In the old days of photography, when images were captured on film or slides, organizing and storing your images meant a lot of show boxes, photo albums, labeling, archiving and other related tasks, mostly manual and physical. Some, myself included, would invest in commercial and more appropriate storage and archiving systems such as custom-made slide archival boxes, acid-free print protectors, lint and dust free sleeves for film strips and much more.
Today, nothing much has changed except that we must now do it all electronically. Organizing and preserving your body of work has not diminished in any way. If anything, it has taken on a more important role as digital files can become easily corrupted, erased or simply misplaced more readily than a well-protected and indexed box of slides.
On the positive side, digital images are much more easily searched, found and used than traditional physical media, but you must do some work up front to enhance your capabilities to do so.
In the days of film, we were typically limited to a roll of film no longer than 36 frames. Once the roll ran out of empty frames, we had to physically rewind it back into the canister and then unload it, open up a new box and load a new roll into the camera. Each roll cost money, some more than others. A photographer typically kept a mental picture of how many rolls he/she had shot and how much money it cost him in unexposed film, but also how much the processing and developing and/or printing of all those images would be! This helped keep image count to a manageable level.
In the digital era, the cost model is different. You invest in a set of high quality storage cards and then you can shoot as much as you want, re-using the cards after all the images have been transferred to your computer or deleted and only those you want to keep will ever take up any room on your storage media. We shoot a lot more today than we did yesterday requiring more discipline in your organizational and archival system.
Chances are that if you have been taking pictures for more than one year, your collection can easily be over 1,000 images. In my case, I have been taking pictures in one form or another for about 30 years. My digital image collection alone is well over 250,000 images, not counting those that are duplicates or still waiting to be culled or deleted. Film and slides can well be over 50,000 as we did not shoot as much as we do today in digital given the cost and volume involved with physical film and prints.
By now, you should have digitized all of your old slides, film and prints. If you have not done so already, I suggest you look into doing so immediately. Everything has a shelf life and old media does not have a long life expectancy even in the best storage conditions. This article will not do justice to any exploration of digitizing old media so I will leave you with some homework to digitize your old collection and enjoy the benefits of a digital archive and darkroom.
As your collection grows exponentially month after month, year after year, it is best to develop a system of naming, indexing, cataloguing and organizing your images early on.
Pick Your System
Of the various mechanisms at your disposal for organizing your photos, file names and folder names and structure are the most basic and available for free under any of the major operating systems; Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows and all versions of Linux/Unix.
Furthermore, metadata is hugely important in my opinion. I find that having rich metadata for each image and for each shot or batch of images, is far more powerful than the most advanced filename-based system. File names and folder structure are two dimensional. However, metadata can be multi-dimensional in that one image can belong to many different search/index criteria while continuing to live in the same exact place.
My choice is to have a basic file/folder-based system and then manage that by a very powerful metadata database index.
Some Real World Examples
Let’s now dive in to some of the ways you can organize your vast collection of images. The following examples are from my own personal system. Use all or none or parts of it. Keep in mind that there are many ways to do this and no one way is best. However at a minimum, you should have proper directory organization and file naming.
I will not discuss storage specifics such as RAID or multiple copies and only as it relates to this article. We will cover storage itself in more depth in a future article.
I maintain two separate folder trees in each my storage arrays for image storage. I have standardized on using Western Digital My Book Studio Edition II 4 TB which is a dual 2 TB drive setup in RAID1 configuration for protection. It makes it easy for me to transport between computers and has built in protection. When they fill up, I just buy another one. In any case, back to the folder structures. I have one top level folder for dumping cards into and then another top level folder for the actual archived and cataloged and culled files/shorts/folders/etc. Here is an example of what it looks like:
Let’s explain the various parts and the logic behind this system.
From the root of the drive, I have two major folder trees. One is for media ingestion. I use this folder for dumping all my shots as soon as I get them home. The primary reason is for safety. I immediately have a dual copy of the files (mirrored drives in the array) and I don’t have to worry about actually culling the photo shoot while I am importing. If I have time, I will usually import directly into Lightroom (more on that later) but for now, I just want to empty my storage cards and have a safe place for the files. The longer they sit on the CF or SDHC card(s), the greater the chance of losing the cards, misplacing them, formatting them, overwriting them or otherwise.
Note that the folders for each shoot contain the year. This is because they are not going to be around here for long hopefully. Once archived and culled and catalogued, we can remove the year from the folder name.
• The next major folder is the actual archive folder or folders. I use multiples in order to make it easy for me to move them around in my own workflow. You may find it easier to adapt this to your own taste and needs.
Now we see year folders. I do this to break up the structure and make it easier to locate files quickly by date. However as you will notice later on, I do not really use the folder structures to find or work with my images ultimately. I’d rather use metadata and a good index to work with than looking for files via folder/filename structures.
The actual folders for each shoot only have the month and date in the name. That is because they are grouped into a year folder. No need to make file or folder names longer than they need to be.
Personally, I find that filenames mean nothing much to me other than separating each file and making it unique within a sea of other files. Each of my cameras is configured to automatically label each file with the following nomenclature.
The first three characters are the camera model. For me it can be either D3_ or D2X or D70 which are my current camera models. The fourth character is an underscore. The remaining four characters are a sequence number dictated by the camera. I do not reset my camera’s counter on each shoot. Some cameras have the option to reset this counter to zero on each format of a media card. Since I do not use the file name for much, I don’t mind having multiple files named similarly as I can always sort them via various other criteria which is more individual such as date, time, frame number, etc.
If you care about having your files named in relation to the shoot or otherwise, I suggest using tools that allow for easy bulk file renaming or better yet, renaming your files upon importing them into your library or your computer via the available options in your program of choice. Most modern image management software contains some form of automatic file re-naming based on user defined criteria.
More Power and Control via Metadata
Folder structures and filenames are fine for small collections or for simply storing images, but for truly powerful image archives that are always live, I recommend investing in a good application dedicated for the job. The program I prefer is Adobe Lightroom. Having used Adobe Bridge, Apple Aperture, Photo Mechanic, IDimager, Fotoware and many others, I find Lightroom surprisingly refreshing in its elegance and powerful set of features while not feeling bloated by options that do not matter to most. Not only does it offer me the opportunity to organize and re-name my files on import, it also allows me to tag my files with rich metadata as well as extract existing metadata from the images themselves such as camera make and model, serial number, linear frame number, lens used, and much more in order to organize and find my images.
Lightroom still exposes your folder and filename structure, but it adds to that the ability to immediately find the image you want simply by searching for any one metadata item or combine many tags into a more powerful search.
However even Lightroom is not as powerful as it can be without you adding your own set of metadata to your images.
IPTC and EXIF
What? More acronyms? Again, these acronyms have entire books devoted to them so I will not go into great detail. IPTC stands for International Press Telecommunications Council which is the body that created the standards by which news agencies distribute information amongst themselves. It allows for structured metadata to be used in a consistent fashion in other to facilitate transparency. As photographers, it gives us the power to catalog huge amounts of indexing data by which we can organize our image libraries and make it far easier to find just the image you are looking for from various dimensions.
EXIF on the other hand handles metadata not available in IPTC and in some cases the data can actually overlap (such as date and time stamps) IT stands for Exchangeable Image File format and it covers technical data of an image such as the white balance coefficients, exposure settings, lens used, camera model, firmware revision and much more.
The two combined give us photographers a lot of information about our images. For example, in Lightroom, I can instantly group all the images I ever shot with a particular lens/camera combination.
(click to enlarge)
The information is both embedded in the original files or in sidecar files (.XMP) which can be leveraged by any application supporting these standards. This makes it portable as well.
Minimally, make use of the title, caption, copyright, photographer name, address, website, telephone number and photo location. Keyword fields should be used for generic global terms and the caption field should contain a small description of the image subject and related information. Here is an example from Lightroom’s interface for IPTC and EXIF.
In this example, the caption has a more descriptive tag with information on the airport and runway which is a personal preference. You can use the fields any way you prefer but keep in mind that they do have different uses. Ultimately they not only help you find and identify your images, it also helps if you ever decide to market your images and for security purposes as yet another layer of information identifying your images as yours.
Other Things to Consider
A few more things to keep in mind when organizing your image collection:
Make filenames as short as possible. Feel free to use descriptive filenames but don’t go crazy writing a sentence as the filename. It has diminishing returns and it can be a conflict when moving files between operating systems.
Use padding whenever using numbers. Padding is useful when sorting and visually scanning directory listings. Two examples
Notice how the numbers don’t sort properly. Now look what happens when you pad the numbers.
Use underscores instead of hyphens whenever you need separators and do not want to use a space. Spaces can cause issues with some operating systems and shell programs. They can also get confusing when searching for dates and makes it harder to scan a directory listing visually.
If entering dates into a filename, do not use separators and use padded days, months and four digit years
Note how the format for the year is YEARMONTHDAY which is useful for sorting.
Some operating systems have an absolute limit on filename length. This includes the directory tree. In Windows it is 250 characters (more if you use OS tricks, but for all intents and purposes, it is 250).
Whether you just started out on your journey in photography or have many years and many pictures in your collection, having a solid consistent image naming and organizational structure can make the difference between a lost image and a library of work which is easily parsed and searched for treasures that are contained within. As your collection grows larger, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember what image you took when, under what conditions or what the subject matter was. Use the underlying operating system to create a basic hierarchy based on year, date, event, etc. and then layer on top of it software to help you with indexing, cataloging and searching. Finally adding rich metadata to your images besides that which is already embedded by your camera or scanner will increase the usefulness and longevity of your collection.
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