Coming home from Hokkaido with 8000 images to edit should seem intimidating, but it isn’t. I got a couple requests from people to share my editing process, which hadn’t even occurred to me until I got them, because I’m pretty much done already. So then I went and told Twitter and Facebook I’d show people how I do this painlessly and I’m worried people are going to read this looking for a magic bullet. So, here are my caveats: This is how I do it. For me it’s painless. By editing I mean the process of choosing images, not processing them. And finally, the software doesn’t make a spot of difference – use what works for you. Hell, use contact sheets and a red marker, if you want. It’s the photographs that matter, not which tool you use to get there.
If you haven’t seen some of the images here are links to Postcard from Yamanouchi, Postcard from Hokkaido, Last Postcard from Hokkaido, and a Hokkaid Re-Cap, with more images and the March Desktop Wallpaper.
1. Field Edit.
When I say I had 8000 images, understand that I was shooting on high-speed burst. Way too many frames of monkeys, but the snow was falling hard and I wanted the best chance at useable frames without a snowflake over an eye or something. Same with the birds, all of which move fast. The eagles were incredibly hard at times, and one morning I shot 1000 images, all panning with slow shutter speeds, knowing my failure rate would be through the roof. My usual practice is to shoot fewer frames and be more selective in-camera. But daily I do a field edit. Very rarely do I let a day go by without doing this. Let it slide and it begins to backlog. If it’s an assignment, then this is the stage I do captioning and add notes about model releases. I do it this way:
- Import and view as smallish thumbnails in Lightroom. Small thumbnails show me the gesture/composition. If I like it, I give it a 5-star rating. If I don’t, I leave it. I tend to be very binary this way. It’s either Hell, Yes – or it’s No. I don’t polish my turds. If it’s not right, I let it lie. This immediately cuts my editing down to fractions of my total capture. I don’t create so I can have a ton of images. I don’t care if I get one in 1000. Keeper-rate means nothing to me. I learn, I move on, and I’m grateful I got one. I usually get a couple more, but quantity of rejects is irrelevant – they’re what it takes to get to the good stuff, part of my process. If you find yourself looking at a sequence and asking which image sucks less, do yourself a favour – they all suck. Move on. Your photography will get better if you spend less time justifying your weaker frames, and more time learning from them. Edit to find your best frames, not the most frames you can squeeze out of a shoot. 12 beautiful, compelling, images, are better than 100 mediocre ones.
- Sort images to show only 5-Star ratings, then view at 100% and eliminate images that are unacceptable for technical reasons. If they’re not sharp enough, or not blurry enough, or show some other reason – perhaps on viewing it larger the gesture isn’t right – someone blinked, or something – I remove the 5-star rating and it disappears from my cut. I could use flagged picks, but I use 5-stars or nothing. Just the system that fits my way of thinking. But there are lots of ways to use ratings, and this isn’t about that. An image is either a yes or no to me.
- I make photographs because I love lines, light, and moments. I think these are our basic building blocks of composition, no matter what you’re shooting, so that’s the Holy Trinity of my editing process. It’s the same I use when I have the camera to my face. What are the lines doing? What is the light doing? What’s the moment? If there are no lines, light, or moment that wows me in some way, I move on and the images don’t get a second chance until step 3.
2. Home Edit.
A small 11″ MacBook Air can only show so much. By the time I get home I’ve got a roughly edited body of work that I immediately export to my main computer, a 27″ iMac. I don’t wait. I can do everything else, including sleep, unpacking, and laundry, while files are being ingested. Then:
- I back the files up to my RAID unit, and immediately to one of two off-site backup drives.
- Convert all images to DNG and delete the Nikon NEF files. All I use is DNG. This takes a while. I let the computer do its thing overnight.
- Look through all 5-star images, remove spots, tweak histograms, do any dodging and burning.
- Remove anything suffering from monitor-shock, that sick feeling you get when that killer image on the back of the camera doesn’t pass muster when you see it at 100%. Hit 0 and the 5-star rating disappears.
- Create a collection. Best of Hokkaido. Run a Lightroom backup again.
- Print work. This often takes days or weeks. Happy not to rush this stage.
3. 6-Month Edit.
I’ll come back to this work. I always do. I let the best rise to the top immediately, and let the rest sit. New images show themselves with time, while that same time shows me weakness in images I initially thought stronger. Printing that work helps with this too. After living with those prints for a few months, even a year, I’ll pull some from my collection, replace them with others. I’ll often do a 1 or 2 year Edit as well, for the same reasons. A little distance helps you see things differently, often more clearly.
I think the most important part of the edit for me is in not allowing myself the luxury of the angst-filled second-guessing. I know photographers who lose sleep over picking images. Is it strong? Isn’t it? Is it a 3-star or a 4-star? I admit that my own tastes and ability to know which images are strongest to me is something I’ve acquired over 25 years, but listen, if you love the image, make it a pick (Love it, don’t just pick it because you need 12 mediocre shots. Love it!). You can un-pick it later. This isn’t Sophie’s Choice. If you don’t like an image, let it lie, you can change your mind later during the 6-month edit. What is most important is that you know what you like. If sharpness is the be-all/end-all for you, then allow that to guide you. I’m not sure most people are moved first by how sharp an image is, and I’m not either, so I go with composition and gesture first, which is why I use the small thumbails. I can see little else except the lines, shapes, balance, tension, and colour. The rest doesn’t matter. Don’t let this process grind you down.
It’s important to remember that any task will fill the time you’ve budgeted for it, and if you’ve budgeted to just “edit until I am finished,” then you’ll be going for weeks. Give yourself tight time limits. Work within that constraint. You’ll begin to get a little more ruthless and that’s a good thing. Photographers can afford to have fewer delusions about their work. To misquote Hemingway, “photograph drunk, but edit sober.” Anyways, this is my way, it doesn’t have to be your way, but if any of this is helpful, run with it.
For more, I’ve written an articles on The Art of the Edit, and Missing The Shot / Capturing the Moment, in the first two issues of PHOTOGRAPH which I publish, adore, and am happy to shamelessly promote. You can see them here at Craft & Vision.
Great post David. I love the yes/no nature of it and the demand for excellence rather than “which image sucks less”.
and for making my future edits a little easier too
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Great post David. I love the yes/no nature of it and the demand for excellence rather than “which image sucks less”. There’s some great lessons here for all types of work, not just photography. Thanks for getting me to think a little differently about my day job today (and for making my future edits a little easier too).
I will simply add one thing to your workflow: cataloguing. So when importing to LR I always take the time to allocate generic keywords that fit the session before importing, then refine the keywords on the 5-stars. For instance, I would assign “Hokkaido” to your whole series just before importing. That way, years later, you’d be able to find all pics from that place.
Great post, thanks,
Good point, Marcel. I didn’t add it because I’m the worst for keywording and I rarely (inconsistently) do it myself.
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I know you have probably said this in a previous comment from another blog entry but can you tell us which two online services you use to backup your files? Your images inspire me however I am in need of some online backup and right now that inspires me more.
David, I don’t use cloud-based / online backups. I use off-site backups in the form of hardrives I shuttle to and from my my loft and my manager’s office several blocks away. I know many who love services like Backblaze, and they seem like a good idea, but I’ve yet to find a compelling reason to switch and to deal with uploading such massive data.
When you’re shooting bursts, or somehow or another end up with many images in a sequence that look approximately the same on the back LCD or in small thumbnail, do you 5 star all of them or do you try to zoom in and differentiate at that time?
I’m wondering because when I shoot bursts it’s either because I’m trying to grab the moment or trying to nail focus on a moving subject, and often I can only determine the best in a sequence when I’m viewing at some level of zoom.
I wasn’t sure from your description above how you handled this. Any suggestions?
I don’t edit anything in-camera. I 5-star an image when looking at it on my laptop, and then you can zoom in to your heart’s content. When I have a camera in my hand I am shooting, not editing.
Hey folks, I deleted a few of the comments, but tried to delete only the ones that weren’t adding new information, and only because the long reply threads were breaking the template. I got the comments and apologize for having to do this. I’ll try to get the template tweaked so it better handles comment threads.
Just to make sure I understand your process…when an image doesn’t get the 5 star rating, it’s gone, like permanently gone?
When you go back for your 6 month edit, you are just looking among your 5 star images and not the ones that didn’t make that cut, correct?
Les, didn’t mention deleting because I rarely do it. My 6 month edit from the entire 8000 images, minus the odd one that was so bad I deleted it when I came across it. The point of the 6 Month edit is to see images I had initially discounted, as well as re-considering the stuff I initially chose as 5-star. Storage is cheap, I don’t delete much.
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Thanks for sharing your way of working with us. Recently, I had the problem of ‘only’ 2000 frames when coming back form my Norway, Lofoten trip. And to be honest, I really like your thought of “it is a 5 star image or nothing” approach. I will try it immediately tonight 🙂 Hopefully it will work!
Thanks for the post! Just curious, does this process change much for assignment work? Do you send unedited files for proofing and then edit the ones that they like or something of that nature? Obviously it will depend on what the client needs and wants, but I was just curious if the workflow changed with a customer and a deadline.
After some trouble with DNG files getting corrupt suddenly in LR I don’t use DNG anymore. So do(n’t) my friends as they had similar experiences. I am still working with Adobe techs to try to figure out what happened. They had no luck so far. The concept of DNG is nice, but the problem is that they are likely to get more easily corrupt than RAW (+xmp) files. Without you noticing. For example if you move your DNG files to another drive for archiving (that’s one known, rare problem with DNG files as Tom Hogarty confirmed to me). Also your DNG converter software could have a bug and introduce problems.
For these reasons I would never trash my original RAW files that came out of the camera. So at least I am save if I’m in trouble with a DNG file later. That’s just my experience, I’m happy for everyone who loves DNG and never had a problem. [knock on wood]
hmm Daniel…i don’t follow… Why you think that DNG can corrupt more easily than ‘standard’ RAW? ’cause each file (extension doesn’t matter) you have can corrupt during transfer (that’s why it’s good to copy files using ie. CRC check).
Michal, if you are happy using DNG that’s perfect. Just be aware of the “hidden risks”.
DNG does safe your editing (changes in exposure, contrast, converting to b&w etc.) in the file itself (what’s said to be the big advantage of the DNG format).
So when you edit a DNG file in LR it will always rewrite/resave the whole file. The more you edit, the more often your DNG file will be rewritten/resaved and the bigger is the risk of something getting corrupt somewhere.
If you edit a RAW file instead LR saves the editing in the xmp sidecar file (leaving the RAW file untouched). The RAW file just gets saved once (after import) and shouldn’t get altered later at all.
If you use DNG with LR and uncheck “automatically save xmp” that should leave the DNG untouched and give you more safety. But I guess most photographers haven’t set it up like this as they WANT to save the editing IN the DNG file. From my experience, this can be risky.
That DNG files can get corrupt when you copy/move them to another disk that’s what Tom Hogarty told me, the rare cases Adobe has seen with corrupt DNG files.
Anyway, I’m back to working with the RAW files for some years now and never saw a corrupt image again.
Daniel… i got your point (if i understood you well) but can’t agree with saing that “…when you edit a DNG file in LR it will always rewrite/resave the whole file” because (as far as i know) LR doesn’t work like that. Every change you do is saved in LR Catalog file not in picture file itself. The biggest advantege of LR in comparison to other apps is that original files are not touched.
Guys, please correct me if i’m wrong.
As I said, it depends on your LR preferences, if you have “automatically save xmp” activated or not. You can do the test yourself and see if the date and time of the files (in the OS X finder) changed after you edited. Hope that helps.
I think what you mean is that LR is “nondestructive editing”. Yes, that’s the case. You can always revert back to the original, unedited image (if it’s not corrupt). But all your editing steps (exposure change etc.) are saved in a header space of the DNG file itself. So when you send your DNG file to PS it will open and PS will know that you changed it to b&w and made it brighter etc. You won’t loose your editing outside of the LR catalog. And for being able to do that the whole DNG file has to be rewritten/resaved every time you work with it.
Btw you can also notice the difference when you do backups. If I edit RAW (+xmp sidecar files) only a couple of KB (the xmp files) change and will be updated on the backup very fast. When I edited DNG I always had a lot of MB or even GB changed and backing up took significantly longer. That’s another reason why I prefer RAW +xmp.
I evolved a similar workflow when I was shooting a lot of minor hockey. Come tournament time, rough cuts where done at the rink between games, field edits at the hotel room. That’d boil down the 500+ images per game down to 30 or so. Final edits (down to about 6-7 per game) done after the tournament for inclusion in the team’s yearbook.
I’m a strong believer in letting work sit for a while so I’m not emotionally attached to the image and can really look at it and see if it grabs me the way it did when I first took it.
I’m going back to the hockey images of 6 years ago to put together a portfolio based on those images. Don’t have a working title yet, it’s jut P05, the fifth project I’ve got planned.
And when it’s 6 months later, do you look through all the images again, or just the 5-starred ones? The former would seems like a lot of work, given that you do not actually delete very much…?
Thanks for sharing this David. I find these “behind the scenes” posts interesting. I actually use a similar system but I might over complicate things a bit. Cutting down images if definitely necessary with high speed cameras like my 1Dx!
In 2 Home Edit, point 1 do you back up only the 5 star images? What do you do with the rest? I often find I can’t bring myself to delete all my “less good” images.
Hi David, Thank you for the insight into your method of taming this beast. I’ve been looking into some cloud storage options, such as Bitcasa and Crashplan, as an alternative to off site backup. Have you ever thought about moving your stuff to the cloud?
Great post about your workflow, very useful. I edit similarly to you – edit in, not out. I haven’t really thought about a 6-month edit though. I will now though if time allows.
Great post and very helpful. I especially love this : “If you find yourself looking at a sequence and asking which image sucks less, do yourself a favour – they all suck.” I had to laugh as I pictured myself doing this. I think the only recourse is to get back out there and make more images.
I love this. Quick question. When do you delete forever? Or, do you let the zeros sit on your drive?
For some reason it causes anxiety for me to have a bunch of mediocre images sitting there. At the same time, I often fear the delete. 🙂
Dusty – I delete the stuff that’s completely irrecoverable but the rest I leave. Doesn’t seem worth my time to go through and delete. Storage is cheap. It causes me anxiety to waste time 🙂
Good point! 🙂
The “rejected” flag in LR is a great tool for that first round of cuts, as described in the field edit step above. I use this pretty ruthlessly in sports shooting, as well, where you either “have” the shot, or you don’t.
Aye, I am also curious about the DNG conversion. Also do you keep all your files in triplicate? Did you keep all 8000 files or do you purge bad ones?
Darren – See the replies above re. DNG. Yes, I keep it all in triplicate. I purge the very worst and obvious crap as it comes out but I really dont have the time to sit and delete the worst stuff intentionally. Storage is cheap.
Thanks for sharing the process, it is very useful. Why use DNG instead of NEF? I noted you delete all NEF.
Roger, let me drop a line here 🙂 ’cause i moved to DNG from CR2 and i’ve found it very useful.
DNG is an open (great advantage!), loosless format written by adobe – it will be (should be??) working even if NEFs or other cameras RAW formats won’t be supported by apps anymore (imagine you’ve got brand new camera with brand new raw format and you probably won’t be able to edit them in your old app – converting to DNG would help).
Adobe created DNG format, inter alia, to help exchanging files (i.e. between users ora apps).
What more – DNG doesn’t change anything in RAW file and it’s still lighter than other RAW formats (in my case it’s 2MB less per file) 🙂
I wonder why camera producers still doesn’t introduce that format as a feature in camera (very few of them does in compact cameras).
David, is there any other reason to use DNG?
Nope, you nailed it. Thanks for jumping in. Does that answer it, Roger? I much prefer DNG.
Cries of impending doom since 2004. Yeah, thanks Adobe.
I have RAW files from various camera (Olympus, Nikon, Fuji) from 12+ years ago that can be read by 99% of the current Raw applications available.
Regardless, saving your file image file in a format such as TIFF (or JPEG) is just as important in my opinion.
Personally, I don’t bother with the time involved with converting my uncompressed Raw .NEF files from my D800.
To each their own, do whatever works for you but remember that DNG can disappear almost as easily as ‘proprietary’ Raw formats. (Something that is not likely to happen anyway!
True, but DNG is open-source. Proprietary is not. Each to his own indeed, but DNG can’t disappear – we have the keys to the building, which we do not have should Nikon or Canon lock the doors one day.
I also have ben using DNG for several years on all my CR2 images. While multi-terabyte HDs are pretty common place now, after taking several thousand images on a shoot, converting to DNG does save a lot of space. Maybe my depression mentality thinking. Also DNG gets rid of those annoying sidecars.
Great read, David. Enjoyed your edit process and love the “don’t polish the turds – if it’s not right let it lie”. Thanks always for sharing your thoughts with us.
Thanks for sharing David. I’ve adopted a similar process a few years back and it’s been a life saver. You’ve giving me two new things to pounder: not worry so much about the failure rate (I’ve been keeping track of this..), and the idea of the 6-month edit. Great ideas…thanks so much!
Killer as always!
Any chance you’ll be joining us in Arizona for the Overland Expo this year? I bet Emily would love another road trip…
First round of Whiskey is on me!
Some great shots from the trip. My bet is that a bunch of them will make beauiful prints for you to enjoy.
I feel your recommendation to set a time limit on the edit is a critical point. Thanks for the emphasis.
One comment. Using the star rating works for you. I have broadly the same process, except that I hit P (for pick) or X (for reject). Then in the me u just select Delete Rejects. It’s intuitive and very fast.
Thanks again. Keep going.
P.S. The things shared at the Vancouver Gathering have been great. If oh have another one, I’ll be there.
hi David, i find this “manual” very useful for me… i was shooting during the weekend and later on got no idea how to pick the best of the bests, spending half a day on that [sic!]… think i will try using your way of ‘edit’… i find it easy – as you said – painless…. thanks a lot!!