Making a photo book, Pt. 1

I’ve decided to chronicle the creation of a photo book from now until one actually gets published. My purpose is to engage others with similar interests. Although I have photographed more or less continuously since 1984, first with film (in all formats) and with digital (since the Nikon D100 in 2002), I have only now begun the process of arranging my work in meaningful ways. As some of you know, editing one’s images is non-trivial. I have taken workshops with the Visual Studies Workshops in Rochester, New York with the venerable Nathan Lyons. At the university level, I studied art history. It was through the latter that I became aware of the origins of diptychs. The result is that while certainly I want an individual photo to tell a story, I believe it is through sequencing images that not only does another story emerge but it also gives insight into the kinds of photographs one takes. I will explore this idea much further in forthcoming postings. From the many thousands of images, analog and digital, where does one begin?

1. Getting organized
I have at my disposal two technologies: the first from my darkroom days consists of contact sheets of my film negatives, many of which I have already scanned using a Nikon Coolscan 8000. The second is Lightroom 4.3, an extraordinarily powerful photo software that enables very comprehensive cataloging, manipulation and output (as prints, photo books or slide shows) of one’s images. Learning the software has a curve; however, I quickly realized that developing a comprehensive set of keywords was essential to the effective use of the program. I also realized that it was absolutely essential to have a second external drive for backup. For this purpose I have a LaCie 3TB drive as my main hard drive and a Western Digital 3TB backup drive, both of course connected to my MacBook Pro. The monitor is the wonderful 27″ Apple Thunderbolt display that I calibrate with the X-rite ColorMunki.The result is that my prints (on the remarkable Epson R3000) and monitor match perfectly.

2. Assigning keywords to images
After fumbling around a bit with the software, I quickly realized that the first learning hurdle was to understand how the Lightroom catalog works and how to use searchable keywords and metadata to catalog and search for image files (scanned and in-camera digital). Now, I do not pretend to be a Lightroom guru but I learned enough to make use of these very powerful technologies to render the construction of themes across folders relatively straightforward. I purchased Adobe’s Classroom in a Book for Lightroom 4 and essentially worked my way through it. At the same time, I studied how to structure keywords using what is called controlled vocabulary. Essentially, a controlled vocabulary consists of keyword hierarchies and nesting to minimize data entry and maximize search flexibility. For example, you could have a LOCATION keyword parent with Canada, United States and Europe children. In each, you could have the names of cities or other geographic entity. By entering the nested location, all higher level keywords get entered automatically. Thus, if you wanted to search for all photos taken in Canada, regardless of location, Lightroom will pop those out for you. I find it easier to enter keywords by clicking beside the appropriate item. Doing so ensures that keyword spelling and terminology remain constant. It does take some upfront work initially and thereafter each time you bring in new images; in the long run however, it is time very well spent. The process of assigning keywords is ongoing as I have currently almost 30K images in the Lightroom catalog. You can purchase these vocabularies but I find it cheaper to do it myself and to modify the list as I see fit. I edited mine in Excel, first by exporting the list from Lightroom and then importing the edited list into Lightroom as a text file.

At the same time, I created a series of smart folders that are populated automatically with images corresponding to the keywords I defined for the folders. Thus, when I bring in new images from my SD card into the Lightroom database catalog, depending on the keyword, a ‘pointer’ to the image gets placed within the appropriate smart folder. For example, I have a folder entitled Three Stars. The moment I tag an image with 3 stars, existing or coming in from an SD card, Lightroom assigns a ‘pointer’ to it from the Three Star folder to the physical location stored in the Lightroom catalog. Altogether, this is a very nice and powerful feature.

My process is now streamlined enough that when I insert an SD card from the camera into my MacBook Pro, Lightroom automatically opens up a dialogue window that displays all the images contained on the card. At the same time, I set up a preset in the metadata panel that inserts my name and copyright information directly onto each new image coming into the Lightroom catalog database. Further I have Lightroom create new date folders according to the date an image was taken. Finally, I apply the appropriate keywords to images as required. This front end process can take a few minutes for sure, but the benefits are many: searchable images and greater understanding of one’s image content.

My next post, I will start to chronicle my attempts at the photo book process itself.

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