Digital Imaging Workflow

Back in the film days, people would shoot through a roll of film, bring it to the lab and get their slides developed. Then, if they wanted a print, they would bring the slide back to the lab to have a print made. This process was repeated over and over again, until digital came along.

Currently, we are smack dab in the middle of the digital age, and cameras are only getting more advanced and offering photographers both more features and larger file sizes. This is great in many ways as it allows us to get higher quality images and use them in more applications than ever before.

This advancement in digital technology does however have some drawbacks, especially when it comes to the computer power needed to process these files and the order in which the process is done. I remember when I first started shooting with a Canon 10D (in 2003). It was around the time that I really started getting into photography and began helping out around the school more. I was using Photoshop 7, which was quite different than Photoshop is today.

These days, we need to develop a workflow that makes editing simple and efficient. Most photographers prefer to spend their time photographing rather than spending hours behind the computer editing and sorting their images. Having an inefficient workflow strategy can significantly increase your time behind a computer.

I hear a lot of people tell me that they can’t find any of their images after they import them into the computer, that they disappear into a “black hole” after they hit the import button. Workflow can help with this as well, if you are always sending images to the same place on your computer, you will always know where to go to find them.

Workflow starts in the camera, when you first click the shutter and it ends with output, when your photo finally reaches a printed page, website or slideshow. The steps in between are determined by the type of photography that you are interested in and the software that you choose to sort and edit your images. The workflow for a portrait photographer is much different that that of a landscape or adventure photographer. Many travel photographers will photograph for weeks without even looking at their images, because space and size limitations don’t allow them to travel with a laptop.

After you have taken the images, the first step is to import your images into your computer. This can be done a number of ways. If you are a studio photographer, shooting with your camera tethered to your computer will allow you to show the client a sample photo instantly on your computer screen, while you continue to shoot. If you are a landscape photographer it isn’t reasonable to bring your computer with you into the field, so most likely you will use a card reader to download your images when you return from the field.

The stage where you are importing files is where many people get flustered. They don’t know where to put their images on their computer and they don’t want to forget where they saved them. I would recommend storing your images on an external hard drive to help keep clutter off of your internal drive, on my drives I have one folder that is called “photos,” on which my images are broken down by the date that I shot them (in the format year-month-day, which makes it easier for computers to keep them organized) and a few well-chosen words describing what the shoot was. Something like:  “2012-02-20 Snowshoeing Trip” is perfect, that way the computer will keep your images in chronological order and you will be able to tell what you shot on that day. It’s all pretty simple, you just need to fall into a rhythm as you import your images, there are lots of software programs out there that help make this process easier, and some will even do it all for you!


Here at RMSP we start all of our Workshop and Career Training students out by using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, a program that helps the photographer along all stages of their editing workflow, from import to export. Lightroom will actually make the dated folders for you, and all you need to do is add the few descriptive words about the file.

After I have my images imported, the next stage in my workflow would be to organize and sort the keepers, and delete the bad images. This is pretty easy to accomplish through most software programs, which offer the photographer flags, stars, colors or other ways to denote the images that you wish to hold on to, or delete. The amount of images that you keep totally depends on what type of photographer you are, I happen to be a heavy editor of my images, so I will only hold onto the best images from a shoot, but many photographers keep almost everything.

The next stage of the process is the “manipulation” or “editing” phase, in which you make any changes that you deem appropriate for your images. This depends entirely upon your personal choices about image manipulation. The choices are endless and it really comes down to comfort level with editing software and with what you want to accomplish in the end. Programs like Lightroom and Photoshop are complex and difficult to learn on your own.  I have found that it is much easier to learn how to use these programs in a classroom setting, where a teacher at the front of the room can make the changes to the images while you follow along on your own computer. To me, editing is the most fun part of the workflow, it’s a chance for you to take your images and transform them into the way you want them to look, whether that’s accurate to what your eye saw when you shot the image, or something completely different. You have all of the control.

When you’re done editing, all that’s left is to “output” the images somewhere. Many photographers will make prints, post photos to their website or simply let them sit on their computers for their own enjoyment. It’s up to you.

Throughout your workflow, it’s of critical importance that you keep backing up your images on another external hard drive (preferably TWO other drives) to prevent losing your images. I have seen too many people who lose everything because they neglected to keep an active backup of their images. It is one of the most important things you can do as a photographer. It’s as simple as dragging all of your images over to an external hard drive once a week to ensure that they are located in more than one place at a time. There is also a way to automate this process and let your computer remember to do your image back up. Computers make mistakes and crash sometimes, it’s important to protect your images!

Every photographer has a different workflow, something that works for his or her type of photography and their shooting style. It is something that is developed over years of shooting. You want be able to find the “perfect” workflow right away, it takes time to find something that works for you and is fast and efficient.

3 thoughts on “Digital Imaging Workflow

TJ Rohyans

Well written Forest. I have a question about exporting to an external hard drive. I just recently started doing that, but I notice that I no longer have the advantage of a thumbnail image in those files like I did when they were in the “My Photos” folder on my computer hard drive. Is there a way to get those thumbnails to appear?

Forest Chaput

Thanks! I don’t quite understand what you mean…Do you meant that you moved the images to your external HD within LR, and know there aren’t any preview thumbnails for the files?

Lightroom for Photographers : Paper Airplanes

[…] I realize every photographer has their own, unique workflow and way of accomplishing tasks when it comes time to wrangle images on the ‘ol computer, but i’m sure I am not alone when I say that it’s almost hard to remember what that workflow was like before Adobe came out with Lightroom. Personally, I admit to being skeptical and nervous about embracing it when it first stepped on the scene. Now, I actually get excited to sit down at my computer to simply look through images or to perform semi-extensive edits to a file or group of files. Lightroom simply makes working with your images enjoyable. In case you missed it earlier in the week, Forest Chaput de Saintonge posted a really good overview of his digital imaging workflow. You can read it here. […]

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