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Concerning a new photography workflow

The best work comes from a minimalist approach that does not revolve around the social web.

With the new year less than a month away, I am contemplating on a new workflow for my photography that will consolidate and simplify my current approach. What motivated this, in part, was my recent experiment on an intentional, planned reduction in social media use and a conscious attempt to better organise, and hence save, my time. What else motivated this was my growing lack of comfort with photo sharing platforms and a dwindling inclination to share all over the web.

Present workflow

My current approach is to make photos with one of my two cameras: my D600 or my iPhone. From thereon, the photographs take different routes. Those from my dSLR go straight to my computer where I develop them in Lightroom and catalogue them there as well and, if I am in the mood, share them on Flickr.

By contrast, photographs made on my iPhone almost never reached my computer. I would edit them using the stock Photos.app editor or Lightroom mobile (towards which I am leaning ever more often since the introduction of RAW support on iOS) and then I would share them on Instagram or bring them into my stream on Flickr.

It has been roughly a year or a year-and-a-half since I stopped differentiating my iPhone and dSLR works on Flickr. (I used to have two separate accounts.) My intention was that if it is not the camera that makes a photograph good, it should not be based on our cameras that we separate our photographs.

This has proven to be particularly interesting: nearly everyone I have asked has been unable to perfectly classify which pictures I took with my iPhone and which with my dSLR. Admittedly, I only upload the (at least) fairly good ones, since I see no point in uploading bad ones and chasing people away, and people generally find it hard to differentiate a good iPhone photograph from a good dSLR photograph. This naturally also extends to other smartphones, and the only giveaway would be bokeh.

Online photo sharing

The bigger question here, though, is whether Flickr is really necessary. Does it command the importance it once did? Activity on the platform seems to be dying down; groups are not as active as they once were and the community aspect, while boasting impressive numbers, seems to have no real weight in everyday use. This could be personal experience, like on any social media platform, but if one person experiences this, it is possible others are experiencing it too. (Remember Google+?)

Part of the reason why Flickr took a downhill ride was because of its competitors: 500px in particular, which I have come to utterly dislike, prompted many to look for Flickr alternatives even if it did not itself pull them all away. That said, as a place to store photographs to occasionally direct people to, and to organise photographs and showcase to the world, Flickr is still perfectly fine. Fine, though, is not always good enough.

On the other hand, Instagram, which was a social network built around photographs, is slowly trying to become more. It is far too early to say whether it is losing its aim and diverting from its core product, but there is little doubt that it wants Vine, Snapchat and the rest out of the picture and its approach for this is to use its enormous user base and bundle the core products of all these other social media platforms into itself. What bothers me more about Instagram is its increasing spam accounts and comments. My Instagram account sees more engagement than any other, but really what is engagement? The purpose of likes or favourites is limited at best and shallow at worst, and it has no real meaningful purpose besides validation.

This was why I liked VSCO’s approach immensely and still do. But their mobile app seems to be undergoing such painfully slow development that using it is out of the question for me. For example, the highlights slider seems ineffective compared to what other apps offer, and RAW support, which came like a flurry with iOS 10 seems nowhere in sight on VSCO. The company did promise that RAW support was in the works, but is yet to deliver. I can wait, but VSCO is not all that important to my workflow that I cannot do without it, so Lightroom it is, on mobile as on desktop.

Designing a purposeful workflow

Condensing all of this into a workflow that is targeted, economical, yet powerful can be challenging, but it comes down to picking what is necessary and dropping what one can do without. With that in mind, and with a wholesome intent to save time, this is what I have decided to follow starting next year. The sharp (and frequent) reader will realise that this is all in line with my past calls for a more purposeful use of technology in everyday life.

I will, of course, continue to have two cameras with which I will be making photographs: my D600 and my iPhone. I do want a Leica and a Fuji X series camera and even a Hasselblad, but really, these two will do just fine for now. Once the photographs are made, I think the simplest solution would be to have environments for treating these photographs that is not too widely different. In particular, the cataloguing, editing and exporting system used needs to be the same or, at least, similar across platforms.

This is where my Creative Cloud subscription comes in. I have full access to Lightroom and Photoshop and use the former to manage my photographs. Lightroom exists on mobile as well as desktop and syncs beautifully. I am not sure if it syncs only smart previews, but the sync itself works quickly and, in practice, more efficiently and reliably than iCloud photo library. Of course experiences vary, but Lightroom is a one-stop solution for all my photographic needs between hitting the shutter and filing away my work or uploading it to my portfolio online.

Be choosy on the social web

At some point we will have to address the proverbial elephant in the room: the social web itself, whose use and purpose I have come to question considerably. That being thoughtful and choosy in sharing is a good thing is known well enough that it needs no further mention here. Indeed there simply is no meaningful point to the social web besides occasional fame and the perceived joy of “sharing” (which, cynical as I may sound, is little more than the expectant joy of validation).

I see the beauty in L’art pour l’art, but Le partage pour le partage makes no sense. I know specifically that a number of people have expressed their desire to look at my photographs either because they love it, learn from it, or wish to discuss it. (I am not a fan of the last two, though, since I much prefer to learn from others.) My viewers and readers invest their time to follow and keep up with my work. This is humbling and possibly my only reason to stay and share on the web.

That said, I do wish to balance this well: satisfy myself by staying off platforms that have been of little use to me while sharing to keep and grow my audience. I firmly believe that good work will draw its crowd, even if slowly. In some small way my own website is a testament to that.

As for backing up my work (something I used Flickr for) I already have a great 1TB external drive which I have been using since three years no. But I plan to upload and back them all up on my Dropbox as well starting this year. I find this the most straightforward and the simplest manner of having an offsite backup. It will not be automated, and for my workflow I will not need it to be either.

Think of it as film

In making a Dropbox backup, though, there is a catch: I will only store developed jpg files and not the original RAW (or digital negative) files. I want to start treating my digital work like my old film rolls. This does not mean crushing blacks to a cringeworthy degree to mimic something else, but instead it refers to the act of giving up some benefits afforded by the digital workflow that have spoilt us all.

A film photograph once developed is finalised. Of course we can go back to the stored negatives if we saved them, but do we really develop film negatives over and over and over again like we come at unprocessed digital files with cursors blaring to give them frequent do-overs? Knowing I can only ever process a file once, even if this is merely a self-imposed rule, makes me a lot more serious about my approach to developing my photographs. I have been trying this out for the past month in preparation for 2017, and I have consistently been pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

Additionally, a near-infinite number of photographs may be clicked on a smartphone, which means that you initially do not fear getting things wrong, but this sentiment morphs, over time, to a complete lack of regard for shot discipline and planning because if you take enough shots in succession, at least one of them should turn out well enough.

All in all, I find it a nice shift in thinking when you merge the benefits of digital with selective restrictions from film. This teaches you the value and weight and effort in each shot, an idea that escapes you entirely if you habitually make forty photos of one thing and then scroll through your camera roll to pick the best.

In conclusion

All of this has led me towards a simple workflow that some might even find counterintuitive on some level, but I believe it works a charm in ways I need it to.

As always, I will have two cameras, and where I had two platforms to develop and catalogue my work, I will have only one. My iPhone will no longer be the shoot-edit-share solution a smartphone has always been touted as; instead, it will (counterintuitively as promised) perform the functions of a camera. I will shoot on my iPhone and transfer the photos to my Mac, either via Lightroom Sync or by manually importing my photographs into Lightroom on my Mac when I connect my iPhone.

It is worth mentioning that I will still use my iPhone to shoot-edit-share casual photographs, but these shoots will be snapshots, not fine art photographs, the edits will be minimal, with Photos.app, and the shares will be to individuals or groups via e-mail, iMessage etc., and not worldwide on social networks.

At first I was thinking of Flickr as a place to put up all of my photographs, without curation, but I really see no point in that. In the long run, making thousands of photographs is a good thing, but sharing them all is not necessarily a good thing too. I will upload and catalogue all my works privately and publish my photographs extremely selectively on my portfolio.

At least in the beginning, it is certainly worth seeing the results this will yield and, if not, making things a bit more flexible wherein I share some work on my Flickr and keep the choicest for my portfolio. In any case, this will be an alteration down the line at best. For now, my new workflow looks and sounds great. I have been using it for the past month and it has been a different but refreshing take and, best of all, it feels much more like a pleasure and much less like a chore. And with that, I look forward to a great year of photography in 2017, and, hopefully, a much, much better year overall.


Addendum: A lot of people pointed out that social media can often serve as inspiration, especially to artists. I agree, but I will also point out that this is precisely where the problem lies too: there is only so much “inspiration” a person can take before their own identity and voice get drowned out only to be replaced by blatant imitation of what one sees online.

Good photography, and good art in general, is not all that hard to come by if one looks for it; and that is inspiration enough for me. I would rather spend most of my time developing my own artistic voice and actually making more photographs and learning from my failures simply because it is a much more effective teacher than is staring at others’ work all the livelong day.

Addendum #2: Following the recent and disturbingly massive breach of Yahoo! users’ data, I have decided to pull all my photographs from my Flickr and stay on Instagram. I do not particularly like Instagram, but it is, as of now, the best and most active platform for photo sharing and I am willing to give stay on it until a better option comes along.

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