Processing Your Images on the Road


When you travel with your camera to exotic lands you will probably take lots of pictures – every day.  In fact, with today’s digital cameras, it is not uncommon to take several thousand photos in a single vacation.  If you wait until you get home to process all these images, you will have an enormous task ahead of you that will take a long time to finish before you or anyone else can see your best images.  The alternative is to process your images on a laptop computer during your travels.


If you take a laptop computer with you when you travel, you can upload and backup your photos daily, eliminate bad images, rank and label good images and even tweak the good images to make them better.  By the end of your trip, you will have a manageable collection of your best photos ready to print and share.


First, let’s look at the equipment you need to make this happen.  You will need a few items besides your laptop.  You need a way to transfer your images to the computer, a remote drive to store the images, a way to convert the local power into something you can use and software to process the photos. 


For transferring images, I recommend a card reader that connects to a USB or firewire port on your computer.  This allows you to upload images while still using your camera (with another card of course) or while charging camera batteries.  For storing images, I recommend ruggedized remote hard drives rather than the laptop’s hard drives.  You can quickly fill up the hard drive space on your laptop with photos and not have enough space left for other needs.  I carry two 1 TB hard drives and copy all images to both drives.


Electrical power can be a challenge when travelling so be prepared.  Most laptops and battery chargers can accept 110-240 volts but the outlet may be a different configuration than what you are used to.  Take electrical plug adapters so you can plug into whatever type of outlet is available.  Also take a small multi-outlet cube or power strip so that one outlet can power several things at once.  For example, I often have my laptop and several battery chargers plugged into the only accessible outlet in my hotel room.


You will need software on your laptop that can import and process your photos.  If you are shooting jpgs and don’t want to ‘fine tune’ your images, you can use the software that came with your camera or file handling software that came with your computer to import the photos and store them on a hard drive to review.  However, your processing capabilities will be limited and, more importantly, your learning resources are limited.  I recommend using software that will let you examine your images along with all the settings each image was taken with so you can learn what works and what doesn’t.  It also allows you to ‘fix’ many of your images.


I import and process all of my images using Adobe Lightroom.  It allows me to import and store the images in a database where I can review, rate, label and refine my images daily.  It also allows me to shoot in RAW format giving me the maximum amount of adjustment capabilities on the road.   This combination of RAW format and Lightroom processing capabilities is a great way to learn and refine your photography skills in the field.  You need to make time for it daily, though, while your day’s activities are still fresh in your mind.  Create a routine for yourself at the time of day you work the best.


My process usually begins in the evening when I return from the field.  I plug in my laptop, connect a card reader and hard drives.  I take the CF card out of the camera and put it in the card reader.  I usually remove the batteries from the camera and charge them at the same time.  Then I start Lightroom which automatically prompts me to import the images on my card.  I select the images that have not already been imported.  Based on settings that I have previously selected, Lightroom, imports the photos to a selected file, renames them, applies my standard processing adjustments, adds metadata labels and backs the images up to a separate hard drive.  This process does not need any input from me so I can go to dinner or perform other activities while the import is going on. 


Once the images are imported, I review each one on the screen and delete images that are blurry, cut off or otherwise unacceptable.  I label the better photos with 2 or 3 stars so I can search for them later for further processing.  This initial pass helps me figure out which camera settings worked best that day and which settings did not.  For example, early in each trip I am often reminded that I need to use a polarizing filter more often or a faster shutter speed early in the morning for sharper images.


I make further refinements to the better photos in a second pass.  I generally adjust white balance, exposure, recovery and/or contrast to determine if an image can be a great image or just an average one.  I will crop the image at this time too to determine if I can create a better composition.  There are many other adjustments that can be made in this pass too but they are best left for a Lightroom class. The biggest advantage of Lightroom is that all adjustments are stored in metadata files rather than changing the original image or creating an extra layer so I can easily undo anything that doesn’t work.  If I like an image even better after the second pass, I usually give it a higher star rating and record a title and/or caption for the image identifying the location and other details that I want to remember.


I limit my in-field processing to two passes.  Further refinements can be made to a small number of photos when I return home.  But here’s what I get for doing most of the processing in the field:

I highly recommend that you process your images on the road, especially if you capture a lot of them.  It can make the difference between enjoying travel photography and dreading it.


May your travel and your photography both be rewarding!


   Roger Nelson