Workflow, Start To Finish, Part 1

"Click click click click click click." My shutter seems like it’s going to catch on fire at my current frame rate. I’m leaning off a cliff on Mount Lemmon, near Tucson, in the middle of a photo shoot for Nikon. My job for the last week has been photographing adventure sports, logging thousands of miles shooting everything from surfing to snowshoeing to rock climbing. And, at my current frame rate, I’m taking thousands of images a day, day after day. My shutter cranks through the frames. My LCD blinks "Full." Time to change out memory cards. Another 20-gigabyte day—it’s going to be a late night in the hotel processing these images.

Lightroom’s File Handling controls include an option to make a duplicate of every image you import in a location outside the Lightroom library automatically, making it easy to back up photos to an external hard drive. You can also batch rename files on import.

At least I’ve streamlined my workflow to be as efficient as it can be.


One thing becomes very obvious when photographers compare their workflows: Everyone has a different approach. Factors like file size, shooting volume, computer performance, hard drive space and location all affect a photographer’s habits. What’s the best workflow for you? It depends. The best workflow is the one that performs efficiently and effectively for you.

In this three-part series, I’ll break down my workflow step by step, and highlight critical aspects that any photographer can use to create a personalized, efficient workflow. My workflow is divided into three parts: download and review, image optimization and backup. For this first installment, let’s look at downloading and browsing your images.


Speed is everything when it comes to efficient workflow, and that begins with your download speed. Three variables affect download times: flash card speed, card reader speed and connection speed to the computer.

Memory cards come in a variety of read/write speeds. The faster the card, the faster the download. Flash cards often denote their speed ratings as MB/s (megabytes per second). The fastest cards can attain read speeds over 100 MB/s, which means getting your images off the card and onto your computer faster—but it isn’t all about your flash card.

Card reader speed and computer interface speed are also critical. To maximize the speed benefit here, choose a card reader that utilizes your computer’s fastest connection port. (See the sidebar for interface transfer rates.)

Lightroom’s Keywording and Metadata panels offer numerous ways to improve your photo library organization. Keyword Suggestions shows potential keywords that may apply to a selected image, based on keywords you’ve already applied to an image and to other images captured within a relatively close period of time. You can also create groups of keywords to add them quickly to a selection of images.

Now let’s talk about where you download your images. Do they go onto your desktop as a folder of images or directly into a program like Adobe Lightroom? Are your images going to two hard drives or just one? All excellent questions!

The simplest method (simple is good!) is to download directly into your photo-management software. I use Lightroom to download, browse and organize images.

When the download begins into Lightroom, you have some important aspects to consider. It’s a good idea to make duplicate copies, so I use a feature in Lightroom’s File Handling controls to make a second copy in a location outside the Lightroom library. We’ll talk more about backup in part three of this series, but basically, I like to use a second drive to which I download duplicates of my images so I’m backed up immediately upon download.

Next is file renaming. Everyone will have a different naming format—the most important thing is to stick with it consistently. I use an alphanumeric system to caption my images. A portrait might be labeled "port24562", meaning it’s the 24,562nd portrait I’ve taken. Some photographers use time, date and location in their image header. But, even more important than the label is the metadata attached to the shot.

Metadata is file information about your image, including shooting data (EXIF data) and caption information (IPTC data). The beauty of programs like Apple Aperture and Lightroom is that they can search metadata and quickly find images, but this search only works if you add keywords in the metadata! Make sure to add relevant keywords like subject, location, name, color, concept—anything you might search for when looking for an image.

You can add metadata to individual images or select multiple images at a time to add the same keyword. For example, I might add "Alaska" to an entire shoot, then select only the photos of eagles for certain keywords, and continue to break down the eagle shots to those in flight versus those perched, adding appropriate keywords to match. This method progressively breaks down groups of like images applying appropriate keywords. The final result is searchable images with lots of relevant keywords.


Once you’ve downloaded and tagged your images, it’s time to browse them and pick your best shots. Software like Aperture and Lightroom offer a number of tools to rate and pick your images. This is one area where your available time to edit and your volume of images will determine your workflow. Both programs offer star ratings, flags and color labels to pick and rate your images. Also, you can compare images side by side when browsing images, and use a loupe tool to zoom in quickly.
Choose a rating system that quickly organizes your images. Many photographers like to use star ratings to identify their best images. These images can be quickly displayed using the search/filter option. From here, these selects can be organized into collections or specific albums. I use a simple pick/delete approach to choose the images I want. I quickly scroll through a shoot, choosing the images I want to delete. (It’s easier this way since there are less images to delete than to save.)

Once my edit is done, I select all the unwanted images and delete them off the drives. These are images I know I don’t want. From the "good shots," I may make a selection and create a collection of the premium selects from a shoot. These will be the images I edit for clients or add to my online stock database.

Smart Albums in Aperture and Smart Collections in Lightroom can speed up your workflow. These are groups of images that meet a certain criteria, such as specific keywords or ratings. Any image that meets the criteria is automatically added to the Smart collection.

For example, I photograph a lot of brown bears in Alaska. I have thousands of bear images, but less than 40 that I consider my best. When I edit my next bear shoot, I might set up a Smart collection to grab any "best brown bear" images to organize those images from the thousands of images I’ll take. Then I can go straight to that Smart collection to start working on my best bear images.

One other question often comes up during this phase of the workflow. When I delete an image, do I really want
to delete it from the disk, or just remove it from Lightroom or Aperture? The bottom line here is that you determine your own standards and how selectively you edit. My disk space is constantly filling up with large RAW files, so I’m ruthless in my editing. Sure, it’s true, in the future, new technology may be able to fix an image that I’m throwing out. I can live with that reality, and I figure if I can’t get it right in the camera now, then let the deleting begin!

Effective browsing can make or break your workflow. If you have a lazy afternoon and want to use star ratings on every image from thousands, then go for it. If you’re having fun, this is good! But if you’re pressed for time or dread workflow tasks, then narrow your rating and browsing to the necessities.

USB 2.0
FireWire 800
USB 3.0
60 MB/s
100 MB/s
600 MB/s
*Approximate maximum speeds. Actual transfer rates vary depending on the devices used.

Remember, the goals in this first step are to download the images quickly, and efficiently browse and organize them for the future. After the first phase of the workflow, your selected images are ready to be worked on in the next phase, image optimization, which we’ll cover in the next issue.

For an in-depth look at all aspects of Tom Bol’s workflow, pick up a copy of his book, Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places. Visit his website at

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