I've always liked building and trying to improve on the things I can. Where it comes from I can't say but even as a child I liked my lego spacecraft to be symmetrical and functional. I guess it's built into who I am. At times I can be quite disorganised but this is usually when I'm focussed on a solo task and a bit of clutter won't affect anyone else.
So recently as I've been doing more shoots and building my business I became aware it would be good to have a way to make sure I don't forget anything before heading out of the door to a client. How to keep track of what I need to take and make sure I bring it all back to the studio at the end of the shoot.
As an ex-software developer with a background in databases and UI I felt there had to be a solution. I'm also keen that any processes should be smooth and easy to use. Any process need to save time or it isn't worth doing, especially in business. I want to spend more time on shooting and less on administration. I don't mind a bit of setup when the long term is going to save hours. I'm reminded of a blog post by a photographer comparing using Lightroom on a Mac vs PC. For similar specs the Mac was a few second faster per image. However the Mac was much more expensive than the PC which is a familiar battle cry in PC vs Mac flame wars. The photographer in question pointed out that the few seconds faster of the Mac would add up to a few thousand saved hours of editing and processing based on the number of images they processed each year. That not just more time for photography but perhaps more importantly more time for family and quality down time from the business to refresh the creative juices.
Back to my task. I use Light Blue to manage my business and it's a fantastic help and even though it keeps track of kit purchases there's not much that can really be done with that info except make reports on how much money has been spent on gear each year. So what other options? How about a spreadsheet? A spreadsheet could work but to be honest I avoid them when ever possible. When I worked in manufacturing doing my software role, spreadsheets were the bane of my life. Islands of data not joined to the main system which meant information that wasn't kept up to date automatically. A problem that caused a crisis when it turned out one buyer in the purchasing department was doing all his ordering via an old spreadsheet which didn't know about revised customer deliveries in the main system. None of the component parts were going to turn up on time because the buyer wasn't updating and chasing suppliers. Lots of long days and frantic phone calls sorted things out but it should never have happened. So no spreadsheets then.
At this point I started exploring the idea of using Lightroom. It's a visual database with smart collections and printing abilities. This could be perfect. It's early days of developing my process and I keep finding new possibilities but here is what I have so far. Some is a bit down and dirty but it works for now.
Lets go through those items and see what I did and why.
1. Images of all my kit
To get images of my kit I went down and dirty and searched on my fave search engine for images on plain white backgrounds and did the right click "Save image to Downloads" thing. I'll replace the images with my own at some point. Next I imported the images from Downloads on my Mac into a new top level folder under Pictures in my Lightroom catalog using the Move option.
Once imported I went through and titled all the images.
At this point I realised I had multiples of some things like my studio strobes and camera batteries. I might not want or need to take the duplicates on a shoot. How to record that in a useful way? The obvious answer was to import an image for each extra strobe, battery etc. But my database-brain didn't like this. Repeated data is wasted space and processing power. Database Normalisation is a method of removing the storage of duplicate information. Rather then duplicate the information about how that works, read about it on Wikipedia. So the obvious answer to duplicate kit might not be the best one. It occurred to me that the Lightroom versioning system could actually be a great answer. The version system has a metadata field which is probably overlooked. It's the Copy Name field. Say you had different versions of one photo, maybe a B&W version. Lightroom automatically adds a default "copy 1" 'Copy 2" text to this field as you add more versions. But this field is editable to whatever you want. So if you have a B&W version the Copy Name can be "B&W". The power of this is that the Copy Name can be used in many places around Lightroom, when printing, file renaming, exporting and publishing. So I versioned the image of my studio flash and entered names in the Copy Name field.
See the curled up corner indicating a versioned image. The Copy Name is shown from the fields below. Note it's exactly the same File Name
So now I have a folder full of images of my kit all titled and versioned. On to the next step.
2. Keywords of Shoot Types
In the Keywords section in the Library module I created a new top level keyword "KIT LISTS". I then created a few Shoot Type keywords within the top level. It's not all the shoot types I do but it get's the process moving forward. I then selected some images in my Photo Gear folder and ticked the boxes as was relevant. A camera is pretty essential to any shoot so that got all the ticks :)
3. Smart Collections
Back on the other side of Lightroom it was time to create some smart collections to automatically bring lists of kit together. The power of the smart collections isn't just in how they gather images together but how those collections can be used further down the line to quickly gather gear into usable lists.
The Smart Collections (Can you tell I love Collections 😃)
The settings in the Food Smart Collection. The words "KIT LISTS" are included so that images that have the key word "Food" elsewhere in my keywords don't get shown. Just using "Food" showed loads of actual food photography which isn't what I wanted.
And this is the resulting 11 tagged images. It's not all the kit I need for a food shoot but it's proving my concept.
4. Basic Collections
All the previous steps have been about getting things setup. Occasional tweaks and refinements will be needed in the future to add new equipment and shoot types but we are pretty much done and here is where the cool stuff starts to happen.
Now I wanted to have collections to show the kit I actually needed for a shoot. Of course it would be entirely possible to just use the Smart Collections from above but I wanted more flexibility and manual control. Basic Collections allow the adding of any image in the Lightroom catalog without having to add more keywords or change the properties of a photo to match a Smart Collection filter (Flags, Colour Labels etc). Basic Collections also allow images to be custom sorted which could be useful for the next section about printing.
I created a new Collection Set for "Shoot Kits" and a basic collection inside it for a shoot. I did an Interiors shoot last week which would be a perfect test. While creating the collection I ticked the box to set it as the target collection. I could now go to my Real Estate Smart Collection, select all the images using keyboard short cut Cmd+A (on Mac) and then tap the 'B' key. All my Real Estate kit is now immediately added to my shoot. Big Grin!
See the 7 items of kit from my Real Estate Smart Collection added to my shoot kit for 2018/02/26/10 UGS with three key presses
Back in the shoot collection I can now select the image of a bit of kit and remove it by clicking the dot in the top right of the image or pressing the 'B' key on the keyboard. This only works in Basic Collection not Smart Collections. Bigger Grin
I can also go to the folder of all my kit (from part 1 of this blog post) and do the same thing, click the dot or hit the 'B' key to add the kit to my shoot. This is getting awesome.
Clicking the dot in the corner of my Pocket Rocket in the Photo Gear folder added it to the target collection of my shoot.
I also dragged the camera body and lens to the top of the list which makes the Custom Order appear in the sorting options.
5. Using the Lists
The whole point of me doing all this work was to help with gathering kit together for a shoot. So nothing got left at home (I have gone out without memory cards before and had to buy more at a local camera store which wasted time and money and caused stress). And just as importantly making sure all the gear comes home again.
An advantage of Basic Collections is that they synchronise to Lightroom mobile. Check the little box next to the collection and it will be uploaded to the cloud and be available in Lightroom on the phone and tablet. Smart Collections don't do this. For my purposes I didn't feel this was going to give me what I needed. I want to be able to check kit OUT and back IN. To solve the problem I went to the print module of Lightroom.
In the Print module you have access to all your collections which means both the smart and basic collections created so far are available. I selected my shoot collection and in the Lightroom Templates the "4x5 Contact Sheet". Brilliant! A visual kit list. It looked great but needed a bit of tweaking.
Back at the top of the Templates section I clicked the plus and create a template based off the selected 4x5 Contact Sheet and added it to a new template folder
With my template selected I made the modifications I wanted. Zoom to Fit and added a 2px Stroke Border in the Image section. Increased the top margin of the page in the Layout section. The biggest changes were in the Page section. As well as switching on page numbering and changing the font size to the biggest available I created a custom Photo Info by selecting Edit in the drop down list.
This brought up the following dialog where I entered the tokens and text as shown. Note the Copy Name token which I used way back in this guide. Told you it would be useful! This was saved as a new Text Template called "Check List"
After doing all this work I had to remember to right click on my custom template in the Templates section and select "Update with Current Settings".
My Kit Check List now looked like this. Note the (No 2) on my Eli Stand from it's Copy Name!
So now I have a kit list which I can print and then circle or cross items OUT as I pack them to go to a shoot and circle or cross them IN before I leave a shoot location. I can give this list to an assistant. If I missed something or discovered some thing new to bring I can make a note and add the item.
A little perk of the collections in the Print module is that it's possible to select more than one basic collection or smart collection at the same time. So images from different collections can be combined into one print template. I could have a smart collection of essential kit and combine it with any other collection to make sure I always had the essentials (Wallet and Oyster Card perhaps). Any piece of kit that is in two or more selected collections will only appear once in the print. So no accidental duplicates and double counting. The one disadvantage of selecting multiple collections is that the sorting all goes wrong. I couldn't quite figure out what the sort order was but kit appeared anywhere in the print.
At the bottom of the preview of the print is a drop down list to select all / selected/ flagged images in the selected collections. It's another place to refine the kit in the print if needed.
I can now create a basic collection in Lightroom, add a load of kit to it and print it out (and/or sync it to Lightroom Mobile) with in a few minutes. I can now check I've got everything I need before I leave and make sure it comes home. It's a reassurance and peace of mind thing as well as a time saver.
Of course there is not really any need for the keywords and collections . At the very minimum a folder of images of kit and using the filter drop down in the print module would be enough for some folk. I'm happy with the "automation" I've added via collections to get rid of repeated tasks. If you only ever shoot one genre of photography this is probably overkill. I hope it inspires a few people to use it to help keeping track of their gear.
To be honest I'm pretty happy with the results of this little task I set myself. It's taken longer to write this blog post than to figure out how to create this process from scratch 😂.
I would like the text under each image in the print to be a bit bigger but Lightroom only goes up to 16 (Bigger than Spinal Taps 11) Slightly nice OUT and IN boxes would be nice. But that's just minor stuff.
If a piece of kit is damaged, replaced or upgraded it would be nice to not have it turn up in smart collections. It would be easy to remove by removing the keywords. The kit would then stay in historic basic collections. Deleting the kit image would remove it from everything. Maybe there's a better process for this somewhere. I'll think about it more when it happens.
The only problem I haven't been able to solve is having a title at the top of each printed page with the Date and Name of the shoot. I'd like to do this without having to leave Lightroom. Printing the collection name would be ideal, a custom text field for the page header would be great. If you are reading, how about it Adobe? For now I've left a space to write it in by hand. If anyone has a suggestion I'd be glad to hear.
I love fixing problems and using my expertise from my time working in manufacturing and as a software developer to get rid of the wasteful tasks in life and spend more time doing the great creative stuff. I bring those skill to my business as a photographer. So if you need someone who isn't going to sit on their hands and will get great images for your project get in touch with me and lets talk.
For now I'm off to add duck tape to my gear. It's essential!