The Tour Photographer Workflow
In a job where time is especially scarce and organization is vital, your tour photography workflow can make or break your sanity on the road. I’ve spent 5 years on tour with bands and artists, improving my workflow to be as efficient and productive as possible.
The basic tenets of a good workflow are quick editing, timely & responsible photo delivery, and safe, organized backups. With a good system in place, you should be able to spend 22 hours of a day shooting, enjoying yourself, or sleeping, and an hour or two on your computer doing the hard part of your job.
The more time you can allocate to shooting or enjoying your life on tour, the happier and more effective you’re going to be at your job as a tour photographer. Your job can, and should, feel like you’re traveling the world with your friends. If you take your workflow seriously for a tiny chunk of time every day, the rest of it will hardly feel like work at all.
When setting out on tour for the first time, my workflow was of the trial-and-error variety that resulted in wasted time, bad habits, and irresponsible handling of photos. Years of experience touring bars, clubs, and arenas all over the world have refined my workflow to what feels like the best it can be at the moment. I love sharing my workflow, and for a niche job like ours, there aren’t many resources out there to light the way for those just getting into it.
One of the most popular posts I’ve ever made is a workflow walkthrough from a few years ago. I look back at it now and can’t believe how much my process has improved… it almost feels irresponsible leaving it up, but the feedback I still get to this day motivates me to want to write this updated and vastly improved version of that post.
I outline everything from pre-tour prep to my everyday workflow to my post-tour archiving, in as much detail as I can. If you have any questions about this post or my workflow, don’t hesitate to reach out — firstname.lastname@example.org
When you finally leave on tour, time becomes a scarce resource. And even when you do have a few hours to spare, I think you’d be insane to want to spend it in front of your computer instead of shooting, exploring new cities, or hanging with your touring buddies. Trying to put off the pre-production work and doing it on the fly usually results in messy file management, bad archiving, and risky storage practices.
A lot of photographers reading this are about to head out on their first tour, or are already touring music photographers but maybe want to see how someone else’s workflow looks like. I have a hard time thinking of many better jobs in the world than this, so while you’re out there you should hopefully be enjoying it. If you set aside a few hours with your computer before you hit the road, you can knock out all the prep-work possible so you can make the most use of your time on tour.
The software you need:
The hardware you need:
1. File Management Setup
A good file management setup is the foundation of this whole operation. Your file and folder configuration may look different depending on your deliverables and needs, but if you modify an approach based on the same practices as below you’ll be in good shape.
I have 2 main directory folders:
My working folder is where I locally import and organize all of my raw files and keep my Lightroom catalog. I keep it in a convenient place — for me, that’s within my “Pictures” folder.
My delivery folder lives in my Dropbox directory, and syncs up to the cloud when connected to internet. I almost exclusively export images to this folder, and this is where I organize and send out all of my deliverable files and folders.
2018_ARTIST: I create one master working folder for each artist in each calendar year.
> 2018_ARTIST_CATALOG: Within the 2018_Artist folder, I have a folder solely for the Lightroom catalog.
> 01_TOUR_NAME: Also within the 2018_Artist folder, I have folders specified for each tour or special event of the year.
I use the numbers because the folders are automatically alphanumerically sorted and the numbering allows you to keep them in correct order, regardless of the tour name.
>> 01.01.2018 - CITY, ST: Within the specific tour folder, I then create a folder for each tour date and off day. If I don’t know where the off day will be spent yet, then I’ll leave it blank. I use "month, date, year - city, state/country" naming conventions here.
This is about as far as you can go to prepare your working folder for the start of a tour. Having all of this ready is going to save you time and headaches and minimize the potential for making errors mislabeling or putting files in the wrong places.
Your delivery folder can get messy really fast, so it's key to have a good system where everything has its place.
How you it up depends on how you've agreed with your client that you'll deliver photos. Here are the ways I've set up my delivery in the past…
Oh and before we get going, I know that this can get really confusing to follow, so I’ve created examples of each of these directories that you can download and follow along with.
One Delivery Folder — With some artists I work for, I simply deliver the same folder to everyone involved in the team that needs it; the band members or artist, crew members, management, artist’s friends, their publicist and so forth.
This is a super simple method, and works well for small artists who don’t have a lot of privacy issues and are a small, tight-knit team.
It makes your job really easy, but the weakness of this is everyone having access to one folder, and the nature of it being easy to share is that hypothetically photos could be pulled and posted by anyone that has access to it. And with so many people having access to the folder, its inherently less secure. Being on tour you really get to be with people at their highs, lows, and vulnerable times; and you’re photographing all of it.
You have a trust with your client and and obligation to let them choose what they share and keep private, and you don’t want photos that they don’t like being posted of them — by you, or anyone else who has access to the folder.
Separate Artist & Crew Folder — This is a common setup as well. Two deliverable folders, one specifically for the artists, and one for the crew. This keeps the artist photos more private and only in the hands of the subjects of those photos. Same goes for the crew.
This is exactly the same as the ‘One Delivery Folder’ setup, folder-structure-wise, except you’re just adding a crew folder to your main directory.
Approved Artist Folder — Among larger artists and teams, this is a very standard setup. It’s especially useful when there are a lot more people who want or need access to the photos. We’re talking about management teams, art departments, video editors, publicists, brand partners and sponsors, clothing companies. It just doesn't make sense to throw everyone into the same unvetted folder and trust that they’ll use the best or most appropriate images. It’s not safe or respectful of the artist’s privacy.
How this works is I’ll export all of my selects, send them to the artist. The artist will then approve the photos that they're okay with getting out into the world, and then I’ll export those high-res into a separate ‘approved’ folder that everyone then has access to. Sometimes management will ask me to hold back a few images in another separate folder for press exclusives that are then used for magazines, web features, TV, etc. I always use this in unison with a separate crew folder too.
You can see in the folder structure above that you’re basically just doubling your specific day folders — the first round in the parent folder go out for artist approvals, and then your actual delivery folder is the ‘approved’ folder.
2. Lightroom Catalog Setup
Sloppy Lightroom setups have been one of the weakest links in my workflow. Lightroom is a complex program, and learning what it’s capable of is valuable, but learning what features are not worth your time to use can be more beneficial than trying to make use of everything it can do.
Let’s cover the basics; if I’m with an artist for a tour or extended period of time, I’ll keep one Lightroom catalog per calendar year to keep things condensed and simple. I do this because it a) keeps all your work in one place, and b) when you have to pull old work to deliver, it’s all right there and you don’t have to search for the correct Lightroom catalog.
I create this catalog file and keep it stored in the 2018_ARTIST_CATALOG folder in my working folder as shown above.
Creating a Metadata Import Preset
Making a metadata import preset is a short process that I’ve added to my workflow to include basic keywords and copyright info into my photos. This preset will automatically apply to any imported photos.
What good does this do? As your photos float out into the ether, this metadata will help those who want to find out who the photographer is, and create a trail of breadcrumbs to find you. If you use your photos on your website, attaching keywords and other metadata to your photos can benefit your SEO too.
You can create a metadata preset by opening the import window (File > Import Photos and Video), then locating the ‘Apply During Import’ panel. Click the ‘Metadata’ dropdown and select ‘New…’ and the pop-up shown below will appear.
Fill it up with your info, and then add some fitting keywords in the corresponding keyword portion — I usually use artist moniker, artist names, and tour names, for example.
3. Storage Setup
We find ourselves once again at the most boring and most important part of your workflow.
The only way to learn about the importance of safe storage practices on tour is to lose a damn hard drive with irreplaceable photos on it. So either go ahead and lose a crucial hard drive in a foreign country or state, or just trust me and save yourself the sinking feeling in your gut.
My long-term approach to storage is a whole process that I’ll cover in a separate article, but my storage on tour is straightforward.
Get 2 Blank External Hard Drives
I carry two external hard drives with me, and buy them blank before each tour. I know it can be expensive, especially if you’re not being paid much on one of your early tours, but it’s worth it. If it’s a stretch for you to afford them, see if you can get your client to cover them for you.
My hard drive burn-rate is usually 2TB/month, so you can plan your hard drive purchases accordingly. My average is shooting 1000-2000 photos per day, resulting in about 50-125GB per show day. But for you, this math depends on how big the files your camera produces, how much you shoot, and if you’re shooting video as well.
My current favorite drives are WD My Passports because they’re small, inexpensive, have a low failure rate, and black (my favorite color).
Setting Up Your Drives
The first thing I do when I buy a new external is erase and format it to exFAT. There are a few file formats you can have hard drives use, but exFAT is great for universal purposes because it’s readable and writeable on both Mac OSX and Windows. I’m a Mac guy all the way, but you never know when you need to work across formats, and exFAT is also compatible with disk-station storage setups that I use for my long-term backups. The format has a limit file size of 4GB, which is totally fine if you’re shooting photos or simple video.
How to format an external hard drive to exFAT on Mac OSX.
Open ‘Disk Utility’ on your Mac
Select the drive you want to format from the lefthand panel
Click the ‘Erase’ tab
Select ‘exFAT’ from the dropdown menu
Click the ‘Erase’ button, and follow the prompts
Once the hard drive is blank, I create one folder in the main directory with the tour name — 01_TOUR_NAME. I don’t put any other folders inside of this, or anywhere else yet.
A final bit of housekeeping here. In the main directory of every drive I use, I include a tiny “IF_FOUND.pdf” file that includes my name, and all of my contact info, because I want to give a potential finder every possible way to return it to me. The likelihood that someone who finds a hard drive plugs it in and reads the file is low, but it doesn’t hurt.
If you keep reading, I cover how I label all of my gear, especially my hard drives. Make sure you label them with contact info so they can be returned to you if lost, and I label them as backup drive #1 and #2 to differentiate between them at a glance.
When you get out on tour, keep your hard drives in different bags. I’d like to repeat… keep your hard drives in different bags. It’s no help having two hard drives, with identical data, both being stored in one bag that gets stolen.
4. Camera Syncing
Get all the cameras you’ll be shooting with on tour, and sync their date and time settings so that when you import your photos into Lightroom, they’ll all appear in the correct order. This is important just for basic organization, but also very helpful if you’re shooting a few cameras at once — you want your photos to be in chronological order regardless of what camera they’re on.
This helps you edit more consistently as you can copy and paste your edit style onto photos you took the moments before and after while on separate cameras. Much easier to retain consistency than jumping around and trying to find adjacent photos and edit them the same way.
5. Label Everything
I know it sounds stupid and unimportant, but I promise this is one of the best things you can do for yourself before you go on tour. If you think you have a phenomenal memory and would never leave something behind, you underestimate how fast things happen on tour. Sometimes you’ll have 2 minutes to pack up all your belongings and you’ll miss something. And quite often, other people simply move your shit. Just label your things and give them the best chance you can to find their way back to you in case they get left behind. This goes double for hard drives. And I can guarantee you’ll leave a battery in a charger plugged into a socket behind a couch in a green room someday.
When labeling, I put my email (at a minimum), and phone number when there’s space on everything I can. Cameras, lenses, card reader, laptop, hard drives, chargers, etc. all get labeled.
Here’s the label maker I use — the DYMO LabelManager 160. I like it because you can change the font size fairly small and you can cut the margins of the labels down and they’ll fit in tiny spaces. I also like using the transparent labels with white text because they show up well on black, which is the color of everything I own, and it doesn’t look tacky.
I see a lot of photo and video shooters on tour get custom stickers with their logo or name on them — which is great for differentiating your gear from that of other people who might have similar items around, but doesn’t do much to help them get home to you.
Workflow: Day One
Day one is always hectic and high stress. You’re likely either really happy to be back with your friends, or nervously meeting a ton of new people who all seem to know each other really well. Either way, take time to hang and be social, it’s important and healthy. But also at the end of the day, carve out some time on your computer to do these day one tasks that will prepare you for the rest of your run.
Establish Base Presets
Here’s your opportunity to create some consistency in your body of work for the next few weeks or months. My editing session after the first show of tour usually takes the longest amount of time because I’m developing and fine-tuning my presets that I’ll use as a base for editing the rest of the tour.
Why do I make new presets for every tour? If you’re carrying a custom lighting package on the tour, then the live lighting is going to be consistent every night — though the room its in will affect it. Your presets will make facing your editing every night way faster, and you’ll learn the best ways to approach the common different types of light you’re shooting in.
Besides that, just having a consistent body of work for an artist over the course of a tour or period of time with them is important.
Here are the presets I use as a base for editing photos of an artist I’ve spent most of 2018 with:
I usually have one or two standard presets that I use for any non-concert photos, and then three to ten different concert presets that I’ll apply based on lighting, or whatever is fitting. For example I usually have one that handles red light really well, turns it to orange and desaturates it a bit. Then another for blue light that works similarly. There’s also a couple variations of a black and white preset, and a couple different color variations for live shots too. Usually these have similar tone curves with modified RGB curves, HSL sliders, and split toning based on the conditions.
In case you want to check out some of my regular presets, I’ve got a couple packs that I offer for sale that you can check out:
Share your delivery folders
At the start of a tour, getting photos isn’t the first thing on everyone’s mind, but the earlier you start sending out your delivery folders the better you’ll feel about yourself, and it’s a good way to “prove” that you’re already working and you’re not just there to hang.
One of Dropbox’s features is being able to manage permissions for members of a folder. I highly recommend setting up everyone as “View Only” permissions when you add them, otherwise you’re going to start seeing your files getting deleted, and that affects everyone. A lot of people don’t have much storage space on Dropbox and don’t want to start paying, so they’ll delete things to open up space without being aware that it deletes them for everyone else.
For anyone who doesn’t need to be a member of the folder or is out of Dropbox space, I make sure to email them the link so they can always refer back to it.
There’s also a great trick on iOS so that everyone can access the link easily from their phone. Have someone open the Dropbox link in their Safari app, press the ‘Share’ icon in the bottom bar menu. Scroll to “Add to Home Screen” and then give the link a custom name on the next screen. From now on, this person will have an icon on their home screen of their phone that they can click anytime to access the folder. Now they never have an excuse to lose the link and ask you for it again!
Workflow: Everyday Tasks
Your everyday workflow is going to vary based on a lot of factors. I like to operate pretty consistently; I shoot throughout the day, and then edit and deliver at night before I go to sleep. I personally think it’s important for tour photographers to edit and deliver photos as soon as they possibly can — that’s kind of why you’re on the road with an artist. So that they can both have someone they know and trust with them producing content with unique access to the artist and get that content right away to post. Everything in the modern era is so quick, most photos don’t hold the same kind of value when you’re a few days removed from a show.
So…your first set of the tour just ended, and now the easy part of your job — taking photos — is over. Here’s where your workflow starts to really matter.
The first step is dumping all your cards from the day. When importing, I’ll double check that the import setting is on “Copy” so that it’ll copy all the files to my hard drive and not just read off my card. In the “Destination” panel, I select the specific show folder (which we already made earlier) and import into it.
Meanwhile, your corresponding folder for that day will be automatically be populated with all of the imported photos and they’ll all be sorted in order based on capture time.
As long as you take care while importing to add your photos to the correct folder you created for the date, your corresponding folder in the folder panel on the left will populate with your photos.
Culling, Editing, and Rating
The next step is a mix of culling, editing, and rating simultaneously. This is the most time-consuming part of the day for most photographers. When I started touring, it would take me 3+ hours every night to sort through and edit my photos. Now I can consistently knock it out in under an hour, while still shooting the same amount of photos.
If your computer is old or slow and has a hard time loading previews in Lightroom and it’s becoming a bottleneck in your workflow, a better solution might be to use a separate program for culling before you start editing. I’ve tried this approach, but it I don’t like culling without having the ability to add presets or edit a photo a bit to see if it’s salvageable. The most popular program for photo culling is called Photomechanic, and it’s well loved among photographers.
If your computer can handle it (most should be able to) here’s how I approach it.
I’ll enter Develop mode in Lightroom, and scroll through the loupe showing thumbnails of my photos at the bottom of the screen using my arrow keys. I’ll take half a second to decide if the photo has potential. Don’t be afraid to make a split second decision to throw away anything that isn’t really good, otherwise you’re going to be editing and culling all night. If you’re taking thousands of photos a day, then maybe 5% of them should make the cut.
Once you click a photo, apply a preset and modify to your liking, though I try to spend no more than 30 seconds on a photo. If I can’t make it look good, I move on.
I use the star rating system in Lightroom to categorize my photos. When I edit a photo and want to keep it, I press ‘5’ on my keyboard to give it a 5-star rating. I use ratings to categorize my photos because the keyboard shortcuts and sorting within Lightroom for this system are so simple and fast (hitting the corresponding number key 1-5 rates the photo accordingly). Here’s my key to sorting my rating categories of photos:
Lightroom Rating Categories
★★★★★ — Artist photos
★★★★ — Crew photos
★★★ — Meet & Greet photos
★★ — Personal photos
★ — Misc photos / Anything I want to keep
My friend Josiah Van Dien shared a tip — he likes doing in-camera rating throughout the day for important moments... things like photos of his artist with another person, a moment his artist said ‘send me a photo of that’, or just shots he knows are amazing that he identifies while shooting. He says when he’s importing then he can just quickly sort by rated photos and quickly edit them and shoot them over. A pretty great method, especially if you need to deliver a few images really quickly. (Thanks Josiah)
Export Photos to Delivery Folder
Once I’ve gone through all of the photos, I’ll go to ‘Library’ view and filter by 5 stars, select all, and export them.
I export my photos into my delivery folder, and specifically into a subfolder with the date and location. My export settings are at 2400px on the long edge at 95 quality, resulting in photos with file sizes 2-8mb each. As long as there’s reasonable internet, this isn’t too much of a burden to upload. You can add these export settings as a preset you can use regularly as well.
After exporting the artist photos, I wait for them to upload and then alert the artist that they’re up. Next I’ll filter by 4 stars, export the crew photos, and so forth for any other photo sets that I need to send out.
Backing Up Your Work
Backing up your work as soon and as often as you can is the best way to protect yourself from losing all of your data due to theft, hard drive failure, lost drives, and more… so don’t neglect this part of the process.
Your backup workflow on tour is thankfully very simple. After a show is done, you can access your working folder and copy the folder full of photos for the day, then paste it into the tour’s folder in both of your backup drives.
I do not delete any photos at this point in my workflow — even the shitty ones — because I often get asked to go back and pull similar photos to one that was delivered. Sometimes I also miss a meet & greet photo that I accidentally didn’t rate… I do not want to delete photos that I still need. We’ll deal with them all at the end, but for now you should have plenty of hard drive space so leave this as a problem for “future you.”
It’s also smart to copy and paste your Lightroom Catalog folder onto your drives on a regular basis.
It’s best to keep both of your backup drives identical so that you’re entirely protected. As mentioned earlier, keep them in separate bags too, in case one of your pieces of luggage is stolen.
Once you’ve backed your work up onto both drives, you’re safe to delete it off of your computer. Your internal hard drive on your computer has much more limiting amount of space than the external drives, and I usually only keep 1 or 2 days worth of photos on it at any given moment, deleting off the drive as I need additional space.
When you get home from your tour you’ll probably be exhausted, and the last thing you’ll want to do is more “busy work” … but your job’s not over just yet. If you’re not headed straight back out on the road, take a few weeks before diving into this final chapter of your workflow.
An extension of your job shooting and delivering and safely backing up images on tour is most of the gig, but it’s vital to archive and store your work too. The photos you took the past month or two are part of the band’s story and important to everyone that was involved — and hopefully they’re important to you, too. Keeping the images safe is not only doing right by your job, but doing right by the people who you hopefully just made some great memories with.
On a work-related note, it’s very possible you’ll have to revisit the body work to deliver images or re-edit photos. I still get requests for work I shot on some of my first tours 5 years ago on occasion.
Removing Unnecessary Files
The first step is to responsibly make this body of work as small as possible. At this point you have 2 identical external hard drives with anywhere from 2-4TB of your work on them.
This includes tens of thousands of photos that have a ‘0’ rating in your Lightroom catalog, and are never going to see the light of day. As mentioned earlier, I often get asked to pull images that are similar to one I delivered… for example a recent one was “do you have this photo but without confetti covering his face?”… if I had deleted my non-deliverable photos, I would have been out of luck. Instead, I was able to find a similar image to take into photoshop, stitch with the original, and deliver exactly what the client wanted.
Once your tour is over, and all the images these requests stop coming, you’re safe to get rid of your un-needed images.
First, open Lightroom. If you haven’t re-connected the image paths to your external hard drive then click the ‘Photo is Missing’ icon in a thumbnail and fix the path correctly — it should automatically fix the paths of the other photos.
I’ll enter Library mode in Lightroom and select all of the ‘0’ rated images from the tour. I then press ‘Delete’ and follow the ‘Delete on Disk’ prompt to entirely delete the photos. This will, obviously, immediately reduce your drives by a terabyte or more. The final product will most likely be every image worth keeping from tour in a shiny little 200-400GB package. This is, well, 5 times easier to back up and keep safe.
Safely Archiving Your Work
So how do you store this body of work?
The budget archiving option — at this point, you have 2 identical external hard drives with the 200-400GB body of work on them. I recommend having 2 additional hard drives, with larger capacity, where you then transfer final bodies of work from a tour such as this. These drives will be able to hold a year or more’s worth of heavy touring work clocking in at 4TB.
Take these two drives, and keep them separate. And by separate I mean very separate; one at home, one at your parent’s house or your friend’s apartment, or in grandma’s closet. Somewhere safe, but accessible, and in a location that a house fire or a flood can’t take out both of them… what’s the point in having a backup if the same event can destroy both of them?
This isn’t a perfect system. Weakness #1 is you’re unable to access files while away from your drives. You can take one on the road with you, but when your work expands past the capacity of one hard drive, it can get unrealistic very quickly. If you do choose to bring a copy with you, then one of your two copies of the files is at an additional risk by being with you while you travel. It’s not nearly as safe as it would be sitting quietly in your mom’s closet. It introduces additional risk. You can offset this by buying another hard drive to keep an extra copy, but that just leads to…
Another big weakness, which is that having all these copies make it very difficult to keep track of what files are on what drives. It can get confusing and lead to your drives having different data on them, which is a risky game to play. What if you do a re-edit off of one drive? Then you have to somehow replicate it across all of the others if you want it to be backed up.
And finally, most commonly, hard drives die all the time. It will probably happen to you at some point. If one of your archive drives dies, then you only have one copy of your data. For me, personally, if I have one copy of important data then I literally cannot sleep at night. That’s seriously living on the edge.
In conclusion, there are a lot of risks assumed with this method of archiving, but it’s way, way, way, way, way better than just keeping one copy of your work on a single hard drive that you tote around everywhere with you… which is an unfortunately popular archiving method for a lot of tour photographers. If this is the option you can afford, this is definitely what you should do.
The safer, easier, more expensive archiving option — setting up your own NAS home server. An NAS server basically creates your own private cloud storage, where your files are safely stored across multiple drives, protecting you and your data from drive failures.
What are the benefits of this? 1) You can access your entire body of work anytime you want, as long as you have an internet connection. 2) you are protected from hard drive failures if you set your NAS server up in a RAID configuration.
RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a method of storing data that basically spreads parts of your stored data across multiple hard drives in an array, so if one craps out then you can simply replace it with a new one, it will reconstruct it and replace it into the array exactly as the old one was, and you will lose absolutely nothing in the process.
If you use this in unison with an additional off-site stored copy of your data, you should be able to sleep like a damn baby at night with no concerns about the safety of your life’s work. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
I know those are a lot of new terms if you’re not a storage nerd, and I can assure you I’m not. I can’t feasibly just tack on a big overview of NAS here, but if you have $1,000+ to spend on your storage solution, a NAS server is absolutely worth looking into.
Well, that was a lot of information, and hopefully you’ll find some of it useful if you made it all the way to the bottom.
This industry is changing fast… really fast. I work hard to keep up with every new lens released, every new Lightroom update, and every new Sony camera (seems like a new one every month?). There’s value to that, but I think it’s important to point out that most of my favorite tour photographers working right now are the ones that make this job seem totally effortless and non-scientific. They’re running around with point and shoots or thrift shop film cameras from the 80’s and creating timeless, intimate work.
I realize how disrespectful it is to myself to sign off of my 10,000 word essay on the technical process of being a tour photographer by saying “none of this is that important,” so I’ll rephrase a bit. Follow my advice as much as you’d like, pull out the parts that make your life easier and add them to your process, but don’t get too caught up in the methodology. The most important part of your job is to shoot. So, go shoot!