A couple of months ago, I posted about trying to figure how to organize all my photos, roughly 30k, I think. Even though I just got my first DSLR six months ago and got seriously into photography, I’ve always been a bit of a picture taker. But I never go back and look at pictures and even though my old organization technique wasn’t awful—usually a folder with the event name and some sort of date—I always had trouble finding the right picture for something when I didn’t have a specific one in mind. So I decided that one of my summer projects would be to figure this about and go through all of my pictures and tag them.
I spent some time trying to figure out the best way to do this and now that I’m about 8,500 pictures in, I think I’ve got it down pretty solid. Or at least it works and it’s already been useful for finding stuff (like pictures for the wedding site my fiancée and I are working on).
If this is the kind of thing that bores you, you should probably quit reading, but if you’re interested in photography, organization, and workflow, read on! Oh, and I’ll note that I am strictly a hobbyist when it comes to photography, so all of my photos are personal photos, nothing is professional or anything like that.
What makes everything below possible is a bit of software that I was already really in love with. I’ve been using Adobe Lightroom and it’s simply amazing. Even though it is just a single application, it provides both strong post-processing and strong library management features that are both good enough to almost entirely eliminate the need for a second piece of software.
For years, I was a big supporter of Google’s Picasa which is great for photo management, but the processing and editing side of things is practically useless. I also found that it was very slow and laggy on my Mac. The feature I liked the most was the face detection, but, as good as it is, I found that this left a lot to be desired. If someone in the photo wasn’t facing the camera, Picasa doesn’t pick it up as a person. So if you want to be able to tag everyone in every photo, you still end up going through every photo manually.
With Lightroom, I just tag everyone as keyword in each photo and it’s entirely manual since Lightroom doesn’t have face detection. This would probably be an annoyance, but since I am going through every single photo anyway and keywording other stuff, I’m already in there, I can do it myself.
Other than that, Lightroom does everything that Picasa does…better and snappier. I have plugins for Facebook and Picasaweb so those are covered and with more options.
My workflow is simple in theory, but has a few steps. Whether photos are coming in fresh from my camera or I’m working on organizing older photos, every group of photos gets three passes. One for processing, one for keywording, and one for rating.
When I import the photos, I first import them to a local temporary folder in my Mac. Eventually, everything ends up on my file server, but I’ve found that when processing the RAWs things are much faster when they files are local rather than on a network drive. RAW files are converted to DNG during the import so this step can take a little while, but it’s easier to do it here than anywhere else. At this point, it seems that DNG has caught on enough that it’s a safe file format to use for archival and I really like the idea that all data is stored in a single file rather than needing to keep an XMP sidecar file with each photo. JPGs stay as JPGs which is fine because Lightroom can store all of its edits and info in the metadata in the file, making sure that the original photo data itself is untouched.
Each photo gets processed in my first pass through the bunch. Terrible shots that are either completely out of focus, so badly exposed that they can’t be saved, or pretty much useless for any other reason are marked as rejected in this step and I don’t bother doing any processing on them. Photos from my DSLR obviously take quite a bit longer to process, but even photos from my point and shoot and phone still get run through this step incase they need some tweaking.
Once the photos are processed and ready to go, I zip through them and keyword the hell out of them. I’m trying to be very thorough with this step and erring on the side of doing too much. I also make sure that all of the location fields are set for each photo and the timestamps are correct…or at least close.
The timestamps have been a little of a pain in the ass. I was surprised to find that only a handful of really old photos didn’t have timestamps that (I believe) are correct. I was afraid that that was going to be a problem. But there have been other problems. One issue is that some events, like my Disney trip this year, have photos from multiple cameras and the time isn’t exactly synced up on them. This leaves them sequenced oddly unless I fix them. That Disney trip has photos from my DSLR, point-and-shoot, my fiancée’s iPhone, and my iPhone. I had to adjust a lot of times.
The second issue is that my point-and-shoot was somehow off by 12 hours (am/pm wasn’t set correctly) for at least six months. I’m not sure how that happened or exactly when it started, but it’s something I’ve needed to keep an eye out for as I go back through my older photos and organize them. The third issue, and the one that seems to be the most annoying, is that a lot of times the timestamps from my iPhone photos don’t make it over to Lightroom properly. I’ve noticed this is especially so when I use third party camera apps. Lightroom imports them and names the files correctly, most of the time, but shows the wrong capture time. I’m not sure what causes this, but the capture time ends up getting set to the import time. It’s very annoying.
In the final pass, I assign each picture a rating of 0-5. Since I’ve already been through all the pictures at least twice at this point, I’ve got a general idea of how good each shot is in comparison to the rest of the group. A rating of 1 or higher means that it would at least be good enough to export and/or show other people. A 2 rating is generally a decent shot that would definitely make a slideshow or Facebook or whatever if it’s a larger group of photos where it wouldn’t make sense to show everything that’s a 1 or above. Rating a photo with a 3 means that it’s one of the best of the group. 4 and 5 are reserved only for my best shots that are really good in terms of content and quality. These are my favorites and if I pulled up all the pictures of a particular keyword, these would be the best.
Also during this step, I group shots if necessary. If I snap a bunch of the exact same thing from the same angle, I’ll usually group them together with the highest rated one on top.
After that, I make sure all the metadata is saved to the file and move the files over to my server for safe-keeping.
This was one of the toughest things to make a decision on. Like everything else, once you start down a path, you’re kind of stuck, but this would undoubtedly be the toughest to make changes to.
Each photo is named with the format of YYYYMMDD_HHMMSS_O. I’ve never read of anyone naming their files like this, but I like it because even if this is all I have to go on, I can figure out very closely where a file should go. It also automatically keeps the files sorted chronologically when viewing them outside of Lightroom. The ‘O’ at the end stands for original. That’s my indication that a file is the most original version of a photo that I have and I should never make any destructive changes to it. Any other version of the file will get an ‘E’ for export or some other distinction.
My folder structure is a bit more standard. There are top-level folders for year and then folders within that for month. Within each month, I have a folder for each “event” or group of shots. Events that span days are broken into a folder for each day and if different groups of photos are taken on the same day, I break them up into their own folders. Once you’re in Lightroom, the folders don’t really matter, but at least I’ll always know where to find a particular photo I’m looking for outside of Lightroom as well.
The one issue I found with this structure was that I have tons of photos of a specific subject that are thrown in a single folder. For example, I have hundreds of pictures of my cat that I’ve randomly taken over the last couple of years. They’re all just thrown into a single folder because they’re pretty random. At first, I had a “XXXX” top-level folder with some subjects in there, but I decided that was going to end up being a bad idea, so everything gets to fit into the above structure. This means that if I take just one photo of my fiancée while she’s sitting on the couch, it gets it’s own folder (ex. “Danielle hanging out 2010-07-09″). I’ve ended up with a bunch of folders with just one photo in them, but at least it keeps everything in the same file structure.
Each event folder has at least one folder inside of it. All of the most original versions of each photo are in a folder called “original” and, again, originals do not get any destructive changes made to them. However, these originals are where all the metadata and edits are stored–the edits are saved as metadata by Lightroom, the image data isn’t touched. Exported versions would go in “processed,” but I haven’t been exporting processed versions of everything so many folders don’t have this. There may also be a “video” folder if video was taken and a “PSD” folder if I’ve done some work in Photoshop…which is extremely rare.
So an example of all that would be something like “2010/06/Father’s Day 2010-06-20/original/20100620_143523_O.dng.” You’ll notice that the event folder has the name before the day. I kind of screwed up and was way too far in when I realized I didn’t like it so I’m kind of stuck with it at this point. My only reasoning for this was that in the left sidebar in Lightroom, you can only see about 12 characters of the folder name at that level without expanding the width and taking up more workspace. I thought it would be more useful to be able to see a few letters than always being stuck seeing pretty much just the year and month. It wasn’t until too late that it hit me that I could just hide that pane altogether when I’m not actively looking for a folder and keep it fully expanded when I am. Fail.
I’m trying to be very thorough with my keywording. I’ve got tons of them organized hierarchically in Lightroom, but they could use a little more organization at this point as some groups of keywords expanded way past what I thought they would. I’ll take care of this soon.
Every photo is tagged with the full names of every person in the photo (that I know, of course) and various other content is tagged as well. Anything that I think I could ever want to use to pull up a photo is tagged. Places and locations beyond the simple location fields, landmarks, things that are being done, things people are wearing, references to anything, ingredients for food pictures, objects. You get the idea.
One of the more odd things that I tag is the name of the t-shirt I’m wearing in pictures that include me. It sounds weird, but I’ve got a TON of t-shirts and every once in a while, I actually find a reason to pull up pictures with a certain t-shirt or brand/site/store. For example, Threadless has done contests involving pictures of people wearing their shirts. I can very simply pull up these photos by the “threadless” keyword. If I want a specific shirt, the name of the shirt is a keyword under the “threadless” keyword.
That’s really about it. I’m working on going through my entire collection and I’m making progress, but it’s very time consuming. Getting all my old pictures organized was supposed to be one of my summer projects, but this will definitely extend a bit past that.
If you’re into photography and have a method to all the madness, I’d love to hear about it!