Photo and Article by Ron Brinkmann

How do you organize your photos? No matter what photo organization tool you use – Aperture or Lightroom or iPhoto or Picasa or iViewMedia Pro – you still need to make some decisions about how things are kept within that application and it’s a question I’ve had a lot of people ask me. So let me take a minute to talk about what I do and the thinking behind it. This is going to be a bit long-winded since my workflow is, admittedly, somewhat convoluted but hopefully it’ll at least spark some discussion amongst the readers here.

My number 1 rule is pretty simple… don’t trust your software. Yeah, I know that sounds a bit counter-intuitive, particularly since I absolutely recommend that people do use a photo-organizing package of some sort. But the bottom line, at least for me, is this: I don’t want to be in a situation in 20 years where I can’t get to specific photos because the application I used to manage them has gone away. So what do I do? Here’s a description of my basic workflow, which is usually applied after I get back from a trip somewhere:

First, I’ll offload all files from my memory cards onto disk. Generally I’ll just toss everything into the same directory and it will have a mix of RAW files from my SLR and Jpeg files from my little point-and-shoot.

Then I’ll rename all files using some sort of utility program based on their date/time creation. (I use ExifRenamer which works on both RAWs and Jpegs but there are several good ones that have similar functionality). So all my images are named something like 030408_133422.CRW and I can immediately look at that and know that it was taken on March 4th 2008 at about 1:30 in the afternoon. Yes, this is redundant information since it’s already contained in the header but I’ve found it rather useful a few times and (most importantly) it allows me to avoid the situation of having two images with the exact same filename. (Which is not at all uncommon if you’re shooting with two different cameras or you’ve taken more than 9999 photos… the images from my Canon SLR are named with only 4 digits and it doesn’t take all that long for the numbers to wrap around).

At this point I’ll load everything into Aperture and start organizing. I’ll do all the usual tagging and whatnot – place-names, categories, etc. – but I’ll also organize into 3 specific categories: ‘Favorites’, ‘Tier 2’, and ‘Rejects’.

Favorites are the real cream-of-the-crop – the ones that are eventually going to go up on the web somewhere or that I’ll carry around with me on my iPhone for quick show-and-tell.

Tier2, on the other hand, are photos that I consider to have something interesting about them… and frequently that bit of interestingness isn’t about the aesthetic quality of the photo, it may be purely about the memories it brings up. I’ll have poorly-composed shots that were taken from a car window at speed and I’ll have really boring photos of the hotel/hostel that I stayed in and just about anything in-between. But they’re all photos that I know I’ll find at least slightly interesting if I look at them again in a year or 5 years from now.

Finally there’s the ‘Reject’ category. These are the shots that I doubt I’ll ever need to look at again. Out-of-focus stuff, multiple exposures of the same subject that are so extremely similar to one of my Favorite or Tier2 images that there’s no reason to keep both, etc. I used to delete these ‘rejects’ but in the last couple of years I decided that I’m going to keep them around too. Disk space is cheap… and getting cheaper. Wayyy cheaper. It’s clear to me that the exponential decrease in the cost of storage is moving a lot faster than the increase in the size of photos. I can buy 1TB of disk space for less than $200 and that’s a whole lot of photos. For this reason, I generally don’t delete anything other than the completely incomprehensible. And since I’m involved on a daily basis with people doing interesting algorithm development, I’m pretty sure that even the most out-of-focus or motion-blurred image will someday be recoverable… and who knows what gems might show up. (And you never know if some completely boring crowd-shot has hidden content buried in it. There’s only one good photo of Bill Clinton standing next to Monica Lewinsky… a photo that was worthless one day and extraordinarily valuable the next).

Okay, so I’ve got my photos categorized into 3 slots – within Aperture I actually put them into 3 different ‘Albums’. What next? Here’s where we get back to the ‘don’t trust your software’. I now go back and make directories on my hard-drive that reflects these 3 categories and move the original files into their proper places. Specifically I’ll create a directory called (for instance) India_08_Masters and within that directory I’ll have my 3 subdirectories – Favories, Tier2 and Rejects and I’ll populate them accordingly. (Now, depending on your software this step can be somewhat of a pain – I’ve often wished that Aperture allowed you to manage files on disk in the same way you manage them within the Aperture library. For example, it totally drives me nuts that there’s no “relocate masters” right-mouse menu available at the Album level – you can only move masters for an entire project… Either that or you’re forced to just go to Finder and move them manually and then reconnect within Aperture… ugh. I end up moving them into Projects, relocating them, and then moving them back into albums. Double ugh. )

But now I’ve at least got files on disk that are somewhat organized. Note that these are still effectively the original files – I haven’t done any image-processing on them. This is basically just the digital equivalent of putting all the negatives into their proper shoeboxes.

Now I can start doing some tweaking to the photos… usually only to the ‘Favorites’ but occasionally on a few of the Tier2 if there are quick, obvious fixes that can be done.

Finally, once everything is the way I like it, I can start exporting. I’ll export all of the Favorites and the Tier2 files to high-quality Jpegs so I’ve got a ‘good’ but reasonably-sized version of all of them that I can carry around with me on my laptop. (All of the Masters live on a big external hard-drive). And of course I’ll do various exports of the favorites to my Flickr account or just make a nice web-album within Aperture.

Just to be clear, then, I ultimately end up with a directory structure that looks something like this:


Although this might seem to leave me with a lot of duplicate data, it gives me flexibility and portability and it’s also a really good security blanket. If Aperture suddenly goes away (not something that I’m expecting to happen… but one never knows), I’ve still got a reasonably organized set of photos and I’ve still got good quality jpegs of my final adjusted images. Having Jpegs is also a good insurance policy because one can’t be sure that a particular RAW file format will continue to be supported into the future either. (I have a big batch of RAW files that were taken with an old Canon Powershot S40 that Aperture won’t read).

So that, in a very large nutshell, is my workflow. I don’t know if the multitude of steps points more to the need for better software design or if it just points to the slightly odd workings of my brain but in either case I’d be curious to hear what sort of system other people are using.

Join the conversation! 16 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your workflow. I tend to be somewhat lax in this area and your article is great food for thought, not to mention a pretty good blue print.

  2. Great topic! I started with iView using a structure like YEAR/MONTH/EVENT.

    When Aperture came out I moved everything there and switched to managed library using a similar structure. I make a folder in Aperture for each year and a project for each shoot (event). In that project I make a smart album for “picks” based on star ratings (>1), I then make sub albums of manually selected photos for things like flickr or .mac gallery. If a multi day event I often make smart sub albums for each day. On shared vacations I try to gather other people’s pictures so more smart sub albums based on Credit metadata.

    So my library has 2008/2008_02_Disneyland for example (the second 2008 is due to the stupid way the projects show up in iTunes to feed the iPhone). I usually end up with a project per month called like 02_misc that holds iPhone snaps and days that do not have enough pics to justify their own album.

    I try and do tagging daily. I have learned that if I don’t it does not get done and then builds up and becomes a chore. This is also when I rate images so that AppleTV and iPhone are ready to get fed by the overall *>1 smart album (love that). I also carry in my iPhone smart albums for “in the last week” and “in the last month” – that is one of the main answers to why I use Aperture over Lightroom.

    As soon as I get home I export the project (as a project) and copy to my home server and load to Aperture there. This machine is my vault and media server and has all our music, movies and photos. It is time machined to a firewire drive (to be replaced by a Drobo soon), synced daily using foldersynchronizer app to an airport extreme mounted volume and cloned monthly to an external firewire drive that is stored off site. Occasionally I burn DVDs for backup but that is tedious and I long for an efficient, easy, affordable archival solution.

    I have not felt the need to maintain a separate folder structure as you describe as you can always show package contents on the Aperture library.


  3. You can make Aperture rename the files using year, month, day, time format…

    Is there a reason you don’t like the ranking system in Aperture? (Press 9 to reject, 1-5 to rank 1-star to 5-star, 0 to clear a ranking/rejection.) This would then allow you to filter & move photos around, even into different projects if you wanted.

  4. I started with iView MediaPro years ago, and switched to Lightroom last year. (I bought Aperture first, but found I did not like it).

    My organization is a bit different from described above. My first tier of the hierarchy is category — landscapes, travel, family, etc. About 20 categories. Sometimes there is overlap, but I pick the category that covers the entire group of photos best.

    Under that is year (1969 through 2008 so far, with the oldest ones being scans of old slides and photos done by ScanCafe). Then within the year is a folder for each photo shoot, named YYYY-MM-DD-. Example would be 2008-03-01-Mono Lake. The year is redundant here, since it is within a year folder, but allows me to move the folder somewhere else easily and still have sufficient name context.

    I let Lightroom take the photos off the cards, using a 7-in-1 USB reader. I point it to the proper folder, as described above. I then tell Lightroom to rename the photos as YYYYMMDD-. Thus, each file has the date prepended. As Scott says, it prevents the issue of duplicate names (had a ton of those in iView before starting this naming process), and gives some context to an image instantly on the desktop. (Note that I just let Lightroom do the renaming as part of the import — not sure why Scott feels the need to rename first and then import? Is this another feature missing in Aperture?)

    This gives me a folder structure that will outlast any software. The photos are backed up using Time Machine locally, and sent to Mozy each night (I have 217GB of photos up there presently). Once a quarter I also burn 2 USB drives with all photos and put them in my bank safe deposit box, rotating older drives out.

    Within Lightroom I add keywords to all photos as soon as they are imported. If I wait, they don’t get done, and the photos are effectively lost in the jumble. I also set flags for those (very) few that I consider good enough that I might do something special with them.

  5. I appreciate you taking the time to make this post. Thanks!

  6. @jth – good point about Aperture renaming… I just got in the habit (pre-Aperture 2.0) of doing it as soon as I pull files off of the card and ExifRenamer has proven fast and reliable so I’ll probably just stick with it.

    And with regards to the ranking system in Aperture… that’s exactly what I use. Gives me more granularity while I’m trying to determine exactly which category certain photos fit into. But eventually I boil it down to the 3 categories I mentioned above.

  7. @Burt – definitely everybody needs to come up with their own system – there’s absolutely no ‘correct’ way to do this. Personally I kept having too much trouble with using ‘soft’ categories as the main way of keeping track of things… should this be under ‘travel’ or under ‘landscape’? Categorizing by location is nice for me since most of my photography is while traveling but intuitively I’m thinking that just doing a purely by-date hierarchy might make more sense. Too much inertia at this point though…

  8. @Burt – Also, how has Mozy been treating you? I’ve got to say that it’s been really flakey for me. The backups from my laptop went okay – only about 15GB – and they just recently saved my butt when I lost my hard-drive on that machine. But on my MacPro where I’ve been trying to upload my entire photo library it’s been very sporadic. I know it takes a long time due to Mozy’s bandwidth-limiting but it’s been several months now and I’ve still not managed to get everything I want up there… and it’s not just because it’s slow, it’s because it keeps failing or hanging. Are you using Mozy on Mac or PC?


  9. Great post. This gives me some good ideas for fine tuning what I do. Also, I thought I was the only one who didn’t trust the software to catalog things. Once I’ve named the files and tagged them, I drag them into folders that I set up. Usually I name folders by topic (i.e., France_May_2007) since I find when I’m searching for something, it’s usually when trying to remember a specific group photos from some particular event; organizing things under year first wouldn’t help me.

    All in all, great article.

  10. @Ron – Mozy is still in beta on the Mac. I had some problems a few months ago when I started, but their email tech support was very, well… supportive. :-) They responded to my issues, and were very interested in my feedback on improvements. It sounded like I was talking to an engineer rather than marketing suit (I am a software developer myself).

    Their latest software update (January if I remember right) solved my problems. It has been solid since then. Of course, it only uploads 4GB per day, so my initial 100GB took about a month. I am now up to 217GB, with no real problems (this is on a MacPro running 10.5.2).

    I also did tune the upload a bit, having it throttle back between 6PM and 2AM (my prime time on my home computer), and run full-out the rest of the time. That helped keep the rest of my online life more responsive during those hours.

  11. @Burt – Thanks for the info… my experience with support email hasn’t been quite as good as yours, unfortunately. And I do have to say that having a product in ‘beta’ for like a full YEAR (and charging for it…) does rub me a little bit the wrong way. But I haven’t upgraded to the latest build yet so maybe that’ll solve some of my issues – hopefully so!

  12. I use Lightroom. I have it import my RAWs and convert them to DNG. It automatically imports them into folders sorted by date (that is the way it is set up). I do not rename the files, since I can search them by EXIF data, and because any duplicate names will be several months apart (worst case scenario). I also try and rate and tag them with keywords right away, although I am not as good about that as I should be.

    Like you, I do not trust Lightroom entirely, so the archive, and I mean both the folders containing the DNG RAW files and the Lightroom catalogue files, are always backed up on at least two other drives, one always offsite. SuperDuper does a great job at incremental backups, it’s designed just for that situation! Since Lightroom keeps the actual files in folders sorted by date, I see no problem with that arrangement (if anyone sees a potential problem please let me know).

  13. As an outsider, your workflow seems kind of kooky. Picasa is a dream for organizing photos because it is simple yet powerful, and free. I use it to import photos from my CF card and Picasa creates a folder on my hard drive with the album name. I then go through all of hem and star the ones I like. Picasa doesn’t have a multiple rating tool, just a binary star or no star system. Then I can select only the starred photos and do whatever work needs to be done on those in Photoshop. Picasa reads the EXIF data and can sort everything by date for me.

    I don’t get into tagging or file renaming but the tools to do that are there. Picasa might not be on the Mac yet but I hear it is in development ->

    Anyone on the PC should play with it a bit.

  14. it sounds like the power of Aperture is getting over-looked here. i understand that workflows have been around a lot longer than any single program, but Aperture can automate the existing steps.

    this is my workflow.

    • camera set to continuous naming to avoid conflicts later on
    • macbook pro 100GB HD.
    • Aperture 2.1 Referenced file library
    • RAID5 eSATA tower 2TB

    1. import into aperture from CF cards with options:
    – store files: Aperture Masters
    – sub-folders: Image Year/Month/Day
    – version name: Image Date at Time
    – apply to masters: yes

    and also basic metadata (please let me know if there is another basic field that can be added to this list, as the ITPC list is fairly long)
    – copyright notice
    – contact email
    – credit

    on import the file ‘_RBW0078.NEF’ located on a CF card will be stamped with the metadata, placed in the automated structure on the raid array, and be referenced from the aperture library.

    ROOT/Aperture Masters/2008/03/23/2008-03-14_07-43-12

    2. i then right click an image, click ‘show in finder’, then burn a disk from the import for off site archival.

    2. i then do batch keywording, and ratings

    3. create smart folders based on the project specs

    4. edits

    5. exports using presets or plugins

    I have a vault on the RAID Array which gets backed up every day (which i wish could be automated) and now thanks to the 10.5.2 update, i can now have the aperture library included in the Time Machine backup which also adds another safety net.

    i think it is redundant not to be utilising all the organisational features of aperture, as it is a lot more productive, and guaranteed to get done once it is set up.

  15. […] Workflow, workflow, workflow – Develop a workflow such as Ron Brinkmann’s from “TWIP” The importance of a workflow is that is assures your images are uploaded and saved the same way […]

  16. Thanks to Ron & everybody else who shared their workflow. That’s very helpful. I have one question. How do you store your RAW files? Do you leave them in the original format (like .CR2) or convert them to a .TIF or .DNG and delete the .CR2?

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