Digital Workflow
Using Adobe Lightroom

• Setting up your workstation

• Essential Applications

• Importing & Backup

• Lightroom: Basic Overview & Initial Setup

• Lightroom: Library Module, Collections & Culling

• Lightroom: Develop Module, Presets & Processing

• Exporting  

• File Delivery





Setting up your workstation


Your computer is your most valuable asset when it comes to efficiency. Keeping it running fast is crucial, but too often I notice photographers sit and painfully wait for their files to open or save or even cycle through images in Lightroom. Every few seconds adds up dramatically, so a slow system is going to seriously prohibit your productivity.

There's a lot that can be done to fix this, whether it's just doing some routine maintenance, upgrading some parts, or just admitting that it's time for an update. This is definitely more valuable than a new lens or updating your camera.

Fortunately, with Lightroom, we don't need a really powerful computer to make it run smooth.

Update when you can afford to - between 3 to 5 years is a normal cycle. In the mean time, keep your drive light. Free up space often.

Laptops are great for mobility, but not recommended for editing (we'll get to that part.)
A high quality external monitor is a great investment!

Recommended monitors:

Best -
BenQ ($1100)
Eizo ($1300)

Ideal -
Asus Designo ($540)
HP Z ($540)
Dell Ultrasharp ($358)

*I personally use the Dell - these recently went down in price dramatically, and they are arguably better rated than the HP or Asus. Definitely my top recommendation for a high quality screen on a budget! Need something cheaper or less demanding on your laptop? Get the lower resolution version - still an adequate upgrade!


You'll also want several drives for data storage & backups. Solid State Drives (SSD) are now industry standard - traditional spindle drives (HDD) are fragile and slow, and really should only be used for stationary backups or non-critical data. While SSD's may be pricier, they make up for it in speed, durability and reliability. This is what makes SSD's more suitable as your internal drive, and a mobile drive that you use for files you access frequently, especially for storing photos you'll be working on in Lightroom.

Here's an insightful, comprehensive read if you want to learn more about HDD vs SSD.

There are many options for accessing your storage, but it comes down to this - you can either have fully enclosed external drives that are plug-and-play. Or you can have a docking device (or even just a cable) where you can just swap out bare drives.
Most people choose to get the enclosed drives because it's just easier, and the enclosures offer an extra layer of protection - but using bare drives can be cheaper, and when technology changes, you only need to swap the one docking device instead of several old external devices. I personally prefer the bare drives due to cost and ease of updating.

Recommended Drives & Enclosures:

Bare SSD - Samsung EVO
SSD Docking Cable - Startech

Bare HDD for Backups - WD Red
HDD Docking Station - Inateck
HDD Storage Case - Sisun

Enclosed Portable Drive - Samsung or LaCie
Enclosed Backup Drive - WD Book

*I'm only including LaCie here because they're highly popular for their rugged enclosures. Personally, I think they're really overpriced for the SSD models. The standard HDD models are a lot more affordable, but they are SLOW. I simply cannot recommend them for anything other than a temporary backup, unless you can afford to spend 2.5x the price for the SSD.

**You can use whatever you want for your backup drives. I recommend that whatever you use, make sure they stay put in a safe location - the more you move it or travel with it, the more likely you'll damage it or lose it. You're really only using your backups when backing up files or recovering archived files. That's it. Think of it as your spare tire - if you're driving on it, you're in trouble.

calibration & Color Management

Having a fancy new monitor is only the first part of the puzzle. Color management is the practice of maintaining accurate color during the digital workflow process. You've probably heard of calibration before, but this practice is unfortunately too often neglected, even by full-time professionals and popular photographers.

In the digital world, it's easy for your color perception to be fooled - it's a common misconception to think that the colors you've painstakingly processed on your images will be the same across all screens. If you've ever walked through the TV section of a Best Buy, it should be obvious that this isn't the case. All monitors need proper color management - including even the most high quality screens, and yes, even your mobile devices. (These devices cannot be calibrated, but it's important to remember that their color isn't true.)

Without this crucial step, you may as well be editing while wearing colored sunglasses. 
Chances are though, unless you do a lot of heavy stylizing, your tones & colors probably aren't too far off. Most modern screens, especially with Apple, are pretty close with color - but are often too bright & contrasty, which can still skew our editing preferences.

This subject can get highly technical & complex, but a few simple routines can guarantee us modestly accurate results.

The primary factors that will determine color accuracy:

Monitor Quality

As mentioned earlier, a good monitor is essential. A modern ISP display is preferred. Regardless of the quality, every monitor will begin to wear over time, and older screens will fall out of calibration faster and more frequently. Just like an old tire, they will need to be replaced after a certain amount of wear in order to be reliable. 2-3 years of consistent use is a normal cycle, with no more than 4 years.

Monitor Calibration

Calibration is required for every monitor, no matter how nice or how new. Since monitors fall out of calibration over time, this should be a regular part of your monthly routine. You can't do this properly with software alone, you will need a physical calibration tool. This is a device that you put over the top of your screen that measures the color & contrast and makes the appropriate adjustments so that your screen is 100% color accurate.

The first time you do this, you may notice a dramatic difference. You might even rethink how you've been editing your photos. This is normal. This is what I like to think of as taking off the colored sunglasses. 

Recommended calibration devices:

X-Rite i1 Pro
X-Rite Colormunki Display

Your calibration tool will come with software that will walk you through a pretty straightforward process. 

Room Environment

Your surrounding environment does affect your color perception. Your eyes automatically adjust to surrounding light and color, thus making your perception unreliable if your surroundings aren't completely neutral. This is why laptops are often terrible for color accuracy - moving around and regularly working in different environments means you will perceive color differently in each new location, especially if the lighting is changing. Keep your work environment consistent. Keep your workspace neutral - make sure there are no bright colors nearby that can disrupt your perception, or reflect light onto your screen.

The most ideal situation is to have a room with no windows, no colors anywhere, walls fully painted 50% grey, with daylight balanced bulbs at medium-low brightness with soft diffusion. Unless you're an industry-leading professional retoucher or just crave dismal environments, this is of course excessive. But we can compromise a bit to cancel out most color pollution.

Essential Applications

Lightroom logo.jpg

Adobe Suite: Lightroom & Photoshop

The hallmark of digital image software. You should already own this.
Lightroom is the industry standard file management & developing tool. It combines the elements of Adobe Bridge & Camera Raw in a highly intuitive way. It seamlessly integrates with Photoshop and other applications to offer an endless realm of creative possibilities.


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Capture One

Preferred by industry professionals that demand the highest standards in terms of image quality and color accuracy. Much more powerful than Lightroom for color-processing, but has a steeper learning curve. Extremely useful for tethered shooting.



Highly recommended tool for photojournalists that demand immediate file delivery. Not a very user-friendly design, and weak processing tools, but extremely effective for culling images fast.

Import, Backup & File Structure

Our digital images are precious to us, but the setup of our computers often doesn't reflect that. Without a thoroughly organized structure to your image library, the resulting problem should be pretty clear; when it comes time to backup or move your images the chance of overlooking some is very high. Worse yet is not having a proper backup at all.

A mobile external drive does not count as safe: it can get lost, damaged, or corrupted way too easily. Your internal laptop drive and external drive are temporary storage only.

My method consists of a process like this:

1. CF/SD card -> Full transfer to Backup Drive 1

2. CF/SD card -> Full transfer to Working Drive

3. Cull & discard rejects in the Catalog on the Working Drive

4. Once completed with project, transfer Catalog to Backup Drive 1 (Alternatively, overwrite project folder from Working Drive to Backup Drive 1 to save space)

5. Make a copy of Backup Drive 1 to Backup Drive 2 regularly (Once a month)

6. Delete project folders from Working Drive once the project is both on Backup Drive 1 & 2

My preferred method for backing up my drive is doing it manually, because then I know that it was done. Just copy the whole drive over every 30 days. Set yourself a reminder and just do it. It's worth the peace of mind alone.


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File Structure

I firmly believe that the best structure is to name your image folders according to the date. Organizing the folders into a series of Year / Month / Shoot folders is my preferred system.

For example, my folders usually look like this:
2018 / April 2018 / Lowertown Bikes Shoot

It might be tempting to organize your images by genre or type, but anything other than using a date can make it more difficult to locate them. If you do want to organize your images by other means, you can still do so in Lightroom by using Collections - but specifically for the sake of file structure, it's best to use a system that is organized by stricter parameters.

Lightroom: Initial Set up & Importing

Recommended performance tweaks:

• Make sure Graphic Processor is enabled

• Set up Photoshop preferences

• Optimize large catalogs when needed

• Increase Lr Cache size to as high as you can afford to go (30-60gb)

• Adjust preview sizes in Catalog Settings


Think of catalogs as image data containers. They contain the thumbnails & previews of your images in the Lightroom library, as well as your saved adjustments. They don't contain the files themselves, but allow Lightroom to locate them & display them.

You can have as many catalogs as you like, or just one. Only one catalog can be open at a time, however, your presets & settings will be saved across all catalogs.

You can use catalogs as another method of organization. Or you can choose to have a single master catalog with all of your images - do whatever best suits you.

Setting up your preferred layouts & valuable hotkeys

• Tab & Shift-Tab hides side panels

• T to show / hide toolbar

• Auto show / hide panels for small screens

• \ shows before & after

• Z for zoom

• I to display camera setting info

• Cmd-E to open image in Photoshop

• Cmd-Shift-E to export selected image(s)


When you import, Lightroom gives you the option of copying, moving or adding the files. Make sure you have the correct option selected for your import method. You can even have Lightroom copy files to a secondary location, so you can import to your working drive & backup drive at the same time.

You can have Lightroom automatically apply adjustments to your images upon import if desired, including metadata like filenames.

You can also define collections right away on import to start the organization process.

Building Previews

You can select the preview size upon import, but you can also build previews at any time by going to Library > Previews > Build Standard Previews or Build 1:1 Previews

Building your previews will significantly speed up your workflow; instead of your computer rendering each image as you go, it will build all of them at once. Depending on the amount of your images, this process can take some time - go take a break, eat lunch, or take a shower - by the time you sit down to edit, culling & editing will now be lightning fast.

Building standard previews will be faster, but images will still need to render if you zoom in. Building 1:1 previews takes longer, but once its done, you can move between images and zoom in at 100% without any delay time.

Smart Previews

For laptop users who prefer to be mobile, Lightroom has an incredible feature called Smart Previews. These are low-res previews of your images compressed to a size that's a fraction of the original file. Smart Previews are stored in a Lightroom data file that's in the same folder as your catalog.

Using this system will allow you to view, cull & even process your images without having the actual full-size files available, meaning you don't need to have your bulky external drive.

Because the smart previews require much less processing power to render, and because it builds all these previews when you set them up, your workflow will also be significantly quicker. This feature is highly recommended for working on computers that are on the slower side, or for mobile laptop users with limited storage space.

- Learn more about how to set up smart previews here -

Lightroom: Library Module, Collections & Culling

The library module is where you view & organize your images. Images get loaded faster here than the develop module, and this is where you will want to do all of your culling.


Organize images into collections or collection sets. This can be an easy way to keep different categories from multiple dates in one place; For example, if you shoot seniors, you can have a collection set for 'Seniors' and have several collections for each senior under it with their name.

Culling methods

There are several methods you can use to organize your image sets and cull through them.

Lightroom lets you select Rejects & Picks. My preferred method consists of an initial reject run; you can turn on Caps-Lock and quickly run through your set using the X key to mark rejects and the  key to skip. Your initial run should be quick and rejects should be obvious - images that are unusable and not salvageable.

Once rejects are marked, you can delete the files permanently by hitting Cmd-Delete

After the reject run, you can jump right away into your selection run; use P to mark your picks.

A popular method for a more meticulous selection process is to use the star system. You can use keys 1-5 to star images; start with 1 star for any images that are passable. After that run is complete, get progressively more selective each round; your 5 star images will be your absolute favorites. 

You can use the Compare & Survey tools to help narrow down difficult selection choices.

Lightroom also offers the ability to color code files. Use whatever tools best suit your workflow; the options are abundant!

Lightroom: Develop module, Editing & batch Processing 

The develop module is where we'll be doing all of our image adjustments.

Lightroom's develop tool is a RAW processor, much like Camera Raw in Photoshop. This means that the adjustments you're making take full advantage of the deep layers of information stored within a RAW file, retaining as much detail and image quality as possible.

You may notice that the tools look slightly different and behave differently when working with other types of files, such as .jpg's, .psd's or .tiff's. Because these are not RAW files, the develop tools won't be as effective, and might even cause significant quality degradation with certain adjustments. Always try to make the bulk of your adjustments in RAW format!

Non-Destructive Editing

Adjustments in Lightroom are saved within the catalog, and they are non-destructive, meaning none of the adjustments you make will have any effect on your original file. There is no need to 'save' anything because we aren't physically writing any new files. Adjustments only get applied to the file on export, where you make a new copy of your original file.

Develop tools

On the righthand panel you have all of your RAW processing tools that provide you with a multitude of creative possibilities. That said, this course is not really focused on the creative process of colorizing & toning your images.

There are numerous tutorials out there that cover all of these tools and how to use them. My suggestion is just to take a bit of time and experiment with all of them to get a feel for it.

I will, however, go over my personal tips & suggestions for an efficient workflow.

• Basic adjustments first.
I always recommend starting with a color neutral image, even if you want to do heavy stylizing. White Balance & Exposure settings alone should get you about 90% of the way there. Make sure that these are set correctly before proceeding to other adjustments.

• Keep adjustments light.
Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Pretty much always avoid the extreme ends of any slider. Image quality can suffer quickly otherwise. 

• Play with profiles.
Your camera has built-in profiles that affect the RAW data of your image - this is different than slider adjustments. You can also play with built-in Adobe profiles, or even third party profiles for an even greater range of creative choices.

• Understand your limitations.
Lightroom is powerful - but it's not magical. Don't try to force extreme changes or detailed retouching - some things are better left suited to Photoshop.


Presets are essential to a fast, efficient workflow.

They've lately been a really trendy sales item for nearly every semi-popular photographer out there. You can and should be able to create these yourself, in a way that better suits the way you shoot.

If you do prefer using purchased presets, there's a neat plug-in called Fader that allows you to change the opacity on an entire preset as if it were just a layer in Photoshop to give you an extra layer of control.

There's a lot you can do with presets to save time. My suggestion is to keep presets generally light, and then fine tune the adjustments for each specific shoot, or even particular set - with this fine-tuned adjustment you can create a new, temporary preset to finish your image set.

Alternatively, you can utilize the Copy, Paste & Previous buttons for quickly copying over adjustments.

When using any batch tools:

• One-click edits are not realistic.
Don't try to make your preset be an all-encompassing adjustment. Your images from every shoot are likely to be very different, so there is no one-size-fits all option here. Generally, your presets shouldn't adjust settings that tend to vary from image to image - such as WB & exposure.

• These should expedite your process, not slow you down.
If you're always doing the same thing to every photo, such as adding grain & a little bit of sharpening, just make a preset for that. Take advantage of automation!

• Review your work.
When batch editing many images, it can be easy to overlook a few that were not properly fine-tuned by a batch edit. Double check to make sure no further adjustments are needed.

External Editing

When it's time to do real retouching or make serious edits, you'll want to open up your images in Photoshop. Fortunately, Lightroom & Photoshop integrate almost seamlessly making this part of your workflow very natural and simple.

Once you've made your RAW adjustments in Lightroom and you're ready for Photoshop, you can hit Cmd-E to open in it Photoshop. Photoshop will create a .psd copy from the RAW file. Once you're done and the file has been saved, it will automatically be added to your Lightroom catalog right next to the original file. 

Lightroom: Export

Your selections have been made. Your images have been edited. It's time to get them out of Lightroom!

Lightroom has amazing export tools. Like with everything else, there's a lot of control with what settings you can choose to apply.

The primary tool you'll be using on export is image sizing. You'll want to have smaller files for web, and larger ones for print purposes.

File Delivery


For advanced users

Drive & Dropbox

Gallery Platforms