Digital Photography Workflow

I revised my workflow for digital photography largely as a result of reading Peter Krogh’s book on Digital Asset Management for Photographers. During the Christmas break, I have been going back on my images to bring the archive into better order.

Here is a quick overview of my workflow.

Directory Structure

My archive is maintained on my primary computer with a backup copy on an external hard drive and DVDs.

The directory structure is pretty simple. In my Pictures folder, I have a master folder for my photography archive. The first subfolder is the year. The next subfolder is a container for five folders which will hold DNG files, Print output files, PSD files, RAW files and Web output files:

–> Photography
—-> YYYY
——> YYYYMMDD_description
——–> DNG Files
——–> Print Output
——–> PSD Files
——–> RAW Files
——–> Web Output

The files follow a specific naming convention: RCYYYYMMDD_description.ext

Digital Workflow 1

Step 1. Image Transfer

The first step of the workflow is to transfer the images from my camera to the computer. As I usually shoot RAW, I transfer the images to the appropriate RAW Files folder. I then make a backup of the RAW images to DVD and to an external hard drive.

Step 2. Image Naming, Rating, Metadata and Keywording

The next step of the workflow is to rename the RAW files, rate images, populate the metadata and provide keywords. I use Adobe’s Bridge for this part of the workflow.

The RAW files were named by the camera when the image was first captured. I rename all the RAW files using the naming convention RCYYYYMMDD_description. As I use a Nikon rig, the files retain the .NEF extension.

I then assess each image and provide a rating. No star means no rating. 1 star warrants further processing and a 2 star rating represents a strong image. I rarely provide a 3 star rating unless the image is particularly outstanding.

All images are populated with basic metadata including my name and copyright. Each image will also receive a set of keywords. For example, a sunset shot of a lake might include the following keywords: Lake, Georgian Bay, Ontario, Sunset, Shoreline.

Step 3. RAW File Conversion

As RAW files are specific to a particular model of camera, I use Adobe’s conversion tool to create a set of .DNG files. In essence, this conversion preserves the original RAW file but in an open standard. The DNG files are stored in the DNG Files folder.

Step 4. Image Processing

Candidate images are reviewed for further processing in Photoshop. At this point in the workflow, I am working from the .DNG files. Generally, I process all 2 star and higher images. Processing varies by image but I usually deal with black and white levels, curves and color. Once I have the imaged processed and ready for output, I save a working copy to the PSD Files folder. This folder contains a Photoshop file that is ready for output processing.

Step 5. Output Processing

Images are then identified for output processing. I use the PSD files for image output. I usually process images for print and the web. Print files are saved in the Print Output folder and web files are saved in the Web Output folder.  I use Photoshop to crop and size the images and sharpen the images for the specific output.

Step 6. Image Catalog

I add the DNG files to my image catalog. I currently use Microsoft’s Expression Media as my image catalog software. An image catalog software is a robust tool which allows you to quickly locate and group images. If someone were to ask me to produce a set of my best waterfall images taken in winter and taken in Ontario, the image catalog software can quickly pull all of those images together. I don’t have to remember where in my directory those images might live. As my supporting files live alongside the DNG files, I don’t need to add the rest of the filetypes (e.g., .NEF, .PSD, .JPEG) to the catalog.

Digital photography can create many thousands of images. Without a disciplined method to transfer, backup, organize, process and catolog images, then those captures are at risk. Something to consider if you are serious about your photography.

10 replies
  1. Bil
    Bil says:

    Thanks Richard, I’ve been reviewing my process as well. I think my needs are out stripping iPhoto. Co-incidently I was looking at Adobe Bridge as well.

  2. Richard Cleaver
    Richard Cleaver says:

    Thanks Bill! I have been using the Photoshop suite, including Bridge, for a couple of years but I had not been as disciplined on the digital asset management side. Peter’s book was VERY helpful in this area and his website provides some excellent resources. Hope it helps you out.

  3. Mark
    Mark says:

    I was wondering if you could post 2 versions of a 2 star image for us. The before processing (straight from the camera except for jpg conversion) and then the after. I’m curious to see the difference. Love your work and writing.

  4. Allen Woolfrey
    Allen Woolfrey says:

    As a new owner of a Nikon D40, this description of your workflow has been quite helpful to me.

    I have been thinking about RAW vs. JPEG, and Nikon’s Capture NX vs Lightroom/Photoshop, and there are long, interesting, and not unanimous discussions on dpreview.

    This is a summary of my understanding. I would appreciate any correction.

    I have these objectives:

    1. Try to nail the correct composition, exposure, white balance, colour saturation, etc. when taking the photo (i.e., best camera settings).

    2. Maximize my ability to turn an ordinary photo into a good one if necessary–i.e., use post-processing tools to improve rather than to correct the photo.

    3. Minimize the need to post-process; particularly, avoid the need to post-process every photo.

    This leads me to shooting in RAW, and my reading indicates that much depends on the behaviour of the RAW converter. Some feel that Nikon’s Capture NX is best for converting NEFs (Nikon’s RAW image format) because it uses the (Nikon) camera settings (recorded in EXIF) to prepare the RAW image as the camera settings intended. Apparently, other RAW converters may not be able to use the Nikon EXIF information fully, and therefore present RAW images that reflect the sensor data only. Images processed by these converters probably need work.

    If this is correct, I am persuaded that using the manufacturer’s RAW converter is the best first step in image processing. I know that Lightroom etc. allows calibration, but some writers believe this will never be as good as Capture NX for Nikons, for example.

    My conclusion is to modify the workflow you present to insert Capture NX as step 1, and to convert original RAW images to DNG for archival reasons.

    Any observations or correction to fact or logic are most welcome.

    Regards, Al.

  5. Richard Cleaver
    Richard Cleaver says:

    Hi Al,

    I am pleased that the information about my workflow was helpful to you.

    Michael Reichmann has an excellent article on RAW versus JPEG here. The important thing to note is that regardless of the RAW converter, you will need to post-process your images if you are intending to use them. Each converter will apply some level of “processing” as it reads the RAW file. However, as a standalone file, RAW files are quite limited. They are closed and unique to a manufacturer and to a model. Because of this, RAW files need to be converted to “something” to be used.

    If you intend to post to a photoblog, the RAW file will have to be converted to a new file format. If you intend to print the RAW file it will have to be converted to a new file format. If you want to email a RAW file to a friend then it will have to be converted to a new file format — unless your friend happens to have the appropriate viewer or RAW converter.

    JPEG is the most common file format although there are others.

    So yes, nail the correct composition and minimize the need to post-process. If you shoot RAW, you may not post-process every image. But you will post-process every RAW image that you intend to use whereas a JPEG is already “processed” and can be used as is.

    If you have scanned the web you will know that this is a fairly involved and heated topic and it is hard to give it justice in a brief comment.

    Michael’s article gives a balanced view and I hope it helps you better understand the pros and cons.

  6. Allen Woolfrey
    Allen Woolfrey says:

    I should clarify that I’m trying to avoid post-processing individual images unless I want to improve them; batch processing RAW images (converting them to JPEG) is OK. My thinking is that, with correct camera settings and using Capture NX, batch processing of NEF to JPEG should result in photos of quality at least as good as JPEGs prepared in-camera, because Capture NX will use the NEF EXIF data to prepare a converted RAW file with the Nikon camera settings applied.

    Michael Reichmann makes the point that RAW converters apply the camera settings as a starting point. Maybe the key point is whether Capture NX does a better job of this than Lightroom, for example.

    Regards, Al.

  7. Richard Cleaver
    Richard Cleaver says:

    Hi Al,

    In my experience and with the DSLRs I have used, I have always processed the RAW images as I find that in-camera settings are just too blunt.

    Having said that, I only process images that make the grade.

    I have compared several converters. For me, I prefer to work with Photoshop for my image processing.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *