In my last post, I talked about refactoring my photo collection, which I’m sure a lot of the non-geeks in the audience (both of you) went “huh?” to.
In the software world, “refactoring ” is a term used today to define what happens when a programmer goes in and cleans up some existing code. In the old days, it was called “maintenance programming” and thrown at the junior programmers. Today, it’s called “refactoring” and it’s still thrown at the junior programmers, but now it has a fancy name to make them feel better about it.
Okay, not really. well, mostly not really. But refactoring is where you take a hunk of something that already exists, and you work on it to make it more functional, faster, cleaner (or simple less warty), add in functionality you wish you’d known you’d want when you did it the first time, and generally do away with all of the bits that annoy you and replace them with new bits that hopefully won’t annoy you as much.
That concept is relevant for software — but it’s just as relevant to your photo collection. Mine had, over time, gotten to be a bit of a mess. My oldest photos started out in a very early version of iPhoto. As I got more serious about my photography and the technology improved, I moved my collection from iPhoto to Aperture (first version), then to CS3 Photoshop/Bridge (when I got tired of waiting for Aperture 2.0), then to Lightroom 2.0 (when I got tired of Bridge not making my life easier and more painless), and now to Lightroom 3.0. Along the way I redefined my keywording schemes at least three times, on at least two occasions I accidently deleted all keywords off of swaths of the library accidentally and didn’t catch it until “later”, and did the same once for captions and again once on image titles — each to a different group of images that might have overlapped but none of them had things in common. All of which ended up in the “some day, I need to fix these things” pile.
Along the way I learned a lot about photography, and a lot about post-processing of images, and I figured out tricks to improve images that allowed me to create much better images than I was previously capable of. When Lightroom 3 came out, the new processing system was also much improved, especially around noise reduction, and “simply” reprocessing images in Lightroom 3 made an image better.
I’ve also gotten pickier about what images are good enough for me to want to have them in public with my name on them. At some point, you look at you online galleries and wince once too often, and you think to yourself “I need to fix this” and put it in the Todo pile with all of the other Todos.
So a few weeks ago I pointed someone I knew at one of my images and winced when I looked at it one too many times, and I decided it was time to actually fix all of this stuff, so I crawled down in a hole, and spent two and a half weeks at the task.
That’s not so bad. I’ve done this once before, back in 2008, and I spent four months at the project. At that time, there were a lot of other things going on (like my dad being sick and dying) and it was a part time project (and therapy) and a lot of it was done late at night in hotel rooms, but I found it a huge help in really seeing where I stood as a photographer and what I needed to work on — and how far I’d come along the way to that point.
Lightroom 3 has a new feature in it that I really wanted to take advantage of, the Publish module. Even better, Jeffrey Friedl has written some Lightroom plug-ins that take this functionality and extend it to be even more useful (and he’s done one for Smugmug, too). In Lightroom 2 and earlier, you could export your images to Flickr (or some other service), but once you did, the two aspects of the image were disconnected. Changes to one couldn’t be merged in to the other. If you found a typo in a caption or wanted to update or add keywords, you’d have to remember to go to the places you had exported the image and make those changes manually to each instance. You did that religiously, right? Yeah. Me, too. But what that really meant was that once you hit that “export” button, it was a major pain to actually update/improve/fix things — so you ended up with a list of “need to fix this” spread all over your online sites. And of course, we all religiously keep track of all of these ToDo’s and work to complete them in our free time in the evenings, right? Yeah, me, too.
So over time, comments on flickr that noted mistakes got fixed in Lightroom (usually), but not re-exported back out to flickr or elsewhere. And as I refined my keywording (or more correctly, threw the crappy keywording systems out and built less crappy ones), did those improvements end up where you and the search engines could see them? Oh. Of course. Yeah, right.
Publish changes that; once you get your flickr (and smugmug) accounts set up and synced up with your Lightroom collection, changes you make to an image can be republished in place. No longer do you have that “damn, that sharpening is off” moment wher you have to spend 20 minutes exporting to your desktop and convincing flickr to replace a photo. No longer do you have to remember which images you fixed those typos in. Lightroom deals with it now. Once you get it set up, the process becomes pretty painless.
Once you set things up. I’ll come back to that in a future entry.
And once I sat down to implement that, I realized i now had a REASON to actually empty the “todo list”, which of course doesn’t really exist. But it was possible to create one and them empty it. So I did. And then exported all of that to Flickr. along the way, it gave me the opportunity to properly create my “serious” portfolio over on Smugmug, and start the process of cross-linking the two services. That’s still in progress as I decide what works and doesn’t — but if you look at my flickr images, they now include links to Smugmug. And with the new lightroom capabilities, as I implement how I want captions on flickr and smugmug to look, making that change and then re-publishing it is relatively simple — for instance, I want to add a short explanation of Creative Commons to my flickr captions. In the old day, good luck. Now?
Possible. And it opens up many options down the road to do things that before were simply too much hassle to warrant.
At a very high level, here are the tasks I undertook to refactor my image collection:
- Make sure everything is in Lightroom and nothing is lost of missing.
- Sit down and spend some time defining what your standards are. What kind of keywords should you use? To what level of detail? What is a “good” caption? What is a “good” title? Do you geotag images? to what accuracy? if you decide on your standards up front, it doesn’t make bringing the library up to those standards less tedious — but at least you’ll be able to make easy and consistent decisions on what needs to be done, which will simplify things down the road.
- Go through my defined keyword library and edit it into a consistent hierarchy and bring it all up to my current usage standards; that includes fixing all typos and doing things like standardizing usage and terminology, grammar, capitalization and thinking through things like your hierarchy. And spell-checking it. Twice. Trust me.
- Implement the publish system for the sites you upload to, and go through the work needed to sync up those services to those collections so that everything is connected and updates will go where they are supposed to go.
- Go through the library one image at a time and bring it up to your current standards: if necessary, re-keyword it. improve the caption and title. verify it’s geotagged and the geotagging is correct. validate the metadata. make sure the embedded EXIF data is complete and correct — especially contact and copyright info (you ARE adding that to all of your images via import presets, right? RIGHT?)
- Are the images well-processed? Do they need to be re-done? Do them. If you don’t want to lose the existing version of the image, use virtual copies and learn to use sets. Are there systemic processing mistakes you’re catching? Congratulations, you just improved your workflow on new images — you know not to do that any more, right? (I found, honestly, that I went through phases where I wansn’t just bad at sharpening, I was “driving the clown car backwards through the car wash with the windows down” incompetent; I finally took great swaths of the library and put a generic re-sharpening on them to remove the damage, and then evaluated them individually again later. And this was on images that were already on flickr and published, at a time I thought that was good sharpening. Oh, god. (wince))
- As you fix stuff, publish the fixed stuff so that the stuff that makes you wince goes away….
- Edit your collection. you’ve become a better photographer; there’s going to be stuff you look at and wince. When you wince, don’t be afraid to retire the image and take it offline. Don’t leave images online that you feel represent you poorly just because at one point you thought they were good enough. Edit. Ruthlessly. (in my case, I retired about 10% of my collection; a smaller amount than I expected to, honestly. In my 2008 refactor, I retired 35%, but that was when I started making the jump from enthusiastic amateur who pushed the shutter and prayed to a more studied amateur who actually tried to plan shots out….)
- And — don’t be afraid, if you get halfway through and think of something, to back up and implement it as well. Do something you decide isn’t working as well as you hoped? think of a way to make it even better? As long as you have the hood open — DO IT. because one of the things you want to do is make sure that once you put the hood down, you don’t feel any interest in opening it up and doing this again for a number of years. If you leave something half-done, or un-done, you’ve already started your next ToDo list.
I’m hoping this refactor will keep me for the next five years or so. I’ve matured enough as a photographer to have a sense of what makes sense (for me) and what base quality I want to show to others, and I’ve experimented enough with keywords and captions and titles to have a feel for what works for me, so I don’t expect to have to make major revisions “for a while”. and the Lightroom publishing option means I can tweak along the way and roll those changes out everywhere — meaning less deferred maintenance and less reason to let problems pile up until I can’t look at things without wincing…
So, how to do your own refactor? In my view, the one thing you need to get right, and the one thing that we all agree is a royal pain in the ass even when you do — is keywords. So before you do anything else, you have to get your keywording setup into some kind of consistent and logical shape… That’s next on the docket.