From A Mess to the Best: Digital Workflow for Photographers

posted under  Tips & Tricks on Sep 23rd, 2010 with 0 Comments

23 Sep

If you think photography has gotten any simpler because it has shifted to digital technology, you'll be in for a huge surprise. For every aspect of photography that has gotten easier due to the switch to digital there has been something new added in its place.

Instead of archiving film, photographers now archive files on servers and external hard drives. Instead of developing film using chemicals and a dark room photographers now use a slew of software to process their images. This article is here to give you a head start in defining and creating a workflow to edit your photos.

File Management

Properly labeling and keeping track of your files is paramount for photographers. It is likely that a client will want additional revisions or that you'll need to dig up a RAW file to sell a print, prove you shot something or add new work to your portfolio among other tasks.

If you don't have a proper system that's followed consistently these tasks will take much longer than necessary to complete, which creates additional costs to your business and takes away from time you could be spending shooting, working with clients and editing photos.

Alternatively, it's time that could be spent with loved ones or as leisure time, so keep your files organized. I personally shoot with one camera body, so I find the following important information to include in my file naming system: the date, subject, location and a unique number series.

As an example, if I shot some concert photos of Dave Matthews playing a set at the Molson Amphitheatre, one of my RAW files would look like this "20100910_DaveMatthews_MolsonAmphitheatre_28395.CR2". I use a similar structure for naming my projects in Aperture or Lightroom as well as the folders containing these RAW files, but I drop the unique number at the end.

This may seem a bit cumbersome and excessive it first, but it allows you to know exactly what files are at hand without having to open them, or even preview them for that matter.

More important than using this exact naming system is finding one that works for you and keeping true to it. Another important step in file management is a proper folder, rating, colour coding and tagging system in whichever photo editing software you decide to use. I personally use Apple's Aperture, but Adobe Lightroom is a very popular choice as well.

With storing all of my photo albums I find it very useful to keep my RAW files in a hierarchal folder system with the year, month and unique folder name I described earlier. I do the same with the versions (current live work) of photos I'm currently working on.


Technology routinely fails and it is possible to lose all of your work. The simplest and best advice is backup, backup, backup. I will go into further detail than that, but the important thing is to have multiple copies of your work while following a system to organize your files. Backing up your files is a scalable operation, so the sheer amount of work you have, both RAW and livework, will define your best approach.

Also, your budget will limit how thorough and technologically advanced it is. The simplest way to backup your files would be to just make a copy of your RAW and livework files to an external hard drive, but there are many more advanced options.

I personally use Aperture's option to relocate master project files to move my RAW files to an external hard drive that's setup as a RAID 0 drive whenever I'm not working on them. This frees up space on my main work computer and let's me sleep at night knowing there are at least 2 copies of all the photos I've taken.

I also use SuperDuper to create a clone backup of my main work computer's entire drive to an external drive. This isn't the most robust method, but the key is that it fits my current budget and works for the amount of data I'm currently working with. If you'd like to check out a very thorough backup process I suggest you read through Chase Jarvis' post on backing up his files and watch the associated video

Colour Management

Colour profiles and colour management in general have the potential to be the cause for constant headaches. If you're not familiar with colour profiles and the fact that they are set by your camera, computer, and editing software you can find yourself met with a lot of frustration regarding colour and consistency in your images. I'm not going to go into detail on what colour profiles are, but what the two most popular are and the basics of using them in your workflow.

The two most used colour profiles are sRGB, which is used by most web browsers and found in online media in general, and Adobe RGB 1998, which has a wider gamut of colours, but is a little rarer. To ensure that you're not experiencing any inconsistencies with the colours of your images you should be setting the colour profile on your camera, computer and editing software to be identical.

You also want to be using a colour profile with a larger gamut of colours than sRGB because it's easy to convert down to sRGB, but you'll lose colour information if you try and convert up.

With that being said, you should ensure that your camera, computer and image editing software are set to Adobe RGB 1998, but whenever you export a photo to be viewed on the web you should make sure to use sRGB so that anyone viewing the photo sees the same colours you are on your computer.

Image Selection

No matter how long you've been making images or how talented a photographer you are the truth is that not all of your images will be good. Quite frankly, not all of them will be even worth keeping a RAW file copy for your archives. As a photographer your hit rate (the percentage of images you keep) will get higher and higher, but a big part of being a photographer is rating, flagging and colour coding your images; choosing the good ones.

If you don't already have a process for selecting your images, the easiest method is to use a program like Aperture, Lightroom or even Photo Mechanic and flag the photos you like. It can get much more complicated than that, and much more useful too.

Many of these software tools come with suggestions for colour coding and other organization options. I personally like to label images red if they need my attention, green if they're 100% complete and ready for exporting and yellow if they're a file I'm currently working on.

I know some photographers like to use the 5 star rating system for their various levels of editing (ie. 2 stars for initial picks, 3 stars for in progress, 4 stars for completing initial edits and 5 stars for a photo that has been fully edited in photoshop and is ready for export), but I much prefer to use these ratings for distinguishing my best photos in any set, just like you would a music collection.

Image selection can be a stressful and challenging process since it is your own person cutting room; you're deciding what photos will see the light of day and be shared with the world. Developing an eye for image selection will happen over time with practice just as you will develop an eye for composition and many of the other facets of photography.

Overall Image Editing

It may surprise you that it took this long to get to the stage where you edit a photo, but all that preliminary work takes more time to explain than it does to complete and it will save you an incredible amount of time and effort later. Every photographer has their own method to editing and so it wouldn't be much help for me to describe my own style.

What I will say though is that just like every other part of the process, it is important to be consistent and stay organized. Try to process your photos following a similar pattern and create presets and other shortcuts to streamline your editing workflow. Many of the popular editing programs (Aperture, Lightroom, etc.) now have brushes and tools to apply edits to very specific and small areas of your photos.

These tools may seem intimidating at first, but they are very useful because they apply their effects directly to the RAW data of a photo, maintaining the highest quality photo possible. With using these new tools it's possible to avoid having to open Photoshop with achieving the same level of quality editing for your photos.


As a photographer Photoshop will be your workhorse: it's the most powerful and versatile image editing software available and the industry standard. It has a reputation in popular culture and can accomplish phenomenal tasks in the perspective of editing images. That doesn't come at a cost though, with huge file sizes and destructive image editing properties to name a couple.

There will be many individuals out there with knowledge of Photoshop far exceeding my own and everyone will have their own editing style and process. I think the main point to be made is that Photoshop should be the last step of your actual editing workflow and you should be wary of it destructive properties and other costs.


Take a sigh of relief because you're done editing your photos and it's time to export them to share them with clients, friends, family and the world at large. You're on the home stretch, but that doesn't mean it's time to be lazy or ignore all the work you've just put in to your editing process and workflow. Similar to backing up your RAW files, you should create a file naming and folder structure system for storing your finished exported photos.

Exporting photos with unique and descriptive names will help you identify them later after the details of the shoot have left your mind and will also aid in communicating clearly with clients. Also, don't forgot all those steps to ensure you had proper colour management. Most photo editing software will have an option for choosing colour profile when exporting, so you'll want to ensure you are using sRGB for any web photos and an appropriate profile for and other photos exported for screens or print.


After all those steps you should now have a solid workflow in place, but your job isn't quite over yet. With all the initial setup work being completed you should notice your editing is much more structured, efficient and headache free, which is a great feeling. However, editing workflows are an ever changing and evolving process and unique to each individual. I've given you the building blocks to get started, but you will have to take it from here and customize it to suit your needs.

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