Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Importing into Lightroom: Follow the arc!

A fundamental part of any photographer's workflow should be how they organise and file their photos. Lightroom (OK, the proper name is "Adobe Photoshop Lightroom") provides a great framework to integrate this into your workflow, but it's imperative that you understand what's going on. Too many Lightroom beginners try to use the program with no concept of where their photos are going. Everything's going swimmingly, until one day something changes and Lightroom won't let them develop or export their photos, and shows lots of question-marks. This is easy to fix and in fact easy to avoid, as long as you know where the files were!

I've picked up a few clients this way: they've made a mess and need someone to piece it all together again. While I don't mind the work, often a lot of the problem can be avoided by not blindly pressing "OK" when the software asks you to check something. Once you understand the fundamental concept of Lightroom working on a database ("catalog") which is keeping track of photos that are stored in traditional folders on your hard drives, the starting point for many people is Lightroom's Import window. It's not hard, but too many people fail to check the details of what Lightroom's about to do for them, and end up in a slight mess.

Incidentally, what I'm going to show you is fundamentally the same across Lightroom 3 and 4. The same concepts apply to Lightroom 2, although the Import window is laid out differently.

To start with, I strongly recommend to my students that they keep their photos in a folder tree dedicated to this (not spread randomly around their hard drives). As your library grows you may find that you need to spread to a second (or third) hard drive, but generally on each drive I would have a single "photos" or "media" tree. Give each one a unique name to reduce confusion (for example I started with "media-A").

There are two usual scenarios for using Lightroom's Import dialog:
  1. Copying files into your media tree and adding them to the catalog. This covers importing files from flash cards, but can also cover those times you want to copy files from other folders into your media tree.
  2. Adding files to the catalog which are already inside your media tree. You may have saved a new file from inside Photoshop, PtGUI, etc, and want that included in the catalog.
Whichever scenario you're in when the Import window comes up, my advice is to Follow The Arc.

In the above example I'm importing from a CF card. When this window comes up I always scan around the screen making sure the right settings are in place. The red arrows show my flow, starting on the left:

  1. Obviously I need to check where I'm importing from. I've set the Eject after reading flag.
  2. I'm doing a Copy. I don't use Copy as DNG as it slows the whole process down dramatically (although I sometimes later convert to DNG if required).
  3. Then on to the right panels. I open them up if they're not already open. I'm skipping over the File Handling panel in this example although occasionally you may want to change settings there.
  4. I rename the files as they're imported, to get unique filenames and avoid later conflicts. The naming rule I'm using here uses the date and time from the camera along with the camera's file number to get something unlikely to conflict with other shots I take (even when working with two cameras).
  5. I check the metadata I'm applying. This is data which is appropriate for all the photos in the import (to minimise the metadata manipulation I have to do in the Library module), and over time I define more and more presets. This preset is applying my creator and copyright info, along with broad location info appropriate for Wilsons Promontory where I shot this image. I'll apply image-specific info including keywords later in the Library (often to multiple images at once).
  6. Continuing down the right side of the screen, I double-check where Lightroom will be copying the files. Because I have Lightroom putting them into a date-based folder tree I don't have to change this often, but it's still worth checking.
  7. After all that I can go ahead and press the Import button.

That may sound complicated, but it's a very quick process. Lightroom will default to using the same settings as the previous import, so usually I don't have to make any changes and it's only a split-second's work. But sometimes I have to tweak metadata/etc.

The next example is an import window which came up when I was using the Library's Synchronize Folder function to add images to the catalog that were already in place in their folders. In fact one of the images is the previous screen-grab, saved from Photoshop.

Again we follow the arc, starting at the left:

  1. Check which folder the images are in.
  2. Check that I'm doing an Add, not making an extra copy!
  3. Check that I'm not adding any metadata. Lightroom will probably default to the metadata preset you used in the previous import (e.g. David 2012 Prom above) so you must check. If the images specifically need metadata applied I may use a preset here, but often the images already have their own metadata which I don't want to overwrite!
  4. Then I can press Import.

By training yourself to scan around the import window before you blindly press Import you can save yourself a lot of mess!

Also once you've got the photos catalogued by Lightroom, it's generally safest to only use Lightroom's Library module to organise them. If you make proper use of your metadata (including keywords) you may not have to move the images out of the folders Lightroom put them in and can just the do organisation with metadata, keywords, and collections. But Lightroom will let you do individual and batch renames, move images to other folders, create/rename folders, etc.

Note that there are a few cases where you will have to explicitly move/copy images, such as:
  • when your hard drive fills up and you need to move images elsewhere, and
  • when making regular backups using a tool outside Lightroom.
If you do need to move, rename, or delete images you should do it using Lightroom, so it can keep track of what's happening on the drive. There can be times where I have to manipulate files outside Lightroom and sometimes follow that up with Lightroom's Synchronize Folder function, but that's usually either because I'm doing backups or I'm cleaning up the mess that resulted when someone rearranged things without telling Lightroom (sometimes because they simply forgot that Lightroom was managing the files).

Note my earlier recommendation to put all your images together under one folder tree per drive. It makes a lot of this easier.
Storm Window behind Squeaky Beach
Don't forget to Follow the Arc!

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