My Photography Workflow 2011

My Photography Workflow 2011

Probably the number one question I get from people (after which camera should I buy) is “what is your workflow?” For the past two years I’ve published three different articles on my workflow, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Because my workflow changes so much over time, I figured now would be as good a time as ever to update this post for 2011.

I process *alot* of images. I’m trying to publish 1,000,000 photos online before I die — because of this it is imperative that I am as efficient as I can possibly be with the time that I spend processing images. I’m sure I could do some things better/faster, but I’m pretty comfortable with my system right now which is as follows:

Step 1. Capture the Images. At present my daily set up includes the same Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera that I’ve been shooting with for a few years now and five Canon lenses. The 14mm f/2.8, the 24mm f/1.4, the 50mm f/1.2, the 100mm f/2.8 macro and my favorite lens the 135 f/2.

Step 2. Import the images. I’ve got a high speed Hoodman FW800 card reader and four SanDisk cards (8GB, 16GB, 32GB and 64GB). Usually I just let Adobe’s Lightroom 3 import my images from my cards. LR puts each day’s image into a folder properly labeled with that date, so if I’ve got more than one day’s shoot on a card LR will automatically put the images in the right folders by day. If I’m out shooting in the field and need to dump a card and don’t have as much time, I might manually create a date folder myself and simply drag and drop the files from my CF card to the folder on my 17 inch MacBook Pro. This gets the photos to my computer faster.

Step 3. Back up the images. As soon as is practical (and hopefully before I’ve reformatted my CF cards) I will either transfer a day’s photos from my MBP hard drive to a drobo, or I’ll make sure that I’ve run Time Machine on my MBP’s internal hard drive. My drobos have two primary folders, photos to be processed and photos already processed (aka archive). I keep my drobos in a fire proof safe that’s bolted to a cement floor. I also keep copies of my files offsite. I did start using cloud storage as well but cancelled Mozy when they raised their rates. I’ve looked at a couple of the other cloud storage solutions but haven’t really found anything that is compelling for me yet.

Whenever I travel to shoot I always make sure that I bring my Time Machine backup drive and run it each night on the photos that I’ve already shot on that trip.

Step 4. Reimport the images For the most part I try to process in the order that I’ve taken the photos in. Sometimes I’ll skip ahead to process one or two photos from a photowalk, or if an event (like the Oakland riots) is time sensitive. But most of my work is not time sensitive and so I’ll just take my oldest unprocessed day and begin working on it. Right now I’m pretty far behind on my processing. I’m working on images from a Nashville trip from January 2010.

When it’s time to work on new images, I’ll copy that folder for that day’s images from my drobo to my MacBook Pro hard drive. Immediately Time Machine begins backing it up. I process most of my images on a 27 inch Apple Cinema Display. It’s great to have that as a second monitor. Note, if you leave Google+ on one of the displays it’s hard to get any actual processing work done. 😉

I’ll import a day’s image into my current Lightroom catalog and begin work from there.

Step 5. Flag Images. The first thing I do with a folder’s images when imported into Lightroom is begin flagging the images that I’m going to want to process in Lightroom’s Library mode. How many images vs. frames that I process depends on the shoot. On some shoots I’ll process almost every image. On other shoots (like a sports event or runway models) I’ll way overshoot. In terms of the images for Nashville I’m working on right now, I’ve flagged 830 out of 2,646 photos for one of the days that I shot there.

Step 6. Process Images. Once I’ve flagged all of the images I want to process, I’ll filter by flag and begin one by one going through these images in Lightroom’s develop module. Each image is processed one by one by hand. I do have a ton of presets and sometimes I’ll use some fo these as jumping off points — many of these presets I’ve made myself, others I’ve found on the web, have been given by friends, etc. Most of the time though I don’t use presets and I just start tweaking the image using the various LR controls for what looks good to my eye and artistic sense.

I use most of the tools available to me. Frequently I crop images, boost contrast or vibrancy/saturation, increase blacks and fill lighting, use cloning tools to remove the horrible dust from the 5DM2 and definitely apply Lightroom 3’s killer noise reduction tech as needed.

Less than 3% of the time I’ll want to do something even more than what I can do in Lightroom and I’ll bring the image into Photoshop to do some work on it there. You have to be careful with Photoshop though because when you bring an image in there it’s not uncommon to look at your watch and realize you’ve been working on the same image for the past 2 hours. 😉

Sometimes if something really works in black and white I might bring it into Nik Software’s excellent Silver Efex Pro. The black and white conversion effects available in there are remarkable.

Step 7. Keyword. Once I’m done processing each of my flagged RAW images, I’ll begin keywording them. First I’ll apply the broad keywords that apply to everything (eg. United States, United States of America, USA, Tennessee, Nashville). Then I might select multiple images to keyword, (all of my neon shots, all of my bw shots, etc.). Finally I’ll go through each image one by one to add unique keywords (i.e. sunset, Tootsie’s Bar, guitar, graffiti, etc.).

Step 8. Title photos. I spend a great deal of time on my photo titles. For me each image conveys a message. Some titles are obvious and descriptive. Other titles are more personal to me. Titles can be meaningful or random. Alot of my titles come from music. Alot come from poetry. Most are just made up out of things coming from my head. In the meta data “title” field I’ll title each image.

Step 10. Save metadata. A quick cmd-s saves all of my keywords and titles to my photos once I’m done with this process.

Step 11. Export files. Once I’m done with my processing, keywording and titling I’ll export my RAW files as JPGs for online publication. I export at full resolution. I don’t use or apply any crappy watermark. These finished photos then go into a “to be uploaded” folder to be added to about another 20,000 images that are waiting to be published. I title the file titles descriptively (eg. Oakland, Jan 2010, street — note these are just the JPG file titles, the actual image titles are in the meta data).

Step 12. Save folder as a catalog. After I’m done with all this, I will save the folder as its own Lightroom catalog. I then move this catalog file into the folder with the RAW images itself. This way if I ever need to go back and process more from that day’s shoot, I’ll know exactly how I left things when I was working with those images from before. Once this is done I’ll copy the day’s folder into a new archive folder on a drobo and delete the folder from my MacBook Pro’s hard drive.

Step 13. Geotag. Usually I geotag if it’s easy. If I’m shooting all of my images in one place (like a comic book convention in Houston) I’ll simply select all of those exported JPG images and use the application Geotagger to write geotags to them. Geotagger works by me loading up Google Earth and then manually finding the spot I took the photo and then dragging the files over the Geotagger icon in my dock.

I always get people suggesting to me that I use an actual GPS unit (or even my phone) to do my geotagging instead. Basically it’s just not worth the hassle to me. I know it’s gotten easier over the years, but I have to believe that we’ll see in camera geotagging reasonably soon and I just haven’t wanted to invest the time, money, or energy in coming up with a solution here. I hate that with most solutions that I have to synch my DSLR’s clock up with a phone/GPS unit and that I’d have to deal with merging files later, afterwards.

Step 14. Upload. Each day I do two batch uploads to Flickr, 25 images in the morning, 25 images at night. These images are largely pulled randomly from around a 20,000 image bank of reserve photos I have. I’ve also selected about 7,000 of what I feel are my stronger images to upload to Google+. I upload more sparingly to Google+ uploading 5 images spread out during the day there. These are my primary two places that I publish my work online. I’ll also put up some images up on 500px as well, but not systematically like I do with Flickr/Google+. If a photo of mine gets a lot of +1’s on Google+ I might also publish that photo to my blog.

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  1. Rick says:

    Great stuff. It’s not easy to geotag in Flickr, but I’ll try the method you have here. I’m also finding myself more and more in Silver Efex Pro 2, so most of my recent images have a monochrome treatment.

  2. Thank you. This always is the first thing I ask. I need to work smarter ….
    Since I am constantly posting “every day” photos for my blog readers I need to push volume. (And yet, I still want to spend time on the “keeper” photos that truly are exceptional.) I have lightroom, but I tend to always use CS5.

  3. Mark J P says:

    Really interesting to read about somebody else’s workflow. Especially somebody who processes as many images as you do. The backup info is especially insightful.

    I’d really like to see geotagging built into the next round of cameras from Canon. Fingers crossed for a 5D MKIII with geotagging built in.

    Thanks for this post!

  4. Jeremy Hall says:

    I’ve enjoyed the updates to your workflow each year. I also use a working catalog approach in LightRoom and save out a catalog for a shoot to be stored with it’s photos. I find this to be much easier for me than trying to manage an immense catalog. I need to do better at arranging a local catalog of my favorite picks, but then my taste for the best photos does also change with time.

  5. Thomas Hawk says:

    I agree Jeremy, in my case I have so many frames that managing them all in one catalog just won’t work. It would bog down processing too much. It’s not too much work to break each days work down into it’s own catalog though. 🙂

  6. Bill Binns says:

    Love the comment about “crappy watermarks”. I can’t believe how many people on Flickr are terrified that someone is going to “STEAL MY PICTURES!”. I have seen some decent photos ruined by watermarks and a lot of bad photos made even worse by them.

  7. Steve Sweitzer says:

    Nice to see how closely my workflow matches a pros. I don’t shoot the same kind of volumn so I import by the year but just about everything else is similar. Lightroom sure is a Godsend.

  8. Jim Nix says:

    Dude you just hammer it! Great to read, very interesting and informative. I too have some shots from Nashville still to process (with another trip there in Sept). Don’t you love all the signs on Broadway?
    Great stuff Thomas, thanks for sharing.

  9. Thomas Hawk says:

    Jim, I LOVE those neon signs. Some of the best in the U.S. I think Betty Boots and Jack’s are my two favorites. 🙂

    I also really loved just hanging out at night at the honky tonks on Broadway and shooting all the bands that would play there. Such a great place in America.

  10. Kenton says:

    Thanks again for this Thomas. I’ve read all your past articles on workflow and learn something every time. This time it is using multiple catalogs in Lightroom. My catalog is comparatively small, but still somewhat unwieldy. I’ll have to try this.

  11. Spencer says:

    Great article! I never heard of Geotagger before so thanks for mentioning it. I’m going to give it a try.

  12. Matt says:

    Thomas, I like to title my images in Lr as well. Do you know of a shortcut keystroke to get to that field? Similar to Ctrl-k getting you to keywords.

  13. Jay Levan says:

    Thomas, I thought I was reading my own workflow. I don’t use a Drobo, I just have external hard drives connected to those USB thingys (I call them spiders) I was surprised that you have not switched to DNGs. I recently started converting to DNG as I import into Lightroom.

    Also, you might want to consider backing off the “Black” slider and check out the Shadows slider at the bottom of the Tone Curve menu. – It gives more control and is more subtle. I found over time that the Black slider can be heavy handed with just one tick. And, tweaking the Shadows down a few ticks and the Lights up a few, creates an S curve that is typically perfect. I’ve also started using Brightness a bit more, instead of Exposure and I’ve been much happier with that. Here’s a great little tutorial by Wayne Fox about some of that.

    Also, if your primary issue with moving to DNG is your huge archive… There are many people who suggest DON’T let that stop you. Just start with your next import. If you have time someday to convert the archives, fine. But, if you see it as a good move – do it from today forward. No soapbox here, just a thought…


  14. Tommaso says:

    I found a lot of ideas to improve my way in photo management.
    I feel also a bit concerned by all the work I should do to my photo archive so far…
    Thanks a lot

  15. James says:

    Great article, thanks Thomas.

    My workflow is just one of those things i know i should improve but never seem to get round to doing. I think i need to investigate Drobo’s a bit more as they seem like a good way to securely back up (on site at least).

    How many Gb’s of images do you have?!

  16. Robert says:

    Nice workflow description – thank you.

  17. Jim Nix says:

    I love Betty Boots! I got that and Ernest Tubbs here:
    Now I need to get some time to process the rest! Thanks Thomas!

  18. Sara K Byrne says:

    The amount of photography you put out there for our enjoyment.. wow. Thanks for sharing your workflow! Its hard enough for me to keep up with a shoot or two a week, a wedding here and there, and some personal stuff.. you’re an inspiration.

  19. Lindkold says:

    “I keep my drobos in a fire proof safe that’s bolted to a cement floor.”

    Just out of curiosity: How do you connect the Drobo from within the safe (because I’m interested in copying the idea). How you drilled a hole in the safe for the wired connection? And if so, is it then actually fireproof?

    Great article btw..!

  20. “if you leave Google+ on one of the displays it’s hard to get any actual processing work done.” I can see how that would pose an issue in ones productivity, especially yours considering all the attention your posts get 😛

    On a side note, I’m interested in knowing how much time (on average) is spent processing a single image?

  21. Thomas Hawk says:

    Linkkold, I don’t connect the drobos to the computer while they are in the safe. My drobos primarily hold archive storage, RAW photos already processed and photos to be processed. So when I need to move a new folder either to or from my MBP I simply open the safe, take it out, do the transfer, then unmount it and put it back in the safe.

    The safe came with holes already drilled into the bottom of it and four big bolts to bolt the thing down to the floor.

    Michelle, each photo is different. I might spend less than one minute on one and over 20 on another. Probably the biggest factor right now is how much sensor dust is on the image. Small aperture shots with lots of sky or complex bridge patterns or the what not can have 50 or more dust spots that I need to painstakingly clone out.

    I’d save average though might be 3 min an image? But that’s just a guess.

  22. Ravi Shanker says:

    Hey Thomas,
    I’ve been following your workflow articles since the beginning,great reads all of’em! What I’m mostly interested is how you shoot your images? Shooting all those images in a day,do you keep switching modes (or) stick to one? I remember reading in one post that you stick to P mode most of the time,does this still hold true now as well?
    Also, It’d be great if you could put up a “What’s in your Bag?” post, there was one,waaaaay back in ’04. We all know how much you love the 135f2, have there been any other additions to your kit?


  23. George says:

    Each one has its own take on watermarking, I’m curious on your reasoning why you don’t watermark your pictures.

  24. George says:

    Thomas, I think it was Guy Kawasaki’s mention that led me to your post. This morning, there was a few comments but now at 200+ running comments, that’s like our California brushfire 🙂

    I still have a lot to learn about this but the conversation gave me a whole perspective on watermarking.

  25. Donnie Williams says:

    Hi Thomas, great article.

    I ran across your blog through a post from Guy Kawasaki and I wanted to make you aware of a cool app called Photosmith. I’m not a professional photographer or even a professional hobbyist, so the only invested interest I have here is helping my cousin, who developed this app, to get the word out.

    In a nutshell, this app is the iPad mobile companion for Adobe Lightroom. While this tool may not be for everyone, it’s definitely worth checking out.

    Here’s a promotional video Their website is

    Thank you for consideration, and I look forward to your feedback.

  26. Rachel says:

    HI Thomas, I was wandering if there is any chance that i could use a couple of your photos for an inspirational photographer? I’m doing a degree in photography and need to research photographers, i was hoping to be able to grab some of your pics but i can’t so if there is any possibility that you would let me use them could you email me a couple to please? i do not need them other than to go into my research journal.
    Keep the great photographs coming.

  27. John says:

    Two comments.

    1) Step 10? Why not just set up LR to write changes as they are made? Then you don’t have to worry about saving metadata – it’s saved on the fly.

    2) Geotagging – Jeffrey Friedl’s lightroom plugin is magical there. I tag in LR and then things Just Work when exported.