Lightroom Photo Import
Martin Evening | Software Techniques | Published Aug 23, 2012
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom was developed as a workflow solution for photographers who need to import, organize, edit and output large numbers of images, particularly those in Raw file formats. And as with most software tools, there are multiple ways to go about achieving these goals. In this four-page article I'm going to show you what I consider to be the most efficient workflow for importing and organizing your images in Lightroom.
Lightroom is of course, a database-driven application which stores information about your photos in a 'catalog'. Upon initial installation, this Lightroom catalog is empty. You have to import photos into the catalog before you can do anything with them. Populating a new catalog with images is an ideal opportunity to carefully consider how you want to manage these files and establish a solid, consistent working routine. And the first thing to consider is how and where you will be storing the physical bits of your images.
Most of us have photo libraries that have evolved over time, typically with a folder-based heirarchal organization system. Maybe you have files organized in folders by client or subject name. Or you may have diligently created folders which indicate the capture date. Perhaps you have tried following one of Peter Krogh’s recommendations (as described in The DAM book) and used a 'bucket' system to segregate your master files. Or you may have just ended up with a 'total chaos' system that confusingly encompasses all of these approaches, perhaps with images scattered across multiple hard drives.
Lightroom can adapt pretty well to nearly any way you wish to structure your image storage. Note that the Lightroom catalog does not house your original images; instead it contains links or 'pointers' to where they physically reside on a hard drive or removable storage device. Having said that though, the more methodical and consistent you are in the way you import your photos, the easier things will be as you seek to manage these assets in the future.
My rule of thumb is that the amount of time and effort you put in to organizing your photos should be in proportion to the benefits you hope to accrue. For many hobbyists, simply being consistent in where they store their photos during import, while adding a minimal amount of star ratings and keyword tagging is likely to be sufficient. Those who frequently sell their images, however, may find the need to rigorously apply lots of keywords to their images so they and/or their clients can quickly sort and search through vast numbers of images.
Less is more
No matter which end of this spectrum you fall along, I strongly recommend that you manage all of your images with a single catalog. This is, in fact, how I handle my own photos. It doesn't matter if I am shooting for work or personal use – every photo gets imported into the same Lightroom catalog. You don't want to get in the habit of using catalogs to differentiate images. Lightroom offers tools that are much better suited to accomplish that. One instance where I absolutely do recommend using a separate catalog, however, is when testing pre-release, beta versions of Lightroom.
Lightroom's import dialog
In Lightroom 3 and later, the Import Photos dialog (shown below) has been much improved, making the whole process easier to understand and manage. You have the ability to work in a full screen view and manage the source and destination folders for any type of import.
|The Import Photos dialog lets you easily specify both the source (1) and destination (2) for the images to be imported. You can toggle between full size and condensed views by clicking the 'Show more options' button (in red).|
Transfers from memory cards
You can (and should) configure Lightroom's preferences so that with Lightroom running, the Import Photos dialog opens automatically whenever a card from your camera is connected to your computer. Upon inserting the card, the dialog opens with the images folder selected and the contents of the card displayed as thumbnails, ready to be imported to your desired destination.
Lightroom gives you the option to move, add (in place) or copy your photos during import. When uploading images from an SD/CF card, however, the only options available are ‘Copy’ or ‘Copy as DNG’. DNG is Adobe's openly documented raw file format. If I am working on a shoot or am busy, I’ll select the ‘Copy’ option and choose to convert the raw imported files to DNG later when there is time to do so. If I am not in such a hurry I’ll choose the 'Copy as DNG' option instead.
|This is the top bar in the Import Photos dialog. When importing from a card the two available options are 'Copy as DNG' and 'Copy'.|
While the Import Photos dialog does give you the opportunity to edit photos before you import them, your main priority here should be to get the files from the card safely onto a computer hard drive as soon as possible.
I don't even bother to scan through the collection and deselect obvious clunkers at this stage. Get the photos from the card into the Lightroom catalog first and decide later if any need deleting. The thing to bear in mind here is that the longer your images remain exclusively on the card, the greater the risk of losing your data. You only have the one copy, camera cards are small, easily lost and can also be prone to read/write errors. The sooner you offload what’s on the card, the lower the risk of accidental data loss and the quicker you can spot any problems such as corrupted files.
In the Source section of the Import Photos dialog there is an 'Eject after import' checkbox so that once you have finished downloading the card will be ejected. This can be useful on a Mac, as it saves you having to do so manually. At this point I always place the card back in the camera and immediately format it before I start shooting again. Formatting the card in the camera is preferable to deleting the image files via the computer. Doing so in-camera is good practise because it can help prevent file corruptions from occurring.
In the File Handling panel it is best to select the Embedded and Sidecar option for the rendered previews. This will make use of any previews already contained in the imported files to quickly generate some kind of previews in the Library module grid view, even though they will subsequently be refreshed and replaced with larger and more accurate Lightroom-rendered previews. Checking the 'Don't Import Suspected Duplicates' option is a good idea as this will prevent you from importing photos on a card that already exist in your catalog.
You can check the 'Make a Second Copy To' option and choose a destination to save backup copies of your imported files. This may slow down the overall import speed, but it does guarantee that when you carry out an import you are simultaneously creating backup copies. These backup copies should be stored on a separate, dedicated backup drive.
With personal work I generally don't rename files. I always rename files, however, for assignment shooting. To do this, check the Rename Files box and choose a renaming template from the pulldown list (shown below).
I prefer to create a custom renaming scheme by selecting the Edit… option from the Template menu. This opens the Filename Template Editor (shown below at right).
In the example that's shown above I created a custom rename scheme that incorporated the original filename number suffix into the renaming scheme. Using this renaming template, the four-digit number will be based on the original filename. There is a good reason for doing this. If every time you carry out a shoot you start the numbering from zero, most of the photos in your catalog will end with numbers from say, 0–1,000. By using this custom template the numbers will keep rolling over from one job to the next. If a client only has the last four digits in a filename to reference a picture by the chances are that only a few photos in your catalog will have that specific number, as opposed to nearly every shoot.
Apply During Import
The Apply During Import panel lets you combine Develop presets with the import process as well as apply metadata and keywords. I've already stated my belief that editing adjustments are best saved until all of the images have been safely offloaded from the camera card.
In addition, I am not so sure I like the results you get using Lightroom 4's Auto Tone preset. It should be pointed out here that when using this latest version of Lightroom, all newly imported images use the latest Process Version 2012, which has an updated auto tone calculation. When it works well the results look great. However, with a number of images the exposure settings can be quite far off, meaning I have to manually edit these later. And of course, you won't get a preview of how the image looks until after it is imported. So I'm hesitant to recommend Auto Tone as a good option right now.
For studio work I would instead recommend you establish appropriate develop settings for a test image first, create a new custom develop preset and select this as the starting point for subsequent imports.
I definitely think it is a good idea, however, to apply a Metadata template that at a bare minimum embeds your contact and copyright information. In the Keywords section below it you can add descriptive keywords describing the sequence of photos you are about to import, or the name of a sporting event or location the photos were shot in. For keywords to be most useful though, you will want to additional and more specific keywords to individual images after the import stage.
As I mentioned earlier, the decisions you make early on about how you organise your photos can have big implications for how your catalog of photos will be managed in the future. If you have a good system worked out you can create new folders each time you carry out an import. But this does mean one more thing you have to think about doing when importing (and be careful not to make any errors in the naming or folder hierarchy).
A simpler alternative is to initially copy everything to the same folder each time you carry out an import. This is part of what is known as a 'workflow folder' strategy, which was first proposed by Peter Krogh in his work, The DAM book. This method makes a lot of sense – every card import can be handled the exact same way and summarized using a standard import preset.
|In this view of the Destination panel you can see how I selected the volume drive 'Library-HD' and checked the 'Into Subfolder' option and named the new subfolder 'Import photos'. Files were organized so as to be imported 'Into one folder'.|
With a workflow folder strategy you first import everything to the same import folder and use this as a 'holding zone' From there you can move the files to a DNG folder after you have converted them to DNG and from there move them to a 'Photos to keyword' folder and after that decide in which folders they should finally be placed. This takes some of the strain out of thinking about where to put everything during the initial import stage.
Here is a schematic diagram showing how the import step (shown in the image above) can be the first of a series of workflow folders.
By default, Lightroom suggests new photos should be imported to the Pictures/My Pictures folder. This will be on the same volume as the operating system. And if you are working in the field with a laptop you won't likely have much option to do anything else.
However, if you are working from the home or studio with a computer system with additional drives, it makes a lot of sense to store the imported files on volumes other than that used by the operating system. This keeps the calls to the operating system separate from the disk write/read activity.
On the same note you might want to give some consideration to where the main Lightroom catalog and the Camera Raw cache folders are kept. These will grow in size as your image collection expands and should ideally be stored on a fast hard drive. Keep in mind though that the catalog must reside on a local, not networked drive. My personal preference is to use a large capacity SSD drive for the main Operating System hard drive and keep the Lightroom catalog and Camera Raw cache folders on there.
Even if your import process is not complicated, there are benefits to ensuring it is consistent. And Lightroom offers import presets to do just that. Click on the pulldown menu to the right of the Import Preset option and you can choose 'Save Current Settings as New Preset'. The preset you create will then appear in the pulldown menu.
Of course, the more complexity you add to the import process, the more beneficial a preset becomes. The example below shows how you might configure the Destination panel settings so that imports are automatically imported into newly created folders segregated by date.
Once photos have been safely imported it is best to separate the keepers from the rejects in the Library module using either the Grid or Loupe views. At a minimum it is a good idea to mark the images you like best using a one star rating. Do this early on while your memory is still fresh and you already have a good idea about which photos were the most successful.
As for those that don’t make the grade I would advise leaving them as zero star photos. And don’t delete anything unless it’s an obvious outtake. In fact, the only time I ever delete is in the case of a flash failure or accidental shutter release. With disk space being so cheap these days the the cost of storage is less of a concern that it used to be.
More importantly, you never know when the shots you thought were rejects might actually be useful one day. There was a time, for example, when you might have bracketed exposures in order to make sure you got one perfectly exposed image. Then HDR technology came along, allowing you to make use of all the bracketed exposures to produce an HDR file.
The sunset photo shown below was shot almost ten years ago and was processed using the then current Camera Raw 2.4 profile. You can see how there was some ugly banding around the sun, yet when it is processed using Process Version 2012, I can now achieve a much-improved rendering, thanks solely to improvements in the conversion software.
The moral here is just because an image may look bad or worthless now doesn’t mean it won’t be useful in the future.
Another classic example is a photograph that I used to demonstrate retouching in The Ultimate Workshop book. The model was shot against a busy wallpaper backdrop, and the client wanted me to retouch out all the loose hairs. This could have been extremely tricky to do but for the fact that I had captured a couple of photos of the backdrop only without the model. This lighting test shot that one might have been inclined to discard was actually to prove a valuable asset and was therefore well worth keeping.
|I used these images in the Adobe Photoshop for Photographers: The Ultimate Workshop book. This was an example of where the lighting test shot of the backdrop proved unexpectedly useful. By dragging this across to place as a new layer, I was able to sample from this layer to cover up loose hairs around the outline of the model.|
The key to working efficiently in Lightroom is to first establish a methodical and consistent approach to how you import your files. You don't have to follow all the advice that's offered here, but hopefully you'll have picked up some tips that will help you refine and improve your current workflow.
Although the Import Photos dialog may seem daunting, it pays to spend some time up front configuring settings that address your organizational needs. You can then save these combined settings as preset to be applied on a regular basis to all subsequent imports. From then on, it should be as easy as inserting a camera card, waiting for the dialog to pop up, selecting your preset and pressing 'Import'.
Martin Evening is an award winning advertising and fashion photographer based in London, England. He is also a best-selling author of instructional titles such as The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Book and Adobe Photoshop CS6 for Photographers.