Once upon a time, there was Lightroom, and only one catalog. All photos went into this catalog for editing and searching. Then the catalog got bloated and slow. Adobe started to charge a monthly fee to access the photographers own archive. It became impossible to tell what images were finished and which still needed work because of the size and way the RAWs were stored. Dealing with photos became drudgery and life was bad. The photographer needed an alternative photo workflow.
The workflow happened to the photographer, like getting hit by a bus. It was his own fault.
The simple workflow in the example isn’t even Lightroom’s fault. Any tool used the wrong way (thoughtlessly, without planning) will eventually lead to pain. This post is about creating an alternative photo workflow to avoid lock-in and retain flexibility over years and decades.
What is a Photo Workflow?
Whether you shoot a couple hundred photos a year or tens-of-thousands of photos a month, you have a workflow. You may have consciously designed it, or it may have just happened (like being hit by a bus).
A workflow is the process you use to shepherd photos from the camera, onto your computer, through the editing process, to deliver to the “customer”, and into your archive. It should include things like photo backups and easy ways to find and share old and new photos alike.
To have a complete workflow, you need to handle a number of jobs. I divide workflows into 2 general phases:
During this phase I need to:
- Import: copy photos from memory cards into an organized consistent structure on primary storage.
- Backup: make sure newly shot photos aren’t lost due to a hard drive failure or computer theft.
- Metadata Tagging: adding metadata like tags, description, location, etc.
- Exporting RAWs: producing image files from the edited RAWs for various purposes.
- Delivering Finished Images: allowing “customers” to download or buy their images.
During this phase I need to:
- Store: keep digital prints (JPGs) of all the “good” photos I’ve ever shot in an organized way.
- Locate: be able to easily find the original RAW, and depending on the workflow, the original catalog it is in.
- Search: finding particular images in a huge, long lived archive.
- Export Archive Images for Sharing: similar to exporting the RAWs above, but done long after the shoot has been finished and archived.
- Backup: making sure you don’t loose photos to a simple and common hard drive failure or human error.
Splitting the Phases
The simple scenario (one Lightroom catalog to rule them all) handles most of tasks a photographer needs with help from a few other tools and services. I got along using Lightroom, some external hard drives for backup and Zenfolio (this link saves you 20%) for image delivery for a long time. As time went on, it got harder, slower and more annoying to deal with.
The problem is not that one tool can’t do all the tasks. Rather, using one tool where all your images live forever locks you into that one catalog (and therefore tool). When it eventually slows down due to size, you have no easy way to split things out. To break free, you have to redesign your workflow. The best most people can manage is to start a new catalog. This is a form of semi-monolithic workflow, but not a very good one.
Why not avoid that hassle and just do it right to start with? If you have already started, the sooner you switch to a well designed alternative photo workflow, the less hassle it will be.
The Short Term Phase
The Import/Edit/Deliver phase should fundamentally be a short term phase. For any given shoot, I import, edit and deliver the photos in a relatively short time (days or weeks, not months or years). If I have unedited RAWs hanging around from a year ago, something is wrong. I probably just need to call it finished, export what I have edited, archive the shoot (freeing up space on my laptop) and move on.
The Forever Phase
The other phase, Archiving, is fundamentally long term. It’s entire purpose is to provide easy long term access to finished photos. I go back to my master archive over and over again. I still routinely search photos I shoot in my first year of photography. Your archive is of no use if you can’t easily find photos from any period in one place.
Your master archive is the long term hub of your photography world.
Separate Tasks to Break Lock-In
For me, lock-in occurred because I used one Lightroom catalog for everything. All of my metadata was locked up into that Lightroom catalog. I imported new photos there. Because everything was in one catalog I could search through them later which seemed like a good thing. However, I could not easily modify my workflow to use other tools or switch tool vendors.
Using one tool for both phases of the workflow resulted in lock-in. Once you find yourself in this situation, there is no easy solution. You have to stop and reorganize into an alternative photo workflow.
Breaking lock-in involved exporting all my edited RAW files to full res, high quality JPGs with all that metadata embedded in them. I carefully named and organized the JPGs into folders so I could find the original RAW files easily and systematically. I retired my old monolithic Lightroom catalog and have almost never used it again. By adding my archival JPGs into a separate master archive tool, I separated the Import/Edit/Deliver phase from the Archiving phase.
By isolating the 2 phases from each other, I’ve made the tool I use for the Import/Edit/Deliver phase essentially pluggable on a shoot by shoot basis. I don’t use the RAW editor long term for any given shoot. If I like a new tool tomorrow, I can switch to it for future shoots. I’m no longer locked into a RAW editor because my archive also lives in it.
Choosing a Import/Edit/Deliver Tool Set
This is a big topic and deserves an entire post to itself. In fact, there are a whole family of sub-workflows in here (how to deal with retouches that need affinity, how to deal with star trails, how to deal with panoramas, etc, etc, etc). There are even specialty tools that handle part of this phase. For example, some people use PhotoMechanic for import and culling only.
I mostly use Capture One as the center piece of this phase, but occasionally use Lightroom or other tools. If you like Lightroom for RAW editing, you can keep using it for that. I use a project based workflow where each project gets its very own Capture One catalog. This keeps things bite sized and allows me to switch raw editors on a project by project basis. I archive my images separately from my RAW editor so I can still search everything in one place.
A key feature of a well designed workflow is to allow you to swap out the tool you use for this phase. It is a short term choice because the phase is short term for each shoot. Choosing a given tool is low risk and you can change your mind as often as you like.
The moral of the story is that your workflow should not require you to use a particular image editing tool!
Choosing an Archiving Tool
Because the Archiving phase is long lived, I chose carefully. There are a lot of options, many you probably haven’t considered.
During that process, ask yourself how you might switch from the tool you are considering to a different tool a year down the road. If the answer is “I can’t, I’d be screwed” that tool is probably a non-starter.
Archive tools should work with the well defined, well supported and rich image metadata embedded in JPGs and most other image formats. The image metadata includes things like tags, captions, titles, descriptions, contact information and copyright information. An archive tool should read and use that data to search your archive. It should be able to update that metadata as you refine your archive’s collective metadata.
Many tools do this by default or with only a small change to their settings. For efficiency reasons, most also keep a parallel database for quick searching and organizing tasks. That database should always be a mirror of the information stored in the files but in some cases might store extra information the file metadata can’t support.
How I Archive Photos
My archive contains high quality JPGs exported from whatever tool I used during the Import/Edit/Deliver phase. These are basically “digital prints”. They are good enough for most uses (including things like social sharing, printing, even light editing). However, if I need the “digital negative” (the RAW file) I can always go find it quickly and easily because of how I name my project based catalogs. Even if the original tool I used to edit it is defunct, I can always re-edit it in the current best tool, usually quicker and better than before.
Archives do not need to be image editors!
My criteria for an archiving tool is that it be able to store and use the metadata embedded in the JPG files I archive in it. If I update that metadata it should update the underlying JPG files’ metadata. In this way, the tool is mostly irrelevant long term. I can replace a current tool with any other too that can use that metadata.
My Alternative Photo Workflow
I use a free open source tool called Digikam for long term photo archiving. With a few tweaks it is a really good system. I have about 200,000 JPGs archived in it, spanning network drives and USB hard drives. They are are all searchable at the same time in one place. I can even search and see thumbnails for the images that are off-line on network drives elsewhere. Digikam is fundamentally desktop software so it lives on my laptop.
I chose digikam because it is open source so the billing model will never change to exploit lock-in. It’s free and licensed in a way that it can’t become paid. Digikam runs on Windows, Linux and OS-X so I’m not even locked into one OS. It will also likely always be available because open source software tends to do that. I should never find myself forced to switch archival tools. Regardless, embeds most of the image metadata in the JPGs themselves. In theory, switching tools, or even using more than one tool at a time should be no big deal.
Other Possible Tools
I’m currently experimenting with Google Photos unlimited storage as a easy online way to access my entire archive from anywhere as a secondary system. The unlimited terms require scaling the images to 12 megapixels, but since I still have a local full res/quality version in my master archive and the RAW file, that isn’t a big deal. There are other cloud based tools that may also be useful in parallel to Digikam and I’m exploring them as well.
There are a lot of options in this space, some cloud based, some operating system specific (iPhoto and now Photos on Mac), and some cross platform (Digikam and similar open source systems). Beyond that, there are commercial solutions. There is no reason you couldn’t set up a separate Lightroom or Capture One catalog called “master archive” and import all your exported archive JPGs into it.
Regardless of the tool you choose, the key question is “how can I switch away from this tool without loosing all my hard work?” A good workflow keeps things flexible and avoids lock-in.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.