My Digital Workflow For Photography

What you are about to read is how I organize and maintain my workflow with digital photography. Like everything else I share on my blog, this system has been developed and refined over several years and works really well for me. With this system I can upload, sort, select, and edit hundreds and hundreds of photos in a matter of minutes. I doubt my system will work for everyone, but hopefully it will work for some of you—or at least give you some tips on how you can tweak and improve your own digital workflow.

Equipment Used In This Tutorial:
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Memory Card: SanDisk Extreme III CompactFlash 30MB/s, 32GB
Card Reader: FireWire 800/400 UDMA Reader
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro
Hard Drive: Western Digital external, 2TB
Programs: Adobe Photoshop CS4, Adobe Bridge CS4, TextEdit

STEP 1 – UPLOADING

You can see from the image below exactly how I have my hard drive organized—by years and topics/categories. Inside my 2011 folder I have a sub folder for photos, and inside that folder are separate folders for each month. Why do I have a number in front of each month? Because if they were just named by the months, the folders would default to alphabetical order, meaning they wouldn’t be in chronological order. August would be at the top instead of January, and that just doesn’t work for me.

My hard drive.

Each time I shoot photos I put the images in a folder that has a specific date (m/d/yy) and an easy to understand label so I know when the photos were shot and have a general idea of what kind of photos are in the folder. When I shoot digital photos I always shoot RAW+JPEG (I use the highest of both settings… I may do a whole separate blog post on just this topic alone if needed.), so I first create a folder for RAW and a folder for JPGS inside that dated and named folder, which again, is inside the proper month folder on my hard drive. Once I plug in my card reader, the icon for my card appears on the desktop. To copy the files from the card to my hard drive I can easily separate the RAW and JPEG images by selecting the “list” view in my finder window, then clicking the “kind” tab. After the files are separated, I select all the RAW files and drag them to the RAW folder, then do the same with the JPEG files. Once the files are copied to the hard drive, I eject the memory card to make sure I don’t accidentally write or edit on it.

Finder's List view with the Kind tab selected.

The folder I created for the photos I shot on my trip to Mexico.

For demonstration purposes throughout this post I’m going to use the photos from a recent weekend trip to Mexico. Why do I have extra folders in there besides RAW and JPGS? On this particular trip I also took snapshots with my point and shoot digital camera, so I put all the photos from that camera in a different folder to keep them separate from the files from my 5D Mark II. The folder labeled “WEB” is for any photos that I edit and resize for Web usage later on, and the “Travel Blog” folder is for photos I will edit, resize, and rename specifically for a blog post with my best travel photos from the trip. If I had edited photos for personal use, or for any other reason, I would have made a separate folder for those as well. (Which I’ll end up doing very soon…)

Ok, I have my folders organized on my hard drive, the photos from my recent shoot in a specific folder, the RAW and JPEG files separated, and a few extra folders for edited photos—so how do I sort through 500+ images and pick the 15 best shots for my travel blog post? Glad you asked…please continue.

STEP 2 – SELECTING

To start the photo selection process I drag the RAW folder onto the Bridge icon in the dock, which opens all the photos from that folder in Bridge. Once the program is open it’s a good idea to let it load for however long it takes to process all the images. There’s nothing worse than trying to flip through and scan your photos and have the program lag on you. While the images are loading I like to grab a glass of OJ, check Twitter, and update Facebook

Adobe Bridge window.

I have my Bridge set up into three columns as shown above—the Filter tab on the left, the Content tab next to that with small thumbnails, and the Preview tab taking up most of the screen with the image shown pretty large. I use the arrow keys on my keyboard to scroll down through the photos, and when I find an image I like or may want to use I hit the keystroke sequence Command+1 to give it a “1 star.” You can label the photo with a star by clicking “Label” on the menu bar and selecting the star, but keystrokes are much quicker and better for efficient workflow. I quickly go through the entire selection of photos and give every good photo that I may end up using a single star rating. This first pass through only takes me a few minutes. If you slave over each image it will waste valuable time, so I suggest doing this part of the process as fast as possible. You will narrow down your selection even more in the next step, so don’t worry about picking too many at this point. Your goal here should be to mark as many photos that have even a little bit of potential. Once I have my selection of good photos starred, I select the single star under the Ratings tab on the left side of my Bridge window so I’m only viewing those photos that have been marked with a star.

For this particular set of photos from Mexico I know I want to make a blog post with the best travel photos from the trip, and I know I want to pull out some personal photos to send to some friends, so from this point I’ll go through all of the single-starred photos and select the ones I want to use for the different applications by using a second star or a colored label. But wait! Won’t you get confused in a week (or a year) when you look back at these photos and can’t remember what the stars and colors are for? No, because you will also make a text file to remind you what the label and star ratings are for. I use the program called TextEdit program for this and save that text file in my root folder for the photos. The text file doesn’t need to be anything fancy. It just needs to clearly remind you exactly what each star or color is for.

TextEdit document.

With my Mexico photos, once I start clicking through the single star photos and come across a photo that would work for my blog post, I hit Command+6 to give it a red label. When I come across a photo I want to give to my friends, I hit Command+2 to give it two stars. After I make this second pass I have 30 red label—too many for a gallery on my blog. So I will click the red label under the Filter tab on the left side of my Bridge window to show only the 30 photos with a one star and a red label.

Adobe Bridge with one-star and red label photos selected.

Now I can narrow the selection down even more, and to do this I can either hit Command+6 to take away the red label, or give it a different colored label. I chose a different color just in case I wanted to go back and look at my rejected images and make any changes. So I went through the 30 photos and hit Command+7 on 15 of them, so 15 still had a red label, and 15 had a yellow label.

Adobe Bridge with one-star, red label, and yellow label photos selected.

Finally I have narrowed down 586 photos to 15 that I will use for my travel photo blog post. It’s now time to edit and resize them for the Web…

STEP 3 – EDITING

With the red label and the one star selected in my Filter and Ratings tabs I hit Command+A to select all 15 photos, then I drag them onto the Photoshop icon in my dock to open them all in Photoshop’s RAW editing window. When the program opens, all 15 photos will be in a column on the left side of the screen. By hitting Command+A again, I select all of them to make changes to all the RAW files at one time. If you’ve read my Behind The Photo posts, you know that I have what I call my “personal stock settings,” which are settings in the RAW editing window that I apply to all of my photos as a starting point before I begin making changes to them. With all 15 of the photos selected I move the Contrast slider to 65, the Clarity slider to 25, and the Saturation slider to 10. Then I click the Detail tab and move the Sharpening Amount slider to 125, the Sharpening Masking slider to 50, and the Noise Reduction Luminance slider to 50.

Adobe Photoshop's RAW editing window.

My personal stock settings in Photoshop's RAW editing window.

Once all of the photos have my stock settings applied to them I go down the column of photos one by one and edit them individually until I’m happy with how they all look. Then I click Done at the bottom left hand corner of the screen, and all the changes and edits I just made are saved in the RAW images’ corresponding XMP file. I click back over to Bridge and wait a moment for all the changes to the images to be processed—I can view the edits I just made in Bridge.

The folder of droplets I have saved on my computer.

STEP 4 – RESIZING

I select all of the photos, then I drag them onto a Photoshop *droplet I have on my computer. I have lots of different droplets on my computer for different reasons, but the one I use most is the one I have labeled 800px Tall RAW Quick. This droplet bypasses the RAW editing window in Photoshop, so it opens RAW files without the need to click an extra button, then it resizes the images to 800px tall at 72dpi and uses the “Save for Web & Devices” option to save the photos to a specific folder on my computer with the “High” JPEG setting. When I drag the RAW images from Bridge onto this droplet I simply sit back and wait, and a few minutes later the resized Web-ready images are in the folder labeled “800 Tall” in the main Droplets folder on my computer. I then drag those photos into my folder labeled “Travel Blog” that I created earlier.
*Creating A Photoshop Droplet Tutorial

Move the files from the 800 Tall folder on my computer to the Travel Blog folder on my hard drive.

STEP 5 – REORGANIZING & RENAMING

From there I create a new folder on my desktop and name it specifically for my travel blog post. Naturally I have my blog posts organized in folders on my hard drive a certain way, and I keep them separate from my individual photo sets. I create a copy of all 15 photos from their current location and paste them into the new folder on my desktop. This way I have a copy all the Web-res images with their native names still in their original folder. This gives me easy access if I ever need them again. I drag the new folder for my blog post on the Bridge icon in my dock so all 15 low-res JPEG images are visible in Bridge. For this step of the process I make the Content section of Bridge larger so I can see all of the thumbnails at one time.

Original order with native file names.

Since I don’t necessarily want the images to be viewed in the order I shot them, I click the individual images and drag them into whatever order I want them to be in when they are posted on my blog. After I’m happy with the order they are in I select them all and hit Shift+Command+R (Tools > Batch Rename; in the menu bar) to rename them all. I always use text and a two or three digit sequence number to name my photos, and I pick a name that will hopefully help generate some SEO that describes the photos in a few words. (SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” In a nutshell, if someone is searching Google Images for photos of Tijuana, I want them to find my photos so they visit my blog.) For this photo set I named the files Ensenada-Tijuana-Mexico-00.jpg. Also, I always put hyphens in between the words and numbers because the Internet doesn’t typically like spaces in file names.

Batch rename screen.

New order with new file names.

BONUS STEP – METADATA

The final step of my digital workflow isn’t something I do for every photo or set of pohtos, and it’s not a huge deal to me, but I typically do it for blog posts that contain photo galleries anyway. While in Bridge still, I select all the images and click on the Metadata tab on the left side of the window. I fill out some of the information so that if anyone pulls one of my photos from the Web it has enough information in the file that they know who and where the photo came from, and how to contact me if needed. I also fill out the Headline, Description, and Keywords for basic SEO reasons—although I’m not 100% sure this even does any good.

Filled out Metadata info.

After the Metadata is filled out, I’m finally ready to upload the photos to my blog, and my digital workflow for photography is complete.

If any of the terms or topics discussed above were over your head or a little too advanced for where you are with digital photography, this would be a perfect time to search Google so you can educate yourself and start pushing your skills to the next level.

As always, if you have any specific questions about anything in this post, please leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out.

15 thoughts on “My Digital Workflow For Photography

  1. Noah

    I’ve always been curious about why most people use the YYYY/MM structure because if you are searching for an event, you have to remember the month and year that it occurred. I’ve changed my structure over the last year to be //YYYYMMDD . (ie: Celebrations/Birthdays/20110527 Cindy’s birthday).

    Starting the Contrast up at 65 also seems awfully high. Whenever I set it any higher than 10 or 15, it looks unnatural. Am I missing something obvious?

  2. Fat Tony Post author

    Good questions…

    Yes, you do have to remember the year and month that something happened to have your photos organized like I do, but I keep five years worth of photos on my hard drives and can pull up any give photo at any time in a matter of minutes—seconds in most cases even. I don’t know if I just have that good of memory or what, but it definitely works for me. Maybe it’s because I keep such good records of my travels anyway (for personal reasons and tax reasons also).

    As far as contrast being so high, maybe it’s the difference in the camera. I can’t imagine that all cameras shoot the same way. Or maybe it’s just your personal preference of how you like your images to look. Also, since most of my photos are eventually “saved for web” (which strips away some colors and contrast), I typically set my contrast, blacks, and colors a little higher to account for that.

  3. Noah

    Thanks for the quick responses!

    I can’t remember several random events that happened even 2 years ago :)

  4. Doug

    Why do you re-size all your images for the web? Can’t you just make them J-pegs and upload them that way?

  5. Fat Tony Post author

    This post was showing my “most common” way of doing things. Most of my photos are uploaded to ridebmx.com, and a lot are uploaded to my blog. By using the “save for web” option, you are keeping the file size down while retaining as much quality as possible. The smaller the file size, the faster the Web pages load.

    If I don’t plan to upload the photos online, then I don’t save as web-res .jpegs…
    -Fat

  6. Doug

    So you would recommend this kind of down sizing for any web use? Say
    like Flicker Facebook or a personal photography site. Could you go
    into more detail why you chose that size? Can you go bigger smaller,
    is it worth doing either.
    Also, when you open the photo will it change the size of it? Does this
    just change the size of the file or the actual photo?

  7. Doug

    I don’t know if its just me but I’m confused with the whole droplet process. Could you go into detail how you did your and what folders and such things are suppose to safe to. Thanks.

  8. walker

    The whole star rating system is interesting to hear from a different perspective. From a strict portfolio standpoint we’ve been learning in school to use 1-4 stars, no stars would is self explanatory, 1 star is alright, 2 stars is good and noteworthy, 3 is portfolio worthy work, and 4 is the end all be all photo. The four different categories really makes you step back and look at what you have but we are not pumping out as many pictures as you do. The use of the color tabs makes a lot of sense now that I’ve seen it in a functioning workflow. Editing a large amount of photos like you do makes sense but when you’re working with a smaller amount that you would later be doing more work with do you ever use any actions in photoshop?

  9. Fat Tony Post author

    When I shoot a single photo that I don’t need to size for Web or anything, I do not use any actions or droplets from Photoshop. I’ll simply do what I need to do with the photo and be done with it…usually save it as a CMYK high-res TIFF. (That’s the second most common thing I do to photos besides save them for Web.)

  10. Fat Tony Post author

    I chose this size (800px tall) for my Web images because it’s a convenient size for most of the applications I use on a regular basis. That is to say I can use this one action droplet and re-sizing technique for almost everything I do, so it cuts down on my workflow and time spent editing, etc.

    Keep in mind that most of the photos I process are viewed online either on ridebmx.com or here on my personal blog. On both sites the “normal” view in a post for a photo a photo is about 640 x 420px for horizontal images, and about 420 x 640px for vertical images; both of which are smaller than what my droplet creates. On both sites, when you click the photo to enlarge it, the size increases, but is still less than 800px tall. So sizing my images to 800px tall ensures that my photos will never be enlarged automatically by a Web site, which of course would decrease the image quality. However, when the sites automatically shrink the image, the photo still looks good and does not get pixelated.

    So why not size the photos to 640px then? Well, if on either site someone decided to click the source file, it would bring them to the full 800px tall image so they would be able to see the photo at that natural size, which would give them the best view of the photo, so I like to have that option available. At 800px tall, the file size is still relatively small, so the images don’t take very long to load online. Any larger than that, and the load time would increase, slowing down Web browsing.

    When I upload photos to Facebook I use this size also just because it’s convenient for me since I use the same droplet so often. Facebook won’t show your images that large, but again, at least the quality won’t decrease because they are shrinking your images to show them on their site, not enlarging them. Sites like Facebook and Flikr resize your photos and compress them no matter what you do, so there is never any need to upload large files to those sites. That would just be a waste of time.

    Also, remember that most computer monitors’ resolutions are no larger than 1920 x 1080, so photos to be viewed online never really need to be sized very big.

  11. Fat Tony Post author

    There are plenty of droplet tutorials online, so I don’t feel like I need to make my own tutorial. If you didn’t catch the link I posted in the article above, here’s a video tutorial you can follow on how to make one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSzgAu_VptU

    Basically I have one folder for all the droplets I use. Inside that folder are the droplets themselves and sub folders for the newly re-sized photos to be saved into.

  12. Doug

    So why don’t you make a copy of the raw photo and then edit it? What if you mess up and ruin the file, you have no back up.

  13. Fat Tony Post author

    You can simply delete the .xmp file that correlates to that image from your computer to get a RAW file back to it’s original format.

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