Instant feedback has been the dream of photographers since, well, forever. Musicians hear their work as they play; painters and illustrators see theirs unfold on the page as they apply strokes with brush or pen; but photographers waited for film processing. Polaroid photography meant waiting too. That Polaroid instant was actually Polaroid minutesusually one and a half to five minutes or more to see a print that came with the explanation to the client, Dont worry, the real film wont look like that.
Instant feedback was the holy grail of photography. Digital capture is the apple of the modern photographers eye, if for no other reason than the results are displayed in near real time. Fast feedback comes at a cost, though, and it takes a good bit of the shine off of the digital apple. Todays digital photographers have to do their own lab work just as they did in the days of black-and-white film. They can no longer hand off the heavy lifting to a photo lab, so the word workflow has become a hot topic.
In photography, workflow is simply managing digital photographs effectively and efficiently. The best part of it all is that managing all that data will never be harder than it is today. And with a little polish in all the right places, its not very hard now.
THE TYPICAL WORKFLOW
Every time the shutter release button is pressed, the camera records a bunch of megabytes that comprise the photograph. These are either shot directly into a computer or more commonly stored on CompactFlash or SmartMedia cards. Later, the cards are downloaded to the computer. Either way, the digital images wind up on a hard drive. The photographs get seen once, a few are emailed, then more often than not, theyre left floating somewhere on a hard driveforgotten, maybe merely misplaced at best, or lost forever when the drive ultimately fails.
This is not a pretty picture. Its every bit as bad as it sounds. And its even more common than anyone wants to believe. There are literally billions of digital photographs awaiting their extinction as hard drives stutter and die. These photographs made of ones and zeros stored on hard drives are the only memories of the first generation to use digital cameras.
EIGHT STEPS TO NIRVANA
As bad as the mental image of a failed hard drive is, its also easily fixed by following a photographic management system or workflow. The basic steps are: (1) Shoot the photographs. (2) Download the files onto two separate hard drivesa temporary backup drive and an external online digital negative archive. (3) Rename the files, add information to them, and enhance them on the archive hard drive. (4) Burn them to an optical disc, usually a DVD. (5) Copy the first DVD using another burner to a second DVD. (6) Make an editable Photoshop JPEG proof from every file on the copied DVD. (This helps determine if the files are good, and if every file on the second DVD is good, then this indicates that every file on the first DVD and on the working hard drive is good as well.) (7) Once the proofs are made, the second hard drive can be erased and the media card can be reformatted. (8) Store one DVD locally and store the other in a safe, secure offsite location.
Thats it. Thats all there is to it; eight simple steps for archiving your digital photographs. Now lets take a closer look at each step of the workflow.
ALWAYS THREE COPIES
The first step is the fun one. Its where every photographer is happiestbehind the camera, eye pressed against the viewfinder, making amazing photo after amazing photo. Occasionally, of course, the photographer does glance at the cameras LCD monitor just to be sure. Thats the instant feedback part.
The second step is to simply make a copy of the files from the card to a couple of external hard drives. There are now three copies of the photographs: one on the card and one on each of the two hard drives. Try to use an external hard drive for storing digital negatives rather than on a drive inside a computer. If the computer has to be serviced, the photographs are still available for use on another machine. Photo Mechanic from www.camerabits.com is a great tool for copying from a flash card to two separate hard drives at the same time. When the copying finishes, the card is unmounted automatically.
RENAME, ADD METADATA, ENHANCE
Once the photographs are on the primary hard drive and backed up to a second, the temptation to start choosing the heroes and working in Photoshop is almost overwhelming. Resistance to temptation at this point is key. These next steps ready the images to be permanently archived. The stage is also set for sharing them with clients, as well as finding the images in the future.
Managing digital photography wasnt particularly difficult in Adobe Photoshop CS, but Photoshop CS2 and Adobe Bridge have made it even easier. Renaming the files, adding metadata, and enhancing them are all done using Adobe Bridge, the File Browser on steroids that installs with Photoshop CS2.
Whats in a name?
My photographic management begins with a file structure within the digital negative archive drive. I call it the archive drive because every folder in it represents a DVD archive disc. The folder name is also part of the cataloging and retrieval of digital photography.
The folders name is a serial number followed by a description of the shoot. The serial number is a critical component of the file structure. It represents a specific project, event, job, portfolio shoot, or even family photographs. Everything I shoot gets a project name that I keep track of in a spreadsheet.
The serial number keeps the folders in sequence on the hard drive. Job envelopes labeled with the same information as the folders name are filed numerically as well. These envelopes contain the studio copy of the archive DVD as well as other physical artifacts from a projectreceipts, brochures, signed change orders, and model releases. The offsite DVD archive discs are stored in DJ boxes, also organized by the project serial number.
The name given a digital photograph by the camera is nothing short of completely uselessimg-0431.NEF, for instance. Give me a break. On the other hand, so is the I-gotta-cram-everything-I-know-about-the-photograph-into-its-name-and-who-cares-if-it-takes-up-half-a-page-per-shot? school of renaming. There is a better way.
Digital photographs are named first with the project serial number followed by a dash then the image sequence number and finally its extension, for example, 2280-0681.NEF. The dash differentiates the project number from the image number for the computer. Computers are completely literal. A search for project 0003 will result in all of the photographs from project 0003 and every image numbered 0003 from all of the rest of the projects. When searching for a project, simply include the dash in the search criteria, as in 0003-, to find the images just from that project.
Cataloging software like iView MediaPro (www.iview-multimedia.com) or Extensis Portfolio (www.extensis.com) adds the folder name to searchable fields along with each image name (remember, the folder name contains a description of the shoot). So photos for my friend Starrs birthday can be found by looking for the project number, her name, or just the word birthday. The computer will dutifully return every folder that has the chosen criteria.
Make a personal metadata template
Meta means after. Metadata is information added to a digital photograph after it has been captured. The camera adds EXIF metadata, which includes exposure information, focal length of the lens, creation date, and even the photographers name if it has been entered into the camera.
The most important metadata that supports finding photography in cataloging software is added after the files are renamed. First, create a base metadata template in Photoshop. Start by making a new file named: (Your Name) Metadata Template (Year). The size of the file doesnt matter. Set the resolution at 72 pixels per inch. Choose RGB for the Color Mode, White for the Background Contents, and click OK.
Choose File Info from Photoshops File menu (the keyboard shortcut is Command-Option-Shift-I [PC: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-I]). Fill in your Copyright Notice and the URL of your website in the Description category pane. Leave the Copyright Status as Unknown. Next, click on the IPTC Contact panel on the left of the dialog, and fill in all of the information requested. Finally, click on IPTC Status. Fill in the Rights Usage Terms. Notice that the Copyright Notice has already been filled in with the information you entered in the Description pane.
Click the flyout menu in the upper-right corner of the File Info dialog. Choose Save Metadata Template. In the resulting dialog, name the template (your name) metadata (year), and click Save. Click OK in the File Info dialog. Now save the file that you just added your file info to. You can use this file to add a metadata template to another computer by opening the file in Photoshop, choosing File>File Info, then clicking the dialogs flyout menu and saving it as a new template.
Now lets add our metadata template to a group of photos. In Adobe Bridge, open a folder of digital photographs that youve already renamed as described above. Press Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to select them all. Click on the Metadata tab. Click on the flyout menu triangle in the upper-right corner of the palette, select Append Metadata, and choose your template.
In the resulting dialog, check Dont Show Again, then click Yes. All of your base metadata appears in the IPTC fields of the Metadata tab. Next, in the Title field add the name of the folder in which the photos reside. In the Description field, fill in a generic description that pertains to all of the photographs. Finally, fill in the Location, City, State/Province, and Country fields for where the photographs were taken. Press Enter to apply the metadata to the selected photos.
Press Command-Shift-A (PC: Ctrl-Shift-A) to deselect all the images. The Metadata palette is now empty. From this same folder of images to which you just added metadata, select a group of photos that share similarities. Click the Description field. The information already there is highlighted. Click at the right end of the highlight, press the Spacebar, and add the additional description information. A word of caution: If a field displays the words Multiple Values, dont add anything. Multiple values means that at least one image in the selection has different information than the others. Adding data to a multiple values field overwrites everything for that field for the selected photographs. Continue filling in information until every photograph has been described. The metadata added here is invaluable when it comes to finding exactly where the original photograph is in an archive.
Enhancing digital negatives
More and more photographers are embracing the power of RAW capture and the ease of the RAW workflow. What did you say? Its easy? Yep. I did. Follow along.
Click on the folder of digital negatives that youve renamed and updated with pertinent metadata in Bridge. Type Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to select all of the thumbnails. Press Command-R (PC: Ctrl-R) to open all of them in Adobe Camera Raw 3 (ACR3) within Bridge. Double-clicking the select images will open them in ACR3 in Photoshop. This step will work in Photoshop but its better to use Bridge. That leaves Photoshop available to do work in the background.
Look at the sliders in the Adjust tab. Theres a checked blue box above the Exposure, Shadows, Brightness, and Contrast sliders.
These Auto settings are great for getting a quick view of what Camera Raw thinks you wanted to shoot, but they arent good workflow tools. Type Command-U (PC: Ctrl-U) to turn them off. Make the change permanent by clicking the flyout triangle to the right of the Settings menu and choose Save New Camera Raw Defaults. You can toggle them back on anytime with the shortcut Command-U (PC: Ctrl-U).
Update Camera Raw
Adobe Camera Raw 3 is part of both Bridge and Photoshop. Adobe periodically updates the plug-in as new cameras come to market. If Bridge wont open your digital RAW files, check the version by choosing Photoshop (PC: Help)>About Plug-In>Camera Raw. If the About box says Version 3.0, update it for free at www.adobe.com/downloads.
These examples have a GretagMacbeth ColorChecker Gray Scale card (www.gretagmacbeth.com) included in the first photograph of the scene. I shoot one every time I change the light. Its used with ACR 3 to get accurate color balance and exposure refinements. A known white, like the brides dress or a piece of paper, are good substitutes when color isnt critically important.
Type S to choose ACR3s Color Sampler tool. On the gray scale card in the selected image, click on the white then the black to place the #1 and #2 color samplers. The readouts appear under the toolbar at the top of the dialog. If all the images in the folder were taken under the same lighting conditions, press Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to select all of the files in the filmstrip. If not, click on the first image that contains a ColorChecker, scroll to the next image that contains a ColorChecker (or lighting change), hold down the Shift key, and click the thumbnail right before the ColorChecker image. That selects all the photographs made in the same lighting conditions.
Type I for the White Balance tool. Click on the white patch next to sampler #1. The color is balanced for the image in the Preview pane and all of the selected files in the filmstrip. That was easy. Next, hold done the Option (PC: Alt) key, click on the Exposure slider, and begin to drag it to the right. The preview turns black. Watch the RGB numbers under the #1 sampler. When they reach somewhere around R:248, G:248, and B:248 the exposure is dialed in for highlights with detail. If you see a color in the preview, that channel or combination of channels has reached 255, which is as bright as it can go. In Caucasian skin, it isnt unusual to have the Red channel reach 255 in a highlight. If youre not sure, back the Exposure slider down until the Preview is once again black. Release the Option (PC: Alt) key. The Preview reappears and is updated with your changes along with all of the selected files in the filmstrip.
The Shadows slider makes the blacks rich and deep, giving the image contrast. Resist this control at all costs. See what it does by holding down the Option (PC: Alt) key again. Click the Shadows slider. The Preview goes white. Any color you see here indicates that channel is at 0 or digital blackabsolutely no detail. Todays high-quality inkjet printers want at the very minimum a reading of 25 to produce detail in the shadows. If anything, this slider gets moved to the left toward 0. Minimize the colors showing here so there will be detail when the file is opened in Photoshop. Shadows can always be darkened later. If they start out too dark there is very little that can be done to recover them short of reopening the file in ACR3 and starting over. Release the Option (PC: Alt) key. The updates apply to the photograph in the Preview pane and to the selected thumbnails in the filmstrip.
The Brightness slider increases or decreases the tones between the highlights and the shadows. If your photograph looks a bit dark, slide this one to the right. Watch the image brighten while the readings for sampler #1 barely move. I love this one.
The Contrast slider raises or lowers the contrast of the tones between the highlights and shadows. Use this one with care. After increasing the contrast, hold down the Option (PC: Alt) key, click the Shadows slider, and check for clipping.
Once the RAW files are flavored to taste, as it were, click Done to return to Bridge. The selected thumbnails update with changes. An icon appears in the lower-right area of each image thumbnail indicating the photograph has been adjusted in ACR3.
Choose Tools>Cache>Export Cache. This saves the metadata and enhanced thumbnails that Bridge has created to the folder containing the RAW files.
All of the enhancements are finished. See, I told you it was easy.
The RAW files that have been renamed and enhanced with metadata, color, and exposure adjustments are ready to be saved to permanent archives. Dont trust anything that has moving parts or cant survive a 10-foot drop with the only copy of your digital negatives. Burn them to a DVD. Then use a second DVD burner and make a copy of the first DVD. Dont just burn two DVDs from the hard drive. Burn the first then make a copy of it.
PROOFING THE SECOND DVD
How do you know that the files on the DVDs will open in Photoshop? You dont. The only way is to make a JPEG file from every RAW file on the DVD copied from the first DVD. If all of the files on that DVD successfully make a JPEG then the first DVD and the folder of RAW files on the primary hard drive are good too.
Well use the Image Processor in Photoshop to convert the files to JPEG. Well also use an action in the Image Processor to sharpen the images and change the Copyright Statues in the File Info to Copyrighted. You can either create your own action or download the Proofing action set from www.layersmagazine.com/downloads.html. Load the set into the Actions palette by clicking on the flyout triangle at the top right of the palette and choosing Load Actions.
Put the copy of the first DVD into your computer. Navigate to it in Bridge in the Folders tab. Click it to select it. The status bar will read examining folder contents for a few seconds then the content pane will populate with the updated previews provided by the cache files. Choose Tools>Photoshop>Image Processor.
The screen changes to Photoshop and the Image Processor dialog is displayed. The first section shows how many files are to be processed. Theres a checkbox labeled Open First Image to Apply Settings. Leave it unchecked. Go back to Bridge. Click on the first thumbnail and open it in Camera Raw. Go to the Show Workflow Options section (click the checkbox if theyre hidden) and set them to: Space: Adobe RGB 1998; Depth: 8 Bits/Channel; Size: use the one that doesnt have a or a + sign after it because thats the native resolution of the camera; and Resolution: 240 pixels/inch. Click Done to return to Bridge. Type Command-Shift-A (PC: Ctrl-Shift-A) to deselect the thumbnail.
Go back to Photoshop. Set the destination folder to a folder with the same name as the DVD (which is the same name as the folder of RAW files on the primary drive) on another external hard drive. Click Save as JPEG in the File Type section and enter 12 into the Quality field. Uncheck the Resize to Fit and the Convert Profile to sRGB boxes. Click Run Action in the next section. Choose Proofing as the set. It will automatically enter USM > Alias > ¬© in the menu to the right. Check Include ICC Profile. Click Run.
Ideally, disc proofing is done at a break or the end of the day. This step takes time but its invaluable. Not only does it tell you beyond any doubt that the files you archived are indeed good, it provides another backup in the form of full camera resolution, high-quality, renamed, metadata added, enhanced JPEGs that can be shown to clients in Web photo galleries, emailable PDFs, and printed proof sheets. All of these choices are found in Bridge under the Tools>Photoshop menu.
Store one of the DVDs with your computer and put the other one in a safe, earthquake, and hurricane proof place thats not below sea level. The CompactFlash card can be reformatted now and the backup hard drive can be erased. The RAW files are still in three places: the primary hard drive and on the two DVDs. The set of JPEGs is even more insurance against an easily preventable loss.
Thats it. The digital apple is polished and saved for all time and without any harmful preservatives. Shoot often, shoot lots, and most of all keep shooting RAW!
ALL IMAGES BY KEVIN AMES