Digital photography workflow on a Macintosh
March 14, 2005 7:18 AM   Subscribe

I am a Macintosh user who has just acquired a Nikon D70 digital SLR. Most of my photography experience is with film-based equipment; I have no experience maintaining a collection of digital photos. The software bundled with the camera seems questionable, and iPhoto drives me nuts. What do other amateur (or professional) photographers use to manage their photographs? Will iPhoto do the job? What habits should I develop? What software should I use? Any tips or tricks to help ease me into the world of digital photography?
posted by jdroth to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you have no experience, then iPhoto is probably as good a place to start as any. Regardless of what other people use, you probably don't need a steep learning curve right now. You don't specify why iPhoto drives you nuts: is it a problem with performance or (a lack of) features, or is it just unfamiliar ground? (iPhoto 5 is much better, if you don't already have it, by the way.)

Biggest difference between film and digital? Shoot lots. You don't have to worry about running out of film, so get out of the habit of shooting frugally. Take five pictures instead of one or two, and delete all but the best ones once you get back to your computer. (Of course, I've ended up with 200+ shots from one event and with no clue where to begin.)
posted by mcwetboy at 7:50 AM on March 14, 2005

(Not a pro, your mileage may differ.) For me, iPhoto is fine for browsing and organizing. Gotta have Photoshop for editing (it also has an image browser). Keep your originals, save anything you've modified under a different name. JPEG is lossy compression, but saving at maximum quality minimizes this.

A good habit to develop?

Backup anything you care about, to CD-R/DVD-R, an external hard drive, or both. Look for an external firewire HD bundled with a basic copy of Retrospect and set it up to run weekly, backing up your home folder.
posted by omnidrew at 8:04 AM on March 14, 2005

iPhoto for organizatoin. Think of it like iTunes - albums/collections of photos. If it's driving you nuts, tell us what you're trying to do that is driving you nuts.

And photoshop for manipulation. Realistically, there's a freebee on your mac (graphicconverter) but photoshop is really killer.
posted by filmgeek at 8:05 AM on March 14, 2005

Ixnay on the Iphotonay (or whatever)

What do other amateur (or professional) photographers use to manage their photographs?

Extensis Portfolio
posted by jeremias at 8:20 AM on March 14, 2005

I too can't stand iPhoto, mainly because it makes its own copies of images you import. I use iView Media. There's a Pro version and a... not-Pro version. Compared to the usual VersionTracker stuff it's a little pricey ($49.99 for the standard version, $199.99 for the pro), but it's the best I've found.
posted by TiredStarling at 8:23 AM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: I faced the same problem when I got my first digicam. I had to go from keeping all of my negatives in binders to a Hard Drive and CD system.

Basically, I shoot (and I shoot a lot) as many pictures as I want. I load them onto my machine. I pick out my absolute favorites and make really good edited copies with Photoshop and save them in a different location if I'm planning on working with them further in the near future. I make sure to keep a raw unedited version of every shot. Often, after photoshopping the bejesus out of something, I'll find myself going back to the original to start over.

All original files get backed up to CD. It is very rare that I delete any photos. I'm using Picasa right now, which is similar to Iphoto, but I'm still looking for a really good photo archive software. I'm also planning on adding a external hard drive back up component, as CD's can deteriorate.

Also, please, for the love of god, make prints. Too many photos live only on the computer these days and never get printed. Then as computers crash, CD's get lost, and files become obsolete we loose pictures. I will rip off dozens of 4x6's at a time. You won't regret it.
posted by trbrts at 8:24 AM on March 14, 2005

Response by poster: Right. I didn't mean for this to be an iPhoto pro/con thread, but since you're asking, here's what drives me nuts about iPhoto (I'm using version 5):
  • On my computer at least, it crashes all the time. Yesterday I downloaded my first batch of 200 images to iPhoto, was wading through deleting 90% of them, was nearly finished and iPhoto crashed. Even though I'd placed the photos in the trash and emptied the trash, when I restarted the program, they were in the library again and I had to re-delete.
  • It bugs me that if double-click a thumbnail to look at it closely, and then I make a couple of changes, and then I close the editing window, the changes stick without any sort of confirmation. I want a "confirm changes" dialog box to pop up. I'm used to working in Photoshop Elements where if I make any sort of change, closing the image prompts a confirmation.
  • For the life of me, I cannot figure out how to rename a "roll" after I've imported it. Surely there must be a way.
  • iPhoto is slow, even on a 1.8ghz g5 with 1.5gb of RAM. Why is it so slow? Is there something I can do to accelerate it?
I know that iPhoto offers great utility for some people. I have a friend who does computer training for grade school teachers, and this friend loves iPhoto. She amazes me with all her slideshows and printed books and web pages. But the darned program won't even let me re-size a photo, you know? :)

I've been using Photoshop Elements for a couple of years now, and I really like it. Does the full version of Photoshop offer anything that an amateur photographer really needs? Isn't there an Adobe photo album package similar to iPhoto? How is it?

How do other photographers work with their images? Do they use iPhoto? Do they just dump the raw photos directly into a directory and then examine them one at a time? Do they have many small programs for specific tasks?

How does digital photography differ from film photography? In one day of shooting, I've already noticed that hot spots are goiong to be a real problem. A photo might have a nice exposure but be ruined by one small reflection from the sun blowing away the pixels. (Clone tool, you are my friend.) Do people work with RAW images or just JPEG-fine?

I have tons of questions. When I get time, I'm going to dig through the forums on various digital photo web sites, but for now, I'm just looking for some basic advice.

On preview: trbrts, that's exactly the kind of advice I'm seeking. Thanks!
posted by jdroth at 8:32 AM on March 14, 2005

Dude, you immediately want to buy and read Real World Digital Photography, 2nd Edition. I'm not an experienced photographer, but I've been reading it, and it's full of discussion not only about how digital photography works, but also of the differences between digital photography and film cameras (including effective differences in focal lengths on digicams), image editing, the equivalents of concepts like filters, and lots more.

The authors are all long-time film and digital photographers, and even though much of the material is outside my experience, it really makes sense when I have a capable camera nearby to see what they're talking about. Highly, highly recommended. (Link is to the publisher's page; purchase where you like, of course, or check out your local library.)
posted by mdeatherage at 8:54 AM on March 14, 2005

Don't overlook Gallery. While it was meant for running a website, there is no reason you can't just run it locally. It isn't the prettiest thing out there, but it works well. The recent version are also much, much faster.

It allows you to create albums, sub-albums, sub-sub-albums. Voting, commenting, naming, various sort options, resizing, slideshows, etc.

What it doesn't do is help you print or burn pictures (although there are direct links to some of the photo-printing sites on the net). It is purely there to store and display.

Also, mcwetboy has a very good recommendation. Take a *lot* of pictures. Unless you are running short on space, there is no cost associated. Go through them later and delete what you don't want. I have gotten some great shots just by taking a dozen pictures of the same thing.
posted by bh at 8:59 AM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: I've been using a D70 and MAC OS X for around a month now, and the process I use is as follows. It is not very elegant, and I hope someone comes up with a better workflow, but FWIW this is what I do, and it gets the job done.

I shoot RAW + JPEG.
I don't use iPhoto or any equivalent (iPhoto just didn't "click" with me, and it doesn't seem to handle RAW).
I go through the JPEGs and delete any files that are obviously no goers (including the corresponding RAW file).
I then go through more carefully and decide which shots are the shots I want to keep. I am ruthless at deleting shots that don't make the grade.
I then open the RAW file in Photoshop, via the downloadable CS plug in, which I use to correct white balance. This plug in can do other funky stuff like correcting chromatic aberration, but it is usually just white balance that I need to correct at this stage. Note that by default, I have the working space set to "Adobe RGB" in Photoshop.
Once, I have done whatever needs doing to the image in Photoshop (e.g. dodging/burning/levels etc.) I save the image as a TIFF in a sensibly named folder.
If I want to upload the photo to the web, I then convert to working space sRGB, resize the image down, and save as a JPEG.
I then copy the original RAW NEF file into the folder along side the TIFF and JPEG, leaving me with 3 files.
Every so often, I will archive my Photos folder to DVD.
Long term I intend to store the images on a mirrored drive on my server to help guard against a drive failure.
posted by chill at 9:03 AM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: If you love wide angles (like me), you're in for some growing pains with DSLR's. If you love telephotos, you're in for a real treat.

I use Imatch to manage and organize photos, and burn onto DVD. I wouldn't even bother with CD's unless you either don't shoot much, or shoot exclusively in jpeg. Backing up (along with CD/DVD's if possible) on external harddrives are a good idea as well.

I don't have a lot to say about Photoshop, since I swear by CS and don't much experience with Elements. But the latest release of Elements is supposed to be much more feature-rich than the previous version, and Adobe has an upgrade policy from Elements to CS; thus, I'd start with Elements if you're unsure. Photoshop is the standard and a lot of editing resources are Photoshop-centric, and it's not worthwhile IMO to fight the momentum.

Many photographers like to use software tools that have built-in workflows to them, especially RAW converters. For example, Capture One has a series of tabs that you simply go through from the first tab to the last for each photo, doing corrections along the way at each step in a logical order without skipping anything crucial. Some people really like this as it gives a definite "path" as a workflow for developing RAW files. You only have to do this once, then you can use the setting to batch convert any other takes that were shot under similar conditions. Another RAW converter I've been experimenting with lately is RawShooter (free!), which has a useful slideshow mode where you can quickly scroll through your images full-screen (something akin to looking at slides on a light table) and rate them 1-3 as priorities to edit through. High-end RAW converters like these have many other workflow advantages to help you, such as saving your edits as separate "work files", i.e. saving your conversion settings to reapply them if you open the file again, rather than altering the originals. RawShooter also has some new widgets like a "snapshot" button that saves your current edit settings so you can keep tweaking, and quickly revert if you don't like where the edits are going. And so on. It's really impossible to tell what suits you without dabbling with them for a bit, but these are good starting points for RAW (along with Adobe Raw Converter and Nikon Capture).

FYI, most pros swear by Photo Mechanic, but I don't have any experience with that program.

Lastly, a previous AskMe thread about the D70 and RAW.

The most important thing with digital is to fully exploit its immediacy by shooting, printing, and enjoying things as they come, as much as you can (or want to). You'll have a much better idea of where potential (or actual) obstacles with digital lie once you've gotten your hands dirty (or dirtier) -- it's very easy to overstress the details at first. Just save all your original files, since you can always go back to them later. Even with a few years and tens of thousands of frames under my own belt, I still feel like I've just barely scratched the surface of digital photography, proving that there are always more details to sweat. :) Have fun!
posted by DaShiv at 9:42 AM on March 14, 2005

Glad I could help. Here is my other piece of advice.

Don't Chimp. I.E. Try not to go through our show your friends your shots as you shoot. It gets old real quick and then people will expect you to chimp wherever and whenever.
posted by trbrts at 10:14 AM on March 14, 2005

Definitely check out PhotoReviewer:
It's a very speedy and well designed sorter/viewer that works right off your media prior to downloading the images. And don't underestimate the power of PSCS's Browser window. Russell Brown has always got some interesting PS workflow tips going on:
posted by dpcoffin at 10:39 AM on March 14, 2005

omnidrew: Backup anything you care about, to CD-R/DVD-R, an external hard drive, or both. Look for an external firewire HD bundled with a basic copy of Retrospect and set it up to run weekly, backing up your home folder.

Also CD-R is ridiculously cheap, even here in Canada where the copy levy is more than the disk. Make off site backups. When I burn a backup CD I make four copies. One for use; one that goes in a filing cabinet to be able to make a new use CD if needed ('cause I've rolled over it with my chair or something); one get tossed in a box to be taken to my parents place and the final copy goes into my safety deposit box. Digital media is so cheap there is no reason you should ever lose your photos to fire/theft/flood etc.

I also make 4X6s of stuff I actually like. Prints can be had for as little as C$0.10 around here on sale and they are permanent. Even with all the off site backups I still have to maintain that archive. I'll eventually have to move the archive to new media (already started using DVD-R). Actual printed pictures can be tossed in a shoe box to be discovered 50 years from now.
posted by Mitheral at 10:40 AM on March 14, 2005

My workflow:

Move bare files from flash card into a dated directory on my hard drive.

Dump GPS log into the same directory.

Import directory into iView Media Pro.

Set up some basic tags and apply them liberally to the photos. iView supports "Location", "Event", "People", and "keywords". For this first pass, I usually just do "Event" ("Trip to Beach"), and Location ("Cannon Beach, OR"). Any that catch my eye get a "Best of" keyword.

"Best Of" get sent to photoshop (via the Canon RAW importer), and postprocessed for exposure and color levels.

Any that turn out particularly well go into my gallery or my photoblog.

I'm obviously not a professional. This is just what works for my humble (<3 0 shots per day)>
(For extra challenge, pick the worst photo of the day and try to salvage it. That can be loads of fun.)
posted by Laen at 10:49 AM on March 14, 2005

Oh, and on the long-term archival topic:

MAM-E Gold Medical discs are super-high quality (and also very expensive).

...If any Oregonians want to go in on an order, we could save some money by buying in volume..
posted by Laen at 10:55 AM on March 14, 2005

My workflow:
  1. Take pictures.
  2. Create new directory (in my /Photos folder) with the following structure: /YYYY-MM-DD - General Description
  3. Dump all photos into the directory (uneditted, straight from the CF)
  4. Open up my PHOTOS DB and tack on the new shoot. This is just a simple MySQL database with three fields: DIRECTORY, KEYWORDS, and DVDID.
  5. If I edit any of the photos, they go into a subdirectory /edits. Tack on additional info to the filename, for example, DSC_0007 - 5x7 crop.JPG
  6. When the /Photos folder is around 4.5 gigs, I burn the directories to a numbered DVD, then go into the DB and mark the DVDID field with whatever number the DVD is.
This solves every single one of my problems. First off, it's dead-simple. Second, there's no special interface required (the DB doesn't have to be MySQL, you could easily get away with a simple textfile). I keep all my "negatives" untouched, but also know where to look for any edits I might have made. And everything's nicely archived for safe keeping, yet simple to find when I need it.

Hope this helps.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:55 AM on March 14, 2005

Just wanted to point out that the newest version of iPhoto (with which I have a love it/hate it type of relationship) does handle RAW.
posted by jalexei at 11:10 AM on March 14, 2005

I too can't stand iPhoto, mainly because it makes its own copies of images you import.

Since you want to do this anyway, i.e. you don't want to leave your images ONLY on your media card, this saves a step.
posted by kindall at 11:52 AM on March 14, 2005

Civil Disobedient that sounds like a really good work flow. I do the same as far as directory names but I haven't interfaced with a database. I think I'll give that a try.
posted by Mitheral at 12:07 PM on March 14, 2005

While it's true that getting wider angle lenses for DSLRs (except for DSLRs with full frame sensors like the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II) can be frustrating, I think people are a little too overjoyous about their old 300mm telephoto now being a 450mm or 480mm telephoto. Effectively it is, but at a lower optical quality than if you'd bought the longer lens.

Why? When you use that same lens on a DSLR with a smaller frame sensor, your image is effectively being pre-cropped due to the CCD not being big enough to capture the full frame of light that your lens is letting through. The result is an image that looks like it was shot with a longer zoom, but you're not getting the optical quality that a 450mm zoom lens would have given you.

Think of it as the difference between APS and 35mm. APS can't match the quality of 35mm because the frame is smaller. And 35mm can't match the quality of medium and large format cameras because 35mm is much smaller.

That said, I'm thrilled with my D70, but not thrilled that I had to retire my 28-105mm f/2.8 lens when I switched from film to digital. Hopefully more manufacturers will follow Canon's suit and start putting out DSLRs with full frame sensors.
posted by cactus at 12:36 PM on March 14, 2005

My workflow is a bit similar to Civil Disobedient's:

1) Copy photos from card to Mac via a firewire reader.
2) Copy the whole folder to an external firewire drive.
3) Burn CD/DVD for backup then index with iView.
4) Browse and select images using Photo Mechanic.
5) Edit images in Photoshop and save in edit folder.

When I shoot RAW I prefer Nikon Capture's results (slow on Macs) over ACR.

See what works for you, adopt a workflow, and stick to it.

Renaming your photos with filenames containing date and location/subject is infinitely more useful than keeping names such as DSC_0001.jpg or DSC_001.NEF

EXPERIMENT. No film means no additional cost: try slow shutter speeds, blurs, panning with your subject, slow sync flash, rear sync, etc. Have fun with your D70, it's a great little camera.
posted by ig at 12:44 PM on March 14, 2005

Response by poster: I love my 20mm fixed focal-length lens. It's fun. But now with my D70 it's a 30mm fixed focal-length lens. That's not nearly as fun.
posted by jdroth at 12:57 PM on March 14, 2005

20mm FOV on a DSLR is tough; on the Nikon mount, your choices are Nikon's extravagantly-priced 12-24mm DX, Sigma's rather bulky 12-24mm, or wait to see how Sigma's upcoming 10-20mm or Tamron's upcoming 11-18mm pan out. The Nikon and the two upcoming lenses I mentioned are not backward compatible with your film equipment, and all four of them without exception are slow. There are no primes in this range unless you're willing to defish via software.
posted by DaShiv at 1:36 PM on March 14, 2005

Best answer: I shoot exclusively in RAW. Here's my general flow...

My naming convention/directory structure:
/Photos/YYYY/YYYY-MM-DD Short Description/photo.crw

The reason for the short description in the parent directory name is so it will be intuitive to browse even when not using a browser/manager (e.g. when just using finder or windows explorer).

1.) Copy from CF via firewire to a directory named for the given day/assignment, as described above.

2.) Drag that directory into iView to view preview images

3.) Go through the batch no fewer than 4 times: Step 1: View the photos to see what I got, Step 2: "Tag" the photos using labels: Near-Perfect, Decent, and Decent After Some P-Shop Work, Step 3: Delete anything that I'll never use, Step 4: Delete anything that won't be used that I missed the first time through. I still go through albums from time to time deleting stuff that I know I will never use. It's important to look at the photos months or years after because it removes temporary sentimentality that might be protecting bad images from deletion.

4.) Save the iView catalogue in a directory structure similar to the photos. I like iView because it's so lightweight, yet so versatile. Every time I've used iPhoto, I've always been annoyed with how slow and bloated it feels. I also enjoy the iView catalogue system (iPhoto might do this) -- it caches a thumbnail of your preferred size within the catalogue, so you can browse the catalogue without having access to the photos (e.g. laptop away from home, DVD not in the drive, etc). Storing the catalogues on your main machine will allow you to browse catalogues without having to load in DVDs or connect to the storage server. It creates fast contact sheets, batch renames, stores keywords, and exports to XML.

5.) Editing: most of my photos can be pulled successfully into Photoshop just by using the RAW plugin. In the RAW dialogue, I generally set the white balance to custom (set in camera via white card), and adjust the exposure (holding down ALT) to evaluate where the clipping occurs. If the photo needs brightening, I generally up the exposure a little and/or increase brightness. If the shadows are noisy, I'll use the plugin to reduce chroma noise. The only other thing I do in the plugin is modify size -- if I'm going to be printing over 10x15, I'll increase the dimensions in the RAW dialogue to preserve as much detail as possible.

As I mentioned, however, not all my photos can be pulled in via the RAW dialogue, specifically sunrise/sunset photos - see previous AskMe. For some reason, using the RAW dialogue loses a lot of detail in the highlights of these shots, which is unfortunate considering how many I take of this subject. For these photos, I convert from RAW to 16-bit TIFF using the proprietary Digital Photo Professional software provided by Canon (which isn't the most enjoyable application -- slow and ugly -- but it works). Then I edit them up in P-Shop.

6.) Since I make a lot of my photos available as prints, I have to store 2 versions of the final, edited file: the Photoshop PSD and a flattened, "printable" JPEG. The JPEG makes it easy for me to rapidly produce a print -- just find the file and upload it to a vendor (EZ Prints) -- if I'm printing myself, I'll generally go from the PSD. The PSD allows me to make modifications based on the print results. These files, like the RAWs, are stored in year-stamped directories as such:
/Photos/Raw Manipulations/YYYY/YYYMMDD_Shot#.PSD
/Photos/Printable Files/YYYY/YYYMMDD_Shot#.JPG

7.) ???

8.) Profit!
posted by Hankins at 2:33 PM on March 14, 2005

I want to have all my photo files 20, 30, 40 years from now. And I don't want hassle or cost to have this happen.
(While I work with a lot of graphics/images professionally, I'm actually more interested in preserving the normal shutterbug-type photo-album photos than the stuff I do at work. I work to live. Life is more important to me than work :)

So my approach is to forget using any particular software for a photo library. That's just asking to find yourself in a situation in a few years that today's equivlent would be having all your photos only accessible through a propritry program that is no-longer made anymore and only runs on Mac OS7, while you spend your free time and money hunting for obsolete equipment to keep your antique OS7 machine in operational condition.

The approach I have (which I imagine is far from perfect, but has served me pretty well for the last few years since it's inception) is to have the photos simply as files in an ordered structure of folders. The way you decide to structure your folders depends on what works for you (Mine simply go year/month/event[if more than one major event in same month] and further subfolders if more order/detail is needed).

The downside to this is that using any old image browser to scan the folders doesn't offer all the features of software designed to file photos, but the upside is that the photo library is just as easily searched whether I happen to be using a Mac, PC, or tablet at the time, and works using whatever software happens to be around. There is no platform or software preference. In other words, it just works, no matter what my situation is, because it's simple.

Then it's just a matter of backing up. Always have a copy on the hard drive of a different machine or an external drive (easy if you wanted to use the photos on another machine anyway, otherwise, perhaps only bother to update every few weeks/months, depending on how much you'd care about losing any stuff that isn't backed up yet) and in addition to that, at the end of each year, burn it to CD/DVD, using non-crap media, store them somewhere safe, and since discs don't last forever, every 2-4 years, re-burn the rest of the yearly-archives while you're at it, or burn to whatever the latest mainsteam data media is. (And obviously print the ones you like - photos that are never printed are just potential photos that never came to be, though the files are still useful for work/projects/other things)

When I say it like that, it sounds like a lot of work, but it's really more like a few hours every few years, and the rest of the backing up is virtually effort-free, as it happens at the same time as when I'm syncing data or transferring projects between machines anyway.

An external HDD is a great way to have your photo library with you at all times too. (I use my HDD mp3 player). Countless times I've been working on something and just needed an image, and instead of searching online, remembered a photo I've taken and just grabbed it from my library.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:56 PM on March 14, 2005

-harlequin-: The approach I have... is to have the photos simply as files in an ordered structure of folders.

iPhoto (v4) does this automagically. The Photo Library is structured with nested year / month / day folders. The metadata and thumbnails are in subfolders of each day.
posted by omnidrew at 10:51 AM on March 15, 2005

I use iPhoto4 extensively and its good enough. It gets slow and crash prone if you do not periodically burn off photos to disk and delete them from iPhoto. Get in the habit.

I am getting a drawer full of CDs and thinking about getting a small Firewire drive to use as a primary archive.

Also, be sure to remember every now and then to delete the iPhoto trash (deleting images just hides them). You know its getting heavy when the beach balls start spinning.

I once experienced a corruption of the iPhoto library (about 18 rolls I knew were there and where in the file system would not appear. iPhotoExtractor was a savior here.

I also recently had a CompactFlash card on an Olympus E20 at work go bad on me-- but PhotoRescue was able to extract the images, and worth the shareware price.

I use iPhoto to eliminate poor shots and basic touch up. I have PhotoShop assigned as thr editor, so if it needs more than cropping, a double click opens up pShop. Otherwise, quick edits are achieved with a control click. iPhoto does decent red eye cleanup.

I also use the flicker plugin to load images online. It works utterly flawlessly.
posted by cogdog at 11:31 PM on March 24, 2005

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