Goodbye Photoshop – How Lightroom Can Make Your Life Easier

by | January 8, 2010

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2Back in the film era, when film was the only medium to capture photos and digital was still mostly avoided for various reasons, life was, relatively speaking, easier. Many hobbyists and amateur photographers were conservative about the amount of film exposed. Good slide films were expensive and developing film was even more so. This led photographers to be very selective about the number of images made, which in turn meant relatively easier sorting back at home. Most photographers were happy to get a small set of decent images which they either used for slide-shows or digitized to present as a digital slide-show. However with digital capture there is no such linear progression. Memory cards and storage media are getting cheaper every day, increasing the amount of clicks in the field and leading to more chaos. Everyone tends to think, “I’ll fix it later using Photoshop” and takes many images. Imagine a wonderful image of your kid taken this year dumped in a cryptic folder which the camera created for you. Fast forward a few years and you want to show it to your kid or relatives. Can you locate it? It is like finding a needle in a haystack – possible but very time consuming and frustrating. Enter the buzzword ‘workflow’.

“Although no longer in it’s infancy, digital imagery is still very much a child on the verge of adolescence. Like that awkward stage of growth and age, things are uncertain.”
–Christopher Robinson – Editor Digital Photo Pro

There is no established method of digital photography workflow. Different workshop presenters and book authors have different recommendations, so it can be confusing to wade through all of the various ideas of how to do things and which method is best. Having a consistent workflow can help photographers organize and edit their images efficiently. I think making photographs should be of utmost importance and we should not get obsessed with the ‘workflow’ so much that we instead spend more time in front of the computer than taking pictures in the field. While I’m certainly not an authority on the subject, I have developed a technique that works for me and hopefully can guide you in developing your own workflow. There are many raw converters and file management programs out there, but Adobe Lightroom combines best of the both worlds, so it is what I use. Anybody serious about improving their photos in the digital dark-room should own a copy of Lightroom.

Adobe® Lightroom is a powerful, easy-to-use media manager, that lets you easily organize, browse, locate, and view images in a variety of formats including JPeg, Tiff, and Raw formats. Another feature of Lightroom people tend to ignore is that it offers the ability to manage metadata and to find files by utilizing that metadata. Entire collections of photos can be created, tagged, labeled, renamed, moved, and accessed easily. File management and photo editing tasks can be automated. Photos can be processed and metadata can be modified any time you want in large batches. Metadata is applied directly to the files (or accompanying XMP files in the case of native RAW photos). This prevents transfer issues in the event that you switch computers, update your software, or even switch software as long as you have a solid workflow. In this article, I will discuss the settings and preferences in Lightroom important for digital image management.

First Steps

Consistency is the key to a productive digital photography workflow. The first step is taking the photos themselves.

Good photography starts right when you click the shutter. You should try to capture the best possible image in the field, regardless of all of the editing you can later do in Photoshop. After shooting, you must transfer your images from your memory card to your computer. This is the most vulnerable point in time when your images may get corrupted or lost due to various reasons. You should own a good recovery software just in case. Photorescue is one I personally recommend and have had good success with. You can download a trial version and see if it works for you.

Importing Images in Lightroom

If it is your first time using Lightroom, you should create a new catalog which is not residing on the installation partition. I have a catalog for each year’s shoot; all my images made in 2008 go into a catalog named as LR2_2008.lrcat. Set your preferences according to your needs, hardware capacity, and tastes. I prefer to backup my catalog every week (this option can be found under the general catalog settings). I also have Lightroom set to discard the 1:1 previews after 30 days which can be changed under file handling setting as shown in Images #1 and #2. If Lightroom is running slow, you can also make use of the ‘relaunch and optimize the catalog’ feature. I personally prefer to load the most recent catalog as I’m normally working on the current images, however you can decide to change this setting under general preferences as per your need. The next important setting is the import-setting and I check the first and the third option. The first one is useful as an import dialog is opened automatically when you plug in your memory card reader. By using the third option you make sure that the jpeg files captured by the camera are not treated as sidecar files.

Catalog Settings window

Preferences window

Edit Metadata Presets window

Before you import images to your Lightroom catalog I suggest that you create a Metadata template of your own. This is the data that you want to apply to every image. If you click on the “Metadata” drop-down menu a dialog will pop-up that contains empty fields for all of the IPTC, Exif, and other metadata. Only IPTC fields are important to photographers. To create the template, which is called Preset in Lightroom terminology, simply fill in the parts that you’d like to be applied to EVERY photo you import. This is mostly your name, address, email, phone, website, and copyright info. Most of the other fields will vary from photo to photo. Then give this preset a name (I call this “basic PrK Copyright”) and save it (see Image #3 above).

Photo summary window

Now you are ready to import your images into Lightroom. Connect your card reader to your computer. If you have changed the settings to those I suggested above, Lightroom should detect the card reader. You’ll need to choose the source location of the photos in the upper drop-down menu. Using the dialog (Image #4) you can rename your images, copy them to a backup drive (preferably an external hard drive), and convert the images to Digital Negative (DNG) Format. I personally do not convert my images to DNG as I also use other raw converters (such as Nikon’s Capture NX) to process some of my images, however it will be no suprise if this format becomes standard in the future. In any case I recommend leaving the raw files as is for now. Working with the raw files is relatively faster and once you do your initial editing, labeling and other standard adjustments you can then convert your files to DNG as an archival format if you so desire. As shown in the flowchart (Image #5), I copy my files to a folder on my PC and also back them up on the external drive. After initial edits, labeling, and renaming, both of these folders are updated and an archival copy is created on a DVD.

Memory card diagram

As mentioned earlier you can create folders and rename your images when importing. I personally use the Bucket System as per the advice of Peter Krogh, author of The DAM Book. I have customized it a bit to suit my own workflow. You can think of your own modifications. I highly recommend this book to anybody serious about digital image management. For my own workflow, I create a folder which reads something like this – YYMMDD_DVD_RAW_XX. The first string is the database style date, third is the format of images sitting in the folder (and subfolders), and last string is the number of a DVD. This way my folders are lined up in order. I keep the same structure of folders for my master files (Tiffs or PSDs). I also make sure that this folder fits on one DVD. During the import I use a preset for the folder name where the last two strings are replaced by DVD number and the first one is the date.

This brings us to the file names. Many people keep their file names very simple, something like Paris_001. I was also doing this for a long time.

“Each image file should get a unique filename. This helps in all sorts of ways, from preventing accidental overwriting, to assisting in any client communications about the files, to archive reconstruction. Using the date taken as part of the filename is probably the easiest method of making sure that you do not give a file a name that has already been given to another image.”
–Peter Krogh – The DAM Book

Since reading The DAM Book, I have switched from using simple filenames to the following renaming method which works for me. I rename all my files using a custom preset which reads like this – “CT_YYMMDD_ZZZ.NEF” (or CR2, etc.). The first string is the custom text which includes my initials and a unique pointer such as name of the place, event, or person, second string is the database style date, and the last is the unique number. All the derivative files get the same name. So for example, a studio shoot done with a model Tanita, on 1st July 2008 will get a name like this – PrK_Tanita_080701_001.NEF, file for web will read like PrK_Tanita_080701_001.jpg, and the master file will read like PrK_Tanita_080701_001.psd. This way if a client decides to order a print of that image, I know exactly which one to print.

When importing a set of images, you should apply the metadata preset as described earlier and a generic set of keywords. For example, if you are doing a studio shoot the obvious keywords are the name of the model, date, location, and generic keywords such as studio, glamour etc. You can also save these keywords as sets in Lightroom. When importing, I keep “initial preview” to minimal as I may delete some of the files during editing. Also make sure to copy your photos to an external hard drive during the import process. Once this is done delete all the files from the memory card and reformat the card inside camera.

Sorting in Lightroom

Now comes the important and often difficult part of the editing process when you want to cut down your collection of 100 photos to maybe 5 or 10 select images. There are various ways to sort images using Lightroom. You can give a star rating, make use of color labels, or flag the images. I started with the use of star rating as it seemed very intuitive in the beginning. However I ended up more than 1000 images in my library and only more confusion. I now prefer to use flags and collections for the initial edits. I use full-screen+dim mode (Shortcut – Shift+Tab, and then two ‘L’ key strokes) for the initial edits. Any image which is an obvious reject due to bad focus, exposure errors etc get reject-flag (Shortcut – X), images which I like get selected as a pick (Shortcut – P), and the images I’m not sure about do not get any flags. Then I make use of the library filter and all the select-flagged images go into an appropriate collection, rejects are deleted immediately (Shortcut – Ctrl+Backspace).

Prashant Khapane Photography Lightroom screenshot

Collections are a powerful feature of Lightroom. For each catalog I create four collection sets and name them as 001_Landscapes, 002_Travelscapes, 003_Studio, and 004_PersonalImages (Image #6). I can sort my images into the collections under these sets easily. For example, landscape images made in Bayerischer Wald National Park in 2008 go into a collection called as Bayerischer Wald residing in the 001_Landscapes collection set. You can do this task easily by using drag and drop function for the select images which are picked.

Another neat way to sort your images into collections is to right click a collection you have made and set it as the target collection. Now filter your images and select them using the Ctrl+A shortcut and move them into this collection (Shortcut – B). All your images will be moved in to this collection.

Edit Color Label Set window

Once this is done then the next round of selection starts. I often make use of the survey feature (Shortcut – N) for similar images and decide which ones are the best. While doing this I keep on pressing the ‘5’ key (Shortcut – to assign a 5 star rating to those images). These are my best images from a shoot. I often end up with about 10% of the total shoot this way. These are my keepers. All the images in a collection get specific keywords, tonal corrections, and contrast enhancements. I then move on to make use of color labels in Lightroom. Image #7 shows how I use color labels. If I’m happy with an image then it gets a green label ( Shortcut – 8), if it needs any further enhancement then it gets a blue label (Shortcut – 9), and if I want to see how my image might look if processed using another converter like Nikon Capture NX then it gets a purple color label. This is also the reason that I do not convert my raw files to DNG, yet. There is not shortcut for this label so I can not accidentally assign this label to any image. I can now filter this collection for only the 5 star rated images to show my clients, make prints, or present on the web. Once this is done all the changes are reflected on the external hard drive, a copy of the raw files folder (YYMMDD_RAW_DVD_XX) is made on a DVD along with the side car file residing in the same folder, this DVD gets a name in YYMMDD_RAW_DVD_XX format and is stored safely. Once a week all the raw and master files are copied to the second hard drive (offsite) using a tool like SyncToy. This way I can be sure that my images are safe.


Lightroom is an easy to use, photographer friendly tool, that allows photographers simplify their workflow through its many organizing and editing features. In future Lightroom software updates, I hope issues like handling multiple catalogs will be addressed, and that metadata handling will get a module of its own, to make Lightroom even more efficient and user friendly. Many professional photographers are long time users of Lightroom and are very happy with it.

The most important advantage of having a good workflow is the ability to find the image when you need it. If you can not find a particular photograph when your client wants it, the image has no value however fine it may be. Using my methods, I have found Lightroom to be an invaluable tool for digital image management, but my tips are meant to serve as a guide, not a rule to using this powerful piece of software. I recommend you play around with Lightroom’s features and develop your own workflow that best suits your needs.

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