Lightroom Editing Workflow

Over the summer, I gave the 2 second overview on my film workflow. I realize it wasn't the most thrilling thing in the world as it only relied on proper exposure and my lab doing the rest. So, today I want to touch on my digital workflow. It's not a whole more involved, but it is designed to work in unison with the "mood" of my film scans. 


In the past, I was never a fan of presets; especially those that attempt to emulate film. I think digital has a quality all its own and it needn't be stripped away to duplicate another medium.  Rather, I strive to have a result that can work in unison with my film work without absolute mirroring of the look. I guess I look for my digital to be inspired by the mood of my film style (1/2 box Portra 400 and Fuji Pro 400 H). I tried for ages to get a tone and feel to my digital to look like it, and could nail it at times, but I was never consistent shot to shot. But I am happy to say, I am now the proud user of presets and they absolutely achieve the look I was striving for. Not film emulation, but a color pallet inspired by film.

What this has done for me is taking my previous workflow of about 2-3 hours per session down to very little time at all. Assuming my Lightroom is setup and running, the process is just an import, culling, 1-click preset, straighten/crop, and export.  I plan to talk a little on my culling process here as well - which is a very important step in weeding through the amount of images you're importing.

Importing the SD Card and file organization

Before I actually talk about the import, I want to talk about one of the most important steps in photography, and that's getting your image as close to a perfect exposure as you can in camera. It seems like a logical step, but I also know it can be easy enough to think, I'll just fix it in post.  But like with film, I feel it's worth your time to get the exposure and your histograms as spot on as humanly possible. But that being said, unless you really pooched a shot, never delete in camera. There could be a gem that could be saved with some good editing once you see it on the big screen. But I always encourage you to get it right in camera, and your post work takes next to no time.

File System

Oh, one more bit: my file system. It's not overly complex, but might as well share how I organize my images on the hard drive as they import. My working Lightroom images, edits, and catalogs live on my laptop at all times. I have three folders I care about here:

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 12.22.47 PM.png

2017 Folder - these are all my imported raws, broken up by date of import.

2017-Edits - this holds my final edits, ready for upload, printing, sharing, and so on. Usually, on a per-project basis.  Once a project is completed, the edits are moved into a project folder on the external - no sense leaving it on my working drive.

Lightroom - this is my current catalog from Lightroom with backups. As stated below, previous years live on external drives.

The three of these folders are also backed up to two external Lacie 2 TB Thunderbolt drives. As for previous years images, they also sit on at least two external drives with the raws broken out by year and month, as above. I have 5 years of images on each external drive at this point. At the end of each year, I start a new catalog for imports. The previous one usually sits here for an additional month, then exists only on the externals. I'll explain the "Edits" folder later on.


OK, enough on my PSA. Let's talk importing. There are as many ways to do these as there are photographers I am sure, so I am just sharing my way as what I do. I'm no expert, but found what has worked for me over the years. I insert the SD directly into my laptop and fire up Lightroom and go straight to the import. As I said in my file organization, they all drop into the Pictures/2017 folder. 

Lightroom Workflow - Import and Tag

Next, before clicking import, I make use of the powerful keywording in Lightroom. This makes locating images so much easier down the road. You can see the basic keywords I am applying to this import above, but if they are tough to read on your screen, the are: Sony, A7R II, Zeiss, Batis, 135mm, Rye, NH, October, 2017. 

Lightroom Keyword Search
Lightroom Workflow - Copyright Info

You can always do more or less but I strongly encourage you to index your images this way. At least camera, lens, and location. This comes in handy if you have a years worth of images sitting in your library and you are thinking, I know I shot the image of a girl at the beach in Rye, NH in 2017, but I can't remember more about it. Simply hit command+f and filter your library just to the images taken of a beach girl in Rye in 2017. You can tell, the more you keyword, the easier the process.

Also, during the import process, I created a Metadata preset (just above keywords) that holds all of my copyright information for the images. I won't dig into that here, but it's something you should do so you have solid copyright and metadata attached to your exported images.

OK, that's about it from the import side - I don't mess with anything else. Just a straight import into the 2017 folder and we're ready to cull the images.

Culling in lightroom

I have to say, culling used to be one of the most difficult steps for me because of the sheer volume of images I used to take. 500-1000 images was a typical day of the week for me - freaking nuts. Luckily, my return to film taught me to take my time when shooting to make each frame count and has drastically reduced my time weeding through the images. These days, a full day shooting yields 10% of what I used to do with an average of just 50-100 photos for me to work with. 

I go through the set and add the images I want to work with to a "Quick Collection" by highlighting the image and depressing "B" on the keyboard (or right click drop-down). At this point, I am not removing any images from my library (unless they are totally unusable) rather just marking them for edit. You can also flag them, star them, or color code them - but the Quick Collection is what works for me.

Lightroom Workflow - Culling Images

Once I have made my way through the collection, I begin to work only with the quick collection sub-set. You'll see on the left hand panel that you have "Quick Collection +" within the "Catalog" panel. Click that and, as you can see, I have a very manageable set of 8 images to work with:

Lightroom Workflow - Quick Collection

With this image subset, I switch from the Library tab over to the Develop tab to work each image.  I prefer to go one by one, as my sets are never large.

Rebecca Lily Pro Set

I've talked off and on about this amazing preset, so won't beat it to death here. Her latest set, Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV, easily matches my editing goals. It creates that look that compliments my film work without emulating it. I am not kidding when (provided it's exposed properly) the edits are one-click. I know with my seacoast work that her Late Summer set works best for me. Looking at the curve, I can guesstimate that preset III or IV in this subset will do the trick. I clicked on IV and that was it - the exact look I envisioned for this shot.

Lightroom Workflow - Presets

Now, if I wasn't pleased with the look, of course I'd spend the time trying some of my other go-to presets. I work enough with these that I have narrowed it to three subsets I work exclusively with - and the five filters within those subsets. I could also, at this point, play with the sliders on the right. 95% of the time, one-click is all I need.

Common ones I'll attack, if needed, are: 

  • Temp - like to be the 4800 mark, but the camera usually nails it nice
  • Exposure - in case I botched it
  • Clarity - if a product or lens review, I move to 0
  • Grain - if looking for super clean (lens review), I move to 0

I never tweak anything else in here - but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. If you have a set of presets you like, but always adjust one thing or another, you should feel free to make those changes and save as a new preset. Why make your life more difficult. For those above changes I mentioned, I have a subset called RL - Late Summer Clean, etc. It's rare I use them though as she knocked this set out of the park for me. 

Pro Tip: the "\" below the delete key is a quick before/after. "Y" will bring them up side-by-side:

Lightroom Workflow - Before and After

Crop / Straighten

My final step before export is crop and/or straighten the image. For this, I tap the "R" key and change the aspect ratio to what feels right (4x3 here) and then drag the image straight. If you haven't, you can also use the level by clicking on the little level icon next to the angle slider and drawing your new horizon for the photo. This step should be more than 1.3 seconds in time.

Lightroom Workflow - Crop / Straighten

This process is repeated for all the images that I put into my quick collection. If two images are very similar in light and scene and I am doing more tweaking than just a preset click, I will copy all the settings (check the boxes you want to copy over) and paste them into the next image. Usually, each image gets an edit one at a time and I don't bother with copying the settings from one to another.

Lightroom Workflow - Copy all settings

Export to Staging

Finally, it's export time. All my final images are dumped into my 2017-Edits folder where they are staged for posting and printing. If more keywords are needed, I add them at this stage, as well as adding a title and caption to each image (see below, right). Also take notice that my copyright info is all in place from the original import (my copyright preset).

I set up an export preset with the location to dump the file with a quality of 100%.  As this is the web preset I use, I also resize the horizontal edge to 1100 upon export.

Once the images are backed up from the2017-Edits folder, I move (not copy) to the externals. Now, my folder is clean and ready for the next card. That's really it.  I used a lot of words here to tell you that my Lightroom workflow is literally under a minute for an image - from download off SD card to export to hard drive. Mileage will vary per set and your shooting / editing style.

If you have questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Lightroom Workflow - Export