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Smart Collection-based Lightroom Workflow

A good workflow is something that every digital photographer needs, yet also something that takes a great deal of thought to put together. This article is a description of the Adobe Lightroom workflow Im currently using, which has evolved drastically over a few years.

In the beginning I just used labels to mark folders waiting to be processed, or just remembered all the shoots which were unfinished. But as my photo library grew this solution did not scale. When you are dealing with thousands of photos, or files of any type, trying to remember what needs to be done and constantly sorting through the pile becomes a tremendous waste of time. You need an efficient way to search. You need automation.

Adobe Lightrooms smart collections are a great way to solve this problem. With a carefully planned set of rules and list of smart collections, Lightroom becomes a powerful self-updating dashboard for your workflow. It frees the photographers mind from having to think about moving files around between folders, albums or collections and makes keeping a mental inventory completely unnecessary. All that is required is to process and export photos at will.

Only Lightroom Matters

Absolutely everything gets imported into Lightroom, even snaps from my iPhone. I used to keep RAW files separate from JPGs shot with camera phones or point & shoots, but this became troublesome because I was attempting to maintain two different databases of photographs. I should probably have my computer science degree confiscated for that brilliant idea.

So Lightroom is the basis for every image I produce. From here everything gets published out, to Flickr and SmugMug, to this blog, to iPhoto and to folders on my Home Theater PC for slideshows. If an image or a piece of meta data doesnt exist inside Lightroom, it doesnt matter. If I want to make a change to a photo, I make those changes inside Lightroom and re-export or re-publish the image.

The Culling Process

Once a batch of photos is imported I flip through them all and flag whatever I like. If I really like an image it gets a flag and one star. Everything thats flagged will eventually be processed, and the starred photos are what I consider portfolio-worthy.

Unflagged photos are the rejects. If hard drive space were more expensive I might delete them, but its cheap so I keep them around and will perhaps take another look at them some day.

At this time I also usually batch-assign keywords and GPS data. Titles are given at the time an image is processed.

Now, lets get into some smart collections.

Workflow Step #1: Sorting

The RAW Flagged, Processed smart collection shows me all the keepers Ive finished. Photos must match all of the following rules:

The RAW Flagged, Unprocessed smart collection shows me all the flagged RAW images that I have yet to processed. Images must match all of the following rules:

The RAW Unflagged smart collection shows me all of the rejected photos. Images must match all of the following rules:

The Starred smart collection shows me everything thats portfolio-worthy. Images must match all of the following rules:

The Processing Unnecessary collection is a manually maintained collection of files that Ive flagged and want to keep, but dont need to process. JPEGs that I think look fine straight out of a point & shoot camera or iPhone get dropped in here. Doing so allows me to build an accurate Processing Queue smart collection in the next section without bloating its image count with files that I will never process.

Workflow Step #2: Processing

The Finished smart collection shows me every photo thats considered done. Images can match any of the following rules:

The Processing Queue smart collection contains every image that is waiting to be processed. Its not really a queue since its contents arent processed in first in, first out order. I just randomly pick a few at a time to work on. But queue is descriptive enough. Images must match all of the following rules:

Workflow Step #3: Publishing

I publish photos to Flickr based on Thomas Hawks workflow. Images are sorted into an A list and B list. Each time I publish to Flickr, I first send a batch from the B list, then send one from the A list. Doing this ensures that contacts who only view the one latest image from each of their contacts will see my best work.

The Published to Flickr Manually is a manual collection of files that I previously uploaded to Flickr through their web form, from my phone, or from another application. This allows me to create smart collections that are aware of images that were uploaded to Flickr, but not via Lightrooms publishing features.

The Possible Flickr A smart collection shows me all of what I think is my best work, which I might want to put on Flickr. Images must match all of the following rules:

The Possible Flickr B smart collection contains everything thats not portoflio-worthy which I might also want to put on Flickr. Images must match all of the following rules:

The manual collections Flickr Upload Queue A and Flickr Upload Queue B contain everything Ive chosen from the Possible Flickr smart collections and decided to queue up for uploading at some point in the future. If you look back at the rules for both Possible Flickr smart collections, youll see that they automatically update themselves to not contain anything thats been queued up here for uploading.

These collections are also not true queues. I just pick images at random to upload.

The Ready for SmugMug smart collection lists every finished image that has not yet been archived to my SmugMug account. Images must match all of the following rules:

Workflow Step #4: Published

Finally, I have a few smart collections that show me whats already been published.

The Flickred smart collection shows me everything in my Flickr Photostream. Images can match any of the following rules:

The SmugMuged smart collection contains everything thats been archived online to SmugMug. Image must match all of the following rules:

The Blogged collection is a manual collection of everything Ive featured on Totally Sweet Photos. I manually add images to this collection as I blog them.

Thats It

This seems like an incredibly complicated workflow, however since the majority of the tools involved are self-updating smart collections I put forth virtually no effort in order to keep track of thousands of images. In fact, in the past I have managed lesser amounts of photos with fewer steps in what were much more complicated and time-consuming workflows. Thanks to automation, all I really do now is work on my photos and trust Lightroom to keep the books straight.


The workflow that follows is heavily based on “Workflow Smart Collections” by John Beardsworth. Where Johns purposes necessitate tracking recent shoots, title, keyword, caption & copyright meta data, and specific exposure settings I am merely concerned with simply processed vs. unprocessed and published vs. unpublished.