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How Professional Photographers Organize their Digital Photos

Staying organized is a chore, I know. And reading about staying organized isn’t any fun either.

But even though “workflow” isn’t the sexiest photography topic, searching through countless images to find one photo is way too tedious to do every day. And losing photos is even uglier. . . trust me.

So put your game face on and let’s look at the basics of how to keep all those terabytes of pictures you’ve got under control.

1. File naming

“The arcane art of properly defining all your pretty pictures in a way that works for both you and your computer.”

Naming all those .JPG .TIF or .DNG shouldn’t be left to chance or the arbitrary decision of your camera or image editing software. These are YOUR pictures, and likely you plan on taking many more photographs. (In addition to having quite a few of them already.)

It’s worth naming your files consciously so that you don’t duplicate, over-write or accidentally delete pictures. There are myriad possible solutions to the arcane art of file naming, but here’s the simplest idea:

Just pick a system that works for you, and stick with it.

For example, I use my initials, “ZM,” followed by the year, “XXXX,” month “XX,” and then a six-digit serial number.

This means that every single one of my image file names look something like this: ZM_2013_01_01_000001.TIF.

For a specific project I’ll typically create a duplicate set of files with a slightly different naming structure, something like: ZM_ProjectName_ProjectLocation_000001.TIF.

When I ingest pictures from my flash cards, my image software is set up to “batch” or automatically rename the images according to these naming rules I’ve created. Pictures stopped mysteriously disappearing once I started doing this. (Which is to say, once I got organized, I stopped losing stuff.) It’s simple and it works for me.

Think about what will work for you. . . it may help to consider what drives you crazy when you’re trying to sort through your photos, and fixing that problem first.

Once you choose a naming convention that will make your life easier, plug it into the software you use to ingest your photos (which, coincidentally, is the next step to organization).

2. Ingesting (or importing) photographs

“Moving or copying your photos from your flash memory to your computer.”

The first time you copy your images to your computer is far and away the best time to organize your images.

Set up your ingest process so most of the laborious tasks of organizing your pictures are automated. You can direct your software, Adobe Lightroom just for example, to copy and rename imported images and add important metadata during import.

Once you set up your process the computer will do the work. Stop and think about that for a second. . . Less work for you! Not bad, right?

3. Photo metadata

“All of the information that is logged about a particular image—logged both by you, your camera and the various software you use, too.”

Metadata is a simple tool to understand, and one that’s worth learning about, because it allows you to create order out of chaos. Really.

Your pictures need metadata because it helps track the journey from their birth on your camera to various directories on your computer where they are handled by image catalogs or browsers (like iPhoto) and even when they undergo metamorphosis within image editors (like Photoshop).

Certain software can use metadata to help you make precise corrections for lens vignetting and other flaws. You can use metadata to record important details about your pictures, including, keywords, copyright info and, if you want, detailed descriptions of the event you photographed.

Some metadata is attached within the image file itself, and some metadata is stored in a sidecar file to help software track edits, database info and the like. Metadata is a very powerful, although slightly boring, tool that you really ought to start making use of.

Specifically, the two types of metadata worth learning about are IPTC and EXIF.

IPTC gives you a way to describe your photo. It’s a standardized schema of data fields to which you can add info, like the location you took a particular picture, your name and copyright info and much more. This info is embedded in an image file within an XMP packet.

Resources for specific software applications and a more in-depth look can be found at IPTC.org’s own website.

EXIF is how your camera describes your photo. It’s a standardized schema of data fields to which your camera adds info, like the date, time and (if it’s got it) GPS.

Information like which lens you used, which aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings were used for each image are also included. This info is automatically embedded within the image file by your camera within an XMP packet.

For a more detailed explaination, try Wikipedia’s thorough write up.

4. Organizational software

“Software isn’t just a darkroom on your computer; it’s also like a smart assistant at your elbow, ready to find any photo at your request (and then geotag and FTP that photo to Flickr).”

In addition to “photo gear” as we traditionally know it, a huge part of the photographer’s toolkit is on the computer. “Yes, yes, I know all about Photoshop,” you say. (Well, good, that makes one of us.)

However there is an endless variety of ADDITIONAL software for editing as well as a whole slew of other tasks you might need to do, like converting raw image files, keywording, organizing, viewing and cataloging. Obviously, the solution is dependent the problem you’re trying to solve.

Adobe Bridge and Lightroom are widely used by photographers for managing images. Personally the only photography program I can’t bear to part with is an outdated version of PhotoMechanic—which I use to ingest, tag and view my photos.

Extensis Portfolio has been recommended to me by a university media library-specialist, and I’ve also heard a lot of good things about Phase One’s Media Pro photo manager.

DigiKam is free and cross-platform which is a good combination if you’re into that.

Don’t limit yourself to some frustrating do-everything-but-do-it-poorly software that came with your computer. Instead, I’ll again suggest you ask yourself what your computer can do to make your life easier. There are solutions out there for nearly any problem you want to tackle.

If you want to dig deeper into photo organization and workflow, I’d suggest starting with this handy Quick Reference by The American Society of Media Photographers at DPBestFlow.org. (And you certainly don’t need to be a professional to make use of industry best practices.)

It’s easy to take advantage of the careful thought, years of experience and handwringing that’s gone in to outlining how to deal with photos and the endless waves of other digitized content we all make and use.

So do yourself a favor and skim through some of the resources I’ve included in this article—you’ll save yourself time and effort in the long run, and have way more free time to do what you enjoy: taking pictures!

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

We all know we should back up our computers. None of us seem to do it, however. To me, talking about backups is kind of like talking about flossing. . . Until it hurts no one wants to listen. Fair enough.

I, however, have already lost plenty data and have needed a few teeth drilled, too. Bad luck? Maybe. But if you—ahem—feel my pain, keep reading. :)

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