Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Pixel Whisperer

Another in a series of blog entries about technology and my move to Bangkok.
My Lightroom window during an edit of photos from my recent trip to the Navajo Nation. The blue boxes are the label I've assigned for my archive

One of the questions that comes up with a lot of regularity is how do I edit and keep track of the pictures I make. This is an especially good question when I'm on the road and working with a laptop. 

Hello Lightroom. Adobe's DAM, raw processing and photo editing application. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is the Swiss Army Knife my photography toolkit couldn't live without (Adobe calls it Photoshop Lightroom, but I just call it Lightroom). 

Lightroom allows me to use the same workflow on the road that I use at home - the only difference is that my MacBook Pro has a 13 inch screen while my iMac has a 27 inch screen. 

Here's how photos go from the camera to the computer to the client. 


When I finish a shoot the first thing I do is import the photos from the Compact Flash card (or Secure Digital, depending on the camera) into my Lightroom archive. This is by far the most time consuming part of the process. 

My archive is built around the folder system I used before I moved to Lightroom. Folders are named MOnthDAyYEar Subject, so the photos from the Fiesta of Independence naturalization ceremony would be "070412 Fiesta of Independence."

All of my photos are archived in dng, Adobe's open standard file format. When I'm not on deadline, I convert the photos to dng during the import process. This slows the import process but speeds up the rest of the process because Lightroom handles dng files faster than it does cr2 or other proprietary file formats (like Nikon's nef). 

When I'm on deadline, like I was when SCOTUS announced its SB1070 decision, I import the Canon cr2 files and convert everything to dng at the end of the editing process. This speeds up the import process and allows me to get the deadline photos out, saving the dng conversion (a time consuming step) to the end. 

Photos are imported into my MacBook Pro's internal drive only for the time that I'm working on them. As soon as I finish with them, they're moved into my archive drive. I generally keep as little data as possible on the internal drive. 

If I'm on deadline, I start sorting photos as they're imported. When I'm not on deadline, I do other chores while LR is importing files. I get caught up on email, pre-write a caption, surf the web etc. 

As I sort photos I mark them for use, archiving or deletion. Photos that are out of focus (it happens), soft from camera or subject movement get deleted straight away. Photos that I plan to use get star ratings, and a color label for my archive. 

After I've done the initial sort, I move to LR's develop module and edit the photos. I adjust the color balance and exposure, crop the photo and clean it up using the spotting tool. (Also called the clone tool, I prefer to call it the spotting tool because all I do is remove the small spots caused by dust on the sensor.) That's the extent of my editing. 

Lightroom's editing is "non destructive" meaning the original file is never changed. As I work on a photo, LR is noting the changes I make and applying them to the preview on the screen. When I'm done working on the photo and export the final file, LR applies the changes I made and gives me a JPEG (or TIFF) that matches the edits I've made. 

After I've edited the initial sort, I go back through the photos and make the final selection of images to send to the client. During the second sorting I make "virtual copies" of the photos. The original, with my caption, goes into my archive. The virtual copy gets a client specific caption and is sent to the client. 

I use LR's label tool to keep track of who's got what photos. I've assigned labels to regular clients so I know just by looking at a photo who's got it. This also prevents me sending the same photo to multiple clients.

Once the client has the photos, I go back to the entire take and do a more ruthless delete. I keep most of what I shoot, the "ruthless" is not really that ruthless - it's basically looking for duplicates. Exact duplicates caused by bracketing or leaning on the motor drive. One of my great fears is that I will delete the only known photo of Monica Lewinsky hugging Bill Clinton. Photos that are similar but not exact duplicates get saved. Most of what I shoot gets saved. 

After the second sorting, every photo gets a caption. This is crucial. One of the great benefits of Lightroom is that I can find a photo from five or six years ago in minutes. 

Lightroom stores photos in a database. When I need to find an old photo, I open LR's search box and type in a search term and wait for LR to deliver my photos. If I don't caption my photos, Lightroom won't find them. Photos sent to clients or my archive get complete captions with proper spelling. Photos that stay in my archive get basic captions, but spelling still counts. If a caption has a word or name with multiple spellings, I'll use the keyword feature and add multiple spellings. (For example, Sai Gon, and Saigon, Viet Nam and Vietnam, Washington DC and Washington D.C. etc.) It does no good to have a photo in the archive if the photo can't be found. 

If what I'm working on was not a deadline assignment, I'm done once I've captioned everything. If it was a deadline assignment, I still have to convert the take to dng. The dng conversion is an automated process that doesn't require any input from me. It's time consuming and processor intensive, so it slows down the computer but it runs on its own. 

The very last step, usually done the same day but sometimes done the next day, is to make a backup of the take. I travel with multiple hard drives. One has my working archive, the other is a backup that is an exact duplicate of the working archive. That's because there are two types of computer users: one who has had a hard drive fail and one who is going to have a hard drive fail. 

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