Managing your Photo Workflow with Lightroom

In this tutorial, I’m going to try to walk through how we manage our photos using Lightroom on the Mac. Disclaimer: there are lots of different ways to manage photos in Lightroom…this is just how we do it.

Lightroom Workflow

You are now an image format guru - you understand the pros and cons of each file type. Now, how should you use these various types in a simple, sane workflow that lets you get the most bang for your buck?

Here’s what I suggest and what we personally use.

Taking photos on your camera

Set your DSLR to capture images in RAW format. This will give you much more flexibility with your edits in Lightroom/Photoshop. Depending on your camera, the files may be in universal RAW format (.DNG) or the Nikon RAW format (.NEF) or the Canon RAW format (.CR2).

Internal HD vs External HD

Generally speaking, your internal HD will be much faster than your external HD. This is because most modern computers use SSD for their internal drives which, without getting into too many details, is much faster than the old spinning magnetic hard drives. Because of this, I prefer to do the initial import and work on photos on the internal HD. For the purposes this discussion I’m going to refer to these as IHD and EHD.

Where to store things?

On the Mac, you automatically have a folder called Pictures in your user directory on the IHD. I created a directory there called “Lightroom” to store the Lightroom Catalog files and another directory called “To Sort” to put the photos when they are imported.

On the EHD, I created a directory called “Photos”. Within this directory, I created a directory called “Photo Shoots” (for storing client work) as well as a directory for each year. This is where we archive, which I’ll elaborate on later.

Lightroom catalog files?

Lightroom does not edit your actual original images at all in reality. It maintains a catalog of the images it knows about, metadata about them, previews of each file (thumbnails, larger previews, etc) and a list of every edit you have made to each image. This catalog is extremely important because if you lost it, you would still have your original files but NONE of the edits you’ve made to them over time.

Importing photos from your camera

Annie uses a Nikon and shoots in RAW, so the files on her camera are stored in the .NEF format. For a variety of reasons, we decided that we’d prefer to use the more universal .DNG format so I setup the defaults on Lightroom to do the following when importing:

  • Convert the file from .NEF to .DNG
  • Rename the file to use the date so you don’t run into problems when your camera resets numbering. This is because your camera is likely taking pictures as DSC_0001.NEF, DSC_0002.NEF, etc. and when it gets to DSC_9999.NEF, it starts over at DSC_0001.NEF.
  • Create previews during the import so they aren’t being created on the fly when Annie is trying to work on them.
  • Put the file in the “Pictures/To Sort” directory I mentioned above.

Here’s what our import settings look like (click the image to see a bigger version): Import Settings

This means that a file captured in the camera as “DSC_9108.NEF” will be converted to something like “20170107-DSC_9018.DNG” and put in “Pictures/To Sort”.

Initial workflow in Lightroom

Now your photos have been imported from your camera to your IHD, they’ve been converted to the universal RAW format (.DNG), the pictures have been renamed to include the date and previews have been created.

Now it’s time to make an initial run through the photos to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth your time. This usually consists of Annie going through each photo and marking as Rejected those she doesn’t care about. You can just hit the X key on each one you want to reject.

Once she has done this, Annie flips over to the Develop panel and applies any presets, edits, cropping, etc that she is going to do to each file.

More elaborate editing in Photoshop

I’ll talk about this in a separate tutorial.


It is important to remember that at this point, you have a bunch of photos in your “Pictures/To Sort” folder that are in exactly the same condition as they were when you first imported them. The ones you flagged as Rejected are still there. None of them are edited. The only thing that has happened is that the Lightroom catalog files have been updated to reflect all of these things.

Now it’s time to keep your workspace clean and move these files somewhere more permanent (as well as free up some space on your IHD). If these are just a bunch of random photos of daily life throughout the year, we tend to archive those onto the EHD in a folder like “/EHD/Photos/2017/01/”. If it’s a specific photo shoot or client work, we’ll use a folder like “/EHD/Photos/Photo Shoots/Smith Family 2016/”.

In order to make sure Lightroom knows about your archive folders on the EHD you’ll need to go to the Folders section of the left side bar in the Library panel and click the + sign, then select Add Folder and find the folder on your EHD where you are already storing your archived photos.


Lightroom is able to move your photos around for you, so all you have to do is select the photos you want to archive and drag them to the proper folder in the Folders section on the left. If you need to add a new folder, say for a new month or photo shoot, you can navigate to the right place, click the + sign and select Add Subfolder, give it a name and it creates the folder for you.

Any photos that Annie flagged as Rejected, she doesn’t move to the archive and deletes them, answering “Yes” when Lightroom asks if it should delete the files from the filesystem.

Exporting for Facebook/Printing/Blogs

We generally keep a folder on the Desktop that we export photos for uploading to Facebook, blogs or printing. I’ve setup preset export settings for each of these so Annie can export using different pixel sizes/quality for different purposes. We then try to clean those folders up every so often so that we don’t run out of hard drive space.