Michael Caswell Photography

My Wedding Photography Editing Workflow

Everyone has their own system of what works best for them, and it can be helpful sometimes to see what other photographers do, as it could prompt a re-think of one's own process, and result in an improvement of efficiency.

Wedding photographers have a unique challenge in terms of our editing workflow. A sports shooter may typically capture an even higher number of images for each hour of shooting during an event, but the nature of that kind of work usually means they can shoot to JPEG and not really have to do any significant editing work (beyond culling and picking selects, and perhaps some cropping). A wildlife photographer might also come home with a large number of images, but again, they're not going to edit all or most of these, just a handful of keepers. Meanwhile, a landscape or architectural photographer would probably tend to shoot a much lower volume, but require a significantly higher level of editing to each image.

Wedding photographers, however, have to deal with a constant stream of a high volume of images almost every weekend, which all need to be thoroughly backed up, culled, edited, processed, and delivered. An event might yield a thousand or two (or more!) photographs, and although we should all strive to get the best images possible in-camera, the dynamic, unpredictable, and sometimes chaotic nature of weddings means some degree of editing is almost always going to be necessary, and this has to be done in an efficient manner, otherwise our clients would have to wait an unacceptably long amount of time for their images (plus the business would not be viable). Thankfully, we have a number of hardware and software tools that make this process a lot easier than it otherwise would be.

Computer Hardware, Software, and Configuration

I currently use a MacBook Pro 16" i9 with 32GB of RAM, a third generation iPad Pro 11" with 256GB of storage, and I do almost all of my editing in Adobe Lightroom Classic (on the computer) or Lightroom Mobile (on the iPad).

No Desktop Computer

I took a fairly drastic step in mid-2020 of shifting to an exclusively laptop-based setup. Before then, I always had a big and powerful desktop computer for the bulk of my work, along with a lower-powered laptop that I'd use primarily for office stuff and occasional photo editing work. But I decided that it would be simpler and more efficient to just have a more powerful laptop to use for everything. Contributing to this decision was the realization that I simply don't like sitting at a desk. My office still has a desk, but my "workstation" is a small couch, with all my external drives, card readers, and other stuff located on a table/shelf next to it, and the MacBook Pro stays on a nicely cushioned lap desk. For me, this makes for a far more comfortable work environment.

The downside is that even a high-end laptop doesn't have the same raw power as a high-end desktop machine, which is a simple matter of heat management (processing power generates heat, and it's more challenging for this heat to be dissipated in the more compact body of a laptop). I don't really miss this aspect of a desktop computer... the MacBook Pro is plenty fast enough for me in most cases.

However, one thing that I do miss is the completely quiet nature of the desktop Macs I used in recent years, like the sleek cylindrical 2013 Mac Pro, and even more so with the iMac Pro. I barely heard the fan on the Mac Pro, and I literally never heard it on the iMac Pro, even when doing multiple simultaneous processor-intensive tasks that maxed out the CPU for an extended period of time. In contrast, exporting JPEGs from Lightroom or building previews will quickly prompt the MacBook Pro's fan to ramp up, producing a steady moderately-high pitched whine, and will cause quite a bit of heat on my lap (even with a thick cushioned lap desk). So, I make it a habit to typically run these kinds of tasks when I'm going to be out of the office anyway.

Though laptops are associated with portability, mine spends about 99% of its time in this one spot, plugged in. Only occasionally do I bring it with me somewhere... really only when I have a job that requires immediate on-site delivery or when having the computer at hand is otherwise necessary. One thing I don't typically bring the laptop with me for is mobile editing of existing wedding or portrait images, as I use my iPad for this with Lightroom Mobile via Adobe Creative Cloud syncing.

One problem with this method of using a laptop (nearly permanently connected to power) is that keeping the battery at 100% all the time can cause it to wear out quicker. MacOS has features built-in that are supposed to mitigate this, using AI to predict when you'll need a fully-charged battery and keeping it at a reduced charge at other times, but my schedule is so sporadic, and it's extremely rare that I ever need to use the battery, so this feature doesn't really work for me. Instead, I manually control this with an app called Al Dente. This app lets you specify a lower percentage to limit your battery charge to when plugged in. I typically keep mine at 60-70%, which I feel is a good balance between keeping the battery at a healthy level while also providing enough capacity just in case I unexpectedly need to run off the battery. The app lives in the menubar, so I can easily adjust or disable the limiter if I know I'll soon be using the battery extensively and want a full charge.

I also use an app called Amphetamine to stop the computer from going to sleep when the screen is closed (though it will still sleep if on battery power). This is so that my backups can run overnight without the need to keep the screen open. I do, however, keep the screen partially open when running a lengthy, processor-intensive task (like exporting JPEGs from Lightroom or building previews), to provide better ventilation and out of concern for the heat damaging the screen. This fear may be unfounded, as there are many people who regularly use their laptops in "clamshell mode", lid closed and attached to an external keyboard, mouse, and display. But I figure it can't hurt.

Storage

I'm a big fan of SSDs, and I don't mind paying more (compared to spinning disks) for the speed, though prices of fast and high-capacity SSDs have dropped massively in recent years as these storage devices have increased in popularity.

So in addition to the computer's built-in 1TB SSD, I also have an external 2TB SSD which I use for various things, as well as an external 1TB SSD that is exclusively for storage of the RAW files for my current jobs. There's not a significant speed speed benefit for keeping RAW files on an SSD, but I simply like the silent nature of SSDs, as well as not having to wait for a sleeping hard drive to spin up whenever these files need to be accessed. My Lightroom catalog file is kept on the computer's super-fast internal SSD. Lastly, I do have a couple of large external hard drives for long-term storage.

Connectivity

With Mac laptops for a while now being equipped with Thunderbolt ports through which they can be simultaneously charged and connected to peripherals, one convenient category of products that have become more and more popular are USB-C / Thunderbolt docks.

A variety of these are available, but they all basically consist of a small box that you connect to the computer, and this one single cable not only provides power to run the computer and charge the battery, but also data connections for your external drives, card readers, speakers, ethernet, etc. These will also usually have ports for external monitors, for those who want to use their laptop as a desktop-like machine when they're not on the go. But again, I don't usually use my computer at a desk, so I don't make use of this particular feature.

Regardless, it's very convenient and clean to not have to deal with multiple separate cables coming out of the computer for charging and data.

Shooting

Yes, workflow includes the actual photography! Taking steps to set up your cameras properly and with foresight can help speed things up later.

File Naming

Pretty much all cameras allow for a custom prefix to be set for file naming. It's a good idea to change this to something different on each camera rather than leaving at the default (which I believe is typically "DSC") to avoid the possibility of conflicts when shooting an event with multiple cameras. The standard I settled on long ago is to use the last two digits of the camera's serial number followed by an underscore character (so, my files are named, for example, 32_03912.ARW from one camera, or 18_05214.ARW from another). Of course, I may have to change this if I ever happen to end up with two cameras that have the same two digits at the end of the serial number!

Time Synchronization

When shooting with multiple cameras (and multiple photographers), you'll want the clocks to be precisely synchronized, so that when these images are combined, they all are sorted in the correct order.

An alternate means of handling this (if you forget to do this before you begin your coverage, if you and your second shooter are starting in separate locations, or simply prefer to do it this way) is to not worry about the precise time your camera's clocks are set to, and instead bring up a display of a clock (with seconds) on your phone (such as from time.gov), and photograph this with each of your cameras. These shots don't have to be done at any precise time, and can even be captured after the event is over (as long as the cameras' clocks have not been adjusted in the meantime, or too much time hasn't passed, as the clocks may have drifted further out of sync since then). Once in Lightroom, you'll filter your view in Library mode (thumbnail view) to display only images from one particular camera, select the clock photo, select all (leaving the clock photo highlighted), then use the Edit Capture Time feature (set to the "Adjust to a specific date and time" option).

This can be a little confusing at first, as one would get the impression that with all the images selected, this option would set all the images to that exact same time and put you in an even worse situation than before. But that's not how it works. It actually sets only that highlighted image to that specified time, with all the ones before or after it being shifted the same amount. You then repeat this process for the other cameras' images, and the end result is an entire wedding's worth of perfectly synchronized photos.

But the bottom line is that if you don't either synchronize your clocks before you begin shooting, or take clock photos with each camera to facilitate easily shifting the time in post-processing, you're going to be faced with the possibly tedious prospect of having to manually figure out the time differences between cameras.

White Balance

When photographing weddings, while I do try to get my images as close to perfect as possible in-camera, white balance is one thing that I do not obsess over. There are a number of products and methods available for precisely setting a custom white balance on-location, but I see this as futile and unproductive.

Weddings almost always involve constantly shifting white balance depending on where you are in the space, since the multiple lighting sources (warm artificial light, cooler daylight coming in through windows, lights from the band, and your own flash) are going to all contribute in different amounts as you move around. So, setting a custom white balance is a waste of time and effort, as there's really nothing to be gained here in terms of efficiency, with the possible exception of formal group shots where you're going to be doing a long series of shots in the exact same spot. But even then, there's simply not much (if any) difference in time between setting a custom white balance in-camera or, in post-processing, setting the white balance of the first image and sync'ing that setting to the rest.

When shooting RAW, shooting with precise white balance vs. setting it later in post-processing, makes no difference in terms of quality. So, I'm almost always simply shooting in auto white balance (AWB). This usually gets it pretty close in-camera (especially for outdoor shooting), and then I can either make batch changes to groups of images that all have identical lighting, or tweak each image individually for those that don't. I do, however, set my white balance in-camera to tungsten if I'm shooting with a CTO-gelled flash (to make my flash match warm artificial lighting), but even this is merely for aesthetic reasons, to make the images look more presentable when viewing them on the camera; most camera bodies when set to AWB and when they detect that a flash is being used, will not actually evaluate the scene to calculate the white balance, but instead will just assume that the daylight-balanced flash is the dominant light source and will set the white balance to around 5500K, but this will result in a very orange looking image if the flash is, in reality, gelled to around 3000K. Again, there's no harm in just letting images be captured in this setting and making the adjustment in post, but it just makes for an unnatural looking image when viewing on the camera.

RAW to Both Cards

I always shoot with dual card slot cameras, and unless it's the occasional job (typically non-wedding) that requires immediate on-site delivery of JPEG images, I shoot RAW to both cards. Some photographers choose to shoot weddings with JPEGs being written to the second card as a backup because of card space, which is fine, but since all of my cameras use SD cards, which are so reasonably priced, for me I see no reason to not shoot RAW to both, so that I'm not giving up any post-processing exposure or white balance adjustment latitude on the off chance that the first card is corrupted somehow.

I also always shoot with cards that are sufficiently large to avoid having to swap full cards during an event. Before dual card slot cameras were commonplace, the dominant thinking was that it was safer to shoot with small cards so that if one was corrupted, you wouldn't risk losing the entire wedding. But with dual card slots, that's not nearly as much of a concern, and I feel it's more prudent to not handle cards at all during the event (since any handling increases the chances of a card being misplaced).

This also gives the benefit of fewer cards to deal with after the event, just two for me, and one or two others if there was a second shooter.

Downloading & Importing

Once I arrive back home from a wedding, I immediately, without fail, start the process of downloading and backing up the images. Doesn't matter how badly I want to go to bed, this is something that I want to get done ASAP.

Converting to DNG

As my first step in post-processing, I convert all of my RAW files to compressed DNGs, and I do this upon import, directly from the cards, with Adobe's DNG Converter app. Another way to accomplish the same thing is to download the RAW files from the cards first, and then either convert them with DNG Converter, or bring the RAW files into Lightroom and do the conversion there. But I find the quickest, most straightforward way to do the conversion is right from the cards.

I utilize multiple card readers so that I can import all the cards at once rather than having to monitor the process of importing individual cards. DNG Converter does not allow for multiple cards to be selected and converted in one batch process, so rather than converting each card sequentially, I have an Automator script set up to launch multiple instances of the DNG Converter app, one for each card that needs to be converted. Another way to do this is to duplicate the DNG Converter app several times (DNG Converter 1, DNG Converter 2, and so on), each of which you can launch as a separate instance of the app.

Either way, these will run in parallel, and although doing it this way may not drastically speed up the overall process (because, for my computer at least, even just a single instance of the app will usually fully utilize the CPU, so multiple instances just result in that same CPU time being divided up among the instances), it does end up being much more convenient, as I can set up all the cards to be converted while I go off and do other things, rather than having to babysit the process more by waiting until each card is done before I set up and start the next one.

I keep a "Temp" folder on my RAW drive that is always set as the destination in DNG Converter. When I first adopted this workflow, for each wedding or portrait session I would create the actual destination folder and designate it in DNG Converter so that the images are converted straight into that folder, but I eventually realized that, because this folder had to be set every time in each of the multiple DNG Converter instances I was running, it was quicker to just leave it permanently set to one temporary folder, and then once the conversion is complete, I create the correct folder for the job and move the DNG files into it all at once.

The process of converting all of the images to DNGs typically takes 20-30 minutes, so that's a perfect time to go take a shower, grab a late night snack, and get ready for bed (and, if there's another wedding the next day, get my batteries on their chargers).

There's another way to convert to DNG. You can simply download all the original RAW files to your drive, import them into Lightroom as you ordinarily would do, and then use Lightroom's "Convert Photos to DNG" command. But I find it more efficient to do the conversion directly from the memory cards with DNG Converter.

Backups, Backups, and More Backups

I probably have more backups than I need, but I see it as a relatively inexpensive way to drastically decrease the chances of ever losing these priceless images. I backup to an always-connected hard drive, two portable hard drives (one of which stays in my car), a USB flash drive (which usually goes with me if I leave the house), and a cloud backup (Backblaze).

In addition, I set aside the second set of cards until after the wedding is edited and delivered. I specifically retain the second set (instead of the first set that was just downloaded), just in case there ends up being some corruption on the first set of cards that initially goes unnoticed. I have a massive stockpile of SD cards that makes this easy and eliminates any pressure to prematurely reuse cards for other jobs.

Importing Into Lightroom

It's common practice for wedding photographers to use Photo Mechanic as a preliminary culling and sorting tool prior to bringing the images into Lightroom (or whatever editing app they use). Although Photo Mechanic is indeed a very speedy app for quickly going through RAW files, I personally see no benefit to this for how I work as long as a little preparation is done in advance, which I will expand on later.

I also just perpetually use one single Lightroom catalog file for all my current jobs, rather than a separate catalog file for each event or session, or having a catalog file for each month or year. This is partially driven by the fact that I heavily use Lightroom Mobile to edit images on my iPad Pro, which requires that one single catalog file be used, since only one can be designated to sync to the cloud server. But even before I started using Lightroom Mobile, I still just used one catalog file, as that was the simplest and most convenient method for me, as it gives me the ability to instantly switch around to different jobs as needed rather than having to quit and relaunch Lightroom.

There are some anecdotal reports of Lightroom slowing down over time when using a single catalog file, with it being said that the catalog becomes bloated and corrupt over time. However, in the 12 years or so that I've been a Lightroom user, this has never been an issue for me, though I should note that I don't literally keep every single image I've ever captured in this one catalog file, as once a job is edited and delivered, I export a separate catalog file for that job onto a different drive for offline storage (which I keep for a year or two... I don't retain the RAW files indefinitely). So, in other words, jobs come and go out of this one catalog file, and although at any given time it may contain 10,000-20,000 images, it doesn't continue to grow and grow, jobs are cycled in and out of it as they come in and are completed). Additionally, I have Lightroom set to automatically prompt me to optimize this catalog file upon quitting the app.

Modifying Lightroom's default develop settings to automatically set imported images to a good starting point can be a big time saver. I like to have a Contrast boost, lifted Shadows a little, a bit of Clarity, and a light Post-Crop Vignette added to my images by default. Additionally, Lightroom has a fantastic (and largely hidden, if you don't know to look for it) feature that allows for ISO-specific default settings. What this means is that you can set up greater amounts of noise reduction to automatically be applied to higher ISO images.

Additional Preliminary Lightroom Tasks

At this point, with backups run and the images imported into Lightroom, I set up several more processes to run before heading off to bed. Because I make heavy use of Lightroom Mobile, I create a Collection for each job (which is a step needed in order for the job to be sync'd to Adobe's server), and I generate Previews. These tasks, running in parallel, can take a few hours to complete, so I like to have the computer working on them while I'm away.

Building Previews in advance, for me, make culling with Lightroom efficient enough so as to not feel a need to use Photo Mechanic for this.

This can be a point of contention for some. Photo Mechanic's big draw is that it enables the photographer to very quickly see an image, rate it (or just flag/reject), then instantly jump to the next image. But for Lightroom to run as fast and efficiently in culling, it's best to build Previews first. Otherwise, there's a slight delay (less than a second typically) when moving from one image to the next, during which time a low-res version of the image will appear while it's being rendered.

The time required for building Previews is what is commonly cited as a reason for using Photo Mechanic. But again, I set these Previews to run beforehand, so that I'm not waiting on them to be built when I'm ready to start editing. If the type of work I commonly did involved a need to instantly get to work culling immediately after returning from the event, I could see a benefit to Photo Mechanic. But I'm not going to start editing until the next day at the soonest, so there's no time penalty for me by first building Previews, which simplifies my workflow by keeping everything in Lightroom from start to finish, and lets me edit on the computer or iPad at any given time.

I typically build Standard Previews, which are sufficient for normal culling. If you want to also have the ability to instantly zoom in on your images, building 1:1 Previews instead will allow for that (otherwise, it takes several seconds to render when you zoom in). Additionally, I also build Smart Previews (which Lightroom can utilize to speed up the editing process, and can also allow for editing if the drive that stores my RAW files is not available). Whether you want to build Standard Previews or 1:1 Previews, along with Smart Previews, both of these processes can be initiated at the same time and can run in parallel, so no need to wait for one to finish before you start the other.

Editing

I'll initially do a quick scan through the wedding to see if there are any large groups of images that could benefit from a batch correction, especially white balance.

Continuing, there are a couple of schools of thought of how to proceed, with some people preferring to do two passes, with the first pass being strictly for culling and the second pass being the editing of the resulting keepers, while others like to just do a single pass during which culling and editing are done simultaneously. Admittedly, I vacillate between these two methods, as I personally believe a single pass is the most efficient way, but sometimes I just feel like culling and am not in the mood for editing, so I'll just do a preliminary first pass. Either way, I'm not heavy-handed with culling, I only edit out images that are clearly unusable.

As mentioned before, I make extensive use of Lightroom Mobile to edit on my iPad, both when on the go and when simply wanting a change of scenery (away from the computer) at home. Lightroom Mobile makes this simple, with images (and edits to them) automatically being sync'd between devices.

When editing on the computer though, I like to use Pfixer. This is a background app that lets you assign custom keyboard shortcuts for Lightroom adjustments, which is drastically faster than dragging sliders.

Finalizing

As a final step once editing is complete, I run a Lightroom plugin called Apply Bulk Develop Settings, mainly to make batch noise reduction adjustments. This useful plugin is somewhat redundant given that Lightroom already allows you to automatically designate higher noise reduction (as well as other settings) based on the ISO of each image upon import, but this plugin goes even further and analyzes the exposure adjustments you've made to the images (for example, if you've increased exposure or boosted the shadows, which increase noise), and adds whatever additional noise reduction you have it configured to do.

I also, of course, rename the images at this point, typically to the client's last names and sequential numbers.

Exporting

Edited JPEGs are then exported, with a high resolution set going to one folder (for archiving and delivery to the client) and another lower resolution to a different folder for uploading to my gallery system. This can take a few hours and this heavy CPU usage results in my laptop's fans spinning up, so I prefer to let this process run overnight or when I'm going to be away from my computer for a while.

Archiving

I don't retain my RAW files indefinitely (just the edited JPEGs), and soon after the job is exported and delivered, I move it from my active RAW drive and Lightroom catalog onto a separate hard drive by using the Export as Catalog function, which exports a specific folder of RAW files as its own catalog. There, it lives for the next year or so, just in case I subsequently have a need to re-edit an image, which is rare, but I still feel more comfortable keeping these files around at least for a while.

And That's It!

That's my system, which I've basically used for the past 12 years or so with great success.