Reframing My Photography Workflow

Due to some deeply irritating issues with both of my offsite backup routines, earlier this year I was forced to spend significant chunks of my free time queuing (and then waiting for) photos to upload. The one upside to this process is that it forced me to revisit old photo albums and critically review my photography workflow. At the time, my idealised setup was: shoot → upload → purge → edit → tag → caption. But looking over those older albums, this process began to show some problematic side effects. Sure, for the albums that I had completed, browsing through them was a joy; seeing all those old memories was absolutely great! But I'd often open up a trip and find a perfectly edited photo, and think: what is this? Why did I take it? What does it show?

Why? Because I'd never finished that album. Maybe I got halfway through the edits and life happened, or I got hung up on one particular shot that I couldn't quite get right. Either way, the result is that I hadn't added tags or captions to any of the photos, because that was the "final stage". It's the reward for finishing the edit and, until the edit is done, I don't do that bit.

This was a deliberate choice. The reason I had a particular order to my workflow was to try and force prioritisation of editing. For a long time, I'd only allowed myself to think of a set of photos from a trip or outing as "done" if they were actually edited. Why? Because if they weren't, I couldn't upload them to Flickr or social media, send them to friends or family, or print them. They were stuck as pixels on a screen (at best). So there was some logic behind that reasoning – it forced me (on several occasions) to push through and get an album into a shareable state.

But, on the other hand, it misses two important facts:

  1. My photo archive is primarily for me and my personal consumption. These are my memories and they matter most to me. Part of the main reason for keeping them is to record my life, and I don't need that record to be perfectly composed or exposed or colour graded etc. But I do need to be able to remember them and find them. That's why I have a Lightroom archive: to make memories recallable. Otherwise, I'd still just use folders on my OS, not a dedicated piece of software.
  2. Most of these photos will never get shared publicly; even if I upload them to Flickr[1], many are placed behind privacy barriers and only made available to my immediate family. But these days, even that is a big if. I actively hope to be able to upload more images to public places (preferably this website) in the future, but right now it just isn't a priority, and there are technical (and financial) reasons why it's not a simple fix. So I haven't uploaded anything to Twitter or Instagram or 500px in years, and only extremely rarely to Flickr. And even if I did start uploading again, I don't think I'd do so with all of my photographs; it would just be a couple that I particularly like or want to show off. Images that I could edit into that "picture perfect" state as and when I wanted to use them in that way.

So if the purpose of my photography is capturing moments in time that I want to remember, then why was I prioritising editing over archiving? Tagging and captioning allow me to preserve the context of a photograph; the story behind it. When I go back and look at my old photos, I don't really care about anything else. Sure, a pretty sunset is beautiful and a nicely composed capture of a rare bird will bring me enjoyment, but it's not quite the same thing. And if I do go back and something about the exposure or contrast bugs me, I can just change it, there and then. I can edit a photo whenever I want, but captions? Those are time-sensitive.

If I leave a photoset too long, I simply forget what the intent behind a given shot was. Sometimes it can be inferred from context – a lot of what I shoot are animals, birds, and landscapes, all things I can later revisit with confidence. But the stories behind the images? Those are missing. Worse still, I take a lot of photos in museums and galleries, mainly for my own interests and inspiration, but if I don't note down why I found something inspiring or interesting, I often can't get that back.

As a result, over the last year or so I've begun switching that workflow order to something closer to: shoot → upload → tag → purge → caption → edit. Obviously, the first two are fairly non-negotiable, but emphasising the archival context of the workflow has been massively helpful. I'll admit, it's more like purge → tag → purge-some-more, so that I don't waste time on photos that were test shots or completely out of focus (or accidentally taken), but in general, this process means that I can get all of the key information locked down in about an hour or two.

I'll put aside an evening, import my photos, scrub through them, add keywords, and write captions. Everything is still fresh in my mind, so I find even the purging part somehow much easier. I always did this early, but doing it within the context of tagging the photos forces me to think a little more critically about why I want to keep something, which often means I simply, well, don't. In the past, this had been framed as "I have edited this photo, therefore must think of a suitable caption". Now I consider a photo as "I want to remember this anecdote that I've recorded in the caption, so I better edit the photo".

The process is definitely not perfect yet. I still feel a compulsive need to caption every image in an album, but realistically many don't need that level of detail. I'm trying to train myself to feel okay skipping files, in much the same way I now feel fine to skip edits, but it's taking time. I think years of needing alternative text on images has made it feel wrong not to provide a caption, but again, that's not what these captions are for[2]. They aren't audio descriptions of the image; they're the hidden context outside the frame, the story behind it. And some photographs don't have much of a story: "Owl in a tree at the park" is not adding anything to a memory, particularly if the album it's in is titled "Central Park" and the previous photo was captioned "trees in the Ramble" 😉

But, overall, the new system has been working really well. Pretty much all of the shots I took in 2021 and 2022 are now properly "archived", with meaningful context attached to each photo. My keyword database has swollen and become much more useful (to the extent that I've actually begun categorising tags and ordering them in certain ways). Plus, the switch in emphasis has actually made editing somehow more enjoyable, too.

I still can't ignore edits entirely. Some things, like fixing particularly problematic exposure issues and stitching together panoramas or HDR photosets, are necessary to determine if a photo (or group of photos) are worth keeping. But outside of those quick fixes, I'm just editing when I want to. I'll be going through and tagging an image and inspiration will strike. Before I realise it, I'll have spent ten minutes adjusting the dynamic range and playing with the colour balance and have something I'm really proud of. Editing had begun to feel like a chore because I was having to do it in a monotonous sequence. Now, it's a creative outlet again.

In fact, the whole archival process ended up really capturing my attention this year. I must have spent a solid couple of months going back through countless old albums and just tagging them. At the end of a day, instead of playing video games, I would fire up Lightroom and spend an hour or two (or three, or four 😅) trawling through the highlights of my past and, at the end, getting a real sense of accomplishment. There are dozens of albums and thousands of photos that I still need to process, but I can look at this growing dataset and find out some pretty cool stuff about where I've been and what I've seen[3].

And that means that, as I begin to backfill the journal content on this site, I now have a whole bunch of additional information that I can capture. I have spot-lists from night drives in Kruger and hikes in the Galapagos; check-ins from four continents over two decades; meals and beers that I can log from dozens of countries; and countless events that I can tag as attended or visited.

I'm still refining the process and, I'll admit, that after the initial burst of enthusiasm, it has been a few months since I last dipped into the archives. Finding the time is always going to be the biggest thorn in my side for this kind of thing, but I now feel that the pressure and burden of finding that time are diminished somewhat. Finding a couple of hours shortly after a holiday or event or hike to tag photos is much easier than dedicating multiple nights to full editing mode, and then I can return to the edits whenever, without having lost anything. And that's a great feeling to have 😊

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  • <p>By reordering the steps that I go through when capturing photos I've been able to make my overall workflow more efficient and much more enjoyable.</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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