Guest Post & Photo by Stephan Bollinger –  Circle Stephan on Google+

The process of cataloging our images is one of the most important (and daunting) parts of our daily lives as photographers. Pixels are cheap, and we fill our memory cards with hundreds (if not thousands) of images on every shoot. All these images need to be managed and processed somehow, and a clever structure becomes essential.

Before I go into details and outline how I structure my Collections at my studio, please understand that my main goal is to be as efficient as possible. I’m a photographer and not an archivist, and I want to get the processing done (and the images delivered to my clients) fast because I’d be much rather out and shooting again.

When reading through this article, some steps might sound time-consuming, but in the long run, it will help you process faster, and make finding images, selections and delivered files easy and reliable in the future.

Let’s go through it, step by step:


There is no point in keeping thousands of images from each shoot, so before I even go ahead to create collections and start sorting my images, I spend 5 minutes to go through the entire uploaded folder and mark all images I don’t want to keep (mark them as “rejects”). Once I’m through, I display only the rejected images, to double check I didn’t select an image I’d like to keep, and once satisfied, I delete the files from my system. Considering the amount of time I spend to create images, these 5 minutes are well worth it, it frees up quite an amount of disk space, and makes the following steps faster as well.


For many years, we used to think in files and folders, and we were careful to not create duplicates of our images. Collections allow us to have our images in many places, without creating duplicates, since they only refer to the original file, on whatever hard-drive and folder they may be stored. For some, this requires a bit of re-thinking, in the long run, however, it becomes second nature.

The structure you create is very personal, and there is no right or wrong. While “designing” your structure, keep in mind however that you might start to work with a team one day, a studio manager or assistant, and any organized chaos (which may make sense to you) can be quite challenging for others. I personally tried various approaches, and have found my way, which has proven to be very effective. Depending on the shoot and subject, I usually create not one but several collections.

Within Lightroom, we talk about “Collection Sets” and “Collections”, in Apple Aperture you’d call them “Folders” and “Albums”, in essence, they are the same thing. A “collection set” is simply a container, which holds sub-sets or collections, and a “collection” holds a selection of referenced images. To keep it simple, I will just refer to them as “Sets” and “Collections”.

First, we need an overall structure, a series of sets (and these are just suggestions):


Let’s assume we photographed the winter collection for a fashion designer, with 2 models on set, and we have just uploaded over 1,000 images from today’s shoot. It is now time to create sets within our main structure.

Based on this example, we have one paying customer and possibly three more people requesting images: both models and the makeup artist. You may extend this list with stylists, set decorator, property owner etc. For a wedding shoot, you might have many more, the bride and groom, the bridal party, the parents, the guests, the owner of the wedding venue and the fancy cake maker. For this article, let’s focus on 3, the client and the two models. They all require different photos from the same shoot, the designer is mainly interested in his gowns, the models want mixed images for their portfolio and the makeup artist requires close portraits. Our workflow has to allow us to find, organize and deliver these photos quickly, and down the track, we want to know exactly which photos we sent to each, hopefully with just a few clicks. Sounds complicated? If you think in folders and files, it is impossible, but it’s easily done with sets and collections.

Let’s start with our paying fashion designer, and create a set within our main structure “clients”:

clients > CLIENT NAME

Since we (hopefully) work with our client again, we treat every new client as a “returning customer”, and therefore create a first “sub-sets” for today’s shoot within the designers set (and add further sets with every new job we create together). Considering that we might shoot the clients “winter collection” again next year, let’s use the current year and a descriptive name for our sub-set:<

clients | client name > 2012 Winter Collection

It’s now time to go back to the folder with our imported images, select them all, and create our first “collection”. To keep my workflow fast, I call it “All images”, and create it within our sub-set:

clients | client name | 2012 Winter Collection > All images

There are several good reasons to create a collection with all images, even though it shows exactly the same files as your imported folder. After a while, your list of folders gets very long, taking up a fair amount of screen real-estate, and switching between folders and collections becomes a time consuming “scrolling operation”, even on a 30″ screen. Once I’ve created my “All images” collection, I have access to all files within my designers set, so I can close the Folder structure, which eliminates scrolling up and down, and saves time. In the future, it also allows me quick and easy access to all photos produced today, without remembering exactly when the photos were shot, or where the files are stored on my hard drives.

Since we now work within Collections, we have to remember that some commands behave differently than in Folders. If we delete an image within a folder, the file is indeed deleted from the hard-drive. If we “delete” an image within a collection, we only remove the image (the referenced link) from our collection, the actual (original) file still remains on our hard-drive in our imported folder. If we flag, reject or rate an image within a collection, however, these attributes are system-wide and will be carried on to other collections which may hold the same images, as well as the original folders as well. This will play to our advantage.

Coming back to our designer shoot, and the 12 different dresses we photographed, we usually have quite an amount of images with the same dress, and the goal is to find the shots we like the most and to select the images we’ll be sending to the client for review.

The easiest way is to create separate collections for each outfit, and since we’re already inside the designers set, this becomes a very speedy operation. Within the “all images” Collection, select all images with the first dress, click the + button in the “Collections” tab, enter a descriptive name, and hit “enter”. Lightroom will create a new Collection with the selected images and place it right next to your “All images” collection. Go back to “all images” (the images will still be selected), scroll down to the next outfit, select all those images, create the next collection, and so on. This might sound like a time-consuming process, but in reality, it only takes a couple of minutes, even with hundreds of images. The benefits are well worth the effort. To be helpful down the track, I usually name these collections as “Look 1” plus a descriptive name, and my Collection structure quickly looks similar to this:

client name
2012 Winter Collection
All images
Look 1 – Red Cocktail Dress
Look 2 – Blue Coat – on white
Look 2 – Blue Coat – on grey
Look 3 – Black Hat

I number the looks in the order we shot them. When clients come back to ask for certain images, they ideally refer to images by filename. More often than not, however, they refer to the color (or name) of an outfit, a certain gesture or pose by the model, or talk about “the second last one we shot on the grey background” (or similar). Good and descriptive naming of Collections can be of great help in such cases.

So far, I have not mentioned any sets or collections for the models, for a good reason, I will come back to this in step 4. And to come back to the wedding example from before, instead of “looks”, you’d have the different stages of the wedding day, starting with the bride getting ready, the groomsmen having a beer, the bride arriving at the church, etc, etc, bottom line the exact same principals apply.


It is now time to rate our images, and usually, this is the most time consuming part (besides retouching, of course). There is nothing more daunting than to go through large amounts of images and select the ones we like, but with our separate collections for each outfit, we have already narrowed down our amount of images, and the task to find the right ones becomes much more approachable. Since we already deleted all the “reject” shots in step 1 (and eliminated all the blurry shots, strange poses and closed eyes), we can now click through the images quickly, and apply our initial rating.

Aperture and Lightroom give us many tools to rate our images, 1 to 5 stars, flags and color labels. It is smart to create a personal rating system and to stick to whatever system you chose. For speed and consistency purposes, we use the following rating system for initial, individual and final delivery:

As a first step, we click through all the images in each Collection, with one finger on the “1” key (to apply a 1-star rating), and one finger on the navigation keys (“next” button), to skip to the next image. Every image that might be a contender will get a 1-star rating, and we skip the “so-so” images. Throughout our entire image library, all 1-star images are regarded as “pre-selected contenders”.

Once we’re through all images in our collection, we set the filter to “1-star”, and quickly skim through our selected images. From this (hopefully much smaller) amount of images, we look for duplicates (images that look very similar, same pose, expression etc), and apply a “2-star” rating to those images we will send to the client for an initial review.

In most cases, this is already the end of our selection process, and we export small jpg files of all 2-star rated images and send them to the client (by uploading to our server or by email). We do so separately for each collection, giving our client a structured overview of the selected images. He will then return a list of images which should go into retouching. For other clients, and depending on the budget and agreement, we will already apply basic retouching to the 2-star rated images.

This brings us to the next type of rating: Colour labels. We use color label as “indicators”, not for rating, and apply different color label to different stages of our workflow. Uncolored images (generally raw files) have not been touched, images selected by the client for retouching are marked “yellow” (to be retouched), images with basic (initial) retouching are “red”, and final retouches and composites are “green”. This allows us to find the final versions of images instantly. And to keep things simple, we don’t use any other colors.

This system works, because at any given time, we can filter for all images we initially selected (1-star), which helps if a client is looking for an alternative version to an image we sent him, without going through all images again. We quickly find all images we selected as “candidates” (2-star), and we can filter for all images the client picked (yellow) etc.

So when do we use “flags”? We apply flags as temporary selection only, if there is a specific need for it.


Of course, we didn’t forget our two lovely models, who are still waiting for their images. It’s now time to address secondary deliveries. We have invested the time to select our candidates (2-star) images for each outfit, received the final selection from the designer, have done the retouching, and will now deliver an agreed amount of images to our models for their portfolios. To document, which images we sent (as digital files or as prints), we proceed in the same way as we did with our designer, by creating a basic structure, however within our “MODELS” set:

model name
2012 designer xyz winter collection
Look 1 – Red Cocktail Dress
Look 2 – Blue Coat – on white
Look 2 – Blue Coat – on grey
Look 3 – Black Hat

Creating such “secondary delivery” structures makes sense, since they are done in no time, and keep track of any delivered files. If I shoot specifically for a models portfolio, the model becomes technically “the client”, however, to keep my structure in tact, I’ll keep all images in a separate sub-set within the models set. This, however, will be the only difference, all previous steps will be the same.

So far so good, but the fun is not over, look forward to PART 3: THE POWER OF KEYWORDING.