Digital photography makes it easy to take as many photos as you want, but unless you gain some control of all those photos, you’re likely going to run into storage space issues and you might also have a hell of a time finding the one you want someday. If you take your photos seriously, you owe it to yourself and your hobby/profession to get that stuff organized pronto! Here are some basic things you can do to keep your collection under control. There are surely more steps you can take, but this stuff works great for me. I use the awesome Adobe Lightroom for photo tweaking and the excellent Picasa for occasional quickie browsing, but these steps should be useful for whatever software you use.
Decide on a file folder setup.
Grouping your photos into specific folders is a good way to start organizing. You might find that filing them by subject works best, or by date, or even by place — whatever is most logical for your needs. (This also eliminates the need to give each photo a custom filename, which is VERY tedious.) Grouping by year and subject which works best for me… Here are some example topic folders inside my “2008” folder:
- Corkscrew Swamp, FL – 11-28-08
- Puyallup Fair – 09-13-08
- Madonna – Vancouver, BC – 06-28-08
If you’re lucky, your photo management software will import these same folder names and then everything will be alphabetical for browsing. This also makes it easier to make backups, since your photos will be in one spot and have a logical order.
Note: some photo software likes to move and arrange your files for you, so you may want to experiment first before committing your entire collection to a particular program. If necessary, set its preferences to leave your files where they are (“import from current location”, or something similar) and you should be fine. Picasa will leave your pics where they are, but Lightroom will try to consolidate them elsewhere unless you tell it not to upon importing. iPhoto doesn’t even give you a choice, which is not good behavior for photo software because it can lead to lost photos (I know several people who have had this happen). The future benefit of this is that someday you may decide to switch to another photo program. If you let your previous program do all the organizing, you’d likely have to reorganize everything yourself in the new program. Been there, done that…I like knowing exactly where my photos are and keeping them there!
Learn to love keywords.
If you want to find specific photos very quickly inside your photo management software, keywords are essential. This is especially true with a large photo collection, because keywords will let you pull up very specific photos with minimal hassle. Also, most photo software will enable you to store the keywords right inside the photo file itself, so the keywords are “portable” and are accessible from inside just about any photo program and most online photo-sharing services. Picasa does this, and so does Lightroom (though you have to tell it to Save Metadata).
Here are the kinds of keywords I use:
- Picks – If I think a photo is good enough to stick in my online galleries for all to see, I tag it with the keyword “pick”. (This comes into play later, when you’re weeding out the photos you don’t care about.)
- Year – For all photos taken within a specific year, I enter the year as a keyword. So all photos taken in 2007 have the keyword “2007” attached to them in case I want to narrow things down. This isn’t absolutely necessary since some programs allow you to search by date using the photo’s metadata, but that option may not be available in your online photo gallery.
- People – Friends and family (and myself) are tagged by first name: barry, christopher, amy, laura, joelle, troy, etc. I don’t use last names unless it’s a band or the star of a show, like kylieminogue, cyndilauper, kraftwerk. But if you want to use full names on everything, go for it!
- Places – Where was the photo taken? I use city or area names, and without spaces: lasvegas, seattle, sandiego, europe, downtown, arizona, park, nudebeach. (Using spaces may lead to the software assigning two keywords, as in “San” and “Diego”. Not very useful.)
- Recurring themes – If you take a lot of photos at specific events or places, these may be helpful. I use ones like concert, vacation, reunion, party, etc.
- What’s in the shot – This is where you name the various “stuff” in your photo. I tend to use fairly broad terms: tree, plant (+flower, blossom, etc.), sky (+clouds, sunset, etc.), water (+ocean, beach, lake, etc.), snow, mountain, animal (+dog, cat, bird, etc.), insect…whatever you see that you might want to remember later, tag it with a keyword!
Of course, keywords are only useful if you use them on all photos and keep them consistent (creating a list of keywords to go by might be helpful). Assigning keywords can be a little time-consuming, but if you stick to it your photo collection can soon be easily searched for whatever specific thing you want. Now I can type in “2006 christopher berlin” and find all photos of him taken during our 2006 trip to Berlin (as opposed to our 2008 trip). Or I can simply type in “sunset spaceneedle” and all photos of the Space Needle taken during a sunset come up. It’s awesome!
Lightroom has something called “Smart Collections” which watches your photos for certain keywords or other attributes (determined by you), then displays them like a sort of custom search. If you’re familiar with the Smart Playlists in iTunes, it’s exactly like that. Very useful.
Choose the best and delete the rest.
Now that photos are so easy to take in large numbers, many people seem to be afraid to delete them, even the crappy ones. They just upload and share everything they have without being picky, but who likes to browse through a bunch of badly-lit, blurry, repetitive, or uninteresting shots? If you want to avoid clutter and make your collection more enjoyable to others, you should learn how to pick the best of the bunch and do away with the others. This takes some brutal honesty on your part, but once you admit that not every single photo you take is a masterpiece and worth keeping, it’s absolutely worth it to purge the nonessentials. Not only will you save a ton of storage space, but you’ll better hold the attention of people looking at your work.
Here’s the process that works best for me. First, I look at each photo in the batch and pick the cream of the crop, tagging each with a keyword of “pick”. These are the ones I put all the effort into by tweaking the color, cropping, and making them pretty for presenting online (or in print). Programs like Picasa and Lightroom allow you to mark these with a star or a flag, but this info isn’t saved in the photo’s metadata like a keyword. That’s why I add a keyword as well, in case I switch to another program someday and need to know what my picks were. Always gotta think ahead.
Then I look at all the non-pick photos and decide which ones are pretty good and worth saving, and which ones I can just plain do without. If I can do without it, I delete it on the spot. Examples of photos to delete: those which closely resemble picks (they’re basically duplicates), those too overexposed/underexposed/noisy to rescue, and those that just aren’t interesting. BAM, they’re gone! All I’m left with are the picks and non-picks, but all are worth keeping and I won’t miss the rest. I do this with every new batch of photos I take, and recently freed up over 3GB when I purged a bunch of crap from some old collections. Nice.
For feck’s sake, make backups!!
Everyone’s heard or experienced this horror story: “All my photos were on this disk and something happened, and now they’re GONE! Forever! I just want to throw myself in front of a truck!” Well, save yourself some grief by making regular backups. There are a variety of ways to do this, more than I can cover here, but personally I keep a copy of my entire collection on an external hard drive which is automatically backed-up once a week. I also burn my latest photos to DVD every couple of months, just in case. (Oh yeah, I also upload my picks to SmugMug, which is another form of backing-up, I suppose.) It pays to be paranoid, people. Someone even suggested to me that I should keep my DVD copies at the office, in case the house burns down and my hard drive is toast. Now, that’s thinkin’ ahead…