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A Foolproof Digital Workflow for the Professional Real Estate Photographer

April 28th, 2017

This is a guest post by Marc Weisberg of Irvine, CA. Marc is giving a workshop in NYC, June 5th and 6th.

Having a foolproof digital post production backup system for architectural and real estate photographers is essential. Below, is a detailed look at the workflow and post production system we use at our studio. We’ve been doing it the same way for about 10 years now. It takes a minimal amount of preparation with a big pay off in time savings and off-site backup redundancy.

I’m a huge believer in getting it right at capture. It’s taken me a few years to really tune into light quantity and quality, both available and additive. After all, photography is writing with light. Purely from a standpoint of capture, if your exposure is dead on, there’s not much retouching to be done. Near-prefect capture equals less time spent in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. With that said, it’s taken a few years of trial and error to create this workflow system. Periodically it gets tweaked a bit but hasn’t changed much with the exception of PhotoMechanic and Adobe upgrades and the advances of off-site Cloud storage.

Calibrating Your Monitor
No workflow system would be complete if you are using out of the box color and do not calibrate your computer monitors. At my studio, we use an X-Rite’s Color Munki Display to calibrate a MacBookPro 15 laptop and an iMac i7, 27” desktop. If you are not using a calibrated monitor you’ll most likely have trouble getting color and density correct for your clients, especially when your work goes to print. People often ask me how I get such great color in my photographs. My answer is: Start with a correctly calibrated monitor. The Xrite people are great to work with and their customer service is phenomenal.

Folder Hierarchy System
Create a master folder. At my studio, I’ve created master folders for architectural and luxury real estate photography. Each time a shoot is downloaded onto a machine the folder is duplicated and re-labeled with the date first and then the client’s name: 2017.04.25 Westfield_ Century City.

Organizing Your Shoots with Four BackUps 
During a given year, 2015, 2016, 2017, a master folder is set up for each year with folders nested organized inside denoting the shoot date and client name. See the screen shot below. As a redundant measure, we use G-Tech drives in the studio to back up all our work. We use 2 Tb drives and 8Tb Thunderbolt Raid drives. These drives stay in our studio, are bullet proof drives. Highly dependable, quiet and easily removed and stored in my offsite garage when full. They cost more than a LaCie drive but are worth it in my opinion. Peace of mind and reliability trumps price. For portable backup drives, I use 2 Tb portable G-Tech drives. I’ve been using their drives for over 10 years and have never had one fail on me.

All shoots are also backed up to two Cloud services: Backblaze and DropBox. The method described above generates four copies. One on the local desktop hard drive. The second copy on the G-Tech Thunderbolt. The third copy on DropBox. A fourth copy is backed up overnight onto Backblaze. This method is a fool-proof system creating 4 reliable backup copies for every shoot. If one fails you still have three backups to rely on.

Ingesting Your Images
For ingesting images, we use a Lexar USB 3.0 SD/CF card reader. All captures are RAW, and the ingesting process moves surprisingly quickly.

Culling with PhotoMechanic
PhotoMechanic is the ultimate professional workflow tool on the Planet!

Culling images is fast and easy with Photo Mechanic. This $99-dollar program is amazing. Drag and drop a single file or a file folder onto the icon and Photo Mechanic creates a temporary catalog of images. PhotoMechanic is folder specific and will pull all images from a single folder and create a visual catalog. One of the features I enjoy most about PhotoMechanic is its ability to display and email almost any type of file, RAW, JPEG and PSD files with great speed. If I could change one thing about PhotoMechanic it would be that a catalog could be saved.

Other features make this my go-to-culling-software are:

  1. It is color space specific. Meaning that PhotoMechanic will show you true monitor profiled color and you can run inside the color space or calibration space that you’ve specified for your monitor.
  2. PhotoMechanic makes it possible to easily email just about any file type quickly and easily, one at a time or several at a time, in a range of sizes and also includes the capability to watermark your images. Great for client soft copy approval proofing.
  3. File transfers, from one folder to another is drag and drop and wicked fast.
  4. Culling is simple and accomplished by numeric key color coding and/or a star system.
  5. On-line documentation is easy to understand.
  6. Key Wording and Metadata is simple and fast.
  7. The File Renaming feature is lightning fast and can be applied to one or several files at the same time.
  8. PhotoMechanic allows for Tabbed Viewing, making is easy to cull, view or sort through multiple jobs. Honestly, there is over a hundred features that make this the best, fastest and most reliable image browsing software on the planet. At my studio Photo Mechanic is used every day, for every job that we shoot. It is an essential part of our workflow.

Getting Ready for Adobe Lightroom CC to Import Images
After culling images and renaming them in Photo Mechanic, they are ready for import into Adobe Lightroom CC. At this point, you can apply a Develop Module Preset to your images or decide to import them as is. I have a “Base Layer” Preset which bumps color and saturation, clarity and blacks. I’ve also created a “Base Layer V2” which applies the aforementioned Base Layer Preset plus a Lens Profile.

Importing a folder of RAW files into Adobe Lightroom CC
When importing a shoot into Lightroom CC we apply a specific Develop Preset to the shoot. Applying a given preset will give an overall “auto-tweak” to the RAW images imported. At the same time, the RAW files are imported into Lightroom CC, XMP sidecar files (these are the data files that store all the little visual tweaks that you’ll be making to your RAW files) are automatically generated in the same folder as the RAW files. You’ll find this setting in Lightroom at the far left, top of menu bar labeled Lightroom –> Catalog Settings –> Metadata –> all the boxes under Editing are checked. Generating the XMP files allows us to move the RAW folder to any drive while keeping all the metadata changes with it: Exposure, density, white balance etc. Due to the size of the RAW folders (in gigabytes anywhere from 1 Gb-60 Gb), after the shoot is completely processed and backed up at least three times on external drives and Cloud storage, the RAW files are removed from our local machine.

Adobe Lightroom CC Export
After tweaking, exposure, white balance and density, minimal sharpening and general fine tuning of the RAW images in Lightroom CC (files are renamed if necessary) starting with the client’s name, a space, and a numeric starting at 0001, for a second time to create a sequential order. Typically, some images have been deleted during the tweaking process hence the renaming. Images are then exported. One set of images at 20? At 180 DPI on the longest side in Adobe 1998 color space, Optimized for Print. Another set is sent the optimized for web folder. The optimized for web images is output at 2000 pixels and 100 DPI in sRGB Color Space with minimal sharpening for the web. For our workflow, this works perfectly for a few reasons. Unless we are printing really large, the 20″ x 20″ is perfect for up to a 16″ x 20″ print. If we need to output larger, we’ll go back to the original RAW file and output as close to the print size as possible. Some labs will require sRGB color space instead of the Adobe 1998 color space. This is easily taken care of when exporting from Adobe Lightroom CC. Simply chose sRGB: in Adobe Lightroom CC, got to File –> Export –> File Settings –> Color Space –> chose the drop down menu and choose you desired color space.
Lightroom allows you to create your own presets, seen on the left side of the dialogue box.

Added Bonus – JPEGmini Pro
JPEGmini Pro cuts file sizes with NO visible loss saves drive space and speeds up file transfer rates.

Over the last year, I’ve been using JPEGmini Pro. The software is amazing. In a nutshell. Drag and drop your final images into JPEGmini Pro and the software will cut your file sizes just about in half with no visual data loss at all. Don’t take my word for it. Download the software and take is for a test drive. It’s been tested with printed image files side by side, and there is no discernable difference at all. How do they do it? Be damned if I know. But it works and it works well.

Why do this? What is the advantage?

Less data, quicker upload transfer rate to the Cloud. Quicker download transfer rate for your clients. Caveat/Warning: Be aware the JPEGmini Pro will replace your original files. Make sure to make a copy of your originals {just duplicate your file folder or finished images} and use then run the duplicated folder through JPEGmini Pro. This way you’ll be able to archive both the original images and the duplicate file folder run the JPEGmini Pro.

Be Religious About Backing Up Your Work
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your drive is new and it won’t bite the dust.”

After each shoot is taken through the full production process {Ingesting/Photo Mechanic/LR-CC} we do a double back up. One complete copy is stored on a local G-Tech Thunderbolt drive, another on DropBox and a third backed-up overnight on Backblaze. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your drive is new and it won’t bite the dust. Drives are mechanical they all bite the dust! Even if you have an SSD Drive, it can still die on you. Better to be safe than sorry. SD cards are never re-formated until an offsite double backup is performed. At this point, there are three copies. One on the laptop or desktop, another on the Thunderbolt drive and a third on DropBox. After we have three copies, the RAW files and the XMP data files are deleted from the local machine. The reason for this is to preserve hard disc space. I’m very comfortable with 2 complete copies of RAW and XMP files.

Final Thoughts
Workflow systems are like opinions and elbows, everyone has one, or at least I hope they do. More likely they don’t have a repeatable foolproof workflow – post production and backup system. I hear photographers complain all the time that they don’t have a system that is streamlined. Too often we all hear stories about photographers that have lost a client job or a lifetime worth of work because they lacked a foolproof backup system. I think what’s made our workflow a bit different is that it’s been tried, tested and perfected over several years. In 2007 we were an early adopter of Adobe Lightroom. LR has eased the studio’s workflow, streamlined post production and saves us 100’s of hours of computer face time. I still see many photographers working in Adobe Camera RAW instead of Lightroom. The Fool Proof Workflow system is a highly organized system that is both easy to implement and is easily taught to a studio manager or intern. It has redundancy and safeguards built into it. It is an easily repeatable system. To start a new job all you need to do is duplicate the Master folder with its nested contents into a given year of production, re-title the folder with the date and client’s name and you are ready to go.

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11 Responses to “A Foolproof Digital Workflow for the Professional Real Estate Photographer”

  • This seems all a bit over the top, it’s not a wedding if worse comes to worse you go re-shoot… the property will still be there!

  • Hi Matt, Thank you for your comment. Yes, the property will still be there. Many of my shoots are like a wedding. Here’s the scenario: a) Commercial shoot: AD: Art Director, Assistant to the photographer, Talent: 5 models, cleaning crew, permits. This commercial shoot is for one of the largest landholders and RE group in the country. Scenario b) Client on retainer – Home builder: Asset- Occupied home, cleaning crew, interior designer, Marketing Manager, Homeowner, taking time off from their busy day and opening their home for the crew. Scenario c) An upcoming real estate shoot for sale – a flip, this coming Wednesday, home price $1.2m. Real Estate agent is one of two investors in the property. I’m hired to photograph the house which is just being finished, landscaping, staging etc. Needs to be brought to market and listed on MLS immediately. RE agent works for one of the top firms in my area.

    In each scenario above yes the real property will still be there. However, it’s the reputation of each client that is being protected and my reputation is being protected by making sure that the digital files / the work is backed up on and off site. IF I had to ask to reshoot and entire job, I’d most likely lose my client. Not only that, my client would be losing money in the process. And they’d be inconvenienced. Homeowners would also be inconvenienced too. I’m not only protecting myself but also protecting my client’s reputations. I’ve worked too hard over time to build my business and land top-end clientele to piss it away by not taking the time to have a fool proof system for properly backing up my files. IMHO this is what professionals do. I invite you to rethink your assertion. The wedding couple will still be there too…you can go reshoot.

    p.s. I got my start in wedding photography. I’ve photographed over 600 weddings over 14 years. I thought about weddings the same way that I think about backing up my real estate digital assets. It’s my job to protect my client’s trust and investment in me.

    p.p.s. Word gets around fast with professionals. If you do an outstanding job you’ll get referred. If you loose all the files by way of a hard drive failure or carelessness on your part and you have to go back and reshoot the property….bad news travels fast. Your client won’t care how the data gets lost. With the technology and backup solutions available today (with memory and storage at historical lows $$) there is no excuse for losing data short of a card failure. You’ll most likely lose the client. You then wasted your time and your client’s time. It’s just not worth it. The system I’ve developed is easy to incorporate. Even if it’s not used in entirety I hope you are backing up at least twice on site and once off site.

  • I stay away from Cloud backups. It’s easy to incrementally upload files, but if the manure impacts the windmill, downloading 2-4TB is going to take the better part of a week and may trigger a warning letter from ones ISP about bandwidth usage (They define “unlimited” differently that Merriam-Webster). If you are connected via a satellite service, the recovery will be costly in excess bandwidth charges.

    Hard drives are pretty reliable. Having one copy on a working drive of your computer, another on a detached drive for on-site backup and a third backup drive taken or mailed someplace away from the office in case of fire, theft or other calamity. I use two off-site backups. I send a backup drive to a family member and when they receive it, they use the return label I provide to send back the one that they have on hand. I’m doing the same thing for them. If I need that back up, I can get in the car and drive 6-8 hours round trip to retrieve the drive if I can’t wait for it to be sent back. That’s much faster than a Cloud service and cheaper. I used to have an deal with a local web hosting company to back up data online to one of her machines, but she reconfigured her whole rig and we haven’t put that back in place yet (the data is still there, the account needs to be rejiggered so I can access online again). Her equipment is about an hour away so I could take a drive and plug it in directly to get data restored.

    I use LR to cull photos and output galleries. I use the fewest software packages possible.

    Presets are a huge timesaver. I ingest photos into LR with lens corrections applied, conversion to .dng and a little bit of sharpening and noise adjustments and a touch of clarity. All of this (except for the .dng) change be changed during editing, but it’s the minimum that I usually apply to every photo. I have other presets that I use for specific photos such as daylight and twilight exteriors. It’s so easy to just click one button and then adjust a slider or two to finish most of an image. All of the galleries I send to customers are preset. If Zillow changes their image size, I just change the preset setting and don’t have to worry about it again for a while. Customers that want images sized for their own websites are easy to accommodate and I have a preset for a local printer than many agents use for flyers. If you automate every you do frequently, it shaves off tons of time in the course of a week. Even though it takes more computer time to adjust photos while ingesting them (I cull after), the computer can be doing that while I put batteries on the chargers, clean and reset gear and look at the schedule for the next day. I’ll also brew a pot of tea for the editing. There are plenty of other things to do while the computer is crunching files.

  • Thanks Mark, that’s a good outline of a solid workflow.

    Like you I have had a workflow that has long stood the test of time with over 25 years of working with digital assets, but I am always open to new ideas and processes.

    Over the years I have always been wary of proprietary software solutions, I have seen too many big players come and go to realise it is not safe to put all your eggs into one basket.

    Having worked as a graphic designer, I can retrieve a Freehand or Quark Xpress file in just minutes from 25 years ago but opening them it is not quite as simple. Even some simple word processing documents may not be that easy to get into with all the formatting complete. Photographers have had it real easy in comparison because I can still open a PSD file from 25 years ago with no problems in today’s Photoshop.

    A timely reminder of why locking yourself into one system is this article I just saw a few days ago as well:

    https://petapixel.com/2015/07/16/why-i-stopped-using-the-dng-file-format/

    I have been taking a look at Capture One and Photo Mechanic over the last few days and that looks like a promising speedy workflow solution to my method of shooting.

    I looked at Capture One a few years ago when it was pretty useless unless you were using the Phase One camera, but it’s current lens and camera systems it supports is quite extensive now. Even though my Tokina 11-16 isn’t in their database the generic profile does a really nice job with it.

    Trying out the demo version of photo mechanic this weekend looks pretty good too — a very fast product.

  • I think most RE photographers have a pretty standard workflow that works for them. I have developed mine over the years and continually adjust depending upon new or updated methods that I add, subtract or try. I backup my RE photos in two ways – a local, removable hard drive with the high res photos I send to clients. Since I use Smugmug for my website, I upload everything there, too. They have unlimited storage. I figure I don’t really have to save real estate photographs forever like I do my personal photos, so I don’t include them in my standard backups to a NAS. I have everything I want to keep on Smugmug in jpg. I save the raw files of my personal photos locally.

  • A couple of notes:

    Calibrating a monitor is important for things that are to be printed because the art director and / or print shop is likely to have a well calibrated monitor, but most real estate offices don’t, so it won’t do much good.

    For images intended to be displayed on the web, DPI is meaningless. Only the pixel dimensions matter. DPI is only of interest to your printer. (It’s like a post-it note that’s stored in your image. Only a printer will ever read it.)

    The most powerful feature of Lightroom is one that’s often overlooked: The ability to put any image in multiple collections. For example, I might have a picture of a lovely Victorian house that I shot for a magazine assignment. It, and all of the other “keepers” that I shot for the job, go in a collection named for that for the job. But I might also include it in my “City Scape” collection, and, if it has a fancy paint job, in my “Color Junky” collection, and had it been a drone shot, it might go in “Drone Stuff” or “Aerials” as well. The point is that there is only one copy of the picture, which saves space and backup time, and it can be found easily depending on my concerns at the moment.

  • @Greg Peterson,
    I do the same sharing across collections for my sky and landscaping galleries so they are always handy. I can also have a photo in my portfolio collection and in the job gallery. Another handy feature is Virtual Copies. I sometimes need to do strange edits in LR to use a piece of an image in PS but I don’t want to have those adjustments showing as the only version of the image in case I forget and toss the image out as a loser.

  • This back up scenario makes complete sense. I run local backups every night using Carbon Copy Cloner (on a Mac). Super easy to operate. Then I have a cloud service called “CrashPlan” which has NO storage limit for a small monthly fee. Marc’s advice should be heeded by naysayers who may otherwise get their comeuppance if they fail to safeguard their data.

  • @Greg Peterson: I work with many high-end realtors who still print images on slick presentation style offerings. Which is typical in my market especially with home ranging above $2m+ and often in the $5m-$7m+ range. Full agree with you on the power of Collections and sharing those images across different Collections in LR.
    @Charles Lynch: Hear you loud and clear on software. Luckily all the software I use has been around for a long time and is a mainstay in the marketplace. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at today’s functionality of Capture One. You can download a free fully functional 30-day trial.
    @Ken Brown: You make some great points. Some Cloud services provide the ability to send in a physical drive to retrieve your backed up data. That’s the reason I use BackBlaze. You can send them a drive. They’ll transfer the data and ship it back to you.
    @Lee Miller: Thank you for your voted of confidence.

  • Marc,
    I think what Greg is saying (or what he ought to be saying) is that “DPI” is an utterly meaningless number unless your file is literally ON a printer, being RIP-ed. There are no dots in a digital image – they don’t exist — and pixels in a digital file do not equal “dots” on a printer.
    You’re saying that you export from Lightroom with specific “DPI”, but in fact Lightroom does not do such a thing. Files are output with pixel dimensions, and understanding the difference is key if you’re going to try and manage a print workflow.

    I know you probably hear from clients all the time about wanting images at a particular “DPI” but again, it’s a totally meaningless number until you know the physical dimensions of the print they want to make — and at that point, you’d still have to work backward to determine what that really means in terms of pixels. Hence, Lightroom only uses pixel dimensions. A great resource for learning about this stuff is “The Digital Print” by Jeff Schewe.

    I’m sure your system works for you, but I think you’d find it beneficial to learn Lightroom more fully, and to read “The DAM Book” by Peter Krogh. It looks like you’re doing a lot of redundant work, particularly with regard to creating duplicate folders on the same hard drive (that’s a specious backup, they have to be on separate, un-connected drives) and using PhotoMechanic for things that Lightroom can do natively. Many, many steps (all that hierarchical folder stuff!) can be eliminated while still maintaining multiple backups, and having every photo quickly located when you need it.

    One last point, that might seem like a nit-pick but it comes up (for me) all the time — renaming files for delivery creates a disconnect when the clients need a specific shot later on. The file name they have won’t match the file name in your archive. This is one of the great strengths of Lightroom — you only ever maintain a single “master” file, and everything else is generated from that. If you’re re-naming things, then your client will call you up and ask for something you can’t identify, and you’ll be reduced to figuring out which living room shot, or pool photo, or whatever, they’re talking about by describing it. But if everyone has the same file name, there’s no confusion.

  • Hi @Scott Hargis, big fan. I’m sure our paths will cross someday.
    Thank you for reading and commenting.
    I’ll investigate DPI more. Having said that, I’ve owned an Epson 9000, Epson 3800 and having printed a range of large format printed images for clients and my own home….what I’m doing with DPI output from LR does work with impressive results FOR ME and my pro labs that I use. Lightroom does output at a set DPI. I wasn’t aware that that was meaningless. My clients typically don’t request a set DPI….just a physical size of the print. As I mentioned I’ll look into this more deeply to understand what you mean. Always something to learn.

    Personally, I don’t care for using Lightroom for culling. I know plenty of people and photographers that do. However, I much prefer the speed and ease of use of Photomechanic, and the ability to rename RAWs from Photomechanic before import into LR too.

    As for backups, they are all on separate drives, never the same. That the drives are external and connected, save for a crazy electrical surge – and I use a surge protector – not sue why you think that that is a bad idea?

    As for renaming files, I agree it’s much easier to do from the get-go and I’ll amend that portion of the article. When I know that a client will be using the files at a particular maximum size, I output it from Lightroom at that size and keep the Jpeg Master folder, as well as give them a copy of that folder too. This way we both have the same file number sequence. I’ve never had a client come back yet and say that they needed a larger size file.

    Hierarchal system in LR: I use Lightroom Catalogs –> Collections, listing clients by the same dates that are on the Master folders that I back up on my drives. For instance 2017.05.15_Client_Name. This way they all show up in the Catalog in sequential order.

    One question for you. Have you have had a LR Catalog get corrupted? What do you do to safeguard against it?

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