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 ‘dont 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.
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