Having recently spent long periods away from home generating new photographs and video content, I’ve of course been practising and refining my in-field image management workflow. I’ve tweaked a few things over the last year, so here’s an overview.
While I’m leading photography expeditions I do spend a lot of time helping people make their own photos, but I also make a lot of my own photographs. Part of what I try to do is “lead by example”. So at the end of a day I might have made anywhere between several hundred and several thousand images. Regardless, by the time I sit down with expedition participants at dinner I’ve usually done my basic processing. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is the core tool I use for this, and at the beginning of each trip I usually start a fresh catalog, which I will import into my central catalog when I return home.
Letting all this run quickly is one of the reasons I use fast card readers (Lexar readers which depending on the cards will get me 30-50 MB/s). If it’s been a busy session I might have a collection of 16 GB and 8 GB cards to import, and I use my own PteroFile software’s ingest function to allow me to copy/rename files directly to the hard drive and kick off the backups automatically. I can ingest multiple cards concurrently (although only one backup will run at a time). Once they’re all ingested (and the last backup running) I get Lightroom to import them (via the Synchronize Folder) function and start preview generation.
However this isn’t required, and even though some of the Mac users on my trips choose to use the backup component of PteroFile, it is simplest for many of them to just use Lightroom’s Import function to read in each card in turn, and just kick off a PteroFile Sync after the last card is imported. Overall the process is slower, but it works.
On ship-borne expeditions where we might have several landings per day, I’ll do this process each time I get back on board. On driving expeditions (e.g. African safaris) where we often have a morning drive and then another later in the day (or sometimes one huge day out) I’ll do this process each time I get back to camp.
So come lunch or dinner time (or anytime we have some “down” time) I should have my laptop with all my new photos imported, and know that it’s all been backed up to my main backup drive (I’ll mention an extra backup drive further below). If I need to go straight back out again and put more images onto the cards, I’m confident at that point about formatting the cards. But if I get a chance I’ll start on the image editing work.
This happens in several passes (and in no particular order). On the whole my workflow is set up so I can be interrupted at any point and smoothly resume later. This helps in the field, and it also helps at home when I’m working through a large volume of images.
(in the face of a Svalbard glacier)
My system for “star” ratings is simple, starting off with the fact that an image with zero stars has not yet been rated (rather than implying it isn’t worth any stars). 2 stars means it’s good (1 star means it might be good). 3 stars and upwards imply various levels of “better”.
If I find an image that should be deleted I just apply a “To Delete” label (red in my system) and move on to the next image. Every now and then I’ll select all the images with that label, review, and delete in a batch (this helps avoid accidental deletion).
Note that I often don’t get through rating every image during a trip. I will often come back with lots of 2-star images, many unrated, and a scattering of others. I have to have something left to do when I get home!
I’ll get Lightroom to display all the photos since my last edit (usually either by selecting date-based folders or through date-filtering the “All Photographs” collection). Because I have already generated previews for all the images, flipping through them in the Library’s Loupe mode is very fast, and I can quickly assign ratings and labels with the keyboard as I race through them. Occasionally I’ll want to zoom in to check fine detail, and that’s made much easier if I’ve let the system pre-generate 1:1 previews. And occasionally I’ll hop over to the Develop module to tune exposures and cropping (for the sake of speed it is important to switch back to the Loupe mode before continuing to the next images). In some cases I’ll make white balance adjustments and then synchronise them to multiple photos (and then I might re-generate previews) but on the whole I don’t spend a lot of time in the field fine-tuning the development of photos.
(including visible people)
(female Van der Decken’s Hornbill)
Note that I’m usually not bothered about image quality at this stage. Either I’ve already assessed this or I will get to it later. Because I’m usually applying a keyword to many selected images I’m hopefully not wasting much effort on individual keywords for images I will later delete. I am sometimes side-tracked into developing and rating particular images as I come across them, but it’s easy to get back to the job of keywording again.
Samburu Reserve, Kenya
As described above, my import process includes backing up files to an external drive. Because it’s done via file synchronisation (rather than by Lightroom making a second copy of each file) I have the choice of importing all the files without the backup drive connected, and kicking off a separate backup later (although for efficiency and to allow me to safely format cards I prefer to get the backup done early).
This backup drive is currently a rugged 1 TB drive which connects via Firewire 800, often providing 50+ MB/s transfers without putting overhead on the laptop’s processor. It includes a separate partition for OS X’s Time Machine to manage backing up the rest of the machine (everything except my media folders, Lightroom catalogs, and “scratch” folders).
Having a backup of everything provides great peace of mind, but I do go one step further. I have another drive (750 GB) which is housed in a rechargeable Nexto ND-2700 enclosure. This can be mounted via USB as an “MS-DOS” hard drive, but also provides a backup to the laptop in that I could use it to copy files directly from flash cards to the hard drive. But its main use is to hold a second backup copy of the media folders and catalogs. PteroFile is configured to update whatever backup drives are connected when it runs, so all I need to do is connect the drive and start a backup: all the new/changed files since the last backup to that drive are then copied. The USB transfer rate is typically only 12-16 MB/s, so it takes longer to update than the main backup drive, but it can run in the background while I’m working. I usually update this drive every couple of days (and especially before I embark on airplane flights, as I prefer to get a fellow traveller to carry it in their luggage for safety).
I’ll talk about the safety of redundant backups in another blog post, as there are still some easy mistakes that can be made in this area.
Other parts of the process
I haven’t talked here about the geo-coding process, but at various stages during the trip I would also download and backup the data from our GPS units, and towards the end of the trips I start applying that to the photos. I also provide GPS data to the trip participants.
After the trip
Upon return home there’s a lot of work to do, but I can almost immediately respond to the requests of friends, family, and clients who want to see images from the most-recent trip straight away.
I still have development and editing to do on many photos (including throwing away many due to subtle errors). I populate more of the metadata, using the GPS data to pull up maps of each location in order to apply appropriate locality and landmark information (we usually don’t have enough network connectivity to do this in the field). There’s also a lot more keywording that can be done on the images once I’ve edited them down to a useful set.
With 11,000+ images there’s still a lot of work to do, but at least I’ve “broken the back” of the job by the time I return.
I hope this article helps inspire some of you to review your own image-management workflow, both while on trips and while you’re at your home base. Running Lightroom on a laptop in the field can be a great enhancement to your workflow. Similar backup techniques to PteroFile Sync can be achieved with a variety of “file synchronization” software. Although the best hardware/software configuration still depends on things like your camera image size and your laptop capacity, a well-thought-out workflow can be very efficient.