Photography Workflow 101

Paris, 2015
Paris, 2015

Dear friend,

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about “workflow” in photography:

What is “workflow”?

I don’t know the textbook definition of “workflow” — but if I were to spell it out for myself, it would be how I get work done, as effectively and efficiently as possible. And not only that, but I want my work to “flow” easily — without friction, seamlessly, kind of like how water flows effortlessly.

Photography workflow

In photography, we all have different “workflows”. Generally, a workflow in photography is something like this:

  1. Take photo
  2. Download photo into computer
  3. Choose best photos (editing)
  4. Post-Process best photos
  5. Publish (printing, sharing online, etc)
  6. Archive/backup images

Of course, there are different workflows in photography — depending the device you use.

If you shoot with a smartphone, your workflow is much simpler:

  1. Take photo on phone
  2. Choose best photo on phone
  3. Post-process photo on phone (filter, and fine-tuning of image)
  4. Publish (share online)
  5. Photos automatically backed up to “cloud”

With film, a photography workflow is something like this:

  1. Buy film
  2. Shoot photos
  3. Process photos
  4. Choose best photos
  5. Scan photos or print them in darkroom
  6. Organize film and photos into sleeves or folders

K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid)

There is no “right” or “wrong” workflow in photography.

But my suggestion: create the easiest, least complicated, and most seamless workflow for yourself.

For example, in Lightroom — I try to use the simplest process possible. My philosophy is you only need to know how to use 10% of Lightroom for 90% of the functions. And this philosophy can apply to a anything in life.

My current photography workflow

As of 2016, this is my current photography workflow:

  1. Shoot photos digitally
  2. Import photos from SD card into Lightroom (upon import, I apply a preset)
  3. Press shift+tab to collapse the side-modules in Lightroom, to see more of my images on my laptop
  4. Use the trackpad to quickly scroll through images, and see which photos “pop out” at me.
  5. For the photos that I find interesting (as small thumbnails), I will enlarge them by pressing “E” in Lightroom, or pressing “F” to make full-screen.
  6. I ask myself: is this photo a “hell yes”? Does it punch me in the gut with emotion, soul, and a strong composition? If the photo is a “maybe” — it is a no.
  7. If a photo is a “hell yes” I press “P” to pick it. If the photo is a “hell fucking yes” I press 5 to give it a 5-star rating.
  8. I then quickly scroll through other images, to see if any other potential “keepers.” If I am unsure about a sequence of images, I will enlarge the photo (hotkey “E”), and use my arrow-keys on my laptop to quickly look through images.
  9. I expand the modules again (by pressing shift+tab)
  10. I filter my “picked” photos (in bottom right corner, I turn “filters off” into “flagged”)
  11. I press “D” to “develop” the photos, and adjust simple settings going from up to down. I will change the white balance (if it looks off), I will adjust the exposure, contrast, shadows, highlights, and do it all according to my eye and gut. Often I drag the slider a little left and right, and see what “looks right” in my opinion.
  12. If shooting color photos, I will sometimes adjust the “luminance” of the skin tones by going to the orange or yellow color, and increasing or decreasing it.
  13. Once the photo looks “85% good enough” I stop.
  14. I export the photo as a 80% JPEG quality (apparently after 80% image quality, there is no additional image quality gains, and your file sizes become massive) to a Dropbox folder on my laptop.
  15. For my really really favorite photos, I print them out (the ultimate archive) and I also back them up to other external hard drives, on Flickr, and Google Photos.

I know this isn’t the simplest workflow, but it has worked well for me until now.

How to choose your best images

One of the most difficult things to do is to choose your best images.

Some practical tips:

1. Just choose one

If you’ve taken many photos of the same scene, try your best to only choose the best one.

But how do you know which is the best?

My suggestions: when you’re looking at your images, judge them by these three things:

  • a) Composition: How is the composition? Did you get close enough, fill the frame, have dynamic angles, good light, and no distracting elements in the background?
  • b) Emotion: Does your photograph elicit an emotional reaction? Do you have a hand gesture in the photo that strikes you? That is memorable to you? Do you think the photograph will still have that same emotional impact 5, 10, 20 years from now?
  • c) Soul: How does this photograph show your own soul as a photographer? Why are you the only one who could have shot the image? What does the photo say about you?

Also sometimes when you’re unsure, export all your shots that you are considering as JPEG images to your hard drive. Then let them sit on your hard drive for a while, and then wait. Then a few days later, keep revising the images over and over again. Then follow your gut in terms of which image speaks to you the most.

Another suggestion: share the sequence of images with a close friend or someone you trust. Ask them which image they prefer the best— and why. This can help you make a better decision which photo to choose.

And then when you have the 1 best shot, which you think is a strong shot, choose that 1 image to share.

2. What photos will be meaningful for you in the future?

Another important tip with workflow: don’t spend a lot of time choosing, post-processing, and backing up an image that you don’t imagine will have personal meaning in the future.

For example, don’t treat each photo you’ve shot the same. Let some photos die on your hard drives. Even more— try to practice deleting photos that don’t have any personal meaning to you.

Generally as a practice, at the end of the year, I try to go through my archives of the entire year, and review whether there are any shots that I missed during the year (which I believe are personally-meaningful). I then export those images as JPEG’s, and keep them synced on Dropbox on a folder.

I personally have (most) of my images backed up since 2011. But honestly, I’ve never looked at any of my past archives in the last 5 years. And I probably never will.

All the photos that are personally-meaningful to me, I have backed up, and I know exactly where they are.

And for my photos that I keep, I know that I will continue to love them 5, 10, 20 years from now. And as time goes on, I also make it a practice to slowly edit down the photos in my portfolio. I let this process happen organically.

I always ask myself: “What are my 3 favorite projects?” I try to focus on these projects, and let the other projects slowly fade away.

The biggest problem of workflow and backing up images is that we over-hoard. We keep too many photos. We need to make a practice of letting certain photos go. Either by deleting them, or just forgetting about them.

After all, do you want to spend the rest of your life looking through your archives of images? Or go out and actually make new photos?

The photographer Josef Koudelka (well into his 80’s) is devoting all his energy (while he can) to make images. He says he will start to sit down and reviewing his images once he’s too old or sick to make photos. This is a similar philosophy I want to take in my photography — focus on the shooting, and less on the archival and backup workflow.

3. Keep simplifying

The hardest thing about any workflow — to keep it simple. We will learn new tips, tricks, and strategies from other photographers — but we need to prevent ourselves from making our workflow more complicated than it needs to be.

Also what I try to do with my workflow: always figure out ways to make my workflow simpler — rather than more complex.

To keep things simple is one of the most difficult things. Especially with photo-processing and editing software. There are constantly new features (they call this ‘feature creep’ — new features which aren’t necessary, but are used to sell new products) that just confuse us.

Once again, with most software (and things in life) — we only need to know how to use 10% of it for 90% of the functions. What I strive is to constantly learn how to use less of the software, for even more of the functions.

So whenever possible, aim for simplicity. Take out redundant or superfluous steps in your workflow, to keep it simple.

There is no “right” or “wrong” workflow

Ultimately what I want to leave you with is this: there is no “right” or “wrong” workflow. Even as I’m typing these words, I know the software, cameras, and tools we have in the future will be radically different. A workflow with a digital camera is different from a film camera, and different from a smartphone camera. Who knows what will change in the future.

But what I feel what will stay consistent in photography is the principles of workflow. The idea of keeping a simple workflow, that flows smoothly, and allows us to spend less time looking and reviewing our images on our devices— and more time actually shooting.

So friend, whenever in doubt, try to keep it simple. Aim for the simplest workflow possible, and always strive to find the best workflow for yourself.