If you have been reading articles on photography and post-processing, especially from a professional photographer, you have probably stumbled upon the word “workflow” and wondered what it meant. In this article, I will explain what a workflow is and what it is comprised of in the world of digital photography. Please note that the workflow process can vary greatly from one photographer to another, because of too many variables involved and because there is no established, standard workflow that applies to everyone. Therefore, information that I provide in this article should only be used as a reference point to get an understanding of how workflows work in general. It will be totally up to you to establish your own digital photography workflow and you should ultimately design the process that works best for your needs.
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What is Workflow in Digital Photography?
A digital photography workflow is an end-to-end system of working with digital images, from capture to delivery. It is comprised of a series of inter-connected steps developed by photographers to simplify and standardize their work. Simplification and standardization are the two key words here, because a well-established workflow process will not only help you in simplifying and speeding up the process of working with images, but will also allow you to stay organized, improving your efficiency and bringing consistency to your work. The number of steps involved in the workflow process varies, but generally consists of the following:
- Setting up the camera and capturing images
- Transferring images to a computer
- Importing images into a photo application
- Organizing and sorting images
- Post-processing images
- Exporting images
- Backing up images
- Printing or publishing images to the web
Let’s go through these one at a time.
Setting up the Camera and Capturing Images
The workflow process starts with your camera, so your camera settings and how you take pictures will definitely impact your workflow process. For example, if you take pictures in RAW format, your workflow process will be a little more complicated than if you were to shoot in JPEG. Why? Because RAW images require you to process them before they become usable for print or publishing. RAW files also take up a lot of space, which will certainly slow down your import, export and backup processes. If you shoot in JPEG format, you need to decide what color profile to use, what compression and image size to use, what white balance settings to use and more. Both have their advantages and disadvantages (see my JPEG vs RAW article), but you will have to decide what works best for you.
In addition, if you decide to shoot HDR or panoramas, you will have to shoot in brackets/sequences, which will add another step in your workflow process to process HDR images or stitch panoramas. Therefore, you should decide in advance what settings you want to use in your camera and how you want to capture images.
Transferring Images to Your Computer
There are many ways to transfer images to your computer. The first part is physically connecting your SD/CompactFlash card to your computer, which you can do with a card reader or by connecting your camera with a USB cable.
The second part is the actual process of copying files from your card/camera to your computer. This is where you have many different options to do this. You could use your operating system to copy the files to a particular folder on your machine, or you could use software like Adobe Bridge, Lightroom or Aperture to handle this process. I personally prefer to use the latter method for importing my images. I heavily rely on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for transferring images and this application has simplified my workflow significantly, because many of the steps described in this article are now done within this single software package.
Importing Images into a Photo Application
This step depends on how you handle the process of transferring images to your computer, because some software will do both in one step. For example, if you use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture, these programs will both copy images to your computer and import them into into a photo catalog at the same time, saving you a step.
The nice thing about using such software, is that you can customize/fine-tune the import process and tag images with certain keywords / metadata and even push some image-processing presets to each image upon import, which will save you even more time in your workflow. Check out our detailed guide on how to import images in Lightroom, where we show how to properly manage this process.
Organizing and Sorting Images
Once your images are on your computer, you need to decide how you want to organize and sort them, so that they don’t end up scattered all over your hard drive. I wrote an article on how to organize your photos, so take a look at it, if you have not consolidated your photos into one folder yet. If you use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Aperture, you have many more options to keep your photographs organized.
You can do everything from adding keywords to such things as ranking your favorite images with stars, labeling images with colors, creating custom image groups and much more. The nice thing about using Lightroom and Aperture, is that all image information is stored in a database, which makes the process of locating specific images very easy. If you are looking for a good way to organize your photos in Lightroom, take a look at my “how to organize photos in Lightroom” article. This is also a good time to quickly review your images, identify the ones that are bad/blurry/out of focus and get rid of them. Let’s now move on to the next step – post-processing images.
Now that you have organized your photographs on your computer and within your favorite photo application, it is a good time to sit through and work on your images. You might wonder if this step is necessary if your picture is already good right out of the camera. I say “definitely yes”, if you shoot in RAW, and “most likely” if you shoot in JPEG, since there will always be images that might need some tweaking here and there to make them look better.
I am not going to go through the process of post-processing an image, because this step can be a quick one second change to fix an exposure problem or an extensive process that might take hours to perfect. I normally post-process 95%+ of my images within Lightroom and only use Photoshop when I cannot fix something in Lightroom. Therefore, my workflow depends on whether an image needs further work in Photoshop or not. If you are looking for some post-processing articles and techniques, check out our post-processing tips page, where we keep all related articles we have published so far.
Once you are done working on your images, the next step is to export those images for print or web publishing. Again, there are many variables to consider here. If you are printing an image, you have to find out which image formats the printing company can work with. They might ask for TIFF files with Adobe-RGB color space, or they might only accept JPEG files in sRGB color space. Another important factor is image size and how big you want to print.
If you are exporting your images for the web, like publishing your photographs on your blog, Flickr, Smugmug, etc., you have to decide what image dimensions to use during the export process and pick sRGB as the color space. Another consideration is to remove EXIF data from your images, if you do not want others to see what settings you used when you took those pictures.
Backing up Your Images
While your machine is busy exporting images out of your photo application, it is a good time to start your backup process. If you have not been backing up your images, you should definitely come up with a backup plan as soon as possible. How good is your workflow if your hard drive crashes and you lose all of your precious photographs? I used to back up my images to a single external drive once a week before, but after losing some very important images when my hard drive crashed in the middle of the week, I now have a redundant setup with two mirrored hard drives and I back up to a different external storage device after every photo shoot. On top of this, once every month I take my external drive to an off-site location and duplicate its contents to another drive. This might sound like an overkill, but I know that my photos are safe and I won’t lose them. Don’t forget to back up your Lightroom/Apeture catalog as well. Remember, backing up just your photographs or just your catalog is not enough – you need to back up both.
If you have a lot of photographs and you are looking for a good backup storage solution, there are many great products on the market today that are created specifically for photographers and videographers. My personal recommendation would be to get Synology DiskStation products, which not only offer data redundancy, but also are amazingly fast in terms of transfer speeds. For a small to medium environment, the Synology 5-bay server would be my top pick and for larger environments with more data, a Synology 8-bay server is the way to go.
Printing or Publishing to the Web
The final step is to print your photographs or publish them to the web. For printing, take your exported images and upload them to the printing company’s website (if they allow you to do that) or copy/burn the files to a thumb drive/CD. If you have a printer and you want to print images yourself, you might not need to export images from Lightroom/Aperture or whatever software package you are using – most of them support printing right out of the application and give you all the tools you need for printing.
As for web publishing, again, if you use Lightroom or Aperture, they either already come with a built-in functionality to publish directly to Flickr, Smugmug, Facebook and other popular websites, or you can install plugins that will allow you to do that. If you have a website or a blog that you want to publish your photos to, you will need to use the exported images from step 1.6.
If you are a photographer, the question is not whether you have a workflow or not (because you do), but how good and consistent it is. Back when I started my photography journey, my workflow was truly terrible and I suffered from all kinds of problems – from failing to locate images on my computer, to efficiently processing hundreds of images from my camera. It took me several years to come up with a workflow process that keeps me organized and efficient, and the process has gotten simpler and easier to manage, thanks to the new tools that are rolled out in new versions of Lightroom. I know for a fact that my workflow will change overtime and as other new technologies such as cloud storage become more available and affordable, I will surely add and remove some steps in my workflow. I highly recommend that you go back and review your workflow process and see what you can optimize and improve – I am sure you will find new ways to do things that will make you more organized, efficient and reliable. Lastly, please note that the above article only covers the workflow steps in general. Your real workflow will be much more detailed, with more specific steps under each section.