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A Lightroom 2 workflow for the rest of us

(Welcome to readers coming via the nice link from the Lightroom team at Facebook! Consider checking out the rest of my Lightroom writing.)

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While Lightroom gets a lot of love from professionals who take a thousand photos at an event and need to manage a paying production workflow, it’s also great for enthusiast-level users like me: I usually work on the scale of a weekend’s or a trip’s worth of photos that need organization, a place to live, some pruning and keywords, and whatever sorts of RAW workup that’s necessary. Last week I wrote up a few general Lightroom tips with some vague intention of documenting a practical workflow; here are two high-level elements of my workflow: Import/File structure and metadata/keywords.

Import and file structure: I shoot in RAW and use Lightroom to import photos directly from the SD card via USB card-reader. Lightroom presents a number of options for storing those imported files: In the past I put imported photos in by-day folders, meaning one directory for each file date. So, for a handful of days’ worth of photos I’d have a hierarchy of directories like 2008-09-01, 2008-09-02, and 2008-09-03. I’ve recently switched to a storage option that, so far, I really prefer: I import photos to a single directory based on import date rather than file date, with a descriptive suffix to that directory. The nice upside to this approach is that a weeks’ worth of photos — a five-day trip somewhere, for example — all end up in a single directory, and can all be viewed and processed as a set (without having to put them all into a collection). Since Lightroom is so handy with metadata, I don’t lose anything by stepping up in granularity from by-day storage to by-import storage. Additionally, having fewer directories hanging around makes it easier both to backup and to browse my photo file tree with other applications.

Below is a screenshot to illustrate the import and directory naming stage:

Lightroom Import Dialog

On import, I assign a metadata preset and whatever keywords are applicable to the entire import set of photos.

After import is a first pass to identify picks and rejects and assign keywords, which I described last time around: Set grid mode to a large-ish preview size, and use shift-P and shift-X in grid mode to mark any clear favorites and rejects. After that pass, it’s keywording/metadata time.

  • Metadata: Lightroom has two-dozen or so non-keyword metadata fields that, frankly, I don’t have much use for. I tend to use only a few of them (in the “Image” metadata category) to assign geographic location of photos taken: I have metadata presets for common locations, and I assign the rest on an ad-hoc basis. At export time, some of this metadata is included as keywords, so my exported photos end up with, at least, city and state information attached.
  • Keywords: You can keyword forever in Lightroom. I start keywording with a single keyword set that broadly covers my most common uses (The “edit keyword set” function is accessed in the Keyword Set menu in the right-hand Keywording panel): I call this one “Common/Home”, and it contains, among other keywords, “Heather”, “dogs”, “flickr”, and “food” tags. I know the order of these tags and can quickly make assignments with alt-num combinations. With my “Common/Home” set active, alt-7 tags a photo with flickr, alt-8 with Heather, for example. Wondering what your common keywords are? Try exploring your database for common lightroom keywords, and take advantage of nested keywords and keyword hierarchies for the greatest efficiency in assigning keywords.
  • In Lightroom 2, the related keywords function adds a whole new dimension to commonly-used tags. Once you’ve assigned one or two from a preset menu (as above), you’ll get a set of keyword suggestions, as well. Lightroom 2 really does facilitate both identifying and applying keywords in a useful way.
  • On applying keywords: As with metadata, I’ve found it most useful to reduce the size of previews in the grid window and apply keywords in groups to a selected set of images first (as many as possible; ctrl-click (shift-click for a range) or shift-arrow with keyboard to select multiples), and then step through photos one-by-one, adding additional keywords as needed.
  • Lightroom lets you display keywords for a given image in a number of ways. I like to keep the keyword display set to “will export” — That’s generally the most complete display of the tags assigned to a given image, including synonyms and parents.

Possible items for next time? Super-basic RAW development, exporting, and collections: See my intro to RAW development!