Digital Image Workflow overview

At the core of an efficient, easy-to-use image workflow system is good computer housekeeping, allied to careful preparation of your camera kit prior to a shoot.

On your computer it is vital to set up and maintain a system of folders where one can store RAW files (your original camera digital negatives if you like) and the ‘ready use’ files for clients - commonly high resolution, least compression, first generation JPEG files, web-ready files or Adobe DNG archive files, for example.

It is vital to remember when importing any images into Adobe Bridge CC, Adobe Lightroom Classic or a Digital Asset Management (DAM) program, that if one subsequently moves the folders containing the images all links to the files will be lost. The metadata embedded by Bridge will remain as sidecar XMP files in the images folders and the metadata extracted by the DAM program will remain, but the essential links (in effect the roadsigns to find the originals) will be lost.

Thus, before you start adding images files to the system, you need (if you have not already done so) to set up folders on the drives broadly as follows.

1. Main folder ‘RAW Files’ containing sub-folders that are designated for each day's job

2. Main folder 'Media Holding Folder' containing such sub-folders as you wish - for example:

     3. Sub folder ‘Adobe DNG’

     4. Sub folder ‘Hi-Res JPEGs’

     5. Sub folder 'Hi-Res TIFFs'

     6. Sub folder ‘Web-Res JPEGs’

Naturally it is your choice what to name the folders, but it is important that you a) remember what they are called, b) you remember what they are for and c) that you use them religiously.

Camera RAW files remain in ‘RAW Files’ folder. The only time you delete them from this location is to archive the Adobe DNG files exported from Lightroom, but this is NOT done UNTIL you have finished exporting everything tha you need from them.

From this it follows that you will need to maintain two portfolio catalogues - one containing all your RAW/DNG files (for your internal reference only) and one for all the repro-ready files that are for use by clients. Currently (July 2023) I have mirrored these with identical catalogues produced with PhaseOne Media Pro.

Workflow in use - preparation

The route twixt camera and computer can be a rocky one if initial planning is overlooked. This means that before starting to shoot any job all my cameras have their Date Time Group (DTG) synchronised with a computer so that the clocks on each body match exactly. In my experience this should be done every day before starting to shoot as the internal clocks on cameras can drift slightly and as I shall illustrate, even half a second can make all the difference in screwing up your well laid plans.

Cameras - date and time settings (DTG)

With digital photography there are a number of vital steps to take, even before you start taking any pictures.

One of the most common problems encountered by users of digital images, who usually rely on information contained within the image file, the metadata, is the wrong date/time/group (DTG) stamp.

It may not sound like much of a problem to the uninitiated, but not knowing when a photograph was taken may make it almost impossible to establish what the subject matter is. Naturally, if the shots are immediately captioned and have other metadata added the problem is less of an issue. However, this is not normally the case with material shot by amateurs. Days or even weeks may pass before the photographer gets around to doing anything with the images. By that time, the small matter of when they were taken has passed into the mists of time.

By the time anyone else gets to see the images even details of the event may have been forgotten. Within any organisation details of date and time assume a particular importance. From an accurate date/time stamp one can often begin to establish who is in the picture, where the image was taken (by cross-referencing to a diary for example) and build up a time line of events.

This becomes even more important when you have the luxury of two or more cameras. Professional photographers tend to use two or more camera bodies, each with a different focal length lens fitted, to enable them to quickly switch from one view to another without the delay caused by changing lenses, or by the possible damage to sensors caused by dust being introduced into the camera body whilst the lens is off.

Thus, at the end of a day’s shoot, all the images can be put into one big folder and then renumbered, with the Better Rename program using the EXIF (EXchangeable Image File Format) data embedded in each file at the time the shutter is released. Assuming all the cameras used had their internal clocks zeroed at the beginning of the day, the software used to rename the files would then produce a sequence of images from dawn to dusk, say, utilising the mixed images from all cameras used. This means that, regardless of which camera was used to take a photograph, the shoot from the day can be seen accurately and sequentially from start to finish.

If the cameras have the wrong time and date settings major problems arise.

So when you buy, or indeed borrow, a digital camera, the first thing you must do is to burrow into the settings and make sure that the date and time are absolutely correct. Often you can sit in front of your computer, which uses an accurate network time signal if connected to the internet, and synchronize a single camera with the clock.

Similarly, if you are using two or more camera bodies, set all the bodies to exactly the same date, hour, minute and second, but a couple of minutes ahead, and then at the appropriate time press all the ‘OK’ buttons together. The more cameras you have the more awkward it becomes, but there is no reason why, if you are precise, you can’t zero them in batches. Curiously, whilst modern digital cameras are now super accurate regarding shutter speeds and exposure, their internal clocks may lag a long way behind in the accuracy stakes. Personally, I re-zero my camera bodies every morning. With a large number of its current range of DSLR and mirrorless cameras Nikon enables these to be time/date synchronised via Nikon Transfer in the Nikon ViewNX suite on the computer, so that all the bodies one uses are accurate to the millisecond. No doubt other manufacturers also offer a similar service. Luckily my recently acquired Nikon Z 9 has a built-in GPS sensor that sets the time and adds location metadata to each file.

Cameras - batteries

Again this is an item which is frequently overlooked in the rush to get out and take some great photos.

Ideally, at the end of a day you must either remove and recharge you camera batteries if you have the luxury of mains power, so that they are fully charged for the next day or have the correct spare batteries at hand if you find yourself in a location where recharging is not an option.

There is nothing more frustrating than finding your ‘Low Battery’ warning light blinking in the viewfinder half way through a busy day and often right in the middle of a particularly brilliant photo sequence.

There are still many digital cameras that allow you to use AA cells if the main Lithium rechargeable battery packs up. Almost all the lower end of the professional range of Nikon cameras, for example, offer a battery pack able to take AA cells, which are easily sourced almost anywhere. A couple of packs of AA cells stuffed into your pockets or rucksack can make a real difference to the success of your photography. Curiously, using top-end Nikons such as the D3S, D4S and D5 and Z6/Z7, no such alternatives are available.

Finally, when going away, don’t forget to pack your battery charger and mains cable. A few weeks is a long time to be without your camera.

Cameras - media cards

Another area where many amateur photographers try to cut corners, or indeed fail to even consider, is the size and quantity of media cards needed to shoot an event successfully. Fifteen years ago or so these same photographers wouldn’t have considered going out on a job without any rolls of film, but now media cards, the modern equivalent of film, are so physically small they are easily overlooked.

To cut costs and make them appear more attractive to would be purchasers, most compact digital cameras are sold with relatively small capacity media cards. Figures quoted for the number of shots that you can expect to shoot on one card tend to be impressive - until you realise that they are for tiny images that are incapable of being enlarged to any useful size. For many buyers that is fine; they only want tiny prints or images for the web.

CFExpress, XQD, CompactFlash, SD or SDHC cards are now available in 64, 128, 256 and in some cases 2Tb sizes, allowing you to take many thousands of high resolution files without feeling the squeeze. Most professional DSLR and mirrorless cameras are sold without a media card, allowing the buyer the choice of capacity.

Not all cards with the same capacity are equal though. Like all other digital processors, media cards have a ‘speed’; the slower the speed, the slower your camera’s ability to write images to the card. Cameras that have a theoretical framing rate of 12fps can have this halved, or worse, by trying to write to a slow media card. Equal-sized cards will hold exactly the same number of images, but slower ones may frustrate your ability to take fast action sequences, depending on the model of camera in use.

Fast media cards tend to cost quite a lot more than slower ones, but don’t be put off and save up to buy a faster one just yet; just plan your shooting better around the capabilities of your equipment.

The other thing to remember is that, if you are not going to have the luxury of being able to download all your media cards on to a computer at the end of each day, you must pack enough media cards to enable you to keep shooting until you get a chance to be reunited with your computer.

Cameras - accessories

If you are lucky enough to have a camera with interchangeable lenses you may find that you have amassed a range of lenses. However, all these lenses impose a severe weight penalty on you, particularly if you are out on a job where everything has to be carried with you all the time.

It is important to plan before you pack. Will you actually need all the lenses you possess? Would it be better to take just one and plan round the limitations - in fact actually use the reduction in weight and complexity to your advantage? Light levels may be low, making that long lens unusable because of camera shake. In that case only pack a short zoom or a lens with a fixed focal length, which usually tends to be faster (i.e. have a larger aperture), making the low light levels work for you.

Lots of kit can be great to talk about, and in certain conditions, wonderful to have, but the penalties imposed by trying to take it all with you usually far outweigh the benefits of packing light.

Be tough on yourself and see what can be achieved by using just one lens - you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If you have a separate flash unit ask yourself if you really need it. Many beginners think that in low light a flash gun becomes essential, but does it? In those situations, shooting dark, punchy images actually makes it look like you were shooting at dawn or dusk. Unless very carefully controlled, flash guns tend to turn dusk, night or dawn shots into images with bright, bleached out foregrounds and dark backgrounds - not what you really saw in your mind’s eye. Flash guns, particularly the ones incorporated in compact cameras, can’t push their light very far; you’ve probably all seen zillions of flash guns going off at a football match or in the back of an Olympic stadium. The spectators three rows in front are reasonably exposed - but nothing else is.

Instead of using flash, be prepared to rest your camera on a solid object, such as a gate or fence post, and just use the natural light. With a bit of practice you will be amazed at what you can do without extra illumination.

Cameras and lenses need protection, but do you really need to take that all-singing, all-dancing hi-tech camera bag with you? After all, if you are only taking a fraction of your kit, having to lug around a big, almost empty camera bag would be foolish.

Once you have decided what to take, use bubble wrap or similar to protect your camera and lens in a rucksack. Keep it near the top so that you can get to it quickly when you need to. A waterproof rucksack liner or canoe bag are ideal to put the whole lot in, as you can bet that if or when it rains, your kit will suffer without it.

Preparation - in conclusion

The important thing to remember is that you have one huge advantage over the previous generations of photographers. You, with your digital camera, have the impressive facility of almost instant review. If you want to check what you have just shot you can, and if you don’t like it you can trash it and try again.

Previous generations of photographers, shooting film, never (unless using Polaroid film backs) had a chance to examine their efforts until they had the film processed. By the time they had left the situation, they rarely had a chance to go back and try again, meaning that shots that failed were fit only for the scrap heap. I’ve covered whole wars and not seen a single image until I arrived back in the UK.

Having the comparative luxury of a digital camera means that you can try and try again, assuming you have the time, until your great idea translates into a superb image. You can try out ideas and polish and hone them by reviewing your shots until you get what you intended - how wonderful is that?

Above all, don’t be afraid to keep shooting. You can always ditch the rubbish later, but if you haven’t tried you’ll always regret it. Unlike photography with film, digital is effectively free once you have bought the kit. Film used to cost around £10-15 per roll of 36 exposures (including processing). That’s a frightening amount when you consider that today a professional photographer on a typical wedding might easily be taking 2000+ shots.

Workflow in use - operation

Before you start adding any sort of images to your system it is vital to have certain pre-sets prepared in Photoshop to make your life easier. These pre-sets are your Metadata (File Info) pre-sets. In Photoshop CC create a new document of any size you wish (the file will not be saved so it is not important).

Open File Info and fill in all the basic information that will be entered in EVERY image that you produce; name, copyright, address etc. Save this File Info information as a Metadata Template with a title that will make it easy to find later. Continue with this process, creating and saving Metadata pre-sets for each event or occasion that you wish. This will then enable you to add metadata to multiple files from the same shooting session quickly and easily. This Metadata will also be accessible through Adobe Bridge CC.

In a similar vein, you can create Metadata Templates that are used when importing Camera RAW files into your portfolio catalogues for internal use. This saves you a huge amount of time post-import, as well as saving you the bother and effort of identifying the files after you have imported them.

Broadly speaking, ones workflow from camera to client-ready JPEGs, is as follows:

1. Before importing Camera RAW files from a card to your Mac, create a folder WITHIN your ‘RAW Files’ folder that will allow you to identify the contents later, eg ‘20230920 Venice’ or ‘20221230 South Downs’. This identifying/folder creation process will also be common to your "RAW Scans" process too.

2. Open this folder on your desktop and size it so that it sits in a corner of your screen.

3. Insert your card in the card reader and copy the Camera RAW files to the open folder on your desktop. Remember, this folder is NOT created on your desktop; it is merely a shortcut to the folder contained within your "RAW Files" folder on another hard drive. You must get into the habit of NEVER storing files or folders on your desktop; it slows down the Mac and you inevitably have to move the files somewhere at one stage or another, losing the vital roadsign to their location. Once that operation is complete, eject the media card from the desktop but leave the RAW files folder open as you add images from other camera's cards to the folder.

4. In theory you can use the most complicated and distinctive numbering system as you wish, for example 'J&Y_14JAN20_123456789_The_Worlds_Fastest_Car.JPG'. This would, surely, be uniquely your numbering sequence. The disadvantages are overwhelming though. It is long and unwieldy, with a high likelihood that either you can make a mistake when entering new number sequences or when you are trying to locate a particular file that someone has asked for by number. It is prone to input errors by either you or someone requesting the file.

The advantages of using a simple alpha numeric system, based initially on a DOS type eight alpha numerics are enormous; simplicity, ease of implementation and up to 999999 individually numbpered images before you begin to run out of simple options! If you have over 100,000 images all you have to do is to alter one of the first two numerical digits to alpha digits to have (25x26) x 999,999 options of numbering left to you. Of course, you can never be 100% sure that another photographer is not using the same numbering sequence, although the chances of identically named files from two different sources ending up on one person's desktop must surely be astronomically unlikely. This is why I advocate using a system based on your initials, I.e. PR for Peter Russell, FB for Fred Bloggs etc, followed by a six figure number. Thus PR100001 and FB100001 are all demonstrably different, even though each uses the same numerals. By adding the Year, Month and Day as a prefix to each file the odds of this combination being duplicated is virtually impossible and, therefore, the most likely way to success.

When starting to number your files I suggest using as few zeros as possible, i.e, use 'PR101201' or 'PR012345', for example, as a starting point rather than 'PR100000'. It is very easy to get 'zero' blindness and misquote the number of zeros in a file name, resulting in someone, somewhere getting it wrong.

5. Using the Better Rename app rename all the files in the folder according to the convention that you have established, using Category > Sequence Numbers, the 'Action" > Produce sequence number list. Then 'Sort first' > By EXIF digital camera date (from oldest to newest), 'Then' > By name (from A to Z). This means that image files from two or more camera bodies that have had their DTG synchronised prior to shooting will all be renamed sequentially. BEFORE you quit Better Rename remember to set the next file number sequence to one digit later than the last file number you changed, so that when you open Better Rename next time the correct file number is ready to use. Close the folder window on your desktop.

Then take the whole folder of files that you have just renumbered and add the date prefix, using Better Rename, to every file in that folder, so that each file is composed not only of a unique file name but also the date that it was shot, e.g. 20221225_PR234987.NEF. Using the date group thus, Year, Month & Day, also means that files will always be displayed sequentially, making them easy to find as well as almost certainly being unique.

6. Open Adobe Bridge CC and navigate to the folder that you have just created and populated. Select all the files from that folder and add your pre-prepared Metadata Template information pre-sets created earlier in Photoshop. Once you have added the information common to all the files, you can select individual files or groups of similar files and modify/add caption information in the Metadata panel alongside. When set up correctly, all the metadata is saved in the same folder as your images as XMP sidecar files, bearing the same filename as the associated image file, but with an XMP extension.

NOTE: You will need to use Adobe Photoshop CC after/during this stage if the Camera RAW files need much work doing to them. Certainly, with cameras that incorporate image sensor cleaning there is less need to use Photoshop as the images are so clean. With older, non-sensor cleaning camera models Photoshop and the Camera RAW interface form a more important part of the workflow.

7. At this stage, under the 'Develop' heading, you can apply broad exposure and lens adjustments, previously saved as Presets for each lens/body combination, to all your files - namely sharpness, saturation etc, or tweak individual image files, crop etc. Once this vital step is done you will be in a position to decide upon your method of output.

7. Open Adobe Lightroom and 'Import Files from Disk' by navigating once again to the folder that you just created. This process imports the RAW files into the Lightroom database, incorporating all metadata from the XMP sidecar files.

Lightroom allows you the choice and freedom to output the finished files to a variety of locations in a wide range of formats. For example, you may choose to output all the selected files as Web-Res JPEGs, as high resolution TIF files or as high resolution, client-ready JPEGs - all without going near Adobe Photoshop. I also export all the RAW files as Adobe DNG for archiving as the files are generally under half the size of the oriinal RAW files. Once that is done I then delete the camera original RAW files. Lightroom allows you to set up precise presets for all these actions, down to designating an output folder of your choice.

Only on exporting Camera RAW files from Lightroom is all the XMP metadata, hitherto stored up to this stage as separate sidecar XMP files, finally embedded in the output files. This is why you cannot use Lightroom as an effective DAM resource with RAW files - I view it as purely an interim step to the production of the final master image file, although those who shoot only JPEG and do all their post-production work in Lightroom will find that it can double as an internal-use-only DAM system.

8. Only when you have output the files as high resolution, client-ready JPEGs, can you then add them to your client portfolio catalogue. This is because, for the first time in your workflow process, all the sidecar XMP files, containing both the metadata and the exposure corrections, are finally incorporated into a single file that is capable of being catalogued by a DAM program and having the metadata extracted from the image file.

The DAM program also stores the physical path (the roadsign or direction pointer if you like) to each finished file in its database, allowing you later to not only search for a particular file, but also to copy it straight from the DAM program by dragging to a folder from which you can copy to a memory stick or send to a cient by DropBox or WeTransfer for example. This explains why you must not subsequently move files, or folders containing files, to new locations after cataloguing them - they won't be found.

Once you start experimenting with your chosen DAM program you will find that there is so much that you can do to keep track of your image files, whether they sit on hard drives attached to your Mac or are archived to the Cloud and subsequently deleted from the drives. This is why it is so useful to run two DAM catalogues in tandem. Put simply, one is for you for your internal audit trail, whilst the other is for you and your clients to find ready-to-use material.

Workflow in use - summary

You will have noted from the foregoing that there is not really a great deal of complexity to an image workflow, provided you adhere to strict housekeeping guidelines.

1. Keep clutter, folders and files OFF your desktop.

2. Apart from the Hard Drive symbols, ONLY put a limited number of shortcuts (aliases) on your desktop.

3. Once populated with image files, DO NOT move folders to new locations WITHOUT ensuring that the cataloguing process is able to follow them.

4. Think "Bridge", possibly "Photoshop", certainly "Lightroom" and finally "DAM" as your essential in-computer workflow.

Digital Workflow