Home / Archiving Digital Photography (Part 7) Organizing your photo files and your digital workflow

Archiving Digital Photography (Part 7) Organizing your photo files and your digital workflow

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Organization is not my strong point. I will admit this freely and I would have to guess that a majority of the people that shoot digital photography would agree to the same problem. You simply take your pictures and dump them onto your computer desktop and continue on with shooting or dealing with life’s next task. It’s really hard to get time away from work, family, home maintenance, television, cooking, cleaning, eating, sleeping, and other personal projects to just take photos, much less to maintain a quality organizational solution. I would guess that most of you reading this just download your photos to folders on your desktop or if you’re really ambitious you’ve created folders named for each dump from your camera by subject, event or some random name that means something to you personally. Maybe they have dates on them, maybe they don’t. There really is nothing wrong with doing it this way if it works for you but honestly there are better, more efficient ways and they are getting easier and better every day. Honestly though, it doesn’t work for me — I need help.

Personally this was the extent of my organization until I finally decided on a program to help me organize my photos. I started by trying to group photos by event or maybe subject. Sometimes I divided them into black and white and color but in the end I always ended up being confused by my own organization. I can’t count the number of times that I thought that I had backed up a certain folder or maybe I thought that I duplicated photos from one folder to another just to find out that I just deleted my only copy. Sometimes I would tend to have duplicate versions of photos that were exactly the same taking up valuable storage space.

I guess there are worse things but my point here is that we need an organizational solution and we all need some level of help. Most people need help whether they will admit it or not. So as an exercise for myself and others I am going to give you some pointers on several solutions. As with everything else in the vast, ever changing computer universe there is always a better way. Not everything will work for everyone and what works for one will not work for another.

My goal here is to give you a starting point to help you choose your own path and to get you thinking about a basic solution instead of dumping years of photos randomly into folders. The goal of this series is archiving your photos and organization is a large part of that process. You could have a rock solid storage solution on the best and most reliable media but it doesn’t do you much good if you can’t find your photos when you need them. This becomes an even larger problem when you go beyond the average “dad” snapping family snapshots. When you get into taking thousands of photos each month you need a reliable and sane way to name, date and categorize your work. Advanced users would probably enjoy a search feature, the ability to sort by keyword or maybe by color or black and white, horizontal or vertical, and to easily retrieve technical data like exposure information, size, lens, etc. To get started though I’ll walk you though the most basic solution and then move on to a few other options.

Categorize with a folder naming scheme

As I mentioned previously I started organizing my photos into folders early on. This process is simple, straight-forward and for those anti-technology people it is about as reliable as you get. This process does not work for me personally but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good system. If you start out right and be consistent it can work nicely for the average family photographer. Professional photographers might require a more robust solution but honestly professionals don’t have to do anything beyond simple folders either. If you can organize it and keep it organized and it works for you then more power to you.

The following is an easy to understand, step-by-step process that anyone can print out and use as a reference as you move forward. Use this as a starting point and by all means feel free to customize the naming convention to something that works best for your situation.

1) Download your photos: Download your photos to your desktop or directly to a designated folder. Label this folder with the date and a short descriptive name by using the format: (00_00_0000_name). Example: 06_12_2006_Vacation06

2) Duplicate your photos into a backup folder: Before you do anything, duplicate the entire folder immediately if you plan on color correcting your photos or modifying the size. Label the duplicate images similar to the original name (06_12_2006_VacationBACK) and place it within the original folder. This will save you headaches in the future as you realize that you scaled down a great photo for the web and saved over the original. If you don’t plan on editing your photos then you could probably survive by skipping this step but for most people you will do some level of editing. Talking from experience, it is always better to just duplicate everything from the start so as you work you have piece of mind. You can work more freely and if you happen to make a mistake you have something to fall back on. Better safe than sorry they say.

3) Edit and organize your photos: Now you can move ahead with editing and further organization. If you have a large number of photos it might be beneficial to organize the photos into additional subcategories within the main directory. An example would be to divide your family vacation photo folder into days or dates. Once you are happy with the organization and it makes sense to you, color correct and resize your images and save over the files so you don’t confuse yourself with additional duplicates. Once you are done you’ll have one main folder with several subfolders inside and the backup folder containing your originals. (TIFF, JPEG or RAW as discussed previously) I would suggest that you never touch your originals unless you need to retrieve a file because of a mistake. Never work on a back-up photo without duplicating it first because there is always that chance that out of habit you might just edit it and save it. I’ve done it and it’s a real bummer because you are totally defeating the purpose of having the back up folder in the first place. As a standard practice always pull a photo from your back up folder, copy it immediately to the main working folder and close the backup file. Then open the working file and do your modifications without worry.

4) Place your new folder within a top-level category: The final step is to set up broad, top-level categories and place your new photos inside. For example you might have folders named by Year, Family, Friends, Work, Black & White, Experiments, Kids, Clients, Etc. The naming is up to you but for this example you will place your new vacation folder within the Family folder or maybe build a sub folder within the Family folder called Travel. Maybe you will want your top level categories to be the year that the photo was taken. Then inside each year you would have other top level categories like Family, Travel, etc. The idea here is to try and keep it as simple as possible though. Figure out what is going to work best for you and remember to make subcategories and name your folders consistently. This is the most important element and the one that troubles me the most. Let me say it one more time — name your folders consistently.

5) Backup your files as soon as possible: Depending on the actual storage solution, you will then want to make sure to back-up your new folder as soon as possible. We’ll be discussing your actual storage solutions in my next posts.

Organize with a quality software program

When you’re ready to move to the next level of organization you’ll want to investigate and test several software packages for organizing your images. Depending on your needs and budget you’ll have to narrow down the field because there are a lot of options and the market is constantly growing. Programs range from simple free solutions to programs that cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars with any and every option that you could ever want or need.

Personally, I am a dedicated Macintosh user so I have quickly become married to Apple’s iPhoto photo management software and I believe that it is an amazing solution. I realize that a good portion of you who are reading this are not mac deciples so I won’t get too specific about the program because you won’t have the option to experience the application — although I bet Apple will be releasing a Windows version soon like they have with iTunes. What I will do though is outline some of the most important features that the program offers because I believe that it’s a quality solution. Then you can use this basic information to gauge what is available and what you might need when evaluating your own needs and the available PC solutions.

First off, when connecting the camera to my computer the program recognizes that a camera is connected and it starts up. It then gives you the option to import your images directly into the program database which allows you to bypass the clunky option of downloading to your desktop or a folder and then importing into a program.

Once you have your images imported your photos are displayed as part of the master photo database. You also have the option of viewing the latest import, the last 12 months or by year and most importantly you can set up additional folders where you can easily categorize photos by clicking and dragging your images from the main photo database.

At a glance the program will show you the name, the date the photo was taken, the size of the image in pixels, the file size in megs along with allowing you to add comments. With onc click you can also get all the other technical information that you camera attached to the image like exposure information, focal length of the lens, etc.

The program also offers basic image editing tools like rotation, cropping, image enhancement, removal of red eye, basic color correction, brightness, contrast and easy effects like converting to black and white and sepia toning your image. If you need to do additional correction to the image you can easily export the file to Adobe Photoshop.

Additional features include smart albums, photo ratings, slideshow effects, music soundtracks, batch editing, easy photo sharing and easy integration with Apples iLife suite of programs like iDVD, iMovie and iTunes.

Finally the program offers an easy way to select folders or entire collections and burn them to CD or DVD with one click making this a great well rounded program for amateur or professional photographers. The kicker for all you PC users is that the program is free with all new macs and only $50 with Apples iLife suite of programs which makes it a powerful and affordable solution.

One downsides to using this program (Version 4.0 at the time of this writing) is the lack of options to organize photo folders into subcategories. I would assume that this feature is coming though in the next version. (Visit Archiving Digital for the latest reviews.)

For more serious professionals on the Mac or PC you may want to investigate other programs like iView Media Pro. iView Media Pro is an amazing program at only $200 that will allow you to do everything mentioned previously plus accomplish tasks like annotating and classifying across large volumes of media files, direct control over the file system, including synchronization and folder watching, capacity to handle over 130,000 media files, customizable printing of reports, contact sheets and full images. Macworld gave this program 4.5 out of 5 stars, MacHome gave it 5 out of 5 apples and The New York Times was quoted as saying “The P in PC now stands for picture” because of this program. Another great program to check out is Extensis Portfolio. Hands down one of the top photo organization programs on the market.

If you are a hard core professional photographer or a stock photo agency you may need more capacity and features or maybe you are just a control freak. Whatever the reason you still have the option of building your own solution. Building your own database or contracting someone to do it for you allows you the ability to customize your needs and control features such as data fields, design, client access, backups, storage capacity, online availability, online ordering, and much more.

When it comes to building an photo organizational scheme and a digital workflow procedure, the options are endless — and I could probably write an entire book on this subject. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you actually have one. There is nothing worse than having thousands of photos dumped randomly into folders with no way to view them. I’m reminded of the last scene in Indiana Jones where they finally found the arch of the covenant and it is being wheeled off in an unmarked box into a huge warehouse.

Start off right and spend a few hours to determine what works best for you and implement a strategy. Don’t let your photos become that precious lost artifact.

Learn more about current archiving and preservation solutions here.

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