Organize: Part 2 – A way of Thinking

Fellow photography enthusiast, Neil Creek, continues his series on the topic of Organization in Photography. For more of Neil's work, be sure to visit his photography blog and subscribe to his feed.

Getting to grips with image management

After last week's introduction, it's time to get into the nitty gritty of organizing your images. Like most really important things, being organized isn't just a method, it's a way of thinking.

Everything you do with your images benefits from a structured way of thinking, and it works best when it happens seemlessly and naturally. For new photographers, remembering to have enough memory cards, and knowing where you copied your photos can be a challenge. For an organized photographer it's rarely an issue because the way they do things doesn't allow for such mistakes. If you make a habit of organized thinking, then organization becomes as natural as breathing.


That's all very philosophical and entirely useless without specific examples, so I'm going to walk you through my workflow and hopefully you'll be able to see from that example what I mean. I should let you know that I'm not an expert and my system is not perfect. Organized habits are hard to form, and what works for me may not work for you. Have a look at the way I do things, and see if you can adapt it to your own style.

Example – My workflow

Below are the typical steps in my workflow. Where there needs to be a further explanation, I've linked to further down in this post. Due to the detail I go into to cover these points, I'll be discussing the second half of my workflow in the next post in the series.

Camera icon Take the shot Click!
CF cards The card fills up If I'm shooting in the field I copy the card to my portable storage device.
Copying files Once at home Create a new directory on my RAW hard disk drive and copy all files there from the card/portable HDD.
Renaming files In the new directory Copy all the files from the auto-generated sub-directories into the new top level directory and rename them all.
Lightroom icon Load up Lightroom Import all the files (into whatever RAW processing/image editing software you prefer), applying what metadata you can on the way.
Chosen images Process Delete the duds, flag the picks and process.
Keywords icon Additional metadata Assign more detailed and descriptive metadata to the picks of the shoot. This is where I need to make the most improvements to my routine.
Folder list Preparing for output On my DERIV HDD, I prepare a new directory.
Export icon Export Using my preferred settings for the intended use, I export all the photos I want.
CD icon Share Upload, email, burn or otherwise disseminate the images.
Hard disk drives Backup Automated software mirrors all changes of my entire RAW and DERIV HDDs every night for a current backup. I still need to implement an off-site backup but this would be a relatively simple additional step.
Find icon Retreival With the directory and file naming schemes I use, finding the images I'm looking for is usually very simple. Because my metadata routine is imperfect, finding images based on concepts is a little tougher.

Sections in grey will be covered in Part 3.


Hardware setup

The external hard disk drives that hold all my photos.

After having a hard disk drive (HDD) die, taking with it five years of photos (which I fortunately managed to retrieve years later), I swore that I would never be without backup. My current HDD setup is largely inspired by by Peter Krogh.

I have a series (currently 4) of 320Gb USB2.0 external HDDs. They are grouped into pairs, a primary and its mirror. One pair stores my RAW files, and the other stores derivative files and all my non photography data. The idea is that when the RAW disk fills, I buy another pair. Currently however, the “RAW2” disk is a subdirectory on the “DERIV1” drive untill I can afford another pair. Theoretically the DERIV disks will take a lot longer to fill than the RAW drives.

Directory naming format

A consistent naming system is absolutely critical to any digital asset management, especially photos. Names generated by your camera contain no information about the photo, and they are not unique. Your file name could be the same as hundreds around the world, or worse, when you “go round the clock” and take enough photos to cause the camera to start re-using numbers, you could overwrite your old files.

I use a similar system for naming my directories and photos. A typical directory on my RAW HDD might look like this:

080111 – Milk and dye patterns
Date – Description

The date is very useful. In the space of just six characters I can uniquely identify any date within one hundred years. The date is read in pairs from left to right in descending order of detail. Year, month, day. The reasons for choosing this format are:

An example of an organized folder structure.
  • Only six characters is very efficient, it takes up as little room as possible, making it easier to scan a list of folders in a narrow column in your file manager.
  • The decending order starts with useful information and gets increasingly more useful. If you start with the day, it could refer to any of a hundred years. By starting with the “big” time block you can easily and quickly narrow down to the exact day.
  • An added bonus to this method means that files are sorted correctly by date in your file manager.
  • The confusion between European and Amrican date formats is avoided.

The description is simply to help me find the folder once I’ve narrowed down to the approximate date. If I know I took those milk and dye photos in January sometime, a quick scan down the directory list will find them. If the description includes relevant keywords, it’s possible to search for them with your file manager’s “find” tool. If I shoot more than one subject in a day, I just keep adding to the description, though I try and keep it under ten or so words, usually it’s only two to four.

File naming format

Once I get all my photos into the day's directory, I rename all the photos. Whatever naming convention you decide to use for your photos, the most important thing is that you STICK with it. The strength of a naming system is that it is consistent. If you use more than one system, things will quickly become a jumble, and you won’t be able to confidently track your photos.

The file naming system I use for my photos is similar to the one I use for my directories. A typical RAW file might be named like this:

My name – Date – Unique number . Extension

In the last couple of years I've started using my name as a prefix to my photo names for a number of reasons:

An example of an organized file structure.
  • The photo is easily identified as one of mine. I’m helped by the fact that my surname is uncommon. This is valuable if my photos are being passed around a client’s studio. They don’t have to delve into the image’s metadata to know who took the photo. It also helps me build my name as a brand.
  • Having a word, especially a name, in front of the otherwise purely numerical filename draws attention to the file. A file with a numerical name looks machine-generated and can easily be ignored, or mistaken for some other kind of file. A name draws attention to the file and gives it some protection from deletion.
  • Sometimes I shoot with friends, and keep an archive of their photos with mine. The naming system works equally well for their photos, but a name prefix keeps our photos seperate.
  • Being a short name it doesn’t add too much to the length of the filename, and since all my photos have the same prefix, it doesn’t affect their sort order.

The rest of the file name is pretty straightforward. The date is used in the same way and for the same reason as in the directory name. The unique number is just a count, from 001 up. For especially large shoots, you could count from 0001 and up. The extension is the default RAW file type, but that will change soon enough, as I will discuss in a later point.

It’s important to note – name your photos before you do any culling. Once you’ve named your photos don’t rename them EVER, otherwise it will lead to a version control nightmare! There's nothing wrong with having a file list with missing numbers.

To rename my photos I use a great piece of Aussie software called Directory Opus as my file manager, and it includes a batch rename tool. I'll talk more about the tools I use to assist my photo organization in a later post in this series.

Metadata on import

An example of applying metadata in import.

Metadata is an incredibly useful tool, and has been discussed in detail in many articles online, but for now a simple definition of metadata is “data about data”. This is where all the information about your photo is stored.

Photographers should also be interested in the IPTC metadata fields. Of most interest is the credit information and keywords.

The contact metadata I apply to my images.

Credit information is crucial for identifying a photo as the work of a particular photographer. It allows others, especially potential users of the photo, to know who took the photo. I've created a metadata preset in Lightroom that adds all my details to every photo I import.

Keywords are extremely useful for describing a photo, and later finding it. Search engines are not yet smart enough to recognize the content and context of a photo, so keywords fill the gap. Effective keyword use makes searching a huge database of images for exactly the one you want straightforward. The main problem with keywords is that it’s a lot of work to keyword hundreds or thousands of photos. Inconsistent keyword use also lessens their usefulness.

At this stage in my workflow I assign a standard credit to all imported photos, and I add a few keywords that apply to all images in the shoot. Sometimes this isn’t very easy as a shoot can be varied, but even one or two keywords can help make it easier to find, say, family photos among a year’s worth of professional and other kinds of photos.

Detailed metadata

Keyworded image

This is where the keywording task becomes daunting. Adding additional keywords to individual photos is time-consuming, tiring and not fun at all. However, the payoff can be huge. Searching for a specific image from thousands of keyworded ones is so much easier and the time spent keywording can be saved in searches many times over.

This is the biggest weak point for me in my process. I rarely spend the time keywording that I should, and as a result I have to rely on my file naming system to find photos. However, if I am ever offering photos for sale, I’ll dedicate a great deal of time and effort to keywording those photos. This helps them be found by potential customers, and adds considerable value to the image for them.

There are many tools and tutorials to assist with keywording, and I’ll refer to some of those in a later post in this series.

Looking forward

Next week, we'll look at the remainder of my workflow in detail. Last week we had a few good comments about how folks organize their own photo workflow. I'll be collecting and organizing the best advice for the final part of this series, so if you have some suggestions or stories of your own experience, please post them in the comments! Perhaps after reading about my workflow so far, you'll have some suggestions for improvements I could make, or maybe you can share how you've adapted some of my method into your own style. If you have any valuable resources, such as links, software or books, let us know about them! I hope to hear from you.

Look forward to next week, but don't wait till then to start organizing yourself! Remember, good organization is a way of thinking, and there's no better time to start than now.