Where Did I Put That Picture? A Guide for Managing Your Image Files

The other day I was looking for an image of the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. To find it I simply went into my photo organizer and searched for “Stone Arch Bridge”. Instantly images related to that search term filled my screen. How does that work you ask? I’ll explain…

History
I've been taking and storing digital images since 1999. Early on I didn’t really have a good way to organize my images. I pretty much dumped all my shots in one folder and when I had a few from one particular occasion I created a special folder for them.

My photo collection started to grow… I created categories of folders. One for family, one for friends, one for church ministry, one for animals, and so on. That worked okay, but I ended up with a lot of folders within folders and no real structure. Sometimes I was conflicted about where to keep a particular image that really fit in two categories. Without going into long explanations, let me just say that system didn’t work. I ended up with copies of images all over the place, and it was hard to find an image I was looking for.

My photo collection kept growing… I needed a better way. When I was working as a Project Manager for a software development company. A co-worker of mine was also into photography. One day we were talking about Photoshop and he quickly found a couple examples to show me of some work he had done. I was impressed by how fast he found them. His role in our company was a database design analyst, so it was no surprise when he suggested dedicated photo database software. Within a week I had my own copy of the software.

My photo collection kept growing… It took me a while to settle into a system. But I have been using one for several years now that really works well for me. I have upwards of 100,000 images in my collection. That has given me a chance to make some mistakes and learn a few ways to best organize my photos.


Get Organized

There are many programs today that will help you organize your photos. You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy something.
Many computers come with features to help you organize your images. Most cameras come with basic organizing and editing software and there are also dedicated programs, some of which are free. I use ACDSee software (they have basic and pro versions.). Photoshop Elements also comes with an organizer. If you have found one you like, share it in the comments section below.
 
 
 
Structure
The first thing to consider is your folder structure. I already mentioned through trial and error I've ended up with one that has been working for several years now. See the screen shot at left. It’s a simple hierarchy based on year and month. All the images from a given month go together in the same folder. However, I do create sub-folders within a month if I have a lot of photos that belong together. Photos from a big event or particular occasion where I took many pictures. I also create a separate folder within a month to contain the shots I take for church ministries. You may find a structure that works better for you, there are numerous ways to approach this.
 
You will haave to decide what works best for you. The best thing to do though is to get some kind of structure going and stick to it!
 
Keywords
The structure created the buckets, but you still need a way to find your photos easily. You do this by assigning keywords (tagging) your images. Every program is different, but the concept is the same. For a given image you assign words that describe it. Those are the keywords you can later use in a search function to find what you’re looking for.

I also use caption fields and note fields from time to time. I use captions for describing the image to others. Notes for my own personal reference, or greater detail on what went on in the image. Not every image gets a caption, far fewer get notes, but all of them get a tag (keyword).

It may seem like a lot of work to tag all your photos, but it really isn’t. Many programs allow you to select many photos at once and assign a common tag to all of them at the same time.

 

Did you know?
Your image files have a data storage area that records all your image info. Details the camera writes to these data fields when you take the picture. There are also fields to store your own information, such as keywords. These fields are called "Exif" and “IPTC”, and are referred to collectively as "Metadata". It's in these fields that your tags and captions can be stored.

Workflow

One thing I learned is not to put photos in their "month bucket" until I tagged them. So what I do is import my images into a folder titled “A – Yet To Process” (the ‘A’ keeps it sorted to the top of all the folders). When I import my photos, my program automatically creates sub-folders for the date I imported the photos. When I have time I go into the folders, tag the images, perform any post processing (edits to the images), then I sort them to their permanent buckets once that is done, or when I have time).
 
After I move the images, I then delete the empty folders under my “A – Yet To Process” folder. This has worked great for years, and I can easily find my images with the tags.

Part of my tagging routine which I won’t go into great detail on right now, is to populate IPTC fields in the image data. Many online sites read these fields, so I actually include a process to populate my captions and keywords to those fields automatically. Then when I upload my images those fields are automatically read and displayed by the online site for others to see. Some photo organizers actually populate those fields directly, while others use their own database structure, in which case you can run a quick batch process to fill the data fields in IPTC.

Find Your Images
With my images tagged, I can easily search using common search strings. I can even search for multiple tags at once. For example, if I wanted to find that cute picture of my daughter with a messy face, I would use ‘Grace + Messy’ in the search field and all the pictures of my daughter where I tagged her as messy would show up in the search results.

Some programs also let you search by a date, even by clicking on a calendar. Some photographers use data already in the image to find photos by f-number, shutter speed, or even focal length.


What tags should I use?
Whatever works for you and makes the most sense. Any word that describes the image is a good idea. Early on my mistake was to use too few words. I have since gotten better at using tags that will make the image easy to find again.

The first thing I usually do is select several images and tag with an event or place description, then with names if appropriate. Then I start getting specific.
  • For immediate family I use first and last name. IE: ‘John Stevens’. For someone that was married I would represent it like this ‘Mary (Stevens) Parker’ putting the maiden name in parenthesis. That way if my images are passed on and future generations want to search them, folks can be searched for using their maiden name or married name. This is where dedicated software is handy. You can change the tag easily when someone’s name changes and make it effective for all the images at once.
  • For friends I also use first name-last name as the tag. Unless their married…
  • If the photos of a family then I usually just use their last name as the tag. It’s quicker and easier to tag the photos that way. It’s also easier to search for burning a disc to share the images later. At one time I used first name-last name for everyone, but that got to be too time consuming tagging every member of the family individually, so now I just use last names for families.
  • Events I use generic tags AND specific tags. If I have shots from the Minnesota Zoo the tags would be ‘Zoo’ and ‘MN Zoo’. I might also include ‘Discovery bay’ or “Grizzly Coast’. Then of course an animal name such as ‘Wolf” or ‘Bear” maybe even “Brown Bear’ or “Polar Bear’ in addition to just ‘Bear’.

 

Anything you can think of to help you find the image again. Some examples (not including names) are:

  • Zoo (also Como Zoo, MN Zoo, etc.)
  • Vacation (in addition I might add where too, such as ‘Disney World’ and even add ‘Epcot’ or ‘Hoop De Doo’ for the dinner show we saw).
  • Messy
  • Funny Face
  • Hat, Dress, Pajamas, PJs, Etc. (I use clothing descriptions sometimes so I can find shots of people in memorable outfits)
  • Costume
  • Easter, Christmas, Etc. (holiday name tags)
  • Bat, Ball, Park, Slide, Swing, Cabin, Lake, Water, Pool, Dive, Boat…. You get the idea!
     

This should get you started. There certainly is a lot more that can be said about it. Enter ‘Digital Asset Management’ (DAM) in your search engine to learn more.

File Naming
On import with ACDSee (other programs do this as well) I have the date-time field from exif added to the filename. So I keep the original out of camera file name and add the date stamp. No need to name files, that's what the organizer/database is for with the keywords. Also, the folder structure for important events identifies where the photo is from, and I sometimes use the notes/description field for this also. Nothing wrong with using an event name in the filename though, it's just personal preference. I just don't have a need for using the file name to ID the photo, though I'm sure it would be handy for sharing with others that way from time to time.

Summary
Here’s my workflow in short form:

  • Capture images
  • Import into my computer (into “A- Yet to Process” folder) using a rename file function to add date stamp to end of original file name.
  • Edit photos, delete ones I know I will never want. Create copies if I intend to do a couple versions (black and white or something custom).
  • Tag photos with keywords. Write captions for some of them. Write notes if I feel the need.
  • Move the files to their permanent location.
  • Search using search function when needed. I sometimes simply navigate the Year – Month – Event structure if I have an idea where the images should be.

It seems daunting at first, but it really is worth it to know where your pictures are. Especially as your collection grows and grows! In a future article I'll write about how to protect and back-up your photos.

What about Catalogs and Categories?

Some of you may have noticed I didn't discuss catalogs, categories, color labels, rating, etc. The goal of this article was to introduce some basic ways to get started organizing. Many image organizing programs allow you to assign and organize in many additional and powerful ways. I do use some of them, I just didn't go into detail here.

 

How do you organize your files?
What dedicated software do you use?
What’s your experience with storing your photos?

 


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