A Five Step Stairway to Photo Organization Heaven / by Annemie Tonken

If you've read my blog for any period of time, you know that every now and then, I like to take a break from posting client photos and try to write about things that I think might be helpful to my readers when it comes to their own photography. For a while, I've been meaning to write about how to manage all of the digital photographs you create on your computer - a topic of huge importance, assuming you have any desire to actually find those images in the future - but it keeps getting pushed to the bottom of my list, since writing about file organization is about as sexy as writing about scrubbing the grout around your toilet. Then a couple of weeks ago I was teaching one of my Cameras & Cocktails classes, and when I asked for questions, someone actually raised this exact issue. Everyone in the class voiced their agreement - as great as it was to get good photos, they all struggled with keeping them in any kind of order - and I decided that this post needed to happen. Now.

Of course, there are lots of ways to organize just about anything, and I don't claim to have a perfect solution for every person, but my system has been through many rounds of refinements, and though I'm sure it's not for everyone, I like it pretty well... and more importantly, I've yet to lose a photo.

Philosophically, I believe an organizational system should accomplish three things: it should make your photos easy to find, it should keep them safe from data loss, and it should remove all stress from your mom's request for a print of that one photo of her granddaughter (you know... the one where she's wearing the blue shirt? At the beach? From last summer? Exactly.).

To that end, I suggest that you follow the following five rules of photo organization:

1. Get the photos you take onto your computer as soon as possible after you put them on your camera. No waiting around and amassing 14,000 photos on a card dating back to three years ago. Why? So many reasons! Mostly, though, leaving photos on a card is dangerous (your camera could get lost/stolen/hit by a truck, the card could fail, etc., etc.). Barring that, having a huge stack of files to deal with will make it a task you never want to do, and so you won't. Instead, be compulsive about it... if you take pictures one day, pop the card on your computer that evening or the next morning. It only takes a few minutes.

2. Establish (and stick with!) systems for file structure and photo naming. This is probably where you'll find the most disagreement on how to organize files since everyone thinks about their files differently. Ultimately, you need to decide what will make your images easiest to retrieve. Do you organize them by subject? Event? Location? For me, organizing photos by date is by far the most intuitive method, as well as one of the easier ones to be consistent about. Depending on how much room your photos require (i.e. how many photos you take and at what resolution), it can make sense to have a drive dedicated to photos, but even if you're just working within a "pictures" folder on your desktop, subfolders are the first step toward organizing your files. I have folders based on year (2011, 2012, 2013), within which I have months (201301, 201302, 201303), within which I organize my shoots by specific date, client name, and the nature of the session (20130317_Green_Family_Session). I don't distinguish between personal work and client work - if the photos are from my family vacation, I become the "client," and the folder is called something like 20130518_Tonken_Hatteras_Trip. If you don't do any post-processing with your photos, this might be as far as you go. If you do, however, you'll want to create additional folders within the shoot folder to indicate RAW/original files vs. edited files, and possibly other versions ("creative edits" or "sized for facebook" or whatever). Of course, if you don't take photos more than a few days a month, you could easily eliminate the month-level folder; if you're not a professional and don't have clients to worry about, don't bother adding a client name... you're looking to balance structure with keeping things nice and clean.

3. Delete, delete, delete! Regardless of whether you edit your photos, I STRONGLY urge you to go through them and decide which you want to keep and which can be let go. Everyone misses focus from time to time, or gets the exposure wrong, or takes three nearly-identical photos. Other times a photo is just plain crappy. A lot of people seem to feel like it's some kind of sin to delete photos, but I'm here to tell you that it's not: the boxes and boxes of snapshots that we used to accumulate in the days of film are absolutely nothing compared to the virtual warehouses of digital files that we're all filling with abandon. Data storage is cheap, but it can become an enormous burden to manage. Deleting files you won't ever miss is a great way to decrease the load and ensure that when you're looking back through your images, you won't want to stab your eyeballs out it's an entirely pleasant experience.

4. Tag your photos. Generally, I find that I can mentally keep track of when I took any given photo for around a year to a year and a half... beyond that, I start to forget whether a particular shoot took place two years ago or three years ago, in September or October. Maybe your memory is better than mine (in all honesty, it almost definitely is), but no one has perfect recall of the month and date of every photo they've taken in the last ten years... and this is where technology can be our best friend. Nearly all photo editing software these days will allow you to "tag" your images (the same idea as when you tag a person in a picture on Facebook), and many of them will allow you to tag groups of photos with just a click or two. Tagging a photo adds that word to the metadata associated with the image, so that if you search for that word, that image will come up. Perhaps you're making a slideshow for your son's tenth birthday... you can search for his name and find all the pictures of him that you've taken over the years. If you want a specific photo of him running through the sprinkler, you can search his name and "sprinkler." If you want to frame a cluster of flower photographs, you could search for "flower" or "yellow" or "daffodil" and find several to choose from without scrolling through years' worth of images. Tagging requires a bit of time and diligence, but nowhere near as much as finding a specific image among thousands and thousands after the fact.

5. Last, and just as important as taking the photograph in the first place, you MUST back your photos up! Once upon a time, people would run into burning houses to try to rescue their family albums. Nowadays, thankfully, no such heroics are necessary; then again, a failed hard drive is much more common than a house fire. I am not an expert on all the ways you can back your data up, but I can tell you that there are lots of free or inexpensive options that will take your data and put it on a cloud server somewhere for you to retrieve in case of an emergency. You could consider an automated service like Backblaze or Carbonite, upload and access or share your files using software like Dropbox or Copy, or simply add photos to Flickr or a similar photo sharing site. Choosing one of these methods is probably the most difficult step in the process... once you've established a system it can become a ten-second operation, or even happen while you sleep at night, hopefully better knowing that your photos are all safe and sound.

So that's it. I promise that it's easy once you have it all set up and ready to go, and it will most certainly keep your files neat and tidy and safe. BUT. It is missing one vital step that I challenge each and every one of you to take at least a few times a year:

PRINT your photos! On paper!!! Put them in a frame or an album or mail them to a friend. Photographs were made to be held, and sometime soon I'll blog again about how to ensure that your prints are a. mazing.

Finally, as a reward for getting through this entire post, and because this is a photo blog, here are a couple of recent portraits of my sweet seven year-old Oliver, busy reading Harry Potter before I so rudely interrupted him:Chapel Hill Family PhotographerChapel Hill Family Photographer

(And just in case you were wondering, you'll find these on my current photo drive under 2013 > 201307 > 20130716_Oliver.)

xox,

annemie