My Lightroom Workflow

If you are a Lightroom user, you have surely developed your own way to work through your images and organize them on your disks and catalogs. There is no truth here, just what works for you. But maybe you are frustrated and are looking for ideas to mold into your own system. I’m happy to share a few.

I will try to walk you throw my own workflow, adapted from ideas I have evolved from others. Time to “pay forward”! It seems to be working for me, and has evolved over the last couple of years as I met new challenges.

"Working" means: it keeps me reasonably tidy in the process. It can be perfected, especially in forcing greater discipline in the metadata tags addition, titling etc., but by and large, it does the job.

The fundamental idea is to try and spend as little time as possible in Folders, which I treat as good old three-ring binders for filmstrip holders! I use, instead, quite heavily, nested Collection Sets and Smart Collections. Treated right, they are really... smart!

Ready for it?

Folder Structure

Simple. Inside my LR Master folder, I have created several Subfolders by year ("M-20yy") and inside those, twelve "M-20yy-mm" Subfolders by month. All images get imported there and not initially renamed nor sorted in any other way.

I also backup my images to a parallel backup folders structure, essentially the same "B-20yy" and "B-20yy-mm" structure for the original RAW files. Redundant maybe, but it has saved me from disaster a couple of times already, allowing me to re-import the images to LR after some screw-up or other. (This is not to replace the global backup process that I use for all of my disks. It’s really belt and suspenders.)

Collections Structure

I make heavy use of nested Collections Sets. I start the system with a master Collection Set for each year, "Work 20yy".

Inside, things diverge from the Folder structure. Rather than going on a month-by-month structure, I create several Collection Sets, by subject or location. For example, a set called "2016 Paris" and one called "2016 Berlin".

Each Collection Set will contain a Collection which will contain all copies and virtual copies of images on that subject (say, "2013 Paris All"), plus a few smart collections. More on these in a second.

Most important, though, is another master Collection Set called "Work in Progress". Nothing goes to other Collection Sets before it's handled end-to-end here.

The WIP set contains a set called "WiP-All", where all copies and virtual copies of the images that need processing reside.

It also contains several Smart Collections, which are set to automatically sort by Copy Name all copies of images in the Wip All set. My Copy Names are "Original", "BW Basic", "BW Processed" If you do color, they'd probably be called "Color Basic" and "Color in Process".

In order to track images that deserve processing but I have not worked on yet, I assign the Purple Flag to these, and they will be ready for processing in another "WiP to be Processed" Smart Collection that will select from Copy Name = "Processed" plus Color Flag = Purple.

I have started using SilverEfex a couple of years ago, so there is now a final “SilverFX” smart collection where the output JPGs created with the plug-in will be found. More on SilverEfex later on, as it adds some complexity to the workflow, distracting from the basics.



Import first, of course.

First I copy the card images to the backup folder of the month, so "B-20yy-mm". You can do duplicates on import via Lightroom too, but I find this to be quicker and less error-prone.

Then I import via Lightroom to the current "M 20yy-mm" Folder, without renaming but converting the proprietary RAWs to DNG.

So I end up with the RAW originals in the backup tree and DNGs in the Lightroom master tree. Upon import, I normally assign very basic metadata tags, normally camera name and location data (this can be done later too, but get it out of the way now).

No work will ever be done in folders!

Move to Work in Progress

Take the last import and do two things:

-    Rename using a sequential structure such as "M-20yy-mm-xxxx". Renaming post import preserves the original filename in the library, which can be useful for 'reconciling' to the backups which are never renamed. You may prefer to rename everything upfront, backups included, but I like to keep a link to the as-shot filenames.

-    Move the whole series to the "WiP All" collection, and apply to all images the Copy Name : "Original". You should immediately see them populate the "WiP Original" smart folder.

Ideally, you should not touch Originals at all, but I confess to cheating occasionally and running through them to spot immediate rejects and/or correct blatant exposure issues using the quick develop cursors. This can save otherwise good images from rejection later. Editing has to wait for now!

Create Virtual Copies

So, now, stay within your WiP All set and do yourself a favor. Immediately

•   create Virtual copies of all images and as soon as they are created and are all selected, type in a new copy name, either "Color Basic" or in my case normally, "BW Basic". This allows you to always quickly go back to an original image with no processing applied, and floow an alternative processing path on a different Virtual Copy.

•   apply your favorite standard processing preset to your Basic copies, pushing contrast a bit etc.. This is especially important for BW images, to avoid being “distracted” by colors as early as possible in the process. Never look at color Originals again!

At this stage you should see your "BW Basic" folder nicely populated with your first set of BW images. Time to get to the real work!

First edit

The BW Basic folder is not yet a post-processing area. You don't want to invest time in postprocessing everything. It's more like a first editing area. You are allowed to cheat a bit again while you are editing, but don't overdo it. Just correct basic exposure parameters, if needed.

So, now, use that Pick flag to do your first cull. Walk through the BW Basic smart collection aiming to keep no more than 25-33% of your images. You are allowed some leniency here because you have not yet properly adjusted for contrast etc. Just focus on composition and subject strength at this stage.

Move to Processing

Time for the big guns.

Apply a filter for Pick Flags in you BW Basic smart collection. Select all picks. Move to the WiP All collection (all selected picks should stay selected), and create virtual copies again.

The reason why you want to move to a collection and not create virtual copies from the smart collection is that your copies will be automatically named "Copy 2", and drop out of the virtual collection; you can only find them in your basic Folder and need to drag them again in WiP-All....

With virtual copies still all selected, rename the copy from "Copy 2" to "BW Processed" and also apply a Purple Flag.

At this stage, your picks should show up in the BW To Be Processed smart collection inside the Work in Process set. If you will, apply a few more metadata keywords, to allow future sorting by keyword. Most times, I wait for the next edit to do this, but it’s true that the more keywords, the better.

Now, work through the To Be Processed smart collection and do what it takes processing wise. Use you own presets, mostly focus on contrast clarity and your favorite amount of vignetting and/or grain, tweak color filtering options as needed. It's your recipe, I won't go there. Don’t aim for perfection, there are too many images at this stage, you’d be wasting your time. You can process further after the next step).

Let the images simmer a little while, ideally overnight...

Another editing and processing round

Now that you are happy with your first round of results, time to apply tough love to your work, and edit again. Pick flags have already been used, so now move to stars. Start with a single star. Again, try and aim for 25-33% keep rate only, so that you are going to have one-stars only on 6 to 10% of your shoot.

Apply a filter for one-stars, so that the only images showing are your strongest from the shoot. Now you have a smaller number of them to spend some more processing time on, so go ahead and tweak the development a bit more if you will. Most times, the least the better!

More importantly, now it's the time to do the most vital bit, which is to finish the labeling metadata thing, and to add titles and captions. With fewer images, this will not be a chore!

Of course, you may always want to revisit old "finals" and try alternative takes. Remember however not to keep tweaking the "first final". Much better to start anew with a fresh virtual copy, best if from your Basic virtual copy so that you avoid layering similar development actions onto each other. Just remember to call the new processed copy with a sequential numeral. It will still work in the automatic smart folder sequence.

Done, almost

You are now done! You can proceed to clearing the purple labels, and your images will be lodged nice and clean in the "BW Processed" smart folder. Just remember that the really good and fully processed ones are just the ones with one star: these are you “real” babies.

Moving out of Work-In-Progress

Time to clean up and leave an empty desk for the next batch. So, simply, go to the WiP All collection in the Work in progress set, and move all images to the appropriate master collection, say to my "2013 Paris All" collection in the "2013 Paris" Collection Set. If you have created the same smart folders for original, Basic and Processed in that collection set, the relevant smart collections will populate automatically.

Other smart collections

Don't stop using smart collections once you start.

For example, I use a "Best of" smart collection to automatically pick all images with Pick Flags plus One Stars in a given year. Useful starting point when you decide, at some point, to go one step further in your editing and give two stars to the best one stars and so on...


From here, therefore, apply the star filter again just to be sure that you are working on the “good” images, and Export to JPEGs for uploading to your website or distribute otherwise. The export can be done to the same folder as the original RAW image, or to a separate Output folder structure. You decide.

If you use Lightroom’s publishing tools, you can normally upload directly from the application, for example to Flickr, without creating dedicated JPGs, which keeps your hard drives lighter.

I also label everything that has been uploaded to my Flickr page with a blue label, as an easy reminder from within Lightroom itself: alternatively, you can add a “Published_to_Flickr” keyword to the metadata of the image.

External processing engines – Silver Efex

My personal postprocessing flow relies heavily on Lightroom’s powerful features, but I have never been a fan of LR’s grain engine. Grain is an essential aspect of the film-like style I like to give to my BW images, and LR is less then ideally suited for it, with grain which is closer to digital noise than to actual sliver-halide behavior.

Bring in Silver Efex, the extremely powerful postprocessing tool now owned by Google and freely available for download (thank you, Google, you are nice for once). While I have not yet decided to fully “decamp” to SE for my entire processing flow, I am now using it to give a “final pass” to the images already processed in LR.

SE requires creating heavy TIFF files if you want to maintain track of the full history of the adjustments you apply, but for the moment I’m going minimalist, using essentially one of the SE presents customized to add Tri-X-style grain to the final image. I then output directly to a full-size JPG that goes back to the LR catalog, sitting in a dedicated SilverFX folder structure and with a “SilverFX” copy name assigned to the image. The file will inherit all of the DNG metadata you had assigned originally, and will sit in the same Collection Set as the original image, to be picked up in the “SilverFX” Smart Collection I have created.

To all intents and purposes, the SilverFX folders and the smart collections with the same name contain today my “best of” work, and are the basis for all of my exporting, publishing and printing activity.


That’s it. This workflow is longer to explain than to actually use. It provides some discipline to your work, and if handled respecting the sequence and not seeking shortcuts, it will provide you with a catalog of images where you will always know what is where.

If you have questions, I’ll be happy to respond and help you adapt your own workflow to at least some of the tips and tricks I’ve found useful for my own work.