Monday, July 19, 2010

How to Organize your Digital Photos

With the advent of digital photography and the widespread use of digital cameras, it has become very exciting and easy to take photos... that is, lots of photos! Soon enough, your hard disk will be spawned with JPEGs. Whether you are scanning your old prints or importing photos from your digital camera(s), you will notice a dramatic increase in the number of photos on your disk in a short period of time. Within a year, I accumulated around 7,000 photos!

However, with the wealth of photos you have on your disk, it will become a difficult task to keep track of what's in there... even your computer will have a hard time processing and displaying thumbnails and photo information (assuming you put all your photos in one directory!).

I thought of a lot of ways to organize my photo library and have gone through several paradigms. What I describe in this article is the technique I use to organize my photos. I think it is very efficient and so far it has served me well. For example, I would want to quickly find photos sharing a certain theme (sunset, fruit, cloud...) or photos about a friend (Matt for example). Sometimes I would want to find photos relating to a certain event (concert, birthday...). All of these can be done with little effort, provided you are consistent with your workflow and take the time to organize your photos.

The fundamental concept of my approach is to separate the file storage from the user. This is accomplished by dividing the organizational task between myself and a photo organizer (such as Picasa). In this plan, photos are kept intact, and stored in systematically named folders. It is the software interface that will take care of all the organization. This also makes use of the property tags in jpg files.

Please understand that in order to obtain the results you expect, you have to put enough effort from your part (such as keywords and captions). There is no software (yet) that automatically knows what your pictures are about, or that figures out the names of the people in a certain group photo!

Step 1: Create a Master Directory

First and foremost, I create a master folder called "My Pictures". I place this folder on an external hard disk to save space on my local disk.

Step 2: Create Sub Directories

Since I use several cameras (and you probably do as new models come around), I create a directory for each camera (Nikon N80, Nikon D50, Canon PowerShot 540 ...). I do this because I like to have the photos from each camera in a separate location for comparison purposes.

In each "camera" directory, I create sub directories tagged by year. For example, Photos taken in 2005 will be placed in the "2005" directory. I chose to categorize by year to keep track of the evolution of my skills in photography. This is not a big deal since your photos already contain the date taken in the picture metadata. However, it will prove to be good practice to categorize your photos per year as years go by!

For photos that come from third parties, I also categorize them by year but place them in a directory called "other"

Step 3: Importing Photos

So far we have only scratched the surface. The question is where to import the photos form your digital camera? For example, you can import photos related to a certain event into a directory with the name of that event. That works fine, but it will create a set of incoherent directory names, and sometimes ambiguous names. Just today [Jan 28, 07], I have reached a consensus on where to import my photos. The idea is simple and is inspired from film photography. When using film cameras, I usually use films with 25 exposures (they're the only ones left out there!). Therefore, it would seem logical to put each film in a separate directory. When extrapolated to the digital world, I simply split the photos on my digital camera into 25-file sets and put each 25 files in a separate directory. I name each directory according to the following convention
[camera name]-[year] [roll number]
For example, "D50-06 0012" corresponds to roll 12 taken with the D50 in the year 2006.
I make sure I keep enough digits for roll 9999! Sometimes, my camera would have 450 photos. I take 30 files at a time and put them in their respective rolls, tout simplement!
For photos that come from third parties, I just put them in directories with the following name convention
[year] [occasion] (Example: "05 Graduation")
You can choose to place any reasonable number of photos in a roll (25-100). Just don't put 1000 photos in a single directory. Your system will become sluggish when you are manually browsing your photo directories and displaying thumbnails (this won't be a big problem with new hyper threading and duo-core processors). It is a personal preference to put any number of photos in each directory, but the objective is to have the same number of photos in all directories.

At this point, we still haven't attached any useful information to the photos. This should be the task of the photo organizer software. I use Google Picasa to organize all my photos. Picasa is a free photo organizer. It is super easy to use, super fast and provides you with all the functionality you need to edit, search and organize your photo library. In summary, what we are doing here is organizing photos in rolls (on the hard disk) and then creating albums and collections in Picasa.


Now comes the fun stuff. After you install Picasa, it will give you the option to scan some directories on your hard disk. Select whichever one you want (Desktop for example). Once Picasa starts, we want to change that. Go to "Tools/Folder Manager" and point Picasa to the directory in which you have placed all your photos (i.e. the "My Pictures" master directory). Make sure you select "Scan Always" on your right so that Picasa scans your photos as you add them. Also, remove any other folder that Picasa is currently scanning (select that folder and then select "Remove from Picasa").

Once your photos are in place, Picasa will import them automatically. It will place them in a master collection called "Folders". Under Folders, you will be able to see all those Rolls you have created.

Step 5: Creating Albums (or collections or whatever your software calls these)

You can create new collections and move these folders into them (note that these actions do not alter the actual location of the photos. that's what's nice about Picasa). For example, I have a collection for each of my cameras. Every time I import a new roll, I right click on it and move it to its rightful collection. Select the folder you wish to move, right-click, select move to collection and choose new collection (assuming the collection doesn't exist yet). I hope future versions of Picasa will have an easy way to create a new collection!

Type in the name of the new collection, and it will be created. Then you can move folders around. Of course, once you create a new collection, it will be added to the list of existing collections. Here's an example of how things should look like.

Step 6: Albums

The best thing to do when you import new photos is to automatically sort them into albums. This is especially true when you are importing photos that pertain to a certain event. Just create a new album (File/New Album), select the photos that correspond to that album, and drag and drop them on that album. For example, here's how I add some photos to the "Sunsets" album.

Step 7: Keywords

Keywords are very important when you want to search for pictures with a specific theme. You can create any keyword you want (animals, plants, sunsets, people etc...) and attach it to any photo (or set of photos). This makes it very easy to search for photos with a specific theme. Select a set of photos that share a similar theme. Click the "View" menu and select "Keywords". Add the keyword that you like and click "Add" to confirm.

You can also select a set of photos and use "Ctrl + K" to invoke the Keywords dialog. It is good practice to use shortcuts.

Step 8: Captions

Captions are like titles, but are embedded in the photo's metadata. Adding captions is time consuming, but gives you the most accurate description of your photos in the future.
In Picasa, double click on a photo to enter preview mode. Just below the photo you will see a message inviting you to type a caption. Simply click there and type the caption you desire. To speed up the process of creating captions, notice that when you are in preview mode, you can simply type on the keyboard and Picasa will automatically interpret what you type as a caption. When you finish typing, press "Enter" and then move to the next photo by clicking the right or left arrow on you keyboard. Type again, press Enter and so on...

I prefer taking the time to add captions to every set of photos I import rather than having to do that one year later with 2034 photos. (Although I have to do that right now with all my old photos)! I add captions to 50-100 old photos every day. I am going over all my old photos adding keywords and captions to every single one of them. I enjoy doing this because I get a chance to review old work and most importantly, be able to find the photo I need at any time I want!

Once you start adding keywords, captions and albums, it will be very easy to locate specific pictures. Picasa will search keyword and caption content as well as album names whenever you search for something. Digital photography is such a thrill and organizing your digital photos is your own personal project. Happy sorting!

Cite as:
Saad, T. "How to Organize your Digital Photos". Weblog entry from Please Make A Note.

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