Become a better photographer through categorization and basic developing

Why don’t I post and share my best photos immediately after shooting? With Facebook, Windows Live, and all the other quick ways to publish photos its great to get snaps up online as soon as possible. So why does it take me (i.e. Matthew) weeks, sometimes months to get those photos posted?
This little post is about “photography workflow” and how you can use it to become a better photographer.
To let you in on a little secret… even mastering a basic workflow will take your photography to the next level. For example how do you feel when you click through someone’s album which has 200+ photos and every third photo there are 2, 3, 4 or more of the same exact subject from slightly different angles? It’s so easy to shoot “too much” and then put all of that up online. Just paring the photos down to your favorites is a first huge step. Why? Because you do want to shoot “too much”. The more you shoot the better you will get. The more of an understanding of light you will develop and the more satisfied you will be with your work. So shoot a crazy amount! Then put your favorites up.
So what is workflow? It’s the process you go through from getting the photos you shot to final “product”. For me this mainly ends in getting it on the web. Sometimes print, which requires a little more work. Being a very busy professional, husband and father can adversely affect the amount of time I get to work on my photos Smile I hope you can take something away from the below that will help you share your best work and support you on your mission of becoming a the best photographer you can be.
My philosophy with my photos is I want people to enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoying shooting, working on and viewing them. What this breaks down to is; putting in a little more work on the ‘back end’. What about Facebook and snapshots? Well with Windows Live Photo gallery its super easy to throw up ‘snap shots’ so I’m starting to do that a little more, not so much as to distract from my favorite work that I publish on SmugMug ( It’s also easy to send snaps directly from your mobile phone to Facebook or Windows Live…
Below I will cover the basic tools and basic steps I use. I hope this can inspire you and give you ideas on how you can improve your workflow and pursue your goal of being the best photographer you can be.

Basic tools:

Microsoft Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG)- IMHO the single best way to get photos onto your PC. Easily select ‘time frames’ between ‘folders’. SUPER Simple process to name folders with your chosen ‘title’ – which also names the files accordingly… and easily appends dates. I like having a Decade > Year > Day/Day range structure so it works really well with this approach. You can also add metadata but I skip this step and do it in….
NB: WLPG has a ton of other cool features worth exploring too!
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 (LR)  – This is where the magic happens. It is your photo (and video with v3) asset management system. It is also your digital darkroom. This last point is key: apart from snapshots (even *with* to a degree) you have allot of scope to ‘develop’ your photos, just like in the darkroom and film days. So if you are not shooting RAW, start doing it! You get more power to edit (more below). Don’t worry we’re not talking photo manipulation here. We’re talking about optimizing your photos so they look the best and represent how you saw the photo – or the message you are seeking to convey. This isn’t always feasible with snapshots but if you are planning on creating a product for your customers or even friends and family which is top notch shooting RAW and taking the time to develop is IMHO 100% worth it. In LR I can easily see all my photo folders. I won’t go into some of the rich and powerful detail about how you can create collections and work on photos from multiple folders at the same time. Or the immense metadata (Data about data) power, or all the develop settings. I’ll provide a simple overview.
Do I have to buy LR, can’t WLPG categorize/edit? You can rate in WLPG, add meta data and do basic editing. Plus it’s a free download I can’t recommend enough that you at least start doing that. If you are not shooting RAW then WLPG is a great place to start exploring categorization. Although the approach I use to categorize goes deeper and uses LR you can use the ‘star’ approach I outline in WLPG and work on getting your best photos online to share. Oh, and BTW they two talk together so for example when you star rate in LR and export those files they have the stars in Windows explorer. Pretty cool, huh?
Do I have to shoot RAW? No. If you want the most control then, yes. Even with JPEG you can do categorize and do some basic tweaking. If you, like me, also shoot in “RAW” (read ‘digital negative’) with your DSLR then you will want LR or similar tool as it only shows the one instance of the photos (combined) and as you work on developing you are doing so with the RAW photo with all its rich uncompressed information about the light in your photo. A good way to start is shooting RAW for special occasions (birthdays, vacations etc.) so you can start playing with it. RAW takes up allot of space, so be warned! Always have a good back up strategy. See this post for more info.
Nik Software Plugins for LR – This powerful suite of tools picks up where LR leaves off but doesn’t go as far as say full blown Photoshop. There are sharpening and defining tools. A lighting tool, a B&W conversion kit for super nice B&W and a color kit for color stylizing. From the simple to the insane trippy you can can allot of fund and waste invest allot of time in these plugins.

Basic steps

I won’t rehash the WLPG or LR help files or many of the awesome books on the subject. If you want to go deeper there are allot of resources in print and on the web to help you do so. However this overview will give you some insight into how easy this process can be. Once you invest a bit of time learning it and doing a it a few times you will find your own nuances and ways and it will happen rather rapidly.
  1. Import with WLPG – Take some time (once) to set up how you want to import and its smooth sailing from there. I suggest the Date + Title approach and having this reflected in folders and files. This makes it easy to view in Windows Explorer and with a simple descriptive title also to search with Windows powerful search engine. Frequently you may move the ‘time slider’ which determines how long between shoots defines a new folder. 1 hr? 1 day? This helps you group your folders into something logical that makes sense to you.
  2. Import to LR – run simple ‘sync’ of my “active photo directory”. You can see this post on how I back this up to my external drive (Drobo) and to the cloud (Mozy Home)
  3. (LR Library Mode) Categorize! You will want to set up a schema that makes sense for you but I highly recommend this step. If will enable you to quickly filter down to pictures of importance for you. For me this is People, Abstract, Scapes, ‘Still & Life’, HDR. The first four categories are automatically mapped to hot keys 6-9. As you use the right arrow key to quickly burn through the library of photos you just shot you can hit 6, 7, 8, or 9 to categorize. I use this to later quickly filter down to people (6) for my friends and family related shots. Later (sometimes months) I’ll filter down to 7 + 8 + 9 for my ‘fine art’ work.
    1. People = Mainly friends and family. Also general public. This is one weakness to my system which is its hard to separate F+F from the public. But a really good public photo will be a 4+ ranking (see below) so can be filtered/found that way
    2. Abstract = Non-descript items, obtuse objects that give rise to interesting patterns, lines or compositions. Photos that end up looking more like paintings or designs that photos.
    3. Scapes = Landscapes, cityscapes, houses, buildings
    4. Still & Life = Still Life (objects, flowers), Animals (inc. pets), close up details of buildings.
    5. I’ve found the above scheme to be the best for me and get things into manageable chunks with the 4 hot keys LR offers for categories, yours may vary of course! The good thing about the limitation of four categories and hot keys is it does keep the categories down which could quickly get hard to manage. Metadata can take you the next level down.
  4. Still in the same mode and as you categorize rank all the photos you like using the 1 key. 1-5 are star rankings. On most keyboards you can use your left hand to control 6-9 and your right to control right arrow for ‘next photo’ and the 1 on the numerical key pad. This will give you a lightning fast approach to processing!
    1. “1 ranking” for me = I like it and generally its in good focus. If there are two identical shots I’ll pick one
  5. Filter down to the most important first ones to work on developing in later steps with LR’s easy filter you filter ‘People’ and ‘1 star and up’. Boom! You just narrowed those 200+ shots of your weekend away to the 75 ones you at least ‘quite like’ of people. When I started using this approach I was blown away by how quick the following categorization steps are. Our 2008 Africa trip (~3 weeks and 5,000 photos) was processed and developed in two weeks of evenings after work).
    1. Select #2s – blast through the filtered “1” photos.
    2. Select #3s – as before but with your #2s. I use “3” to define my favorite people shots of friends and family and ‘ones I really do quite like rather allot’ for my fine art. So “red” “6” “people” photos for me with “3” rating are my fav family and friends shots.
    3. Select #4s – These are the photos I love. That I really enjoy.
    4. Select #5s – There are very few of these, some family/friend shots will get 5 rankings if they meet the #5 criteria. “I would have this photo define me as a photographer.” These are your portfolio shots.
  6. Develop! (Detail on my personal approach is here) Using LR’s develop pane/mode you can make your tweaks. I save some favorite settings to easily reuse in ‘my style’. Its good to over expose to just before the point that you blow highlights, then beef up the blacks and play with the curves. General rule of thumb in LR is to process in the “down direction” of options in the develop pane –> this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Plus you should probably sharpen first. If you plan on it. Note: This phase can take as much or as little time as you want, your saved user presets will help you speed this up.
  7. Back to the library pane to add any meta data you wish. Again I won’t go into the detail but LR makes it easy to add things like names of people, object or activity types. And to not only have a master keyword list but to also have favorite sets.
That’s it. You’re done. With categorized developed and tagged photos.
You can take it further with plugins like Nik. I integrate that into the develop phase.
A word on metadata and keywords. This is a slippery and addictive slope. It can be very time consuming. There are lists you can purchase to help you get on your way. Generally these lists are used by professionals who, using an approach like the above, also put a ton of keyword data in to help them in the location and selling of specific images. This is particularly important in stock photography sales. A good keyword list will cost around $100 and can be edited, changed and added to.
How long to spend developing? It’s up to you. As mentioned presets are a big time saver. I often find the preset is a good starting point then depending on how the photo was shot and the lighting I normally need to make some tweaks. For my fine art work and for super special photos of friends and family I’ll spend more time. A shorter develop session might be about 1 min. A moderate around 3-5 minutes and a detailed tweaking session might take upwards of 10-30 minutes. Rarely will I spend much more time than that unless its an HDR photo that requires additional programs and experimentation to get the “right” look.
Good luck! Oh, and don’t forget to share your photos with me!
Huge thanks to Martin Evening and his book “The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 Book” – I learned allot from him and now find it hard to separate his teachings from what I share above.

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