Image Management for Photographers #2:
Image Filing Strategies & Techniques

One of the two great liberations of digital photography is the freedom from your wall of filing cabinets and table covered with slides and loupes. [For the curious, in my view the other liberation was the ability to see your results right away instead of days or weeks later when they were developed]

But if you don't have an online image filing system which works for you then you haven't gained much by having your images online. There is no single filing system which works for everyone, but there are a lot of good rules of thumb for the kind of image files you might want to create and for ways to use your filing system effectively. We'll take you through some of the most common systems here and give you some ideas on how to decide between them or create your own version.

Image Filing Defined

No matter how sophisticated your use of tags, captions or other "meta"-data or your image cataloging or library system, your actual image only lives in one physical location. Usually that is a folder on a computer or server hard-drive. [Some image catalogs actually keep your physical images in a database, but frankly those scare me unless they are run by a full time professional database administrator. The last thing I want to do is risk my image library to a desktop database.] Filing is simply whatever system you use for placing your images in a set of folders on one or more of your hard drives.

Image filing starts with your workflow

Whether you are an amateur or a pro, you have a workflow--whether you call it that or not. Most likely there is a pattern to how and when you shoot and what you do with the images. Understanding that pattern and your needs is the first crucial step in creating a productive filing and cataloging system. We won't go into the details of how you process your images here--we'll save that element of workflow for another issue--but your general workflow probably falls into one of two types: event based or library based. We'll talk about how each works and how it affects your cataloging solution.

Event-based workflows center on an event or job. If you are shooting for yourself the event might be a vacation or family get together. If you are shooting for a client the event might be a press conference, baseball game, or wedding. The key thing about an event workflow is that you work through the images from a particular event or shoot, process them, print them or hand them off to a client or editor, and then can safely file or archive them based on the event. An extreme example is weddings. Once the initial job is complete, when a member of the wedding party calls in for more prints you know precisely which wedding they are from and can retrieve them from an archive of CDs or DVDs fairly easily. Event photographers can thus usually make do quite nicely with a solution that includes an offline cataloging facility like the one built into DigitalPro for retrieving images from past events.

Library-based workflows are a catch all for photographers who can't neatly compartmentalize their efforts. Stock shooters and nature photographers are great examples. An agency or an editor may want a photo of a particular type of scene or species of animal. Retrieving that image may require searching photos that were taken months or even years apart in different locations. Even with an offline cataloging facility this task can be daunting if it means retrieving images from dozens of different CDs or DVDs for a single article or book request. So those with library based workflows are best off if they can afford enough disk storage to keep their images online and file and catalog them there.

Most of us, of course, have a Hybrid of both Event and Library based images, which means we need a cataloging solution that can accommodate either, but it is important to know which is your primary workflow so that you can optimize the solution you establish to make you as productive as possible. -- We'll cover workflows in more detail but wanted to give you a quick overview to help put image filing in perspective.

When you file depends on your workflow

If you shoot in predictable sessions and know just where you want to file your images, then as you load the card into your computer you'll want to specify where the images get filed. This is typically a sub-folder for the particular event or date grouped under a folder which represents that sport or client. You may also want to rename the images at that time, possibly with a unique date or number code. An example of this type of filing would be:

    Weddings\2004\July\Madonna\ with images renamed: WedMad_070204_#####

DigitalPro lets you accomplish this right from the Load Card Wizard. If you delete many of your initial images or do a lot of review before filing you might be better off placing the images in a temporary location (called a "Shoot" in DigitalPro) and then filing later as a separate step.

Where you file also affects your workflow

Not everyone can effectively file by event. If you have images you need to retrieve by subject, you are probably better off filing by subject. Obviously a single image may pertain to many subjects, for which we'll show you some ways to use keywords and categories, but if there is a primary subject then filing that way will give you a headstart on quick retrieval.

For example, a wildlife photographer could use Moose Peterson's filing guidelines for their bird images and file Bald Eagle images as:

    Birds\Hawk-Like\Bald Eagle\NNNN-#####

Choosing or Designing a Foldering System

Where to File your Images

The most important feature of your foldering system is to try to keep your images together in one place. If you have one large drive or server that can fit all your images that is ideal. If not then at least designate a couple drives which will store your images. What you don't want to do is have images spread all over the place. That would make it much harder to catalog, backup or archive your images.

DigitalPro supports this model easily by allowing you to specify a File Cabinet folder which by default it displays in the File Cabinet Window (normally on the right side of your screen). It knows about the File Cabinet and allows you to quickly file there. If you need to file in more than one location you can use the Favorites view to specify multiple filing locations as an alternative.

When you are choosing the location for your images think about how many you'll have and how you want to use them. For example, if you intend to use your images from more than one computer or want other people to have access to them from their machines you'll want to make sure they are on a server which is always on or at least on a shared folder on a desktop machine that is either always on or easy to turn on.

You'll want to make sure your filing location is also large enough to accomodate your anticipated image library. Remember that this includes not only your original images but the often much larger Photoshop and TIFF files that you create from them--possibly several versions for your popular images.

How to access your Images

For the network at our studio we have our image drive mounted as drive "S:" (for Stills) on every computer we use. Our working drive is mounted as "P:" (for Projects). That way all the local applications on all the machines share the same path to each image. That makes it a simple matter to use any machine at any time and know where to find everything. [Note that even on the server which actually holds the images we've used Windows to change the drive letter of the image files to "S:" for consistency.]

DigitalPro includes the exclusive Travel & Return feature so even when you travel with your laptop you can take a "shadow" image of your file folders with you and when you return it will automatically re-file those images in their permanent locations.

How to Organize your Filing Folders and Sub-Folders

Now that you've got a filing location that you can reliably access from all your computers it's time to decide how to split it up into folders and sub-folders to make browsing your images as easy as possible. As we've covered above the way you do this depends a lot on your style and your workflow. We'll give you a few ideas:

File by Subject

If you photograph the same subjects over and over again (particular locations, species, models, athletes for example) and want to be able to quickly retrieve all of your images of that subject then filing by subject is the way to go. DigitalPro makes Filing by Subject a breeze by automatically remembering your subject prefix and sequence number for each folder where you file so you can quickly file and rename with a single click of the mouse.

File by Event

If you think of your images based on the event where you captured them or you are paid on assignment to cover particular events then filing by Event gives you a quick way to intuitively retrieve your images. DigitalPro makes Event based filing easy with powerful "wildcard" image renaming as part of its integrated filing and Quick File capabilities.

File by Date

If you tend to think of your life experiences by date or you simply don't want to spend any time re-organizing your images you can simply keep them managed in folders by date. DigitalPro makes this simple with specialized renaming code to automatically create sub-folders based on image capture dates.

Almost everyone who files by date needs to rely on some type of keywording to retrieve all their images of a particular subject when they need them. We'll cover how to do that in a future issue.

A Hybrid Filing System

As you've probably guessed, no one of these filing systems is perfect for anyone. So most of use use a combination of techniques. For example I use Subject based filing for Species, Places and Things. I use Event based filing for one-time events like Sports, Concerts and people shots during photo safaris. My commercial client images get filed by client and within that by project.

Sneak Peak:
Image Cataloging--Beyond Filing

Filing using folders would work pretty well if every image was only about one thing. But of course images have multiple subjects in them (different people or species or buildings or activities) and are shot at a particular location and possibly for a particular client. They may also illustrate certain behaviors or photographic techniques. As your image library grows your memory won't be enough to remember all the "extras" for each of your images.

Tagging can be a quick fix for grouping sets of images. The simplest way to create a few groups of images is with tags. Technically these are usually implemented as IPTC Urgency codes from 0-9. The IPTC is a press consortium that had the foresight to describe a set of image annotations over 30 years ago which is the basis for Photoshop's File Info feature and have become the de facto standard for image tagging and captioning. One obvious use of tags is to give a particular number to your "favorites" or "selects" within a folder for quick retrieval when you need a submission. DigitalPro offers the "Show only Tagged" command to help with this, in addition to allowing for searching & sorting by Priority.

Keywords, Collections and Categories are the next step in sophistication for organizing your images so you can recall them in many different contexts. We'll be covering those in a future installment of our Image Management for Photographers series.

--David Cardinal, Pro Shooters LLC, Contents Copyright Cardinal Photo 2009. All Rights Reserved.

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