Delivering Digital Image Files, Part 1

Isn’t it great, living in the future? In the old days we only had one option for delivering pictures to our clients: prints. But these days we’ve got all those old options that we can produce from our digital image files (like prints, albums and books) as well as a slew of new options for delivering the actual digital image files. It’s this latter image delivery that I’d like to discuss, as it can be one of the simplest parts of the process, or a big headache of a challenge.

How, you may ask, can it be so challenging to deliver digital image files? Because you never know how computer savvy the recipient is going to be. So what’s super-simple for one person may be a nightmare for the next. Finding super-easy, so-simple-a-child-could-do-it delivery methods is particularly important. This week I’ll provide a rundown of the approaches that I find to be most efficient, easy and effective for delivering reference files, or "proofs," which are normally a larger quantity of low-resolution image files that the client will view in order to choose the shots they’d like to have. Next week we’ll address part two of the process: delivering their selected high-resolution files, which presents a different challenge altogether.

In the old world, a proof sheet was a paper sheet of small images, most often contact printed directly from the negatives. Which meant that on an 8×10 sheet one could view 36 35mm proofs, or a dozen medium format proofs, or four 4×5 proofs. Well, the closest thing to a contact sheet in the digital world is a JPEG or PDF proof sheet. The nice thing about them is JPEGs and PDFs tend to be fairly universally usable, and you can even email them if you keep them small enough. ("Small enough" is not a precise measurement, though for my money that means under 2MB for sure, and preferably only 500KB.) To ensure your proof sheet will actually make it from your email outbox to your subject’s inbox, adjust the settings in Photoshop or Lightroom to keep the physical dimensions and the resolution fairly low, and the compression fairly high.

I find Lightroom to be the easiest place to output proof sheets, and I have built a preset that I’ve found produces a file that’s small enough to send easily, but large enough for useful viewing—even printing if your subject wants to get really old school. In Lightroom, simply select the range of images you’d like to include in the proof sheet, and then click on the Print module. Once you’ve got your preset made, you simply choose it from the User Templates section of the Template Browser on the left side of the Print screen. To set up the proof sheet initially, choose Page Setup below the Template Browser, and select the predefined page size you’d like, or create a custom sized page. If you use a standard 8.5×11-inch page, be sure to lower the print resolution to 100ppi or 150ppi. Under the Print Job heading of the Print module, change "Print to" from Printer to JPEG file. This will bring up a separate set of controls for outputting that file—including the file resolution (remember, keep it low), Print Sharpening (yes, and Low is probably fine) and JPEG Quality (the compression, which will probably look good anywhere above 80). You can also choose Custom File Dimensions if you’d like to shrink the output size.

Mac users have the benefit of being able to print any file to a PDF directly from the print dialog. That means that in Lightroom’s print module, you can set up the print job as if it were going to paper, and then click the "Printer" button to bring up the print module, where you can choose "Print to PDF" to output a PDF file directly to your desktop. In the end, both files tend to be easy to handle, easy to email and easy to view and print, so don’t underestimate the ease of use of the traditional proof sheet in the digital world. Just be sure to check the File Info box that includes the file names and numbers below each image—otherwise your subjects will say things like, "I like the third one from the right in the fourth row."

My favorite method of delivering proofs to a subject is to send low-resolution images that can be easily viewed online. Many photographers develop their own web site’s capabilities in order to upload galleries for clients to view. These services are sometimes incorporated right into blogs or web providers, or they can be used as standalone gallery services—like Smugmug or Flickr or virtually any other third-party web gallery. Ultimately all you need for most proofing situations is for your client to be able to view the pictures online. Ordering prints and other services straight from the proofs could be a distinct advantage for some photographers, but this really depends on your business model and what you hope to accomplish with those proofs. If you just want someone to see your pictures you’re in luck: all you need is a basic viewable web gallery. And if you use Lightroom, that program can generate and upload a web gallery for you, all with a single click of the mouse.

Adjacent to Lightroom’s Print module is the Web module. There, choose "Lightroom HTML Gallery" to generate a basic HTML web gallery that incorporates the photos you’ve selected. Once you input the necessary upload settings to access an unused subfolder of your web site (if you don’t have a web site, you’ll want to send those proofs another way) you can adjust everything from image quality to proof size, and other information and captions that may be useful to communicate to your subject. When you’re ready, simply click Upload to export the folder and have it uploaded directly to your web site. In the bottom of the Web module, look for the full path to select and copy the appropriate URL to send to your subject for accessing your gallery.

The web gallery that I find personally to be the simplest and easiest—the one, in fact, that convinced me to leave behind Lightroom-created web galleries—is Dropbox. The beauty of Dropbox is that many people already use the service for cloud-based storage, so they’re familiar with its simple interface. And if you already use Dropbox for moving and storing files, you already have access to this great online proofing system. In my case, I simply created a folder in my Dropbox and called it "Proofs." To upload the proofs from John Smith’s portrait session, then, I simply make a folder of proofs on my desktop (and I usually make those proofs about 800 pixels on the longest side) called "John Smith proofs 2015_07_01." Then I just drag that folder into the Proofs folder in my Dropbox, and a few seconds later Dropbox alerts me that the files have uploaded and they’re ready to view. Then I simply right-click on the pertinent folder in my Dropbox and choose "Share Dropbox Link" to copy the URL to my clipboard. That’s the URL you want to email to your subject for viewing.

Another nice thing about Dropbox proofing is that the application is very easy to use on a smartphone, even if the recipient doesn’t have the Dropbox app. While many other web galleries get clunky and difficult on a phone’s small screen, Dropbox excels in the mobile environment. But here’s the best part of using Dropbox for proofs: the recipient of the proofs doesn’t need to be a Dropbox subscriber in order to view them. Sure, the application will suggest signing up, but it’s by no means necessary to view proofs. Better still, should your subject prefer to view the proofs offline using their own computer’s image management software, with a single click of the foolproof big blue "Download" button, a zip file of all the image files are downloaded to their computer. This can come in ver
y handy for delivering finished high-resolution files too, should you prefer to kill two proverbial birds with this one digital stone. Yes, there are plenty of options for web galleries out there, but I have yet to find one that’s simpler and cleaner than Dropbox.

Come back next week when I’ll discuss my favorite options for delivering high-resolution finished image files.

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