Black hills panorama

Black hills panorama

I’m sure there are a lot of fellow ‘togs out there who, like me, are struggling with thousands of images: some good, some great and some downright appalling. I think I am also correct in saying that a lot of us use Digital Asset Management (DAM) software to try to keep on top of them; applications like Adobe Lightroom and Aperture.

For the past few years, I’ve been involved in an ongoing war with my images and DAM software (pun intentional). It got to the point where I just didn’t know what was what. Tiff’s, Jpeg’s, Raw’s PSD’s colours and labels and stars, keywords, IPTC and catalogues. What a mess! The situation wasn’t helped by the subjects I typically photograph either. Machine gun bursts at birds-in-flight rubbing shoulders with HDR landscapes, and worst of the worst, my own personal pet processing hate – HDR Panoramic landscapes.

After a sustained attempt to sort my digital life out and substantial learning and reading; it appears I am almost at the end of the campaign to straighten things out. In the midst of this work I found out about a really cool technique to supercharge a workflow and I wanted to share it with you!

I can’t say that this solution will work in every situation and for everyone. It should also be considered as part of a holistic approach to the workflow problem – but I did find one killer application that really helped me along…

We are, most of us, probably acquainted with the term ‘workflow’; in photography, it’s used to describe the process that we follow to take a digital image from capture/creation through to storage and publication. Well, Adobe Lightroom gave us a gift from above in trying to handle a workflow: It’s called a ‘Smart Collection’.

We are all familiar with the folder structure on a personal computer. It’s been evident for a while that this structure doesn’t really cope that well with the way we humans remember where to find things. I think we can summarise the problem like this: We need to store one version of a file in one physical place on a computer hard drive but we also need to find it in many places in software applications.

Many of the big names in the IT world have found solutions to this problem and Adobe is no different with Lightroom. If we think about the physical storage of digital files on a personal computer we quickly realise that the folder structure where we try to classify files is too limiting. For example, we may have a couple of photos; one of a duck and the other of a bear taken at Johannesburg Zoo. How do we store them? We could put them in one folder marked ‘zoo’ or two folders marked ‘duck’ and ‘bear’ or even folders marked by ‘date’, either way, we see that these images fit more than one criteria. In other words, they can be logically grouped in more than one way. Smart Collections are designed to help us with this conundrum.

With a Smart Collection we can organise our files, or rather virtual copies of our files, by any searchable criteria held in the file or Lightroom itself. These criteria could be words in the title or caption, ratings stars, colours, time, edits, adjustments, publication info, file type or keywords. We can perform basic queries on the criteria to return certain sets of images to our collection, but here’s the beauty; we can save the criteria to the folder and keep it.

*Tip/ To edit the criteria ‘right-click’ the item and select ‘edit’ from the popup menu

This is really useful just in ordinary Lightroom use. For example, I could keep all my portfolio standard images in one Smart Collection ready to view whenever I like. I could subdivide that Collection by animal or place, subject or client and have a really quick and useful way to get to images that I want to use or show to people – without having to create a folder specifically for them on my computer. However, if I only did this it would miss a key benefit: Using Smart Collections as a workflow.

illustration of a Lightroom workflow powered by Smart Collections

illustration of a Lightroom workflow powered by Smart Collections

To illustrate; in my own workflow I cull images outside Lightroom. I only ingest the ‘keeper’ items, which I Colour Label ‘Yellow’ as they are ingested. I don’t store the images in one folder. They are rigorously arranged in a flat folder hierarchy by location on my hard drive. In Lightroom I wish to see them in my workflow in one place. I can use a Smart Collection to do this, setting the criteria to search out Yellow Labels ingested at various points in time or various locations.

The next step might be to mark ‘Selects’ i.e images I will take into processing. These are Colour Labelled ‘Red’ and collected in another Smart Collection. I can now immediately find images I wish to work on in one Collection.

illustration of a Lightroom workflow powered by Smart Collections

Meta Data Workflow powered by Smart Collections

I can go further, breaking down this Collection into a Set. I can show images with no Title, others with no Copyright, Caption or keywords. All these are steps along the workflow and as I add the metadata they jump from one Smart Folder to the next automatically. Pretty soon I can easily see at a glance where I need to spend my time in the workflow to push images through it to where they all should be – published!

illustration of a Lightroom workflow powered by Smart Collections

Panoramic workflow powered by Smart Collections

Due to the nature of my varied subjects, my workflow and Smart Collection model is pretty intense and it goes as far as breaking down images by ‘component’ in an HDR set, or ‘component and set’ in an HDR Panorama. It then drip-feeds me jobs to do along the path to processing all these images, stitching them together and marking them as ‘Processed’ (Colour Label Green) at which point they jump into the Lightroom Smart Publishing module… but that, as they say, is a story for another day!

illustration of a Lightroom workflow powered by Smart Collections

Publishing workflow powered by Smart Collections

I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t yet worked with Smart Collections to start to explore the possibilities. They can really help you to get on top of image processing by breaking down, what seems like insurmountable tasks, into smaller bite-sized chunks.