks to the Internet, photos are easy to share, even if they are small pixilated images. Please take a look at my galleries and my Photo Prayers.

Exhibitions of framed prints are expensive, but they get your work out of the computer and into the real world, giving you a chance to watch people looking at your images, perhaps remembering one for the rest of their lives. Sometimes people buy them to look at again and again.

Books are now easier than ever using Collages.net, Blurb, iPhoto, MyPublisher, and other vendors. EfotoLab recommends Verdébooks for better reproduction and heavier paper. If you want more than a few copies, though, don't self-publish. I have published many books, so I know.

The corollary to "Show what you shoot" is this: if you think people should look at your photos, you should look at theirs. Look at lots of photos. Surf the Internet. Visit exhibits. Buy books. Join a photography community or start your own community: you will get to share your photos and see better ones.

(9) Sell, donate photos to whoever will take them.

If anyone praises your work, ask them if they would like an image. Give the photo to them for whatever they will pay, or give it to them free. Frame it so it will be hung and seen.

Helmut Gernsheim bought three of my dancing neon photos years ago (including this photo of Threadgill's in Austin, Texas). I understand that after Gernsheim died, my three photos went to the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Germany. Other collections have a few of my images and copies of my Book of Days. After I die, these may be the only places on earth where any record of my photography will survive. (Whether my work should survive is a different question.)

If your work is unseen in a museum's deep storage, or only sits on your external hard drive unseen, what's the difference? Photos are meant to be seen. Show them!

(10) Responses to this page

Kathy Buckalew, 7/6/2009 Click here to read her long response.

Toby, 1/27/2010: I just read your article - fantastic! Thank you for taking the time to produce it. Entering the digital world after years of film, it has been difficult to figure out proper storage and sequence. Your article was timely since I just got a new Mac and Photoshop software.

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All pages copyright 2000-2009 Danny N. Schweers