My Lightroom Workflow

After returning from a photo shoot or photo expedition, I will have hundreds if not thousands of images to process. This article describes the steps I go through to move my images from my camera into my catalog.

I assume you are using Lightroom Classic (LRc) – different from Lightroom (LR) (the cloud-based version). Also, I assume you already have LRc installed on your computer or laptop.

What is Lightroom Classic

What is Lightroom? Lightroom Classic? – everybody knows that… right?

Just so we are on the same page, Lightroom is a Digital Asset Management (DAM) System that includes a parametric image editor and several other image management modules.

Digital Asset Management

LRc and LR both provide an extensive set of tools for managing your images – your digital assets.

Parametric Image Editor

A Parametric Image Editor is one which does not change your underlying image. A Parametric Image Editor records the steps you take to make the underlying image render or print the way you want it to without making changes to the source image.

LRc and LR both use the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) module that comes with Photoshop. It is the exact same module. The difference is the user interface. The way the sliders are presented.


Lightroom began as a desktop application designed for Windows or Apple desktop devices. It quickly became the most popular application of its kind.

As the popularity of the camera phone caused the market for point and shoot cameras to evaporate, Adobe realized that they needed a solution that appealed to the iPhone user.

They came up with a solution which put cloud storage of your images as the foundation. They decided to use the popular Lightroom brand as the name for this new product and slapped classic onto the existing product.

I don’t use Lightroom (LR). I use Lightroom Classic (LRc). This article is about the latter and will reference the former only in passing if at all.

LRc Fundamentals

Where are your images?

When you begin using a DAM (Digital Asset Management) app, you need to realize you assign the responsibility of managing those assets to the app. You commit to touching them only with the app. Move an image with another file manager, and you just hid it from the app.

LRc will manage your images where they lie. If you have a collection already and want to import them into your LRc catalog, then LRc will add them in place. LRc will not move them, will not hide them, will not touch them. LRc will only catalog them.


The heart of LRc is its catalog. The catalog is a database. LRc will create a new folder on your system and create the database file inside that folder. LRc will also create a set of subfolders which will contain various objects such as image previews.

The catalog file and these image preview files will expand over time as you add images. This will eventually impact the available space on your disk. This shouldn’t be an issue unless you are using a small disk.

The catalog is the heart of the LRc system. It needs to live on your fastest disk drive to ensure best performance.

The Catalog File

LRc keeps every keystroke you make, every slider move, everything… in its database. If you lose or corrupt the database, you lose all your edits. Every One Of Them! Almost. If you configure LRc to write data back to the files, you won’t lose everything, just most of it.

LRc has an option for backing up your database. I have it set to back up every time on exit. I have the option to skip the backup which I do on occasion but backing up by default is my preference – I speak from experience.

Backup Strategies

123 Backup

123 Backup is a well-documented approach to doing system backups.

  • One represents the copy that is currently in production
  • Two represents the copy that is a local backup of the copy that is in production
  • Three represents the copy that is an offsite backup of the copy that is in production

Production Copies

I keep my images on external disks. My laptop’s disk is too small to handle my catalog of images, so I have them on two external drives.

Local Backup Copy

At one time, I had a Microsoft File History copying everything to another computer that acted as Network Attached Storage (NAS). This worked well for my second or local backup copy. Past tense as that system decided to become unreliable. Now, the local backup is a monthly disk copy – manual operation.

Offsite Backup Copy

Ideally, I would copy my files to an external drive and take it to a family member’s house where I would swap the drive with another. Doing this swap every other week would be good enough.

Unfortunately, I don’t visit with family members that regularly, so I have opted for a cloud-based solution. I pay a service to back up my files to their server automatically. (iDrive)

Cloud Storage

I don’t use OneDrive, (Microsoft’s cloud storage solution) for all of my images because it doesn’t handle external drives, and my catalog is too big. There is also a performance hit for using OneDrive this way. I suspect the same would be true for Apple’s equivalent solution.

I do save my LRc Database backup copies to a OneDrive folder however.


Ok, now that we have the environment set up, lets walk through the process of moving our files from the camera to the point they are ready for processing. For me this involves:

  • Importing Images
  • Culling Images
  • Rating Images
  • Cataloging Images
    • keywording
    • location (GPS) tagging
    • titles / captions / notes

Field notes

Before I get into this workflow, I would like to mention that I don’t usually take my primary computer with me on a photo safari. I find I just don’t do much if any editing in the field. What I do take is a Samsung tablet and phone. These devices allow me to copy my camera cards to another storage device, so I have a backup. I usually have enough cards that I don’t need to erase them until I get home.

Importing Images


  • Copy as DNG
    Copy your files from your media, add them to your catalog, and then convert to DNG file.
    DNG = Digital Negative file. An open standard from Adobe which replaces proprietary raw files like NEF or CR2.
  • Copy
    Simply copy your files from your media and add them to your catalog.
  • Move
    Move your files from the source location to the destination and add them to your catalog.
    Not an option for thumb drives and camera cards.
  • Add
    Simply add your files to the catalog where they sit.
    Not an option for thumb drives and camera cards.

File Handling

  • Build smart previews – I have this enabled
  • Don’t import suspected duplicates – I have this enabled
  • Make a second copy to – I don’t do this
  • Add to collection – Good way to group different jobs, locations, etc.

File Renaming

  • rename files – I rename most files I import to LRc
    • Template – [ library file naming ]
    • Custom Text – [ don’t use ]
    • Shoot Name – [ don’t use ]
    • Extensions – Lowercase | Upper Case | Leave as is

I always rename files out of the camera – my template is YEAR-MM-DD-{File number suffix}. The suffix could also be a sequence number.

The important thing here is that you want the file name to be unique to your catalog.
I don’t find custom text or shoot names useful. Because I don’t do portrait, family, senior photos, or (god forbid) weddings, I don’t need this extra noise in my file names.

Apply During Import

  • Develop settings – you can specify a preset of your choosing here
  • Meta data – Specify a preset that will include your information – Name | Address | Phone | Copyright
  • Keywords – add any keywords that are appropriate for your subject and workflow


Where are you going save the files to?

I save mine to a location on my local hard drive initially. They are separated by date. One folder per day.

After I have done the major post processing work, they will be moved off of the local drive onto an external drive. They end up in a structure that is one folder for each month.

Culling Images

How are you going to quickly review one thousand images to reduce the pile to maybe two-fifty?

I use the flag tools. I set a filter to show only unflagged images. Then I quickly decide if an image is a reject or a keeper. I might also add a rating at this point, but not always.

Use the Refine Photos command to move un-flagged photos to reject, and flagged photos to un-flagged. Now you can do a second pass, or simply remove the rejects and move on.

Rating Images

Which of those remaining images are there because they will be used? Which are the best? Not saying the ones that are left are bad – you did throw out the worst right.

I use the following rating system:

  1. or no star – simply unrated – there are plenty of other images, so I didn’t rate these. I won’t toss them because it takes more effort to evaluate this bunch than not.
  2. star – a snapshot – might be a family photo
  3. valuable – these images have some value. Perhaps as backup to some story
  4. online worthy – these may grace my social media feeds or my website
  5. print worthy – these are my better images – The cream if you will. The ones that I will hang on my wall.
  6. portfolio – These are my favorites – the cream of the cream

Here is a graphic I made to use as the End Marks that are displayed at the bottom of the left and right columns in the Gallery module of LRc

Cataloging Images

Currently, on import, I add a keyword to all images: keywords.add.[wf]. The [wf] indicates this is a workflow keyword. It indicates the image should have keywords added.

When I am happy with the keywords I have added to the image, I add another one: keywords.ok.[wf].

Using these workflow keywords, I can create filters and smart collections that tell me about the state of the image.

Wrap Up

So… We talked about what LRc is. We talked about DAM. We touched on Parametric Image Editors. We compared the new LR to LRc at a high level.

We discussed where LRc puts (or doesn’t) your images. How LRc tracks your images with the catalog – the database.

We talked about backup strategies and the 123 approach

Then we discussed workflow…

  • importing images
  • culling images
  • rating images
  • cataloging images

Each of these topics deserve a deeper dive. I may pick a topic and explore it in more depth in the future. I don’t claim to be an expert here, I’m only recording what I do.


There are lots of resources out there for Lightroom. I recommend Victoria Brampton’s books :

  • Adobe Lightroom Classic – The Missing FAQ
  • Adobe Lightroom – Edit Like a Pro

You will find both books on her website:

As a bonus, she maintains a discussion board for members where you can get your questions answered.

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