TIPS/TRICKS: My Workflow (Lightroom / Photoshop)

September 2, 2011

I suppose this post, by it’s very nature, is a little bit on the egotistical side. Nothing says narcissism like expounding on the methods you use to complete your work as if the collective like-minded masses are hungering for your wisdom. But…

I have read virtually every Photography Post Processing Workflow post out there… because up until recently, mine wasn’t working for me. Everything I read helped in some way, giving me a little tidbit which I could carry over into my practice. So… Having taken the last year refining my process… thought I’d throw my two cents in. Hopefully someone out there who is tripping over their own feet and needs a more efficient way of working can find something in here useful.

Time it takes to snap a photo: 1/1000th of a second. Time it takes to process that same photo: Potentially Hours.

It all depends on your style. Some photographers (or their clients) would prefer the look of the image directly out of the camera. Some desire only a bit of color correction, maybe a small crop, and that’s it. But some revel in the process of combining raw (that’s a little “r”… not a capital “R”) images with wonderful technology and creating a whole new look and feel to the product. I work in and love all three areas. Each image and each desired result should be taken on its own and the process reduced or expanded based on what you’re looking for.

In short… there is no “bad” way of working. The best way to retouch/process images is just like you shoot… however you’re most comfortable. If think the best way to shoot a family portrait is to stand it the back of a flatbed truck as it speeds by the subjects at 80 mph while you snap frames… go for it. As long as the end product suits your tastes and the clients needs, you’re golden. But… one of the things I love most about Photography is that you NEVER STOP LEARNING. So… that said:


Before we begin… I should note a couple of things.  I use Lightroom and Photoshop.  I am sure that much of what I do in one program, I could do in the other, and vice versa.  But, as I said before, this is how I’m comfortable.  What I am aiming to do here, is show the methods I use for reducing extra steps or having to undo work that has already been done.  Doing things in the right order is very important to me.

Step 1 – Import images (LR):

I import the images from a card reader into Lightroom 3.   I do NOT add any filters or lens correction to this because I like to go through manually and do much of that.  NOTE:  I import into the computer the FIRST CHANCE I GET.  I finished a shoot the other weekend at about 6pm… I began importing images at 6:30.  Occasionally, I will use the second memory card slot in the camera as a backup but I didn’t in this case because I needed it as a rollover due to the quantity of images I shot.  Either way… having your images living in only one place is scary as hell.  I had no desire to actually start processing, but knew that I’d sleep better with the images in two places.  On the card, and on the hard drive.

Step 2 – Initial Keywording (LR):

When I close down Lightroom, and come back in, I need an easy, fast way to bring up the images I’m working with.  I use the filter attributes in the Library module, so after the import is done, I ensure that “Previous Import” is selected on the left side of the Library Module and hit CTRL+A (Note: anywhere in here where CTRL is listed, substitute CMD on a Mac).  Once all images are selected, I Keyword with something unique, the model’s name for instance, on the right side of the screen in the Keyword section.  I also apply some of my more generic keywords like “Portrait” or “Landscape” as well.  The more defined keywords will come later.


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Step 3 – Get rid of the rejects (LR):

One of the reasons I don’t apply any correction upon import is because I want to see what the base image looks like.  And sometimes… even as wonderful as we all are at our craft… we take crappy shots.  Whether it’s just an awkward moment for the subject (a blink, for instance), or one of the strobes didn’t fire or whatever… you know by looking at it that this one isn’t going to make the cut.  For me, this is somewhere around 30% of the images.  But don’t get too hasty, there might be a great shot SOMEWHERE in the image.  If something is framed poorly or lit poorly, but the way the light strikes that one cheek on the model… you can crop it and maybe find a really nice image you never knew you had.  So… take this part slow and look at every corner of the image.

In Lightroom,  I use two fingers for this.  One hand on the RIGHT ARROW, one hand on the X button.  I look at an image, if it’s a reject, hit the X, and then press the right arrow to move to the next one.  This is also the time when I likely get the first view of the images beyond the camera LCD screen.  I can usually tell within a couple minutes whether it was a good shoot or not.  Once you’re done with all the images.  Do not Delete them yet.  I know that especially with Hi-Res RAW images, you’re talking about a lot of disc space that you may want to free up.  But if you are going to delete the rejects (CTRL+Backspace) do it when you’re done with the project.  You never know why you may need to get those images back.

Step 4 – One-Star ’em (LR): 

When you’re working with a lot of shots, especially if you have multiple shots of the same set up, I think being able to bounce quickly between them to pick the best ones is a good practice.  If you stare at any one image too long, you’ll find something wrong with it.  Yes… I think this is true for every image.  But for this first pass… don’t think too hard.  Let your subconscious take over.  Remember… you know what a good photo looks like… let your first, gut reaction be your guide.

I keep my right hand on the left and right arrows and my left hand on the “1” key.  I work in sets of similar set ups and similar composition.  If I have 8 shots of basically the same thing, I just move quickly, using the arrows keys, down the line, then back again, down, then back, etc., etc.  After a couple passes, usually four or five of them stick out as being better.  I can’t tell you why, but I know that when I get to them, I like them more than the others.  When I think I have a few picked out… I press the “1” key and give them ONE STAR.  Move on down the line to the next set up until you’ve hit all the images.

Step 5 – Filter (LR):

In the Library Module, I now go up to the attributes section and filter by all One-Star Photos.  If you are seeing photos from other shoots, use one of the unique keywords you assigned at the beginning.  Poof!  You now have just the images from this shoot, and just the ones which made the one-star cut.

Step 6 – Walk Away (coffee maker): 

I CANNOT UNDERSCORE THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS!  As I tell my kids when they’re doing their homework… you do not get bonus points for finishing first.  Assuming you’re not under a massive client deadline… walking away for at least an hour or even a day is very necessary.  I am my own worst enemy here as I also believe in momentum… meaning, once it’s going, don’t stop it.  But for certain steps here, walking away and coming back with “fresh eyes” is going to make a lot of difference.  When I take a break, I like to get a coffee, tinker on the internet somewhere, play a few levels of Angry Birds or do something else.  Go outside… take a walk.  It’s up to you.  Just don’t think about the images you’re editing.

Step 7 – Three-Star ’em (LR): 

This is where things get a little more… granular.  This is where I begin to zoom in on images… to see what’s really going on.  To look at the shadows, the light, the clarity of the part of the image I feel is most important.  Working with only the images that made the one-star pass… I zoom into the 1:1 ratio in Lightroom.  I take each portion of the image and see if there is anything that really sticks out as being wrong… and most importantly, anything I CAN’T fix in PS or LR.  No… you can’t “fix anything”.

Assuming everything in the image is “workable”… I zoom out.  Stare at it.  Is it conveying the emotion you wanted?  Imagine how you’re crop it… do you have room to crop how you’d like?  In the end… I strive to get down to two or three images.  These two or three will get the full treatment.  But the full treatment is time consuming… so I don’t want to waste time working with images I am confidant I’m not going to want in the end.  But… I do want options.  Once all the processing is done, you’re never quite sure until you get there how it’s all going to come out.  I may have one image at this point I am 99% sure is going to be “the one”… but when I put it through its paces, one of my “backups” ends up looking much more appealing.

Step 8 – Filter (LR):

Just as in step 5… filter down to just the images that made the three-star cut.

Step 9 – Walk away:

C’mon… that nasty level of Angry Birds is calling to you.  Or… better yet.  Call your mother… you don’t talk to her enough.

Step 10 – Crop (LR): 

Crop.  Pretty simple.  But is it? I think if you asked 10 different photographers for their workflow, you’d get 10 different answers about when to crop.  I do it here for a couple of reasons.  a) When we move in to the next step, we’re going to be working with the background, and there is no sense in working with a portion of the background you’re going to cut out anyway.  b) I don’t do it before now, because I don’t want to make such a dramatic decision which will effect the overall look of the images too early in the process.   I like to live with them for a bit before deciding what to do with them.

Step 11 – Retouch Pass (PS): 

Select the image you want to work with and perform Edit -> In Photoshop.  I ALWAYS use the option to either do it as a Smart Object, or to create a copy and then move it into PS.  You’ll see why in a moment.  Anyway… Photoshop should open and the image will appear.  [NOTE:  If you have on-camera talent or models in the room, you may want to use discretion when reading this part.] 

This pass is less about about stylistic choices (that will come later), and more about tinkering with the things we know we’re going to want to fix/enhance/reduce/modify/smooth/etc. regardless of what sort of processes you’re going to perform back in Lightroom later.  I tend to work in the following order, but it’s up to you.  Also, if there are other processes you want to do on your own here in PS… go for it.

  • Background: When shooting with a background for portraiture, sometimes it doesn’t extend as far to the edge of the frame as you need.  Here’s you chance to stretch that.  Obviously as little of this as possible the better, but sometimes it unavoidable.  Again… there are great tutorials on the internet which will show you how to do this.  If you’re shooting exteriors, I’ll leave it to you how you want to fiddle with nature to get that shrub to stretch longer than it actually does… or get rid of that that lamp post which is a bit out of place.
  • Healing Brush:  This is NOT about making that “Model Glow Smooth Finish”.  That will come later if that’s something you’re looking to achieve.  This is about blemishes, cuts, scrapes, scars, etc.  I apologize for any models who are reading… but you’re human, just like the rest of us, and you have imperfections.  It’s not that we don’t love you for who you are… it’s nothing personal.
  • Cloning Tool: I use this especially for wayward hairs.  In the moment of shooting, that stray hair hanging of the left shoulder may not be readily visible… but here’s where you can get it.  You can also use the Healing Brush here, but I find that the Cloning Tool, especially when you’re working near contrasting edges, works better
  • The Liquify Filter:  Again… sorry to the models.  If you don’t know what the Liquify Filter is… I advise you to research.  Don’t over do it though… making your model look like she’s stuffed into a corset or her breasts are injected with helium is not a good look.  Use sparingly.  Also… be consistent.  When you modify one image in a certain way, remember you’re going to have to hit the others as well, or when the images are looked at in sequence, it will stick out glaringly.

Now that you’re done, hit “Save” in Photoshop.  If you go back into Lightroom, there will be a copy of the image, stacked next to the original, with all the PS updates.  The advantage to this, is that you can now go make modifications in LR, and if you ever need to go back to do one more touch-up in PS, you can do so without having to lose all your LR changes.  They will be kept and the PS changes will be merged right in.

Step 12 – Color Labels (LR):

Now that we’re back in Lightroom.  I like to be able to quickly differentiate between the Pre-PS image and the post-PS image.  So… I use my color labels.  For the Pre-PS image, I color it Blue.  The Post-PS image gets colored Green.  So… we now have two images.  Both three-stars, both with the same Keywords and cropping, one colored Blue, one colored Green.  Being consistent about this through all of your shoots is a great tool.  I know, for instance, that if I go into LR and filter by Blue Color Label, I will see all of the images from various shoots which I liked, which are cropped, but which have not yet gone through PS touch-ups.  Makes it easy to find things later, in various states of processing.

Step 13 – Global Adjustments (LR): 

Okay models, this is your chance to take a dig at the photographer.  So… I’ll be you for a minute:  “You think you’re God’s gift to the DLSR, but here we are with colors that are off, exposures which are too hot and a contrast which rivals a 1970’s television.”  Yes… nothing about our image is perfect either.  Or, at least not by my standard.  So… let’s get to work:

This first pass is about global changes:  White Balance / Color Correction / Exposure / Contrast /  Split Toning / Etc. – No specific point on the image should be singled out, and dear God… no Vignetting or Adjustment Brushes yet, please.  Hit the sliders and see where they take you.  Altering these can greatly alter the mood of the image.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much.  I have about three dozen presets which I created which is where I start.  They range from small tweaks like punching up the contrast to overhauling the whole shooting match.  These items are all a matter of taste.  I’m very much a diplomat when it comes to images.  There are things I may not like, but if you tell me, “hey… that’s what I was going for”… then who am I to tell you that it was unsuccessful.  Have at it!

Step 14 – The Nitty Gritty (LR): 

Assuming the overall image is in a state where you’re relatively happy with it, now you can get down to the details:

  • Adjustment Brushes: Get into every section of the image.  Lighten the dark spots, darken the light spots, vibratize (totally not a real word) the unvibrant, etc.
  • Clarity: This technically is an Adjustment Brush, but since it’s such a integral part of the process, I wanted to break it out.  Adjusting the clarity of the skin of a model can be fantastic.  It can give you that ethereal glow and marble smooth skin that only grace the pages of Vanity Fair.  Use it and use it well… but the ability to over use this is right up there with the Liquify Filter in PS.  Too much of it and your subject will look like something out of a 1980’s new wave music video.   When I say Ethereal Glow… I mean that as  figure of speech.  They should not actually glow.  Unless that’s what you’re looking for.  You’ll know when you have over-done this.  Hopefully.
  • Graduated Filter: Basically the same as an Adjustment Brush, but to whole portions of the image with the ability to taper the effect in one direction or another.

Step 15 – Vignettes (LR): 

Some people hate ’em, some people love ’em… but if you want ’em… now’s the time.  Again, use sparingly.  Definitely less is more with these babies.

Step 16 – Five Star ’em (LR):

All the images that you’ve completed, set their rating to Five Stars.  Then… when you come in to LR at some later point, you can quickly filter by Five Star Images and see only your post-processed best.

Step 17 – Clean Up (LR): 

Take a moment before you export to whatever your chosen digital distribution method is, and do some clean up.  Get some more Keywords in here for instance.  Lightroom is such a wonderful organizational tool.  If you’re just using it as an image enhancement software, you’re only getting half the benefit.

Step 18 – Call your mother:


So… that’s that.  Just MY work flow… doesn’t have to be yours.  If you see anything in this that you think I could be doing differently/better… PLEASE let me know.  I am always looking to be more efficient in the way I work.

Happy Shooting… Happy Editing…



  1. Fascinating — thank you! I like the efficiency, and have been looking for applicable workflow tips myself. Being more haphazard and only using Elements, many other descriptions haven’t applied, but this is a process I really get. I am a big fan of keywords, but have gotten behind on my own work.

    One question: wouldn’t steps 2 & 3 be better switched? Why keywords before deleting? Maybe I’m missing something.

    • Thank you for reading! A good workflow is something that is as unique as the way a photographer shoots.

      Regarding your point about steps 2 & 3. You make a valid point. I only Keyword first because I’m doing it on import. It takes only seconds to do it that way and at that point I’m only applying very general keywords. If, on the off chance I go back and un-reject one of the images, it’s already keyworded. But again… If you want to do it after you’ve thinned the stack already, that would be very easy as well.

  2. TO –
    i enjoyed reading your workflow post.

    But – you are missing a key component to LR. catalogs.. though maybe you already used them and decided against them?

    when i import – i create a catalog for the shoot. i have a folder called ‘clients’ – within that a folder for ‘hillary baby shoot’. then in that folder – i create 2 sub folders. One called ‘shoot’, and called ‘selects’. I put them all into the shoot folder.

    the selects become your 3’s. then i ‘flag’ as picked the ones i like.

    that’s how scott kelby taught us in that conference i went to.

    but.. like you said – gotta do what works for you!!

    great read though. thanks for sharing.

    • Scott who? Who’s that chump… Never heard of him. :-). Yeah… You and Kelby are spot on. There are so many different tagging methods in LR that you can you all sorts of methods. Your point about Collections is great though… They are totally useful and keep you from having to filter by attribute or keyword in the Library module. Thanks!

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