10 Steps for a Creative Workflow

I've often found myself defaulting to a 'safe' approach, whether for shooting or post-processing, if I don't push myself to do otherwise. There's always a natural tendency to stick with techniques I know work and defaulting to the presets that I've developed over time in Lightroom. Having a few defined workflow steps goes someway to helping me assess each image individually and retain some creativity in my editing rather than always applying the same formulas. I don't follow all these steps every time, although perhaps I should.

1. Backups - Always. I make two local copies on external drives before deleted the images from my memory card, plus one cloud copy (currently I'm using Amazon Drive).

2. Define the aims (story, hero, mood, feeling, single image or series).

3. Select a shortlist of images, or single frame. I use the star rating system in Lightroom to first select the images I think have potential, then narrow them down to a shortlist that I will start to process (and assuming that others will still be 'discarded' later).

4 Confirm the format and crop. Again to be refined later, but I don't want to work on an area of an image that I'll later remove.

5. Remove or reduce distractions. Given my aims for the image or series, can I simplify the image without compromising the narrative or authenticity.

6. Emphasize the mood. Usually for me this is about color, brightness and contrast, but could be grain or textures too.

7. Direct the viewer. Where do I want the viewer to look? Composition, brightness and contrast all draw the eye.

8. Review and refine (multiple iterations). I usually work on images over at least a few days, reviewing them multiple times. Stepping away and coming back often gives a fresh perspective and I'll repeat many of the steps above. Invariably I'll notice something that I missed on the first pass, sometimes an image that I like that I somehow passed over the first time I looked. This may even include changing your aims and vision for the images as you see more how they might work together.

Often, the first look is completely discouraging. The picture almost always looks like a failure. The color’s not right. The exposure is off. Or, more often than not, the subject’s just not worth it. The first edit of the whole shoot is usually equally disheartening, because I’m seeing all of the off moments and mistakes. (It’s at this time that I silently vow never to take another photograph.) By the second round, things are looking up; the processing has been tweaked, the total rejects have been removed (but not discarded, not yet), and the shoot looks like it may be salvageable. At the end of the third go-through, things look pretty good, and it’s just a matter of cherry-picking the best from the lot. And by the time that’s completed and I have my ‘selects,’ my optimism has been restored and I can live on to photograph another day.
— Gregory Heisler, 50 Portraits

9. Second opinion. At some point I'll usually seek another trusted opinion. Not that I'll always agree, but another set of eyes and thoughts on the images usually highlights something I've missed.

10. Output. Final refinements of the images and output for print, social media, my website or a client gallery.

This might not all work for you or you might have your own system, but if you're feeling stuck doing the same type of processing all the time, maybe some of the steps above will help.


Credits: My processing workflow was initially based on suggestions by David DuChemin that he posted a few years ago, but I've adapted them over time to fit my own needs and approach.