Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Lightroom Article, Part 1. Organizing your Images

Before I get started with the Lightroom stuff, I have a couple of small topics for those not into LR.

What to do when it's really, really cold:

Bundle up and keep warm! Note the sheepskin coat, ski pants, funny hat and warm gloves. I use my snow scoop as a sledge to bring firewood into the house.

Take neat pictures. I shot this one from my front porch, about 10' from the door. Obviously in the middle of a snow storm, I thought this high key image came out pretty well.

I also went for a walk out on the hard water, to the ice fishing huts. I took a few pictures while I was out there, but no real keepers in the bunch.

What is the best aperture to use?
The next day, I brought the camera with the 200mm lens and the 2x converter out and shot some photos of the ice fishing huts from the road. The far shore is about 1 km away, so we're looking at some real long reach-out-and-touch pictures here. I had the tripod with me. It was snowing and I wanted to try different shutter speeds to see what the best image would be. These two images were cropped out of sequential frames, with the settings as shown:

Now that's interesting... the wide open shot is MUCH sharper than the one with the lens closed down tight. The snow, of course, had something to do with it, but not everything. Oh, and it was on the tripod and I used the self-timer so there was no camera shake involved. So I know now, stopped right down with the telextender mounted is NOT how I should be shooting pictures. When I get a chance, I'm going to take a series of shots (in better weather conditions) at different aperture combinations to find the sweet spot for this lens combination. I'm guessing it'll be around f/11 or f/16 (remember that includes the two stop penalty imposed by the telextender).

Converting to Lightroom


I don’t know if I should call this “part 1” or “part 2” of the Lightroom (LR) articles. I think I’ll stick with “part 1” since the post last time was really just an introduction.

 What we’re doing here is documenting my conversion to LR, with a focus on “WHY” one would make certain choices, not “WHAT” or “HOW”. For how to use the program correctly, pick up Scott Kelby’s book “The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 book for Digital Photographers” which is available at http://www.photoshopuser.com/. You don’t have to be a NAPP member to buy the book, but if you do join NAPP, you’ll get a discount and all kinds of other benefits, including a subscription to Photoshop User magazine which is worth its weight in gold. If you decide to join NAPP, use this link so I get my brownie points!

 You might also consider contacting Jim Camelford at jim@photography.to. Jim is the local LR guru and not only does he teach LR courses but he imparts a great deal of wisdom about the right way of doing things.

 This series of articles looks at three of LR’s strengths: “Organizing your pictures”, “Editing your Images” and “Creating Output Files”. LR does many things well, but these three were the factors that convinced me to convert to LR. Combined with Photoshop (PS) LR provides an elegant way to handle your workflow, whether you’re a high volume user or just starting to delve into the world of Digital Photography.

 These articles are intended for those who have converted to LR or are considering doing so and want to start it the right way from the beginning. Or those who might need a little convincing!


 Part 1: Organizing your Work

 This article is about why you should get started organizing your photos and some strategies on how to do it. This is about setting LR up so you can find them again when you want to.

 I’ve been shooting pictures and doing graphics for 50 years. When I look back at some of the old stuff, I think, “Wow, what an amateur!” I suppose I’ll look back in 5 years at what I’m shooting now with the same jaded eye.  
  • My images from the old days were
    • 35mm slides. I have boxes and boxes of these in the garage. I haven’t looked at them in years. 
    • 35mm negatives. I had these in binders in plastic sheets, with a contact sheet filed next to them. I don’t even know where these are any more.
    • Large format negatives and transparencies. I have absolutely no idea where they are. I think there’s a box somewhere.
    • Boxes of old prints. Some framed, some not. Some in albums, some not.
  • When I started doing digital graphics in the ‘80s and ‘90s I had a mixture of MAC and PC equipment and used whatever media were available at the time for backup and storage. There were tape drives, I remember a 100Mb cartridge drive (called a ZIP disk, if I recall), and of course 5¼” floppy disks. Not only don’t I know where these are, but I don’t have any way to look at them anymore, anyway.
  • My early digital photographs were relatively small files stored in the “My Pictures” folder on a hard drive. I backed them up from time to time and there’s still a folder of old stuff on my backup drive.
  • Starting about 10 years ago, I copied data to CD for backup purposes. The first dedicated photo backups started in 2004 and I have at least one CD (now DVD) for each month since then. Finding anything earlier than 2008 requires looking through these disks one at a time.
  • All of my photos since January 2008 are stored on my 1Tb external drive, with DVD backups. They are imported into LR and I can find anything virtually instantly.
 What I’m afraid of is that if I rewrite this article 10 years from now, I’m going to lament how I can’t get at the pictures I’m doing now. Who knows.

 But what I’m trying to say is, I’ve archived a ton of “CRAP”. Pictures I never, ever will look at or use again. Why? Because it was easier to throw it all in a box than it was to go through it and toss the bad stuff out.

 Seems to me there are two reasons to keep a picture:

  • You want to keep a record of something.
    • You did a commercial shoot. You need to keep the original shots, even the bad ones, just in case the client wants something one day.
    • Pictures of your kids growing up, your grandparents when they were the age you are now, trips you’ve taken, things you’ve experienced and want to remember.
    • Photos of people before they became rich and famous. Hopefully your kids.
  • You want to use it for something
    • Great pictures that you’re going to print and exhibit in a gallery some day, with 4- and 5-figure price tags on them
    • Pictures you’re going to sell to the news media or to National Geographic
    • Pictures you want to use in a slide show or video presentation
    • Pictures you’re going to publish in a book when you get around to it
    • Stuff you might want to share online in the hope that someone might think, “what a great talent this guy has!” and write you a cheque with lots of zero’s in it or provide you with other benefits (use your imagination).
I’m sure you can think of other reasons to keep your images. We all have our own personal reasons. But why keep the garbage? As I said a minute ago, it was easier to keep it than to go through it and weed out the bad stuff and it didn’t cost you anything other than some storage space. The down side is, it makes it harder to find the good stuff when you have to weed through all that junk to find it!

 As I said, in my garage, I have several large cartons containing boxes and boxes of 35mm slides. In the 1960’s and 1970’s I was a prolific amateur photographer. I took thousands of images at home and during my travels (mostly in North America and Europe) and I never threw out anything. I haven’t looked in these boxes in years. At one point, a long time ago, I went through my slides and chose the ones I liked best: there were about 100 of them and I kept them in a single Ektagraphic Carousel tray, which I still have. I’ve scanned most of these, I still have a batch to do.

 In that tray are a few slides that I took in the Painted Desert in Arizona in 1971 when my (ex) wife and I did a road trip across North America in a VW beetle. Great pictures. But now suppose we wanted to go through the slides from that trip on a stroll down memory lane (unfortunately, I don’t have a working slide projector right now). I have the 400 other slides in little yellow Kodak boxes, but the good ones – those I just mentioned and a couple from Kansas, and some from Wyoming – they’re not in those boxes. So looking through the trip we’d miss the good ones!

 Here’s where LR is so much better than any of those old methods of storing images: you can virtually instantaneously find any image you have made, provided you took the time to categorize it properly at the beginning.  And you can keep a link to that one image in a virtually unlimited number of collections.

Take this image as an example

  • This is one of my favourite images. It’s in my collection of my best shots, my “Dirty Dozen”.
  • I roll through a slide show of about 200 images as a screen saver on my desktop. It’s in that group.
  • I’m planning to include it in my next Blurb book
  • I’m using it in this article.
  • I’ve entered it in the GTCCC competition this year and in the RHCC competition last year (where it was voted best print in the show, thank y’all verra verra much).
  • I might create a slideshow of images that I’ve entered into various competitions.
  • Hilarie taught me how to create this using Painter 11. I’ve done other paintings and I might want to look at my development as a pixel artist one day.
  • I’ve sold a couple of prints of this picture and I hope I can sell some more.
OK, I’ve listed 8 different reasons why I might want to find this image. LR allows me to store ONE COPY of this image on my computer (we’re not talking about backups here) and categorize it in a variety of ways so I can use it or find it for any of these purposes. You can use any or all of the following, in any combination.

  • I’ve flagged the image with 5 stars. It’s definitely one of my best.
  • I’ve set a “blue” colour flag to indicate that it’s been completed.
  • I’ve added a link to it in a whole bunch of collections that relate to the above list
  • I’ve marked it with a bunch of keywords so I can find it again: “mountain man; painting; portrait; george; high falls gorge; july 2008 road trip…” etc.
This is where LR excels. It’s like having a gigantic virtual filing system where you can instantly find anything you’re looking for.

Technology changes {sarcasm}you’re kidding, right?{/sarcasm}. So how you store your images today is different from how you used to store them (in little yellow boxes in the garage) and it will be different tomorrow. I’m going to leave the “HOW” up to others. Contact Jim Camelford. He’s got a better grasp on this than I do. As I write this, the state of the art is DROBO and RAID systems of individual high capacity hard drives, but for those of us who are not so technologically driven, a few (not just one!) portable hard drives in the 500Gb to 1Tb range will do. If the average digital file is 10Mb in size, a 1Tb drive can store 100,000 images.

Hopefully you’ve gotten the message: you want to keep your digital images so you can look at them some time in the indeterminate future, because it costs nothing to shoot digital images you have thousands of them, and how are you going to find the ones you want anyway? This is WHY you need to organize your pictures, whether you have a huge archive already or you’re just starting out. This is WHY you want to keep them in such a way that you can transfer them to whatever the latest technology is down the road. To that 1000 TeraByte pocket drive using subatomic technology based on detecting the strangeness of bottom quarks during weak interactions that’s going to be invented next year that will make all your CDs and DVDs obsolete. That will work whether you’re in the MAC or PC environment, doesn’t matter.

LR is designed to handle big databases. Its search engine is based on SQL and it can index and handle thousands of records with ease. My own database is about 15,000 images so far and LR doesn’t exhibit the slightest hesitancy searching those files. So it can be argued that for now, you can store all of your images in one place (backup, backup, backup!) and you can keep the links to them in one big database or ‘catalog’. LR will do the latter for you.

 You can keep them separately in multiple catalogs if you want. There are many arguments in both directions, but it doesn’t matter. A professional photographer may want to keep the weddings he’s shot in different catalogs, because he sees no reason that he would want to view or use different brides or grooms in the same presentation. Even if he did, he could bring them together by creating a combined catalog in LR. No sweat, just a few keystrokes. And he might want to keep his travel shots, his trips to South Africa and New Zealand in another catalog. Fine. You choose. But if you’re doing an article on “Mountains” you may want all of those travel shots in one catalog.

So I’m torn. There are those who suggest all your images should be represented in one massive master catalog, and others who think you should separate them into logical groups. Doesn’t matter – just do it! Whatever works for you. LR can handle big databases, if you think that’s the way you want to go.

Choose a manageable starting point. You could make tomorrow the first day of your new LR digital life, or you could go back to the day you got your first digital camera. Or anywhere in between. I chose to go back 2 years and I can add old stuff slowly to it when I have the time. I currently have about 15,000 images imported into LR and categorized. Remember, I only needed to categorize the “keepers”, so it wasn’t as daunting a task as you might imagine.

Let’s talk about backups for a second. Clearly you need to back up your images somehow. My backup strategy is weak. OK, the strategy isn’t but the tactics are! Right now, new images are transferred to my desktop hard drive, and a backup goes to an external 1Tb WD MyBook drive. Every month I also burn these to DVD. I’d like to say these are stored in another location, but, well, I don’t have another location right now. If my house burned down, I’m toast. If someone broke in and stole my computer and external drive, I’m almost toast. So I try to keep them separate. There are schemes where you can store your data online at a remote server, and other ideas, but this is “HOW” and not “WHY” so I promised I wouldn’t get into it. You figure it out.

It’s important that you understand that LR contains information about your images, not the images themselves. That’s what an LR catalog is. If you open the folder where it’s located, you’ll find two kinds of files: an “lrcat” file and something else called “Previews.lrdata”. The former is the information about your images: the latter is a record of the high resolution preview of your images which is generated by LR. You can force LR to generate these previews again, although it might take a while. But there’s no compelling reason to back these up. Good thing, too, because this file is BIG. Not as big as the images themselves, but BIG. In my case, with 15,000 images, my previews.lrdata folder is about 9Gb in size, while the .lrcat file is only about 200Mb.

So when you’re doing backups, what do you need to keep copies of? Certainly the images themselves, and also the .lrcat file. The latter contains everything you’ve done in LR with your images. Remember, it’s not “IF” your hard drive will fail, it’s a question of “WHEN”. It will. Be diligent about backups.

So do you see WHY you might want to start using LR? Even if you never edit a picture, or print one, or sell a picture to a client or to the media, just being able to store your pictures in an organized way and being able to instantly find the one or ones you’re looking for is reason enough!

Next: Getting your pictures into Lightroom.