Photog Tip of the Week: File Management in Lightroom with Wade Heninger

Wade Heninger is a Seattle-based dance, documentary, and portrait photographer (and agent provocateur) who moonlights as one of SmugMug’s resident Lightroom Jockeys and UI designers. Visit his blog every Tuesday for a smattering of Lightroom tips, tricks and tutorials, and find him on Twitter, too. You can also look forward to seeing cool (and useful!) photo tips like this on our new weekly “Photog Tip of the Week” series.

Importing images into Lightroom can be a chore. What is a benign process when you shoot a few hundred pictures in a portrait session can become unwieldy when you come home with 15 CF cards full of files from a big event.

First, consider that Lightroom has always imported from only one card at a time. The standard process is as follows:

  1. Insert CF card .
  2. Configure the Import options and hit “Import.”
  3. Wander off with the intention of coming back when its done.
  4. Forget you were importing for an hour and then realize it.
  5. Wander back in and go back to step 1.

Repeat 10 or 15 times. And 8 hours later I’m good to go. A whole work day and I’ve not edited a single photo yet. Ouch.

This just does not work for me. I’m a ballet photographer and work routinely involves shooting several thousand photos of a single performance that need to be quickly imported because the next performance is 2 hours away and the cards need to be cleared and ready. That is some serious file management and little time to do it.

So what does the enterprising photographer do?

Photo Mechanic for Easier Photo Imports

Some years ago I bought Photo Mechanic solely because its Import tool was pretty darn good. Much better than Bridge. Of prime importance was the fact that it would import images from all mounted cards in order. If you had the card reader for the card, it would do the right thing. The rest of Photo Mechanic is inconsequential (and a bit ugly) with Lightroom, but this one feature makes worth the purchase price. I have 5 or 6 card readers, so I can really chew off a bunch of cards in one fell swoop using this little tool.

So for the past few years, I would use Photo Mechanic to import the files onto my Drobo and *then* run an Import in Lightroom to get them in and previews built. This was a two step process that had to be done serially as well: 1) import with Photo Mechanic 2) turn Lightroom loose on the big folder with everything.

Somewhere in the Lightroom 2 cycle I’d worked on a redesign of the Import dialog and as part of that I’d suggested the whole multiple cards thing as a way to speed our customer’s workflow. Sadly, we didn’t get it any of this for the release of version 2. So when Lightroom 3 was released, the first thing I looked at was the new Import dialog and if it could do what I needed. Unfortunately, no.

So recently, as I returned from another photo shoot with 12 cards in tow, I was all set up to dance the same waltz with the same klutzy partners.

But something clicked this time. Call it a Lightroom Epiphany of sorts, but all of a sudden I realized a possible solution had been sitting under my nose all this time.

Lightroom’s Auto Import Feature

Lightroom has this somewhat obscure feature called “Auto Import” that watches a folder and then imports any images therein.  As I recalled, it was mainly Lightroom’s way of dealing with tethered capture before we had a dedicated module for such. Anxiously, I clicked on the File Menu to see if it hadn’t been deprecated due to the new Tethered Capture features. Huzzah! It was still there.

Giddy, I clicked on the Auto Import Settings and set it up to watch the folder I was going to use Photo Mechanic to dump them to.

From Photo Mechanic to Lightroom to SmugMug

So, I setup Auto Import and chose the import directory. So far so good.

I then went into Photo Mechanic and dumped all 6 cards to the aforementioned directory.

It worked! Photo Mechanic dumped all the cards to the directory and Lightroom then imported it and built a preview for each image. It took awhile, but not nearly as long as I was used to. And it did it in one fell swoop.

So, so awesome.

I did notice that at one point there were over 500 processes going at once in Lightroom – one for each import and preview build it was working on. But it didn’t seem to bother it much.

The result is that I’m in business more quickly than before. I was able to import all those cards and have Lightroom ready to edit, with all files imported and previews already built.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Since that ah-ha! moment, I’ve dramatically cut down my file management time, which lets me get to the important parts faster. SmugMug makes uploading directly from Lightroom dead simple with their integrated publishing service, so I can get photos into my galleries and start making money.

– Wade

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I'm a freelance documentary photographer who loves travel, rangefinders, medium format film photography, and everything in-between.

12 thoughts on “Photog Tip of the Week: File Management in Lightroom with Wade Heninger”

  1. Thank you for the idea. I do have a question though, I do not have PhotoMechanic is there any reason I cannot just use the operating system’s copy or move command on the multiple cards? I realize typically it would not eject when done automatically but wouldn’t it do the same thing? Is PM doing anything other than moving the files?

    I do appreciate the tip and it does give me some ideas.

  2. I, too, am no stranger to bringing home a ton of images from a shoot. At one wedding in NYC last year, I shot up about 2500 photos over two days. Thing is, and this would nip your issue in the bud, is that I shot on 32GB cards mirrored in my Nikon D3s. This way, I come to the studio, shove in my single 32GB card into the Lexar FW800 reader and import directly into LR. Done. Previews are built. I previously used a smattering of 4GB and 8GB cards but I realized that, in the heat of the moment, the very last thing I want to be doing is fumbling through CF cards hoping my convention works and I’m not grabbing the wrong card. Sure, a card can fail, but with the mirroring I’m doing while I shoot, there’s an extremely low chance I’ll lose the shots. BTW, the Lexar reads my whole 32GB card off to my computer in about 10 minutes or less.

    Also, you are using a Drobo?? My Gen2 FW800 drobo is slow as hell and I’d never edit off the thing!

  3. Bradford,

    Yeah, you can use the OS to copy the files. The big thing in favor of a dedicated import tool (like Photo Mechanic or like tool) is that they’ll verify the copy and they can do each serially instead of all at once.

    But hey, if it works for you, go for it.

    1. You mean at some point you’d need 5 or now you need 5. Are you shooting MF? Red One Raw video? 32GB for me is about 1.2k 12MP RAW images.

      1. I shoot with a 5D MK II so my files are much bigger than those small MP Nikon files but yes, I’d still need more than 1 card at a time to do my work.

        Currently in big performances I’ll shoot the equivalent of 18-20 cards in a day when I have multiple performances. I have a bunch of 8, 12, and 16 GB cards now.

        But I’d love a dupe CF card situation in my Canon like you have.

  4. Thanks for this. I don’t actually have the volume issues you do; a very heavy shoot for me is about 500 frames, but even so it’s a very useful trick…

    1. Not really. Its just a solution to a problem that exists. You don’t have to buy Photo Mechanic. You can use any other tool that downloads from multiple cards at once.

  5. Out of curiosity have you noticed how the auto imports organizes the imported files. Where the standard lightroom organizes them by year, month,day – the auto import puts everything into one folder. It’s a bit of a shame because that seems like an easy feature to add to the auto import dialogue box. How are you managing that? Thanks.

    1. Yes, Auto Import was built for tether shooting, so it was assumed that everything would be done in one day.

      For me, the way it works actually helps as I can keep performances on the same day separate.

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