How to organize your images – a tutorial on Lightroom workflow

This is one of those weird tutorials – I feel a bit strange, almost arrogant, about telling someone how I organize my photos and keep things straight with my image library.  To me, how you organize your photos and go about your workflow is a pretty personal choice.  Everyone’s different, so what works for me may not work for someone else.  My brain really works in two different ways; in some aspects I’m very organized and operationally on the ball.  At other times I would forget my birthday if it wasn’t for my wife reminding me.  That being said, I’ve spent a few years now taking large amounts of pictures while on holidays and then coming home and trying to sort through the mess.  So it may be that some of the lessons I’ve learned can help you out in finding a solution that works best for you.

I use Lightroom, from Adobe.  I recently upgraded to LR 4 and I highly recommend it as the price has dropped significantly.  You can purchase it on Amazon.  In my mind, it’s the best choice for overall RAW image editing and library organization.  There are other tools out there as well, of course.

  • Apple Aperture – I’ve heard good things about Aperture, and although I’m an Apple user I haven’t bought into their system.  I’ve used Lightroom for years, it does everything I want and I simply haven’t seen a need to move.
  • iPhoto – iPhoto might be okay for people that don’t take many photos or don’t want to have significant editing capabilities, but for me it just doesn’t meet my needs.  I find that it can’t scale when I need it to and most importantly the RAW support is not adequate.  Personally I can’t stand it.
  • Photoshop Elements – Now this is a program I have a lot of time for.  I used this in my early days of DSLR ownership and I found it was perfect for my needs.  Again not as much support for editing as the full strength Photoshop but it’s a great mix of image library and editing support in one piece of software
  • Others – There are tons of other pieces of software out there for image editing like Corel PaintShop Pro and even free web software like Picasa.  I can only write about what I use, so we’re going with Lightroom from here on out but I encourage you to have a look and find something that works for you.

Before continuing I need to make sure we’re all grounded on image format.  I take my photos in RAW.  This is a format available on most DSLRs (and high end compact or bridge cameras) that captures as much data as possible for a given snap of the shutter.  The data is unfiltered and unprocessed, allowing you much finer control over editing on the computer.  You can adjust the white balance, pull back highlights, improve visibility in shadows, etc.  Eventually the image is transferred from RAW to jpg or tiff format for later printing and potentially more manipulation in other software.

When I come home from a holiday, I being by uploading my photos to Lightroom.  I upload the photos directly to my iMac and at the time of upload I don’t make back-up copies.  I do this later because I tend to want to go through them first and clean out the bad photos.  But the import screen is important so it’s worth spending some time on.

Below is a basic snapshot of the overall import screen but we’ll focus on the right side where the dialog box is.  I copy over the files as DNG (Digital Negative, an Adobe proprietary format to normalize the RAW files from various cameras).  I rename my files to whatever the picture is – in this case I took a few snaps of London in the rain so that’s what I named these.  I also added some basic keywords (initially to the group, more on keywords later).  I choose to import my files by date.  Many people choose to organize by topic, trip, location, event, etc. but I keep all of my files in a date format and then use Lightroom to keep them organized in the library.

Once the files are uploaded, I go through and decide which images are keepers.  This is my first scrub through the photos, and I do this before I even put the photos into a collection.  I look at the photos up close and if I don’t think they’re worth keeping, I flag them for removal by pressing X.  This creates a black flag in the upper left corner of the image.  The screenshot below shows what this looks like; I’ve circled in red the black flag so you can see it more clearly.

Now on occasion I’ll have a tough call to make, for example where I took more than one photo of the same thing, trying out different settings and compositions.  It’s good practice to sort through these and get rid of the ones that you’re never going to use.  For this I use something called Survey View.  You can get to this by pressing the N key (makes zero sense; no clue how they came up with N for Survey but whatever).  You can compare as many images as you want with this view, and as you look at them up closely you can choose which ones to X out from the library.

Remember – flagging a photo as X is a pretty big deal.  These will ultimately be removed from your photo library and collection forever.  Forever is a long time, so you really want to make sure that these pictures are really a waste of space.  I delete images for the following reasons:

  • Trigger happy – I simply took way too many photos of pretty much the exact same thing
  • Blurry or out of focus images – assuming it wasn’t done for creative reasons, these pictures aren’t generally worth keeping
  • Terrible exposures – if the histogram is really far to the left or right, those pictures are tough to salvage.  Yes you can make some tricks with Photoshop or Lightroom to correct the exposure but they’ll never look quite right.  I try to get rid of these and save the hard drive space.
  • I tend to be very careful getting rid of images of friends and family.  These pictures, no matter how silly or strange they may look now tend to age well.  Years later you’ll still look on a silly out of focus image of a friend and be happy that you have the memory.

Once the images have been flagged for removal, I remove them by going up to Photo -> Delete Rejected Photos and then Remove from Disk.  This clears up your hard drive dramatically and now you have a better set of photos to work from.

In the next stage, I select all of the photos and add them to a collection.  I only do one level of collection organization, meaning I create a top level collection for each set.  This is because the vast majority of my photography is related to travel; if I was a wedding photographer as well it may make sense to create a top level collection of “Weddings” and then a collection of “Travel – Asia” and “Travel – Africa” but instead I organize a little more generally.  You can see a snapshot of my basic organization below in the screenshot from my old Lightroom library.

Now comes the fun part.  I enter the collection, going through the photos and doing my initial categorization.  While I do this, I am absolutely NOT doing any development or processing work.  I run through and do a first pass in the following three ways.

  • Good photos get “Picked” with a white flag.  To do this you just select a photo and press P.  For me, this means the image will be developed later in it’s life.  Not all photos are going to be picked; I always have some that are not good enough to be developed further but also not bad enough to throw away.
  • HDR photos get colored Yellow.  In my system, I use the “7” number to correspond to Yellow, which I’ve labeled as HDR.  This allows me to be clear on my bracketed photos and I know that later on those will need to be processed in Photomatix.
  • Panorama photos get colored Green.  In my system, I use the “8” number to correspond to Green and these mean they’ll be scheduled for export to Photoshop later to build a panorama.

Below is a basic example of what things look like after I’ve gone through an initial run.  Some of the pictures are green, a few are yellow, and some have flags.  You’ll note that if I color a photo green or yellow, it’s not flagged.  This is because I tend to go back to those photos as groups; i.e. I’ll open up all of my yellow photos and do the majority of my HDR processing at once.  Then I’ll sit down and do my panorama processing, then my “normal” processing for the flagged photos.  As I said in the opening, this is just the way I go about things and there’s many, many ways to do this.  I’ve already covered my HDR processing in another tutorial but will save the other processing overviews for another day.

Now – once processing is complete (again, I’m skipping this step to be covered another day) I go through my final wrap-up.  This is where I decide what images I want to post where, and which ones I think are portfolio worthy.  I now separate these into 3 general categories.

  • Flickr – for photos that I want to post to Flickr, I add a blue flag (9 in Lightroom).  This means that I’ll post that photo to Flickr only.  I tend to use Flickr as a general site to store my photos, but I don’t use it as a dumping ground.  I still want my Flickr photos to be of high quality so I’m careful in selecting what goes up there.
  • Blog – for photos that I want to post to Postcard Intellect, I add a red flag (6 in Lightroom).  These are pictures that I believe are some of my best work and also illustrate a point that I want to make with respect to a trip.  It might be that they show a particular type of composition that I want to discuss or tell a story about from my journey.
  • 5 stars – Finally, I pick out a few photos that I think are my best.  These are the ones that I ultimately post to my portfolio on SmugMug.  I also post these photos to 500px, although I’m not very active on that site from a social perspective.
This is what my Grid view looks like after I’ve processed everything.

In preparation for posting, I do a few final things to clean-up.  I put keywords in all of my images; this is important so that I don’t have to do it again in SmugMug, Flickr, 500px, etc.  I also do my best to rename the images to something that makes more sense.  I’m now getting in the habit of putting my photos into the map for Lightroom but I’m still not consistent in doing this.  For some reason it’s not compatible with SmugMug so until they fix that the time spent mapping my photos in Lightroom isn’t worth it.  Here’s a screenshot from my recent Tunisia set; you can get a look at the Keywords that I’ve entered for that picture.

That’s it – so in summary I have four big steps in processing my photos.

  1. Upload to Lightroom, then hit an X on the pictures that aren’t good enough to keep
  2. Create a collection with the remaining photos, then categorize them.  Flag the good ones that need follow-up for development, then flag the photos that need HDR and Panorama processing.
  3. Once development is complete, I go through the photos again to determine what to do with the images.  All flagged photos will be ranked as 5 star, Flickr, Blog or None.
  4. Final clean-up on the images that will be posted to the world; keywording, image renaming and potentially mapping if required.

Hope this is useful for those of you trying to figure out how to manage all of your images. Again, there are TONS of ways to do this stuff but this might give you a few ideas on how to manage your images and get your photo library organized.

5 Responses to How to organize your images – a tutorial on Lightroom workflow

  1. Great detailed workflow, excellent understandable method, Well done!!

  2. Rafael says:

    Nice exposure (no pun intended) of your workflow within LR.

    Mine is quite similar, specially on converting the files to DNG upon importing.
    I liked the idea on assigning a common color for HDR-driven pictures, things are clearer that way. I should have had this idea before doing my HDR brackets.

    On a curious note, I flag (P) only the photos I “exported” to whatever use (family album, 500px, website etc) so whenever later I must run a batch export, I can pick up only the flagged ones.
    For if an image deserves a later attention while sorting the newly imported photos, I use the color system as well, with Yellow (7) for those “hey, looks good, I’ll take a better look later” and Red (6) for the “this must be developed” photos. So, later when I get more time available to wander through the images, I pay attention to the colored ones first. :)

    One thing I learned only after started using LR for good is the keywording and filling up the info panels. So, as I learned that, I had more than 10k images on my catalog, tell me about indexing these… my images are kept within a folder structure (eg E:\Photos\Camera Model\Year.Month.Day – motif), which at least is not LR-dependent and being easy to coordinate between backup copies, I think it is pretty straight. :)

    Best regards,

    • Aaron says:

      Hi Rafael – thanks for the comment! I’m just getting motivated to start working on this blog again in the new year so your comment couldn’t have been better timed. And it’s funny that you mentioned about how you use the “P” key for flagging your photos. One of the things I’m starting to think about is creating a new catalog in Lightroom and re-thinking my workflow more in line with what you’re talking about above. My problem is that my photos within LR are in good shape, but when I export them I have no strategy in place so my computer becomes a mess. And I also struggle with when a photo is “done” being processed. I may use your idea going forward to make that more clear in my mind! Thanks!

      • Rafael says:

        Hey Aaron,

        On the last weeks I’ve been wondering about doing a new catalog too.
        First because of performance issues (LR4 is slow, especially if you have two monitors running together) then because of organizing the photos.

        But after rethinking and researching, I figured out a LR4 boost – by renaming the preferences file (!!!) and the organization part I left it aside, probably because I realized that when I load one of the separate catalogs, I may simply “forget” the other catalogs.
        Think about the trouble that is managing, working with and backup these several catalogs? Maybe one catalog per year could work. :)

        As of flagging the done and “worth exporting” photos, it is mostly because if days/weeks/years later you want to re-export them in a given resolution or format, is much easier to filter them by flag status then batch export in about 3-4 mouse clicks.
        One exporting you can create a preset that export the photos to a pre-defined folder path, so in one single folder you can have tons of subfolders, each with the processed photos always available in JPEG, which comes in handy sometimes.

        Get motivated to start working on this blog again, man… good stuff around here and nice travel photos. I think ultimately a photo and travel blog is our “phototravel portfolio”, if you get what I mean. I just signed up for an ‘awesome’ account at 500px to setup a more professional and sorted looking portfolio, but alas, I didn’t even thought about the photos to put there yet, heheh…

  3. Henrik says:

    Great tutorial, have been using LR aproxx. half a year now but never really done any organisation with it, took long to realise it’s proper for that too!

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