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Tips and Tools For Creating Efficient Photography Workflows

I’m addicted to photography, and judging by the incredible response to Valerie Jardin’s post, Can Photography Become an Addiction? at the Digital Photography School, many of you are too.  But there’s a cure.  By organizing your image collection, streamlining your in camera editing (by this I mean checking photos while you shoot and then deleting any images that don’t make the grade), and using efficient image editing workflows, you can reduce the time spent messing around with your photos and create more time to get out and take pictures!  If you’re thinking, “That sounds like a vicious cycle,” you’re starting to get the picture.  My goal here isn’t so much to cure you of your addiction to photography, but rather to help you produce better pictures so that the time you spend with your obsession will pay off.

In an earlier post to PhotoHow2 I discussed some of the secrets of organizing your photo collection.  I spent years using Adobe Bridge as my photo file browser, and I loved its easy integration with Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop.  In addition, Bridge accesses your native file structure, (unlike less pro-sumer friendly products like Apple’s iPhoto), so its easy to find your images (as long as you created a sensible file organization system in the first place).  My recent changeover to Adobe Lightroom 3 gave me an opportunity to reassess my file naming conventions–what I found was proof of the depths to which I had sunk in my obsession with photography.

OK, what I found wasn’t all that bad; I was just obsessing over dating my folders.  All of my photo are initially separated into “year” folders.  That’s a great practice, and a good way to eliminate the mayhem of searching large collections.  In my old file structure the “year” folders would contain additional folders labeled with the date the shoot occurred and a note on the shoot’s subject matter.

So, inside my “Photos” hard drive (I use a MacPro with four internal hard drives–one for the operating system and other standard files, one for my photo collection, and then two other big drives that have my media collection and my photo collection backup) you’d find a folder named, “2011.”  Originally, I would give the nested folders names like, “20110423_my trip to the zoo,” “20110513_Rocky Mnt. NP,” and “20110704_4th of July Fireworks.”  Lightroom 3, and its innovative graphical file browsing system, which allows me to mouse over folders to see what photos lie hidden within, gave me the confidence I needed to simplify my collection’s naming convention.  I still use the “year” folders, but I’ve dropped the use of exact dates and I just focus on the shoot name.

Now you might be thinking, “Isn’t going through all of my photos and changing their names going to take a long time…and wasn’t this tutorial supposed to help me quit futzing with my photo files so I could spend more time futzing with my camera?”  I’ve got you covered.  I used ABFR to restructure my entire photo collection fast.

Organizing your image collection is a chore, but will improve your photo importing and editing efficiency, and the less time you spend on the computer, the more time you’ll have to spend with the more enjoyable aspects of photography.  The next step in decreasing the amount of time you spend feeding junk food to the monkey on your back (see, we’re shooting for a healthier, skinnier monkey) involves decreasing the number of photos that you take in the first place.  Recently, just after selling my Nikon D70, and just before buying my Nikon D3100 (see my comparison article, I spent about three weeks sans DSLR.

As you can probably guess, my fellow addicts, it was pretty rough.  Luckily my super talented photographer friend JT Thomas had a Nikon N100 lying around and let me borrow it while I shopped around for new gear.  I loaded it up with slide film and enjoyed hiking around and setting up shots.  “Setting up” is the operable phrase.  Its been a long time since I shot slides, and the whole idea of finding a developer and actually having to pay for developing had me holding back instead of clicking away.  The rolls I shot are still sitting on my desk.  Probably should move them to the fridge soon.

Revisiting slide film reminded me that I didn’t have to take a million photos to enjoy the act of creating images.  In fact, having fewer images to deal with at home seemed like a good idea.  I decided then to try and incorporate a “film” mindset whenever I shoot digital, setting up shots, checking my settings and composition, and thinking through the image so that when I do click the shutter I can be fairly certain that the resulting image is worth the time I’ll have to spend on it later.  Of course, you can’t always nail it on the first go–that’s why I recommend checking your photos constantly while you shoot using the zoom button to look at crucial parts of your shot.  If you’re taking portraits or photos of wildlife, for instance, your subject’s eyes, should always be in perfect focus.  A quick flip to histogram mode will give you more valuable information (even though, as Ken Rockwell points out here–what you see in your camera’s preview window should take precedence over what the histogram tells you).  The main point–those of us with addictive personalities have a tendency to stray into hording behaviors, so check your shots while you shoot and delete anything that isn’t worthy of your continued attention.

Here’s the last step you should take to decrease the time you spend focused on ancillary tasks and increase the time you have for getting out to shoot–use good resource materials and boil your workflows down into easy to follow notes and reminders.  If you’re like me you’ve got a ear-marked copy of Scott Kelby’s The Adobe Photoshop CS3 Book For Digital Photographers and his The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book (I’m still working from older books, which you can pick up cheap–you may have updated to more recent versions).  I’m not a big “preset” user in Photoshop or Lightroom.  I love searching through reference material and then following instructions.  But that takes time, and even though I love Scott Kelby’s writing style and enjoy reading his how-to’s, sometimes I just want the condensed version.  So I create and store small word processing files (I’m mostly a Mac user and like TextEdit for speed and simplicity–NotePad’s great in Windows) with the steps I need to accomplish a certain task.

For instance, Kelby’s 7-Point system changed the way I look at digital photography developing, and using his system has had a noticeable impact on the quality of my photos.  If you’re using the Adobe Bridge/Photoshop workflow to develop your digital shots and you’re not incorporating Kelby’s insights, then you’re probably not getting the most out of your photography.  (You can download a condensed workbook version of his book The Adobe Photoshop CS5 7-Point System for Camera Raw for free at this website.)  Like his instructional books, the workbook is well written, but gives me more information than I really need.

Here’s my boiled down version of Kelby’s 7-Point System:

  1. From Bridge, open image in Camera Raw.  Adjust white balance, temperature (if necessary), exposure (use recovery if necessary for clipping), blacks (if image looks washed out), clarity (click detail tab–use default amount (around 25) for portraits, pump up to 75 for landscapes or images with well defined edges.  Open in Photoshop.
  2. Need more contrast?  Open Curves from Layers panel Adjustment Layer pop-up menu.  Use preset (medium contrast), click OK, then flatten layers (or wait until after the next step–color).
  3. Lab Color:  Soft Light blending mode preferred.
  4. Shadow/Highlight:  Duplicate layer (command-J), open shadows/highlights and apply directly to image, or if image is colorful go to channels palette first and click the lightness channel.  Image>Adjustments>Shadow/Highlights.  Amount around 25, tonal width=slight increase (no more than 70), radius=between 150 & 300.  Click OK.  Back to Image>Mode>RGB  Choose “don’t flatten” and move to next step.
  5. (Optional step)  Hold option key, click “layer mask” icon in layers panel & “paint with light.”  Use brush tool.  Decrease opacity if it looks fake.
  6. Controlled blend mode to lighten or darken specific areas.  Copy layer with “command-j”, change layer blend mode to multiply to darken image or screen to lighten image overall.  To make part of image darker (sky), don’t use brush tool, use gradient tool–click on the layer mask icon at the bottom of the panel, grab gradient tool, click it above the horizon line and drag upward.  Use brush to paint in other areas you want to darken (or invert and use screen mode to lighten).
  7. Sharpen:  Apply to every photo as the last step (unless softening skin).  Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask.  Settings: Amount 85%, Radius 1, Threshold 4 (medium amount of sharpening).  Immediately after clicking OK, go under Edit, choose “Fade Unsharp Mask,” change mode to “Luminosity,” click OK.  For print: 120%, 1.0, 3, then use Fade.  For web: 100%, 1.0, 10, then use Fade.

If you’re inspired now to go through you voluminous collection of Photoshop User magazines to create a personalized set of tips & tricks, don’t forget to check the actions you’ve recorded in Photoshop or Lightroom to make sure that they work.  Steps may vary as software versions change.  It doesn’t matter how you create or store your tutorial files–put the steps in your own words and focus on speeding up your workflow when you edit your new shoots.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, obsessed, or even addicted to photography, take comfort in the fact that organizing your image collection, editing individual photos in camera, and focusing on efficient workflows can help you cope.  And if you’re still feeling beat down by your habit, just remember that you’re not alone.