The Art of Curating Images

As photographers we are all very good at creating images, lots of them, thousands upon thousands of them every year. Some of us, myself included, are not so good at curating our images.

The verb ‘curate’ means to: select, organize, and look after the items in (a collection or exhibition). For most photographers this boils down to how do I organise my images effectively in a tool like Adobe Lightroom, PhaseOne CaptureOne , Apple Photos (on a Mac) or a whole host of lesser known, free and open source organisers and decide which ones I want to publish (whether that be over the web or print in some form).

As a Lightroom user I have been refining my workflow for a couple of years now which seems to be a continuos process of improvement as I learn more or to take advantage of new product features. For 2017 I have made a few more workflow tweaks, prompted by the year end activities on my catalogues and backups, which I thought I’d document in a blog post, as well as giving some more general thoughts on image selection.

As discussed in this post I keep all my images for a year in a single catalogue. For any given shoot, I keep images in four separate subfolders as follows:

  • CameraRaw – the unprocessed images (i.e. ‘.ORF’ or ‘.RAF’ files in my case), straight out of camera.
  • Selected – images I have or will be editing (in Lightroom) in some way (I export images to this subfolder as ‘.DNG’ files).
  • Processed – images that have been further processed in Photoshop or other image processing software (I export images to this subfolder as ‘.PSD’ files).
  • Output – Images that are published (I export images to this subfolder as ‘.JPG files).

I use this scheme for rating my images.

Rating Classification
* Keep image (i.e. export to the Selected subfolder).
** Image worthy of development in Lightroom and/or processing in Photoshop. Will be exported to the Processed subfolder in the latter case).
*** Image worthy of being published on social media (will be exported to the Output subfolder).
**** Image selected for client (also exported to Output, or another dedicated folder, print ready).
***** Highest quality image, suitable for wall art and sale (also exported to Output, or another dedicated folder, print ready).

During the year the plan was to keep all that years images (i.e. across potentially all four subfolders for every shoot I do) on the SSD drive of my MacBook Pro, backed up to external drives regularly. This allows me to work on images at any time while on the move without carrying backup disks with me [1]. At the end of the year I would then move all images off my laptop to external media and create a new catalogue for that year. Any further processing is then done on my primary back up drive with further backing up to a secondary or even tertiary drive.

The problem here was that I was carrying around on my MacBook Pro a large number of Raw images from the shoots I had done, probably 70% or more of which I was never going to touch. Many of these were copied multiple times as large ‘.DNG’ or ‘.PSD’ files taking up even more space. Last year I just about made it to the end without filling up my SSD (250GB capacity). This year then I have decided to change my approach as follows:

  1. When copying images off the memory card I copy them straight to a folder on a backup drive. This folder follows the naming convention I will use on my MacBook so for example for images from a London photo walk on 2nd January I create a folder 2017-01-02 London Photo Walk with a subfolder CameraRaw and copy images to that.
  2. The only images I delete are ones that are complete failures (i.e. accidentally pressed the shutter, extreme over/under exposure etc). Everything else I keep.
  3. Before deleting the images from the card I create a copy on a second backup drive using the same file structure.
  4. In Lightroom I do an import from the folder on the backup drive. This means the images will only be available whilst the drive is connected but that’s okay because of what happens next.
  5. Once all images are in Lightroom I select the ones I think are interested (i.e. assign them one ‘*’ then export to a folder 2017-01-02 London Photo Walk/Selected on the MacBook’s SSD (as ‘.DNG’ files). I now have copies that I can work with, without having to keep an external drive connected. I keep the original Raw files, unedited in Lightroom.
  6. I then use the subfolder structure discussed above when processing the images. See screenshot below for what this looks like.
  7. For backup I need to ensure the subfolders I create locally get backed up periodically but the original Raw files will remain backed up on two external drives and not touched again (unless to go back and export additional files to the local Selected subfolder).
  8. At the end of the year when I remove that years images from my local drive I just need to ensure all files (i.e. from the subfolders Selected, Processed and Output) get copied to the backup drives.

camera-raw-02

So this is the purely mechanical process I (now) follow for curating (i.e. selecting and organising) my images. What of the slightly less easy to define aspect of curation – namely knowing which images to actually select and exhibit[2]? Here are a few observations on this from my last year of making and managing images.

  • It helps to have a project or at least an objective when shooting. Even if you are shooting for a client there could be several objectives going on (“I’m looking for soft focus headshots”, or “I want some outdoor images of me in a variety of outfits”).
  • Of course you may think of a different objective later on which causes you to go back and reevaluate your Raw files and make a new selection based on that new objective or idea. Maybe you have an idea to write a blog post about street photography which cases you to go back and select new images from past work that meet that criteria.
  • Once images are selected for post-processing you may realise that for whatever reason the edit is not working (i.e. for the objective you had in mind). Maybe you cannot get the right crop or there is something in the image that is beyond your Photoshop skills to edit. Using me rating scheme that means an image never goes beyond getting a single ‘*’.
  • When thinking about where you will exhibit your images this too will have an influence on the curation process. Images I display on Instagram have a different purpose to those I post on this blog for example. Apart from the obvious format constraints in Instagram (basically square still works best even though different formats can now be displayed) the objective of what I am showing on these two platforms is different. I use Instagram to show a more or less continuous stream of current and older work whereas for this blog I tend to use images that support the concept or idea I’m trying to get across. There is also an argument that says images on Instagram that don’t get enough likes should be removed. The problem here of course is that older images, where you probably had less followers, may be good but just have less likes because less people saw them when they were first published.

I’m sure there are lots of other curatorial aspects to consider when deciding what images to keep and what to cull including some more philosophical ones than the purely practical ones I have listed here. Maybe that’s for another blog discussion though.

Notes:

  1. If travelling for an extended period of time and concerned about losing my images I backup temporarily to one of the cloud drives I use i.e. Dropbox, Google Drive or iCloud. Can take a bit of time but worth it for peace of mind.
  2. I’m using the word exhibit in the very broadest sense here. I don’t actually mean to hang in a gallery but anything that I would consider worthy of assigning three or more ‘*’ to.

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