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Learning Lab

The Ideal Digital Photographer's Workflow, Part 1

Steps for Preparing for a Shoot

by Ken Milburn, author of the upcoming Digital Photography: Expert Techniques

Digital photography is such a relatively new art that most of us, whether professionals or amateurs, have been adopting in helter-skelter fashion. Experiment follows experiment until we're temporarily satisfied with the results. Six months (or six days) later, we become aware of a new procedure, or some facet of the technology changes, and we begin making more and different changes to our ever-growing library of pictures.

That is when, to our horror, we discover that techniques that we once thought created perfection also destroyed so much of our original data that we have to start the editing process all over again. Unfortunately, all too often, that's when we discover we have overwritten the original. Even if, by luck or forethought, we've safely saved the original, each of the changes that permanently alters the original data needs to be renamed and saved, adding to our workload, and to our mounting pile of digital files.

But wait! That's not all: we also discover that it can take more time to find the original than it would to just shoot another original. That's when the importance of establishing an efficient and non-destructive workflow begins to reveal itself.

Keeping images organized with the help of a systematic workflow is the key to your sanity. I've written this article in the hopes that it will help you to avoid wasting a lot of time recreating your digital masterpieces, or sifting through piles of digital file clutter in search of original files. What follows is a multi-level list of workflow steps that you can copy and paste on the wall of your digital lab and/or tuck into your camera bag. These steps can be gradually adapted to fit your own personal style and personality. Along the way, you may make discoveries of your own. If you don't mind sharing them, please do so via the Talkbacks section at the end of this article, so we can share them with the rest of our community.

Related Reading

Digital Photography: Expert Techniques
Professional Tips for Using Photoshop & Related Tools to Enhance Your Digital Photographs
By Ken Milburn

Before You Start

Here are some tips to consider before you even pick up your digital camera and start shooting.

  • Make a checklist of all of the equipment you're likely to need on the shoot.
  • Make sure that everything on the checklist is packed and ready to go before you have to do the shoot.
  • Make sure your image storage cards are stored in clean, sealed cases and can be reached quickly if you suddenly discover that the camera's installed card is full.
  • Use cards that will store roughly 36 (but not more than 50) RAW exposures at your camera's highest resolution. You're already used to changing film at that interval, so you'll have a sense of when you'll have to take a break to change cards. You'll also lower your risk of losing images if a card should fail while on a trip or assignment. Finally, you'll get the lowest cost per megabyte. A 256Mb card can be purchased for as little as $50. A 1Gb camera card will cost close to $400 -- approximately the same price as a 15Gb portable pocket drive.
  • If you're shooting large quantities of pictures, be sure to take along a device (such as a computer or portable 10-60GB pocket drive) that will allow you to recycle your camera cards at frequent intervals. You'll be able to store the content of 40-240 256Mb CF cards before you have to return to a computer for downloading.

General Workflow Hints

The following are suggestions for "workflow etiquette." These are good tips to remember regardless of which phase or step in the workflow process you are in.

  • Use quick keys (i.e. keyboard shortcuts).
  • Use JPEG2000 for archiving lossless versions of the result of each workflow stage to save disk space. Make an Action that opens and converts all TIFFs and other space-wasting files.
  • Make sure you make a snapshot (have plenty of RAM installed) before you do such things as pasting a clipboard image into the original image or making knockouts (usually the result of using the Extract command). That way, you can paint missing elements back into place.
  • Record the results of your editing progress to a rewritable CD at regular intervals. When the rewritable CD is full, copy the entire disk to a regular CD. Use printed labels for the CDs so they're easily readable. When you're all done, you have the option of saving or deleting the version of the file you have on your hard disk. Make that choice depending on how soon and how often you're likely to want to re-access the file.

Picture-Taking Workflow Hints

Now you're ready to shoot. Here are some tips that will help you optimize your shooting time.

  • Set the camera's clock.
  • Always shoot RAW files unless you're short on storage space or unless you don't have (and aren't ready to pay for) software to convert the RAW file. Otherwise, you're throwing away considerable information in the image that can't be saved in a JPEG file.
  • Be sure quality modes are set as you prefer them. I suggest JPEG Hi for snaps and RAW for commercial or art.
  • Make sure you've set ISO and shooting mode to suit the situation you're most likely to encounter.
  • Turn off camera features that you don't absolutely need for the upcoming shooting session, such as the camera's LCD monitor, in-camera processing and special-effects, or auto-focusing (if you have a manual focus option and the time to use it without missing the shot). Any feature that requires the camera to make computed calculations before the shot is taken will increase shutter lag. The exception here is professional-level SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras, which rarely have any significant shutter lag in any mode.
  • Turn off red-eye reduction. It will make your subject blink just as the "real" flash fires. Besides, your image-editing software can do a better job. The exception to this rule is when you are going to automatically print (or have printed) your pictures without prior computer editing.
  • The image you see in the LCD can be misleading. Do a test exposure and check the histogram. If the histogram curve starts and ends at the very ends of the histogram (see Figure 1), you've captured as much brightness range as your camera can handle. If your camera's LCD can be adjusted for brightness, make the preview look like a properly exposed image.
  • Pop up your flash when shooting in bright sunlight, especially when shooting subjects that are less than 15 feet from the camera. It is a good idea to cover the flash with tissue or a diffuser so that the flash doesn't overpower the existing light or cast a hard shadow of its own.
  • Re-format your cards in the camera as soon as they've been downloaded in the field. Do not reformat your cards on the computer -- you may risk making the card unreadable in your camera.
  • When you return to home base, immediately download the pictures from your camera or portable hard drive to your "workhorse" computer (see Image Organization Workflow, below).
  • The camera will automatically number each photo it takes (and should do so without duplicating those numbers when you reformat or change a card). Note the image number of critical photos. A pocket recorder is a great help for noting those numbers and a description of the subject as you shoot. Later, this will help greatly in helping you to find and rename your images and when you correspond with the subject or client.

Image-Organization Workflow Hints

You've got a "camera" full of images. What's next? Consider these hints for organizing all those great shots.

  • If you shoot and process images in volume, get the fastest computer with the biggest hard drive and the most memory that you can afford. Of course, you can grow into this, but don't be short-sighted. You won't believe how fast you'll collect images.
  • Download through Firewire or USB 2.0 if possible. If your computer doesn't have either of these connections, you can install a PCI expansion card. If your camera doesn't have either of these connections, download through a card reader instead. If you have three or four cards to read, you'll save yourself between 15 and 45 minutes each time you download.
  • Use iPhoto or Photoshop Album 2.0 to copy files from the camera or card reader to your computer. (If you don't already have it, Photoshop Album will cost you only $49.95 and is significantly more versatile than other price-competitive "thumbnail" image trackers. You can't yet get Album for the Mac, but iPhoto is part of the Mac OS and performs very similar functions to Album.) This will simultaneously add them to the "album" or "catalog," then make it easy to batch rename, tag (classify), and sort them so that you can easily find them. The benefits to doing this are too numerous to cram into this space, so if you're not already familiar with how these programs work, visit the appropriate Apple or Adobe web sites.
  • Batch rename all images in Album (you can elaborate on the batch renaming later in Photoshop CS or Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0).
  • In creating the file names you substitute for the camera's cryptic file-naming system, use the following image name components: job number, subject category, subject, date, and sequential number (this should be added automatically by the computer). As you gain experience, you may want to "bend and polish" the above suggested file-naming system.
  • Tag (Album) or Keyword (iPhoto) all images by category.
  • Export to a "proofing library" of downsized JPEGs large enough to make the most likely proof prints from, use as photos in a web gallery, or use for emailing. These small images are also handy for high-speed experimentation. Once your experimentation on the low-res copy has been done, you can perform only the needed steps on the high-res image -- but be sure to duplicate it first, so that you don't destroy the data in your original.
  • Back up the files you've just downloaded to a CD-RW disk.
  • Copy full CD-RW disks to a pair of CDs. Store one of these off-site.
  • When the CD-RW disks are full, burn the proofing library to a CD or DVD disk. DVD disks hold six to seven times as many images, but aren't nearly as universally used, in case you need to load those files onto another computer. If you have both types of drives, back up to both media. Now you can reformat and reuse the CD-RW disk.


This article has suggested a workflow for preparing for a shoot, shooting procedure, and for downloading, cataloguing, tracking, and archiving the image files that result. Stay tuned for the next article, where we'll present workflow suggestions for image editing, extracting images for use in composite photos, doing backups of each of your work stages, and for communicating with your images in various ways.

Ken Milburn has been a photographer, both full- and part-time, for nearly five decades. In addition to countless articles, Ken has written 17 books on web design, Flash, Photoshop, and digital photography. His latest book, for O'Reilly, Digital Photography: Expert Techniques, was released in March 2004.

O'Reilly & Associates will soon release (February 2004) the Digital Photography: Expert Techniques.

  • For more information, or to order the book, click here.

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