My Lightroom Workflow

Hi Folks:

There are a number of different tutorials and videos available regarding Lightroom workflow; I’ve learned from several of them and have incorporated them into my own way of doing things.  You can find some of these tutorials through our ‘Lightroom Links‘ post.  Many people seem to ‘focus’ (pun intended) on Lightroom’s ability to render RAW files into usable digital images, but of course it does much more than that.  At its heart, Lightroom is a database, a way of cataloguing and organizing one’s digital library.  Used well, Lightroom makes it easy to discover, sort and group one’s images in a meaningful way.  You can read more on that in our ‘Should I Get Lightroom or Photoshop or…?‘ post.

Before I begin discussing my workflow, I wanted to mention a few personal preferences:

First, the central structure of Lightroom is the catalogue, and so for me it makes sense to keep my catalogue in the same place I store my images. I use Windows 7, so I store my images in the “My Pictures” (C:\Users\(me)\My Pictures) folder.  The Lightroom catalogue is stored in a Lightroom subfolder in that location.  That means Lightroom previews and catalogue backups are also stored there.

Second, the default location for Lightroom presets is something like C:\Users\(me)\AppData\Local\Adobe\… That location may be intuitive to someone, but it isn’t to me.  However, in Lightroom under Edit/Preferences (Lightroom/Preferences for Mac) there’s a checkbox to store the presets with the catalogue.  That means all of my various presets and plugins are also stored in My Pictures\Lightroom\Settings\…  I see two benefits to this.  For one, everything is in one location, and a location where I can easily find everything.  For another, by backing up the ‘My Pictures’ folder I back up everything related to my images and Lightroom.  I’ve read about people using one program to import their files, one to organize them and then using Lightroom as a Raw converter/processing engine, but that’s far too much trouble for me.  I like simplicity.

Update: I’m adding an extra paragraph to this post to insert a little extra clarification regarding storing presets, etc. with the Lightroom catalogue.  By default, when you create a new Lightroom catalogue it wants to put the .lrcat file and related files in its own subfolder.  Therefore, if I was to create a new catalogue called ‘Test’, Lightroom would create a C:\Users\(me)\My Pictures\Lightroom\Test folder and put the Test.lrcat file, the Test Previews.lrdata file and the Lightroom Settings folder in the Test folder.  What this means is that any custom presets, templates, plugins, etc. used with that catalogue would be in C:\Users\(me)\My Pictures\Lightroom\Test\Lightroom Settings\… and unavailable for other catalogues.  Now, I only have one Lightroom catalogue per version of the software, but since we’re on Lightroom 5 now it would mean five sets of presets, templates, keywords, etc.  Far too complicated for me.  So, what I do is after creating a catalogue (the Test catalogue here), I go into Windows Explorer, select the Test.lrcat and the Test Previews.lrdata files and move them up one level to the C:\Users\(me)\My Pictures\Lightroom folder.  I then delete the C:\Users\(me)\My Pictures\Lightroom\Test folder completely.  Now I only have my catalogues and preview files, etc. all in one folder, but they have different names, so it’s not a problem.  It also means I have one tree with C:\Users\(me)\My Pictures\Lightroom\Lightroom Settings so I only have one set of presets, templates, plugins, keywords, etc. available to every catalogue.

Speaking of backups, I have Lightroom set to backup my catalogue weekly.  NB: Doing so does not back up your images files. You have to do that separately.  I use Syncback to back up my entire hard drive regularly, and also to back up just the ‘My Pictures’ folder.  While Lightroom will, if asked, back up the catalogue, there’s no facility within Lightroom to remove old backups.  There is  however a way around it, as covered in our ‘Deleting Old Lightroom Backups‘ post.

Third, under the Lightroom’s Catalog Settings/Metadata there’s an option to ‘Automatically write changes to XMP’.  Some might see this facility as a double-edged sword.  If you don’t know what that option means or how to use it… a digital image consists loosely of two parts.  One part is the visual information and the other is the metadata.  Metadata is information about the image, and can include file resolution, camera, lens, exposure and location information, copyright information, keywords, etc.  Lightroom never alters the original images it works with; everything is completely non-destructive.  Because of that, any changes that would be made are written as metadata to the file and that information is used when the image is exported from Lightroom.  Now, with RAW files, the metada is written into a separate text file called a .xmp file.  With .dng and .jpg files, the metadata is stored in the image file itself. By default Lightroom stores all metadata changes only within its catalogue, but there’s an option to either manually or automatically write this information out to the files themselves.  Doing it automatically means that your metadata is automatically backed up, but if you’re doing something intensive in Lightroom it can slow things down as Lightroom is writing out metadata changes.  For more on this and what the options and trade-offs are, please read our ‘Lightroom, File Management and Metadata‘ post.

Okay… working with Lightroom begins by importing images into the Lightroom catalogue.  Importing is actually a bit of a misnomer, because what you’re actually doing is creating links in the Lightroom database (catalogue) that point to where each image is stored on whatever drive(s) you’re using.  In the Import window the left side is devoted to where the images are coming from, the top is devoted to what you want to do with them, the right panel is devoted to where you want them to go, and the bottom is pretty much devoted to presets.  In some cases presets are a good thing, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.  The ‘From’ part is usually the CF, SD or similar card from the camera.  NB:  While it is possible to connect your camera directly to your computer using a USB cable, unless you do a VERY small amount of shooting, do yourself a favour and buy a dedicated card reader.  If you shoot a lot onto multiple cards, get two card readers and use them both at once.  If you’re importing (or exporting) a lot of images at once, it can actually be more efficient to do multiple simultaneous imports/ exports.  For more on this, please read our Import/ Export Tips for Lightroom post.

You have four choices as to what you want to do with your images: Add, Move, Copy or Copy as DNG.  They’re pretty self explanatory, so we’ll  leave them there.  In the right panel at the top, Lightroom wants to know (if you’re using move or copy), where you want these images to go.  This is where the file organization really begins.  I don’t shoot professionally, so I have my folder structure sorted first by camera, then by overall location, then by year and then by month.  Therefore, images I shot this month using my walkaround camera – the Fuji FinePix s1500fd – will go into the folder: My Pictures\Fuji FinePix\Victoria\2011\March 2011.  Depending on what and how you shoot you can pick a system that works for you, but be consistent.  Since I live in Victoria and do most of my photography here at the moment, Victoria serves as an umbrella folder of sorts.  I’ll separate images made at Christmas Hill from images made at Oak Bay Native Plant Garden using keywords.  There is a facility to copy images to a second location on import, but I don’t do that.  I save backups until after I’ve sorted through the files and culled them.

The next item is file renaming.  Keeping my Fuji as an example, the images are named DSCFxxxx.jpg.  Some people get really fancy with file naming; I don’t.  However, I am aware that with the original naming structure, after DSCF9999.jpg the camera is going to revert to DSCF0000.jpg again and I don’t ever want to have two images with the same name.  Therefore I created a file renaming structure that added a ‘1’ to the front.  Therefore, after DSCF9999.jpg I went to DSCF10000.jpg  After DSCF19999.jpg I went to DSCF20000.jpg.  I haven’t yet gotten any farther than that.  My cell phone camera is a bit different, using a naming structure that uses the date and the time down to the second.  That’s a little too picky for me, so I rename my cell phone camera images with a date-sequence  filename as, say 2011-03-22-1.jpg.  Unfortunately, Lightroom increments the sequence no matter the date, so 2011-03-18-12 is followed by 2011-03-19-13 rather than 2011-03-19-1.  I could get around that by separating the images into subfolders based on date, but I shoot so few images with my camera phone it’s easier to re-sequence them later.  As long as each image has a unique file name, I don’t really much care as more definition comes from the metadata.

I set basic metadata for each image on import, including my name, copyright and licensing information, etc.  I also assign basic keywords at this point.  Images going into the above mentioned folder for example will have the keywords of March, 2011, BC, British Columbia, Victoria and Vancouver Island.  If all of the images in one import sequence have something in common – location for example, I’ll add that in on import.  Otherwise I do it later.

Finally, I create import presets for each month.  This specifies the file destination, the file renaming, the metadata and the keywords, so instead of having to set these parameters each time, I just use the March 2011 import preset.  Next month I’ll change the folder location, change March to April in the keywords and make an April 2011 preset.

Now, once the images have been imported (and I have Lightroom set to render standard previews on import), I’m ready to begin looking at my images and culling out the ones I won’t keep.  Well, the first round of those, anyway.  When you import images into Lightroom they will be moved or copied to the destination specified, or added to the catalogue while leaving the images at their current location.  While the images are added to the appropriate folder, they’re also stored (temporarily) in a collection called ‘Previous Import’.  This is what you first see when the import is complete.

From here I do two things.  First, I select the first image and press the ‘E’ key; this presents a single image (Loupe view) rather than a grid of images.  Second, I turn on the ‘Caps Lock’ key.  Lightroom recognizes three image classifications – Picks, Unmarked and Rejects.  You can label your images in this way using the ‘P’, ‘U’ and ‘X’ keys.  That’s one key too many as far as I’m concerned at this point, so I only use the P and U keys.  Turning on the ‘Caps Lock’ key is an auto advance, so when I select P or U for the first image, it will automatically display the next image.  To go back I use the left/right arrow keys  By viewing the image in Loupe view I can deal with that image alone, and I can also zoom in on it if I need to by clicking on it.  By zooming in/out and by pressing P or U I can quickly sort through my images.  What about rejects you ask?  That comes next.  Using the Library/ Refine Photos command converts all of the ‘Pick’ images to ‘Unmarked’ images, and all of the ‘Unmarked’ images to ‘Reject’ images.

That’s the first level of organization.  From there, my workflow depends on the images I’ve just imported.  If there are a number of images made in one location or with encompassing keywords, I’ll select them all and add those keywords to them.  Keywords that are specific to a given image I don’t add until after the image has been through the Develop module.  I don’t see a point in keywording images that may yet be culled.  If there are two nearly identical images, I’ll select them both, use the ‘C’ key to open the ‘Compare’ view and select the best one.  The other gets rejected.  Coming from the film era where image storage requires physical space, I tend to be ruthless with my images.  I’ve read about people who have tens and hundreds of thousands of images in their Lightroom catalogues.  Some of them are professionals who shoot a lot more images than I do for assignments.  The others are either much better at photography than I am or much less careful in their considerations.  To each his or her own, but I’d rather have ten really good images than a thousand that barely make the grade.

Continuing on, if I have groups of images made for HDR or panoramic images, I’ll stack them by shift-selecting the images and pressing Ctrl/Cmd-G.  I do use both the star ratings and the colour labels, but in part that waits for processing.  Images that I think are good enough to keep I award three stars.  Images that I really like I award four stars.  I’ve yet to award five stars to an image.  Rarely will I award an image two stars, and only as a means of separating it from the others.  I tend to use the blue colour label to designate images yet to be processed, and images that I’ve processed and that I’m going to upload to Flickr I mark with a purple label.  I use Jeffrey Friedl’s Flickr upload plugin, and I have two collections within that.  One is the Flickr Upload collection of images that have been and need to be uploaded, and the other is a smart collection that filters on the purple colour label.  This collects all of the ‘to be uploaded’ files in a separate group, and I can choose 5 or 10 of those to upload and drag them to the other collection.  Before uploading to Flickr I’ll give each image a title and a caption and add image-specific keywords.

Sometimes I’ll use other colour labels for specific tasks – for example, if I create several panoramas or HDR composites and import them all into Lightroom at the same time, I’ll add a yellow or green colour label so that they stand out in the Grid among the other files.  When I create panoramic or HDR images I also add to the file name of the last image in the group used to create the composite image.  For panoramas I add a ‘-PAP’ extension to the file name, and for HDR images I add a -‘blend’ extension.  I’ll add a keyword for the number of images used to create that file, then delete the originals.  I use both the filter bar at the top and standard/smart collections to search for specific images or groups of images, and it’s here where the metadata – keywords, colour labels and star ratings come into play.  By having a good structure of information I can find what I need fairly quickly.  Smart Collections have other uses too – such as a collection of unprocessed images, a collection of images without keywords, only HDR or panoramic images, etc.  I also have a smart collection of images of Marcia, but I’m biased.

As far as the Develop module, I’m only going to mention one thing.  I do use Develop presets on some of my images, and for setting White Balance for example they can be quite handy.  I sometimes use presets as ideas when I’m not sure how to process an image, but I am wary of the fact that if I invest too much time trying to make an image look good, it’s time to delete and move on.  For me, develop presets are like scaffolding; they surround and support the structure, but they’re not the final product.  If I start using presets to ‘standardize’ the look of my images, then I’m not being creative.  Each image is unique, and I don’t rubber stamp them.  If I started doing that it would be time to quit photography.  Instead, I may begin with a preset, form an idea, and then tweak things from there.

That’s an overview of my Lightroom workflow.  It’s longer than I had anticipated writing, and I’m sure yours is different and uniquely yours.

Now go out and make some photographs!


P.S. You can find more of our posts on photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find links to over 200 other sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

6 Replies to “My Lightroom Workflow”

  1. ned

    Interesting tips Mike, it would be nice to get more explanation on how the P U & X keys are used after you've sorted them all, where the photographs with the X are actually discarded to, and a bit more explanation on the starring and how those are sorted across libraries.

    Otherwise, great writeup, it's always great to hear somebody elses workflow!

    1. wolfnowl Post author

      Hi Ned, and thanks for dropping by! Let's see now, to answer your questions, you might want to start by reading another blog post we did on Lightroom, File Management and Metadata. Now, Lightroom is essentially a database program, and a database program is a way of storing, sorting and analyzing information – digital images in this case. To that end, when you press the P (pick), U (unpick, or 'normal') or X (rejected) keys, all you're doing is adding a bit of information to the database that relates to each image. This information is stored only within the database itself, and isn't attached to the files themselves. The same holds true for star values and other ways of organizing images in Lightroom. Now, marking an image with a star, a flag, etc. is like attaching a coloured Post-It note to a print; it's a reference value only. You can put all of the red Post-Its in one pile and all of the blue Post-Its in another. Of course, being digital information the methods of filtering, etc. are a little more robust. You can view only rejects, only picks, only unmarked images or any combination thereof. Actually Jeffrey Friedl just developed a new plugin for LR that slices and groups metadata 109 different ways, but we're getting off topic.

      Now, marking an image as rejected doesn't 'do' anything to the image. If you want to actually delete your rejects you can go to Photo/Delete Rejected Photos… When you do so, you have two options. You can either remove the images from the Lightroom catalog (but keep them stored on your hard drive or wherever they reside) or you can delete them completely. Removing an image only remove the pointer that LR has in its database as to where an image resides, and deleting it, well, it does just that. If you accidentally delete images from LR, you might want to read: Help! I Deleted My Lightroom Images!!

      In LR 3.x things like Pick flags were local to folders or collections, but in LR 4 the Adobe folks made them universal throughout the catalog.

      I trust that answers your questions!


      1. nedkk


        Thanks so much for this, helps out a whole bunch in getting a better understanding of the Lightroom organization tools. I think a problem will come for me when I'm working on files stored on a external usb drive. For if I run Lightroom without that drive connected, it might cause some errors. BUT, as you said, that's an entirely different topic, and what I wanted to know was what exactly all that XPU and star labeling can do.

        I will check out the other article now, and thank you very much for the time you've taken to reply.

        1. wolfnowl Post author

          You're most welcome! Thanks again for dropping by our little corner of the 'net, and thanks especially for letting me know! BTW, you can store your images on an external drive but it's best to map the drive so that it always has the same drive letter when mounted. If you disconnect the drive Lightroom will display a '?' in the corner of each image saying that it's lost the link to the image locations but they can be relinked when the drive is reconnected.



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