The wisdom of workflow

Why it matters, what you need to think about and some of the things we do at our studio

We’d hit crisis point. There was a backlog of images to edit and a queue of many more to capture. My wife Sarah was running the business side and I was shooting, culling and editing the pictures. I was the bottleneck and there was no reprieve in sight. It was time to redesign our workflow.

Every photographer has a workflow, even if they haven’t formalised it yet. A good workflow is resilient, efficient, useable, obvious and consistent. The pursuit of an effective workflow means regularly re-examining how you do things and – in my case – reluctantly releasing some creative control.

You might not think you have a workflow, but that’s not true. Workflow is just a formal term for the different things you do each day, and the order in which you do them. It’s how you run your business, how you attract clients and how you process, sell and deliver images. In our experience, a good workflow has five main characteristics:

* A good workflow is resilient.

It reduces risk, to protect you and your brand from catastrophe. For example, I only use cameras with dual memory card slots, so that every image I take is recorded in two separate places. Immediately after each shoot, I remove one card and import the images into Lightroom. I rename the files, then save a back-up copy. This back-up copy is duplicated on an off-site storage unit. Only then do we reformat the memory cards ready for the next shoot. If at any time something goes wrong – memory card failure, hard drive failure or even a fire in the studio – the images should be recoverable.

* A good workflow is efficient.

This matters less when you’re starting out, but as you build your business and get busier, time becomes increasingly precious. If parts of your workflow feel like too much of an infuriating diversion, you’ll stop doing them, no matter how crucial they might be in the long-term. It’s like a wide village green with a path around the perimeter: when you’re in a hurry you’ll just cut straight across the middle. We love our clients, but we systemise how we show that love (using Client Relationship Management software), so that we can deliver a personal service efficiently even as we get bigger and busier.

* A good workflow is usable.

Your shoots and post-production are like the factory building in your business. If you’re sitting there scratching your head about what you need to do next, then the cogs grind to a halt. Your factory temporarily stops producing products (i.e. images) that you can sell. If you want to create high end fashion portraits but don’t know how to edit your images, then you have a problem. You need to learn how to do it, outsource to someone who does or pursue a different path in order to get your workflow moving again.

* A good workflow is obvious.

When you start work in the morning, when the doorbell goes in the middle of the day, and when a phone call interrupts your thoughts in the afternoon, how quickly can you get back on the production line? We use folders and name them so it’s clear which stage each shoot is at. Are the images culled? Is the editing complete? Has the order been sent off? Naming folders within each client job means we can see at a glance what the current stage is, which means the next stage is clear, too.

* A good workflow is consistent.

Our workflow is very different today compared to three years ago because we’ve learned about our clients and improved how we do things. But on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t vary much. This means anyone in our team of three can easily find an email or image, and understand where on the production line a client’s booking is. We don’t change how we do things without a good reason and plenty of communication.

 

Back in the studio, we had a decision to make. Should the culling part of the workflow move to Sarah? I really struggled with the idea. I often asked her to help me shortlist pictures when I second-guessed myself or couldn’t make my mind up, and we agreed on most of them. But sometimes she’d discard an image that had been a real effort to capture, or where the lighting was particularly beautiful.

I was making decisions with a photographer’s eye, whereas she would approach the task in her role of brand custodian. Sarah doesn’t attend my shoots, so she’s often more objective. It doesn’t matter to her if I got soaked while lying in a muddy puddle to capture a reflection in a scenic portrait. It only matters to her if the image is any good. And actually, I think that makes her more qualified for the task than me.

It was a fundamental shift in how we operate, and one that’s saved me a ton of stress and time. Handing over ownership of any of the creative process can be tough. But it is also liberating. If you get it right, not only does it help with the workload but it can help you be MORE creative not less.

Workflow is at the heart of every business, and ours was getting clogged. Changing how we work to reduce the bottleneck hasn’t always been easy, but our business has been much stronger and healthier as a result.