Thursday Tips: Image Organization

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Let’s spend a bit of time talking about what is surely the most exciting photography-related topic in the universe—image organization. Okay, so it’s not exactly the most thrilling subject, but it is, undeniably, extremely important as anyone who’s tried to sort through thousands of files to find a particular photograph can attest.

Caveats

Before I plunge in, I want to make two, essentially unrelated, points. The first is that while I may touch upon issues of data back up in general, that’s not the point of this post. Backup is a topic worthy of a seminar of its own, so that’s a subject for another day…maybe. The second matter is to address the notion of an objectively “best way to organize” your images. Let me be clear about this—there is no such thing. The “best” system is one that makes sense to you and is one you will use as part of your personal workflow. I’ll spend some time talking about what I do, but don’t take it as gospel. Parts of it may work for you as well, and I’ll provide some details just to give you some points to consider but by no means do I think that my system, in whole, is necessarily the best (there’s that word again) option for anyone else, let alone everyone else. The key to putting together a process that serves your needs is to consider—honestly—how you think and work and adapt a specific set of procedures accordingly.

With that said…

The Sooner You Start, the Better

One thing that is almost universally true about this matter is that the longer you wait to get started the harder it’s going to be to establish a working system…and because of that, the longer you wait the more likely you are to put it off which will—you guessed it—make it even harder to get started. Rinse and repeat. It’s really quite a vicious circle.

So, my advice is to think hard about exactly how you want to implement your organizational system, but don’t think too long about it, because it becomes more difficult each time you click the shutter button.

Folder Structure

The basis for the entire enterprise is centered around the notion of how you go about structuring the folders that will hold your images. There are countless options available to you and the “best” one is really based on how you’re inclined to think about the images you take.

For instance, if you’re a photo generalist, you might—might—want to start by arranging things around different photographic subjects (e.g. people, nature, objects, etc.) or genres. If you’re pretty single-minded like me, that doesn’t make much sense. (I shoot nature almost exclusively and roughly 95% of my nature images are landscapes.)

I tend to think about my images, first and foremost, by location, so my first layer of folders is arranged accordingly. For instance, this fall I spent two weeks in the Canadian Rockies. This was the first time I’d been to the region, so when saving my images during the trip I first created a folder called “Canadian Rockies.” Within that folder, I created sub-folders that corresponded to each date of the trip and the files for each day went in that folder. And that’s as complicated as I’ve made my folder structure For a place that I return to regularly to shoot—Starved Rock State Park, for example—I have a “Starved Rock” folder and subfolders corresponding to each of the times I’ve shot there, labeled by date.

Given my style of shooting and the way I think, this organization works for me. I put this structure in place more than 10 years ago, during which time I’ve placed tens of thousands of files into hundreds of folders and I still have no trouble working with this arrangement. Unless you work and think the way I do, this approach probably won’t be the best choice for you, so consider about how you work and think and create a folder structure that seems logical and actionable to you.

Filenames

While this matter isn’t necessarily a huge deal if you’re diligent about keywording (more on this below), I think there’s something to be said for going to the modest trouble of giving your image files unique, meaningful names upon importing them. The value is mostly in being able to see at a glance roughly what a stray image file contains. For what it’s worth, I use filenames that are—again—location specific, typically using a broad location name and a specific object or event (when relevant), plus a sequential number.

So, for example, one of my image files from my trip to the Canadian Rockies might be:

Jasper_Athabasca_Falls_3514.NEF

Jasper is the national park (i.e. broad location), Athabasca Falls is the “specific object,” 3514 is the sequential number. (NEF is Nikon’s proprietary RAW file format.)

Again, this method makes sense to me given my photographic predilections, but the possible directions you can go with filenaming are almost endless. As with the folder structure, formulate a system that makes sense to you.

As for how to actually go about changing filenames, there are a number of things you can do. The operating system itself is one option (e.g. Windows Explorer if you’re on a PC), but this approach tends to be clunky and inflexible. Most camera companies have free software that is designed to help you download images from flash cards and there’s typically rudimentary file renaming capability built in. (Nikon, for example, has a program called Nikon Transfer embedded with a browser called Nikon View. Both Transfer and View have tools that allow you to rename files in bulk.) Another more powerful and flexible choice is to use a program that is designed specifically for bulk file renaming. Once such program (Windows only) is Bulk Rename Utility. The interface may be a bit intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it you can do almost anything you want in terms of renaming files, very quickly. Of course if you’re using a program like Lightroom, you have a number of renaming tools and procedures available to you.

Keywording

The question isn’t whether you’re going to want to apply keywords to your images, it’s (as usual) how you’re going to want to go about doing it. Once you build up an image library of any size at all you’ll rapidly realize the value of having a keyword system in place; a decent system can make finding images a snap.

My recommendation is to be too detailed with your keywords, rather than taking a chance of not being detailed enough. By applying both detailed information (e.g. location specifics) and general characteristics, you can very easily pare down image searches to a very small number of photographs, making it simple to find what you’re looking for. A system of broad keywords can help also can help if you’re doing a thematic search, rather than looking for a single image,.

For example, consider the below image:

Specific keywords would include:

Alberta, Jasper National Park, Medicine Lake

But general keywords (under my system) would include:

Trees, aspens, conifers, water, sunrise, lake, reflection, mountain, boulders, rocks in water, grass, hand of man, trail, clouds

Again, the specifics of what to include isn’t the point. You can see, however, that I could find this single image pretty easily by focusing on Medicine Lake and perhaps one or two other general keywords. But if I was trying to meet a themed request—say, sunrise shots at lakes in the Canadian Rockies—I could simply use, say, lake/sunrise/Alberta and pull up a search that would include this image—and all others that fit the criteria. Either way, I’m covered.

Regardless, a keywording system is dynamic. You’ll almost certainly find the need to add keywords to your inventory over time. The goal is to be comprehensive enough from the beginning that you don’t find the need to go back and add new keywords to large numbers of old images. Having too many keywords is functionally impossible. If you find over time that you have keywords that you don’t need simply ignore them going forward.

What do use for keywording? That’s covered in the next section.

Management Software

You’re probably going to want to use some sort of program to assist you with managing your images. There are a lot of options out there, but the most popular is probably Adobe’s Lightroom program. Full disclosure—I don’t use Lightroom. I use Bridge, also by Adobe, which is an addendum to the full version of Photoshop. I’ve been using Bridge for nearly 15 years and still find that it meets my needs. Lightroom is considerably more powerful and feature rich and many—if not most—photographers I know use it. It’s a perfectly viable option. (For what it’s worth, I don’t use it myself because I’m not a fan of the catalog format that the program uses.) There are other third party programs out there as well.

Once again, whatever you choose to use as management software, it’s important to be confident that it meets your needs and goals. One of the advantages of Lightroom, for instance, is that image searching is extremely quick. The compromise you must make, however, is that you have to buy into the catalog approach to managing your images, which can be a comparative problem if you ever have the desire or need to do any administrative work with your files outside the Lightroom environment. So, whether you choose to use Lightroom or not may be based on which of these points is more important to you. As is the case with everything related to photography, there are always tradeoffs.

Backups

I noted earlier that I wasn’t going to deal with this topic in detail, but I’m mentioning it here because nothing, in my opinion, is more important when it comes to image management than establishing and religiously following a well thought-out, comprehensive backup plan. After all, if your images aren’t secure, none of the rest of this means a thing.

I have five—yes, five—full copies of all of my image files, RAW and processed, arrayed across a total of seven dedicated external hard drives. Two full sets of files are kept in each of two places, roughly 200 miles apart, and the fifth set goes back and forth with me. If you think this is extreme…well, it may be, but I’d much rather be safe than sorry. I back up my files after literally every image editing session.

As always, you don’t necessarily have to do what I’m doing, but what you should do at a minimum:

  • Back up your files regularly. Here, I don’t think I’m being extreme at all. Every time you add or change a file, run a backup (assuming you don’t have a system that includes backing up in real time).
  • Don’t settle for any fewer than three backups. Why isn’t two enough? Let’s say that something goes wrong during a backup. Your original file set can be compromised and so can your backup.       In one miserable moment, all of your images could go poof.
  • If at all possible, keep at least one backup in a remote location.       That way, if something catastrophic happens to one place (a house catching fire, for instance) you’ll still have a full copy of your images. The “remote location” doesn’t have to be 200 miles away (I only do that because I split my time naturally between two places), but it should be somewhere other than the same structure. A number of people I know keep a backup hard drive in a safety deposit box at a bank.

Conclusion

Image management isn’t a very sexy topic, but it’s a (very) necessary evil. Put a well-designed system in place, using an appropriate piece of software to help you and you’ll be able to easily integrate it into your postprocessing workflow. Down the road, it will save you far more time than you’ll expend putting it all together.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.