Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Moving to Lightroom (a work in progress)

I'm still in the process of adjusting to Lightroom 3.  Eventually, I would like to write a simplified guide for anyone who's moving to Lightroom.  Meanwhile I thought I'd write about my migration experiences so far, with the hope that other family photogs can learn from what I did right and wrong:
1. Being new to Lightroom, I decided I needed to buy a book.  My hope was that it would save me time in finding the right approach.  I was choosing between Scott Kelby, Martin Evening and Nat Coalson.  From reviews I read, they each have different approaches.  Supposedly:
...Scott Kelby shows you what to do but doesn't spend much time about the reasons for doing things a certain way. 
...Martin Evening's book is more of a reference book. 
...Nat Coalson's book is structured as a hands-on tutorial.
I chose Nat Coalson's book.  I'll put up a review when I'm done with it.  So far it's not perfect but it's ok.
2. The first step in moving to Lightroom is to create a catalog.  Importing photos itself is fairly easy but I learned from Nat's book that I first had to make sure the directories with my files were properly organized.  I can attest to the wisdom of his advice because one of my folders was not correctly organized before I created my catalog and although I was later able to move it to the right place, it took more time to do so than if I had moved it to the correct location before creating my catalog.
About the reorganization: previously, my directories had been roughly arranged by projects and for family photos, by month.  All the directories were occupying the same level in a flat hierarchy (e.g. blog, coworker1, coworker2, childmonth1, childmonth2, etc.).  Rather than have all directories on the same level, I reorganized my files so that the first level was divided by "client": e.g. blog, coworker1, coworker2, familypics (which contained all the subfolders for different months of family pictures, etc.).  My rationale was that this kind of organization is something that can be used if in the future I decide to go pro or semi-pro. 
Within each folder, I thought the order should be chronological.  Especially with family photos, I think a chronological order helps mark the passage of time and makes it easier to show how our kids grow up.  Lightroom can automatically create chronological subfolders (by year, month and/or date), and I'm letting LR do that when I import my photos (year, with month subdirectories, with date sub-subdirectories).  Having multiple levels doesn't make browsing too difficult because LR can show photos of subdirectories as well.  If I select the 2010-12 folder (December 2010) for example, LR can also display the contents of the different date folders within it.
*Tip from Nat's book: when importing do not check "Do not import suspected duplicates."   You don't want to rely on LR to determine whether a photo is a duplicate.
My current dilemma is how to change my existing month-based folders into LR's chronological subfolders automatically.  I think the way to do it is to "move" my old photos within the familypics folder into the same folder, letting LR create the chronological subfolders.  I haven't done it yet though because I want to make sure the approach will work without messing up my files.
Another issue I had to deal with is the location of my files.  Previously, I imported photos from my camera to my local hard drive, edited them, then moved them to my network drive (which has much larger capacity, and is accessible to any computer at our house).  Nat's book strongly recommended having a backup system and halfway through my reorganization I decided he was right.  I decided the network drive would be my backup and my working drive would be a local USB drive connected to my laptop.  I had already created part of my catalog with my files in the network drive and didn't want to take forever to move my folders within Lightroom.  My solution was to move the files into my USB drive outside of Lightroom, and when LR gave me an error message about missing files, I pointed to the new location in the USB drive.  Sounds like a risky way to do it but it worked for me.
3. File format: raw, DNG, or what?
Lightroom is a nondestructive raw editor.  It doesn't touch your raw file.  Instead, when you make edits, it stores the edits as separate instructions about how to process your raw file.  Along with other info such as EXIF and IPTC information they constitute metadata.  The metadata are stored in a separate "sidecar" XMP file that are read by LR along with the raw file.  The problem with this approach is that if the raw file and the XMP file for that file are separated or mixed up, the edits are lost. 
Meanwhile, Adobe created its own raw file format that was open and brand-neutral called DNG (Digital Negative).  DNG files contain both the raw file and the metadata -- they don't need a sidecar file.  With only one file per photo, it was not vulnerable to losing metadata.  DNG files also are supposedly 20% smaller than raw files without losing any information.  It is also possible to embed the original raw file within the DNG file.  Another advantage is that JPEGs can be saved as a DNG to allow nondestructive JPEG editing.  Finally, because DNG is an open format, it is more likely than proprietary raw formats to be readable years from now.
Because of the advantages of DNG, I started converting my raw files (in Nikon's NEF format) to DNG going forward.  However, I found that there are a few problems with this: first, once converted to DNG, the file can no longer be opened in View NX or Capture NX.  That leads to a couple of side effects: 1. it seems that Nikon's metadata such as CLS information are lost; 2. I lose the ability to use View NX to convert raw files into JPEGs.  On that second point, the JPEGs created by View NX and Capture NX still look noticeably better to my eyes than the JPEGs generated by LR.  My postprocessing skills haven't gotten to the point where I can recreate the Nikon appearance, and I haven't found a Lightroom preset that reproduces the Nikon look to my satisfaction.  Lastly, some non-Adobe products are not fully compatible with DNG.  For example, Corel Paintshop Photo Pro X3 can open DNG but to my knowledge, can't save a file as DNG.
Now I'm thinking of using raw+JPEG.  My idea is that for photos that don't need serious editing, I can just use the JPEG and even take advantage of the nicer-looking JPEGs from Nikon.  For photos that require more editing, I can use the raw version.  In this regard, LR has an option to treat JPEGs accompanying raw files as separate photos.  I haven't tried a raw+JPEG workflow yet though and Nat's book doesn't seem to address the issue (but I could be wrong -- I'm not done reading his book yet).
4. Revising my workflow

My workflow has definitely become much faster thanks to Lightroom.  The first part of my workflow now looks like this:
- Import photos to my USB drive by converting them to DNG and renaming the files.  Renaming the files (with the date as a prefix) avoids duplicate file names  (some of my images from different cameras have the same file names - a recipe for disaster).  I let LR create new chronolical folders and subfolders by year, month and date.
- I assign keywords to the photos.  In Lightroom, it's easy to select a large group of photos and label them all with keywords.  I use simple keywords such as, "Disneyland" and names of people in the photos.  I don't go all-out and put in every conceivable keyword.  I just put a few keywords -- better than nothing in my view.  I plan to experiment with using Picasa's face recognition to tag faces automatically (Picasa's face recognition is not perfect but works fairly well).
- I sort through my photos and rate them.  In the Library module, I use survey mode.  Looking at the filmstrip on the bottom of the screen, I select photos from the same series (i.e., same subject and same point of view), then narrow the choices by removing the rejected photos from the survey view (click on "X").  In choosing the photos, I try to visualize the "best" version of the photo (cropped, tones adjusted, etc.) rather than what it currently looks like.  When I'm down to just the photo I like best in a series, I rate it with one star.  I move to the next series until I've found all the 1-star rated photos.
- I view the 1-star photos (using the filter) and find the 2-star photos.  I repeat as needed until I have a reasonable number of photos.
- I edit the 'final' group of photos in Develop.  I don't have any info for this step because I'm still learning about LR's editing capabilities, and how I can integrate PSE9 and PSP X3 into my workflow.
 I'll continue to update this post until it becomes a simple guide to migrating to Lightroom.