Processing Workflow: Meaning in the stars

Located nearby Hoi An, Vietnam, Mỹ Sơn is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champa.

Located nearby Hoi An, Vietnam, Mỹ Sơn is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champa.

Following my recent interview on the Victoria Bampton's blog, I've received some comments and messages about my processing workflow, specifically relating to my rating system for images. I'm traveling through Vietnam at the moment, shooting a lot of new images along the way, and thought I'd use some of my downtime and new images to go more in depth about my process.

Lightroom’s Library module provides photographers myriad tools to be used in the organization of one’s images. Which tools to use and how best you use them is left a wide open question. One of my favorite organizational tools has been with us since Lightroom’s inception: the five-star rating system. In processing my images, I combine this with Smart Collections to help narrow my images for output.

It's only in the last year or so I've started to use this system. Previously, I had struggled with Lightroom's agnostic approach to organization. Early on I had flirted with the stars, failed to find meaning in the pursuit, then let it go. I ignored it for a while, tried using folders, colors, keywords ... but eventually came around to give stars another chance. It's taken me quite a long time to find a system that works for me, but I'm now more organized than I've ever been. I've just got to find some time to attack the disorganized years of images predating my current workflow.

So, let's get into this! Vietnam-style ...

Wet market, Hoi An, Vietnam.

Wet market, Hoi An, Vietnam.

File naming

As you may already know, I'm a file-naming nazi. My convention is:


For example, the image leading this article is named:


The initials serve multiple purposes. Image galleries oft use the file name for HTML id attributes; for validation purposes, the id attribute should never begin with a number. Also, I'm not traveling alone; some of my companion's images -- usually the pictures she takes of me -- end up in my catalog. My images begin with "mc" and her's begin with "pk", so I can always tell who shot which images at a glance, whether in Lightroom, in the Finder, or wherever.

When I was working in the photo studio and working with images from four photographers, I could always tell who had shot each image, and so I knew who to go to if I had a problem, a question, or needed a reshoot of an image.

The date and time help to keep the images organized chronologically when sorting files, and I can easily reverse-sort if I want newest images first.

Keywords tell me what's in the image, and also help with SEO online.

And I use four-digit sequence numbering, to help separate bursts of images where I might be shooting multiple frames per second, and because it's entirely possible I'll shoot more than 999 images, but highly unlikely I will ever shoot more than 9999.

Saigon / Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam.

Saigon / Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam.

Folder naming

Folder names matter not a jot for output, but they function as hooks for my Smart Collections, so play an important role in my processing workflow. My folder naming convention is typically thus:


Again, the date keeps my shoot folders organized chronologically, while the keywords tell me what's inside. Here's what I've got so far for Vietnam:


My keywords begin wide -- "Vietnam" -- then narrow the location, i.e. "Saigon", "Hoi An", etc.

A village boatman in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam.

A village boatman in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam.

Converting to DNG

I convert all of my images to DNG early in the workflow. Select All (CMD-A), then dig into the application menu for Library > Convert Photos to DNG.

Raw images in DNG format are typically much smaller than native camera raw files, which helps to save on storage space, while also making them easier and faster to work with.

I also enable the "Delete originals after successful conversion" option (because with DNG in hand, I have no further need of the original file), and the "Embed Fast Load Data" option (because it makes the files still faster to work with!).

The DNG format is a lossless raw data format, so you're losing nothing and usually gaining quite a lot in reclaimed storage and faster image loading.

Setting Up Smart Collections for Processing

Files imported, sorted and converted, I create a series of Smart Collections. First, I create an all-encompassing collection set for my images, so in this case "Vietnam". My Smart Collections fall under this set:


Leveraging my folder names, I first create the "Vietnam - All Images" set. The set utilizes a single condition: Folder - contains - "Vietnam".

My folder names all contain the word "Vietnam", and so I use this to capture all of my images for the trip in a single Smart Collection.

My folder names all contain the word "Vietnam", and so I use this to capture all of my images for the trip in a single Smart Collection.

I immediately create a set of three additional Smart Collections which will capture my images as I apply initial star ratings.

All of my Smart Collections will begin with the Folder - contains - "Vietnam" condition. I then create:

Vietnam 1-star
Rating - is - (1-star)


Vietnam 2-stars
Rating - is - (2-stars)


Vietnam 3-stars
Rating - is greater than or equal to - (3-stars)


Notice that my Vietnam 1-star and 2-stars collections use the "is" condition, while my 3-stars collection uses "greater than or equal to".

A fruit vendor in Hue's riverside night market.

A fruit vendor in Hue's riverside night market.

Apply first-pass ratings

I begin in the "Vietnam - All Images" collection, then move through the images in Loupe (E) view.

Images that I don't particularly care for, I leave unrated. These will eventually be deleted when I go on a cleaning spree, though I may revisit them one or more times before that fateful day to see whether there's anything I'd like to promote.

I assign one-star to images I'd like to keep for whatever reason -- I am the only person who will ever see one-star images; I show them to no one. They might be poorly exposed, out-of-focus, or completely unflattering. I keep them mostly for nostalgia because, while the photo may not have turned out as I'd wanted, the moment captured has some value to me personally.

I assign two-stars to images I intend to share only with people directly involved with the image. Again, these images may be poorly exposed, out-of-focus, or completely unflattering. What differentiates this images from those with only a single star is that they may have value to someone other than myself. So in the case of my Vietnam trip, the only person who will see my two-star images is my travel companion, and these will likely be images that I took of her that are, for whatever reason, unsuitable for Facebook.

I assign three-stars to images that are good enough to be shared generally, with anyone.

For my first pass over the images, I only apply star ratings ranging from 1-3.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam

Above, an example image that barely passes muster for a 3-star rating. I like the person a lot, and I like the horizon well enough, but there's a whole lot of bland nothing happening in the middle majority of the image. I don't mind people seeing this image, and it's definitely got some Vietnamese flavor, but it speaks very little to my capability as a photographer and it's not very interesting in general. This might have been a better image had I been on street level with the human subject ... but that's just not where I was. So it gets 3-stars, I might show it to my mom, but it will never rise above and will not be considered for inclusion on my website when I eventually publish a Vietnam gallery.

On the matter of rising above, I will discuss 4-star and 5-star ratings a little further on.

Processing my 3-star images

Three star images make the cut for Develop!

As a first step, I usually Select All, enable Auto Sync, then apply Lens Corrections:

I then Deselect (CMD-D), because I don't want the Auto Sync to apply anything else to my images en masse. That's asking for trouble.

I usually begin developing individual images by assigning a VSCO Film preset, for various reasons such as "I'm lazy" and "I really, really like them" ...

As luck would have it, VSCO Film 05: The Archetype Films Collection released just before my departure for Vietnam, and so that's primarily what I'm using on these images, because it's fun to have new toys. As an existing VSCO customer, I get a 50% discount on new releases, so I alway grab new preset collections at launch. The VSCO Film 05 pack comprises "mass market, consumer film emulations from the golden era of analog". Kodak Gold for the win!

I use the Crop tool, then move through the Basic, Detail and Effects panels in that order to tweak the look of each image, using the Spot Removal, Graduated and Radial Filter, and Adjustment Brush tools as necessary. I will sometimes finish off in the HSL or Split Toning panels.

Hue, Vietnam.

Hue, Vietnam.

Graduating Images to 4 or 5-stars

My second pass over the three-star images occurs while I process the images in Develop, and I will often graduate images to four or five-star ratings as I go. After finishing with Develop, I will then make a third, and sometimes a fourth pass over the images to graduate or demote images' star ratings.

While three-star images I consider to be suitable for public consumption, including all of them in a public gallery is usually overkill. Too many images can be fatiguing for the visitor, and so I assign four-stars to images that I intend to publish to my website.

While assigning four-star ratings, I will usually be mindful of the total number of images in the collection. If the collection seems to be getting too large, I will demote images back to three-stars, aiming for a manageable number relative to the total size of my initial collection (which usually corresponds directly to the duration of my trip).

At this point -- having finished with Develop, and moving into my third pass over the images -- it's useful to create a Smart Collection for my four-star images:

Vietnam 4-stars
Folder - contains - "Vietnam"
Rating - is greater than or equal to - (4-stars)


This allows me to very easily keep track of how many images I'm rating at four-stars.

If I have a group of similar images, I will typically graduate just the one or two best images to four-stars, leaving the remaining images at three.

To my very favorite images -- and there may only be a few of these -- I assign a five-star rating. These are images that I feel may be suitable for inclusion in a portfolio at some point.

A souvenir vendor outside of Minh Mang Emporer's Tomb; Hue, Vietnam.

A souvenir vendor outside of Minh Mang Emporer's Tomb; Hue, Vietnam.

Publishing Images to the Web

Finally coming to the end of the workflow, I drag the entire four-star collection into a new album under Publish Services, then hit the "Publish" button to send everything upstream to, built on TTG plugins and managed by our Publisher. As I write this, the Vietnam images aren't there yet, as I'm still taking them. But their day will come ...

Revisiting the Losers

You remember I specifically setup my 1-star and 2-star Smart Collections using the "is" condition, to ensure that higher rated images wouldn't be included?

I have no particular time-frame for this step, but at some point between publishing images to the Web and deleting my unrated images, I will often return to my 1-star and 2-star collections for one last pass to see whether there's anything I'd like to promote or consign to oblivion ...

My three-star and above images I want out of the way while I pass final judgement, which is why they're not included in these collections.

Signing off

I hope you've found this expanded look at my workflow enlightening, or at least informative, and that you've enjoyed this peek at my latest images, some of which are as recent as this afternoon. Now I'm off to grab some dinner here in Hue, and tomorrow I'm bound for Hanoi.

If you have any questions or thoughts to add to the conversation, hit the comments below.


Me! At Tu Duc Tomb, Hue, Vietnam.

Me! At Tu Duc Tomb, Hue, Vietnam. Trigger pulled by Precious Kim.

5 Responses to “Processing Workflow: Meaning in the stars”

  1. JayM says:

    Thanks Matt

    I’m always on the lookout for workflow tips. This one is very clean – I like how you integrated them with Smart Collections. I ended up adopting a similar approach in that star ratings designate usage. 5-star is portfolio worthy, 4-star is generally shareable, 3-stars is a “family favorite” that I won’t publish. 1/2 stars I reserve for work I do for others; 1-star is my select for review, 2-stars is their final pick.

    I notice you didn’t mention color labels; how have you incorporated those? Mine designate workflow which works pretty well with Smart Collections. Red means haven’t edited, Yellow to Develop, Green for outboard processing, Blue to print.

    I’m intrigued by the VSCO packages you mentioned. I looked over the site and really like the looks of them. I have a bunch of X-Equals film presets that work well but I’m always on the lookout for new stuff. Perhaps at some point in the future you could create a tutorial on how you use these.

    · March 10, 2014 @ 7:38 am

    • Matt says:

      I haven’t actually come up with a steady use for color labels. I sometimes color items on the fly. For example, if I’m leaving a collection mid-process, I’ll use them as a bookmark for when I get back.

      Or if I’m using stars for my own ratings, I might use color labels to denote a client’s selects.

      At the studio a few years back, we used them to denote images that had received metadata, had been edited, were ready for delivery, etc. But such designations are meaningless in my current, personal context.

      I’ve got the XeL presets as well, but I never got into using them. They’re quality work, but I found them irritating to use, as you’ve usually got to layer on two or three different presets to achieve a look. That being the case, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get by using the Navigator preview.

      I will think on the notion of doing a VSCO tutorial. It would probably be more of a process demonstration, as I think they’re pretty straight-forward to use.

      · March 10, 2014 @ 9:02 am

  2. JayM says:

    I hear you re: the XeL. The presets work very well but can be cumbersome with the different iterations of mix/tone/grain particularly when it comes to scanning for what you like. That said there’s nothing stopping me from reorganizing the presets to make that an easier process, but I’m too lazy. 😉

    · March 10, 2014 @ 9:15 am

  3. Andy Ogden says:

    Just wondering about the keywords, in all the examples on this page the filenames only include a single keyword. Is that intentional, or just a coincidence because they’re travel photos and the location is the draw? 🙂

    · March 19, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    • Matt says:

      I should have put “Vietnam” into the names as the first keyword. This is a case of me being scatterbrained, and less consistent than I should be, probably resulting from my trying to be productive while traveling and exhausted. Probably not the end of the world, though, as “Vietnam” is in my library folder names and metadata titles, and should be here on the page in captions, etc. Also because “Vietnam” isn’t a keyword for this post. =P

      I will probably resolve this in final review before I post images to my own photo site. Good eye, Andy.

      · March 20, 2014 @ 12:44 am

Comments are now closed.


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