Thoughts on Photo Management and Workflow

I developed an interest in photography around 10 years ago, starting small with an entry-level camera and upgrading over time like most people do when the interest gets greater and the ability follows. But this article is more about the software that I’ve used, or to be more precise the software I have followed during that time, and the crossroads I find myself in today.

In the beginning it was easy. I had just purchased a basic Nikon DSLR for a reasonable price to explore an itch for photography. For a long time, I’d wanted to take up photography and I’d thought that I could eventually produce a good image or two if I only had the right camera. It was easy back then, because the choice of software within my means was limited. So limited in fact, I hadn’t budgeted for software at all when I went in to this blindly, thinking a digital camera was all that was needed.

To be fair, I knew that software was necessary to process the photos. I had a Mac, how hard could it be ?

After the first few practice shots, I downloaded the files from the camera to the computer using SD card. iPhotos sprang to life and I imported the photos and fiddled around with them a little. I was on my way. Job done, no ? Well not really as I discovered later.

After a few months of taking photos, reading, exploring and learning along the way I got a little better and was enjoying it immensely. In my ignorance and my total lack of expectations of the outcome I was having ball. Why wouldn’t I be, each image was essentially free, nothing like the costs involved in doing it the old way — talking photos, taking out the roll, sending the roll of for processing, waiting, waiting some more, receiving then realising finally, that the shots you made were all awful. All the while, paying royally for the privilege.

Then my brother-in-law asked me if I’d be interested in taking a few photos for his club of trail runners. I jumped at the chance, but was fearful of the outcome, I’d never taken photos for anyone else. Still, I went for it and that first trail produced some of the best photos I’ve ever taken.

Caught in the moment, the speed, the difficult circumstances — under strong sun, in the rain, in the forest —, the photos were surprisingly good for a total begginner. That first trail produced something like 1300 photos that needed to be sorted, adjusted, cropped and tagged before being uploaded to my recently minted Flickr site.

Quick digression ; the Flickr site was setup after our island was hit by Hurricane Dean in 2006. The day after the storm, I got in my car and decided to take a tour around (where it was practically possible) to document the damage caused by Hurricane Dean, before they were erased by repairs and clearing up. My Flickr gained some attention as the world media were salivating for photos of the damage. By pure chance — being in the right (wrong ?) place at the right (wrong ?) time a photo was syndicated on AP and published in a number of newspapers.

Back to the trail photography. After the race, on a Sunday afternoon, keen to upload the photos as soon as possible, I set out to work on the mass of work before me, cursing the repetitive manual operations that were an enormous time suck. If I remember correctly I finally finished on the Wednesday night. Working my day job then coming home getting started on the photos, stopping to eat dinner, continuing in to the night for 3 days straight. I was exhausted. I vowed to fix this as soon as possible.

Being invested in the Apple ecosystem for already a decent number of years, going from a lone iPod to the array of devices I use now, it was practically a no brainer to look at Aperture. The elephant in the room was of course, Adobe, but I’ll get to that later.

Aperture was a huge investment, but I got help from a friend, installed a copy and plunged in to the application to learn how to use it. I have to say, that as a non-photographer I found the learning curve really steep. But perseverance is a powerful tool. I read profusely about Aperture, I took the excellent tutorials that were on the Apple website at the time — damn, I should have taken a copy. I spent time researching on the forums, and taking in various YouTube videos learning not only the Aperture way, but photography vocabulary that I was seriously lacking. If I’m honest, the fact that I didn’t — and still don’t to be fair — “know” photography, made the task all the more difficult. Regardless, I plugged on and setup what I thought was a decent workflow to process on mass a big volume of photos in as short time as possible. To explain, I need to explain what happens in a race like a trail, to help you get a better picture.

Each trail race has around 300 – 600 runners following a predefined path from anything around 12 to 40 Km in the monthly scheduled races. The “big” race, however, is an ultra trail, with the distance of over 100 Km. This is what my brother in law wanted photographed. 300 to 600 runners over a distance of 12 to 100 Kms in various and varying conditions. Sometimes they start early in the morning, sometimes around midday, and every now and again in the dead of the night. Every runner, wanted a photo of them in action. I apparently, agreed to this — I told you I was naive !

The first time I used Aperture following my basic workflow — Import and apply settings (a little exposure correction, a little colour correction bringing up the greens and blues, then rename the photo with an index number to help identify later on) — I cut the time down from 3 days to 1 evening to have something useable for Flickr to upload overnight. It was a miracle. I fell in love with Aperture from that day on. Tweaking the workflow now and again, adding a watermark — I discovered that one rather late — adding a very quick triage of the photos using star ratings. An import would generally take place whilst I was showering after getting home, followed by the first pass triage. I classed photos that were OK-ish 3 stars, definite keepers 4 stars, outstanding photos 5 stars (very rare) and anything else no stars, unless I wasn’t totally sure, I would give it 2 stars, just in case. This usually took 15 minutes or so.

After setting Aperture to show photos with 3 stars or above, I usually brought down the workload from around 1300 photos to something more manageable like 4 to 5 hundred. The final edit consisted of a few more adjustments and cropping. I was generally uploading that quantity to the Flickr Album I’d created for each race.

Aperture was capable, as I discovered later, of uploading directly Flickr. I’d been exporting and uploading directly to the Flickr site, silly me. I did, come to regret that in the end, as the upload functionality was in fact a synchronisation method that left a little to be desired ! I eventually purchased an Aperture plugin for Flickr and was really happy. The workflow… Well, flowed. I was a happy bunny.

Then Apple dropped the news about discontinuing Aperture. There were rumours for a while, but I was entrenched in the workflow and carried on using Aperture regardless. But I wondered what I should do when I have to make a decision ?

After a long deliberation — after all Aperture didn’t suddenly stop working after Apple announced its death, and I had photos to publish — I decided to take a serious look at Adobe Lightroom.

I’ll be honest, I’d discounted Lightroom in the begging as being too “Pro” for me and for it having a “Pro” price tag too. It must be said, I did spring for the full-price Aperture a number of months before its price reduction and was happy to pay for it, being as how it has saved me a LOT of time. However, Lightroom’s full price was out of reach for me having already spent a ton on Aperture and its plugins plus upgrades.

After a number months of research and convincing myself, I decided to abandon Aperture and get on board with Lightroom, knowing full well I would need to re-learn a lot of things and possibly entirely re-work my workflow. So I sprung for Lightroom, taking advantage of a promotional offer for the Create Cloud Photography bundle that included Photoshop and most importantly, Lightroom.

I kept Aperture there, and worked side-by-side for a number of months, before totally ditching Aperture in favour of Lightroom. It was a hard road and I’m not sure I’ve gained the same proficiency in Lightroom as I’d had with Aperture, but I’m comfortable enough and can process a lot of photos rather quickly. For example, in Aperture I used to quickly compare two very similar burst produced phots side-by-side for final selection using the star system. I’m not sure how to do that yet in Lightroom. I’ll figure it out for sure, but its not imprinted on my brain yet. I move forward/backward using the keyboard for now.

So this is all a nice story, but what about that crossroads I mentioned at the start ? Well, it seems to me that the writing is on the wall for Lightroom CC Classic, as it’s called now. Adobe seems to be keen on moving people from the on-computer processing software to its newest platform of Cloud-based photo management software, Lightroom CC.

I have taken a look at it, to be fair, it looks good and powerful with options hat can only exist in the Cloud (AI, instant availability on all devices etc.), but it seems lacking some basic functionality if I’m not mistaken. For example, a recent article I read 1 provided a table of feature comparisons, in that table I noticed that applying adjustments on import is not possible. That’s a deal breaker for me, as many hundreds of photos are shot at around the same time, all warranting the same or very similar adjustments. Currently I can select them for import and treat them in one fell swoop. There may be a better way of achieving the same goal — perhaps its possible to select hundreds (easily) and apply a preset adjustment to those photos to get the same result. I haven’t found that out yet.

So here I am, at the crossroads again. Stick with Lightroom CC Classic and await its death or jump on to the newness that is Lightroom CC ? I haven’t worked out if it’s possible to trial Lightroom CC without killing Classic — I remember a very stern warning when it was first released explaining that this was a no-going-back-switch that scared the crap out of me. If it’s possible, that’s possibly the answer. I’ve no idea yet, but I’m keeping a keen eye on developments.

I tool a brief look into Apple’s newly redesigned and completely rewritten Photos application, Photos, and was impressed with its ability to adjust photos and produce some excellent results. But a mass photo management application it is not. Severely lacking automation to help mass imports/adjustments.

What I need, it would appear, is a photo management application that is skewed towards automation and mass treatments, rather than its technical capability on one or two photos. Any advice would be most welcome for this amateur photographer.

Thank you reading this. Any feedback via Twitter (@virek) is most welcome.

You can see some of my photos on Flickr at this address. There’s a lot, so enjoy 🙂