Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Practical Workflow for Family Photographers

Am I presenting my best photos in their best possible light to the people I care about in a timely manner?  If not, there's probably a workflow issue.
 
When I started learning photography, I wasn't aware of the concept of workflow.  However, as I took more photos, developing a good workflow became essential. 
 
WHAT IS WORKFLOW?
Workflow is just our routine for handling the photo after capture.  Many casual shooters are not aware of the concept and simply do things randomly.  Other photogs have a simple routine -- just download the photos from the memory card when the memory card gets full and store the pictures in a hard drive. The result of a random workflow (an oxymoron, yes) or a bad one is that no one will see the vast majority of those photos, and if they do, the photos probably won't look their best because they haven't been edited.  (As a beginning photographer, that wasn't a big deal because my snapshots weren't worth looking at anyway. =) )
 
WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL WITH HAVING A GOOD WORKFLOW?
At some point though, I put enough effort into my shots that I cared about maximizing their potential.  To me, photography as an art is a form of communication, and unless it's received by the intended audience, its potential isn't fully realized.  Based on the foregoing philosophy, I propose that the question at the beginning of this post is a simple test for determining if I have a good workflow. It's a loaded question so here's the breakdown:
1. Among the thousands of images that I have, do I know which photos are the ones I like best, and can I find them readily?
2. Am I making my best photos look their best?
3. Do I and the people I care about see my best photos in a timely manner?
 
I suppose those thinking of going pro or semi-pro may want to add a couple more to the list:
4. Can I do all of the above for all of my clients' photos?
5. Are my photos and edits protected from data loss, theft and infringement?
 
BENEFITS OF A GOOD WORKFLOW
Having a good workflow is not just for people with OCD. A good workflow has real benefits:
- improves my photos by allowing me to edit them as needed, using the best specific app for the job.
- allows me and my family to enjoy my photos.  Otherwise they would probably never see the light of day.
- saves me time.  With a carefully designed workflow, I can reduce the amount of jumping around between apps.
- allows me to tackle bigger projects.  Like any other aspect of life, using a systematic approach allows me to take on projects with greater complexity.  (I used to be swamped with just 3 or 4 projects at work.  Now I can stay on top of 30+ projects because I have a good workflow for my work.)
 
MY WORKFLOW
My workflow isn't the best but for me, it meets the criteria of the test above.
1. I almost always shoot in raw unless I'm only shooting test shots.
2. At the end of the day (or sometimes each photo session), I download the files into a folder on my local hard drive. All family photos for the month go into that folder. For special projects, like experiments, I create separate folders.  Note: I download to my hard drive because I use an external drive that's attached to a network, and for my computer system, it's noticeably slower to edit files on the network than on my local drive.  At the end of the month (or the end of a special project), after the edits are done, I move the folders to my external drive.
3. I use ViewNX2 to sort through the photos.  I rank the photos using stars.  On the first pass, I rank 1-star photos.  I apply a filter to see only the 1-star photos, then find the better ones and give them 2-stars. Etc. Until I have a manageable number of photos.  These days, I try to select only one photo per scene.
4. I use ViewNX2 to edit the raw files of the selected photos, adjusting white balance, exposure, the basic stuff.  With ViewNX2 I can now crop as well.
5. After editing the selected photos, I export them to the same folder as JPEGs.  If the photo doesn't need serious editing (like layers and removing objects), I just save to a lower-res jpeg 640x480 for web display.  If  the photo needs serious editing, I save to the full resolution with the least compression.
6. For photos that need serious editing, I edit them in Paintshop Photo Pro X3 (or Photoshop Elements 9).  I save the final product both as a Paintshop file and a copy as a JPEG, all to the same folder.
7. I launch Picasa to upload the selected photos to my Picasa web album.
8. For canned effects like vignettes, Orton effect, and collages, I edit the web album photos in Picnik and save it back to the web album.
9. I "share" the web album with my family so they get to see it.
10. I choose the photos that I think are worth showing to strangers and use Picnik to save them to my Flickr account and Facebook account.
11. If there's an interesting technique I used, I blog about the photo.
The workflow above may sound tedious because I spelled out each step but in practice it takes only a moderate amount of time.  (BTW, this also shows how much time is saved by getting a photo right "in the camera").
 
Not too long ago, I started delving into Lightroom 3 with the idea of making my workflow more efficient.  I'll write about Lightroom next.