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Lightroom: Get organized, part 1 — organizing files in Lightroom

NOTE: We’re going to start offering a great deal more Lightroom coverage here at Photofocus with a heavy concentration coming once a week or so every month. Enjoy…

Guest Post & Photo by Stephan Bollinger – Circle Stephan on Google+

Folders, files and backup

Over the years, I have produced a huge amount of images, and with anywhere between 200 to 2,000 new images from every shoot, I had to come up with a way to stay on top of this massive amount of data. There are countless ways of organizing your files, of course, and everyone has to find their preferred method. In this post, I simply share my personal approach.

In film days, we had our boxes and filing cabinets filled with negatives, contact sheets, and prints, and the question was always, how to best organize them, by client, alphabetically, by production or date? If the “A-C” box was full, we had to add another box, then another. Not to forget, those old negatives could easily be damaged (or lost), from sunlight to fingerprints and scratches, not to mention fire or water damage. With digital, we have replaced one box with another, the carton box with hard drives, but in essence, we still face the same problems: How and where to store, how to find, and how to protect our “negatives”.

One of the biggest advantages of digital photography is software that helps us with our organization! And we now also have the tools to put our backup strategy in place.

There is a difference between “where your files are stored” and “how you find your images”. In this first part, let us focus on the actual file storage and on a backup strategy.

Multiple libraries/catalogs

First we have to decide, where we want to store our files from an image management (or database) point of view (in Apple Aperture referred to as “Libraries” and in Adobe Lightroom called “Catalogs”).

There are pro’s and con’s of using one or multiple catalogs, and you find many arguments for or against it online. For example, if you keep all of your images in one catalog, you can create an elaborate structure of keywords throughout your entire photographic library. If you use multiple catalogs, you have to do this several times. In return, you will gain speed advantages, especially with larger libraries, and a clear separation between different projects or work areas.

If you use Lightroom, these “catalog” files are relatively small, and backup is not a big issue, you fit many catalog files (which do not contain the actual images!) on an external disk for backup. If you use Aperture and let Aperture manage your files (rather than working with “referenced files”), you have to consider the size of the library (which does contain your image files) for backup. Such a “managed” library can grow in size very quickly, and unless you can afford large disc arrays for backup, using several smaller libraries is a smart move.

I personally use two catalogs in Lightroom, to separate work and private images.

Unique file names

I make sure to have unique file names, for two reasons. A – to find any file within seconds down the track, and B to ensure I will never overwrite any other file, regardless of when or where I will use them, on export for retouching, compositing, or to send to clients. To have unique and consistent names, I rename all files on import. Why not keep the file names created by the camera? Most cameras only count up to 9,999 and roll back to 0001 for the next image, so after the first 10,000 shots, you will create duplicate filenames (and even faster when working with several camera bodies).

So, how to name the files? If you photograph your family, you will take thousands of images of your son or daughter over the years, and naming by subject is not the best idea, unless you know exactly what “Jonny245” means, and if you’re sure you don’t already have such a file. It’s the same if you shoot for clients, you most likely work with the same client again, and to eliminate duplicates, I also don’t name by client, subject or project.

The shooting date is a great place to start, and unless someone invents a time machine, it will be a pretty safe bet as a unique identifier. Together with a file count from the day, it creates a unique (never to be repeated) file name. And for easy sorting, the date is best used in reverse, like this:

[personal id] [year] [month] [day] _ [counter] . ext

This will result in file names like “sbp20120723_0007.nef”.

Both Aperture and Lightroom allow you to create file-naming presets, and once done, all the information will be filled in for you automatically, based on the metadata of your camera. For this to be correct, keep in mind to set the date and time of your camera body correctly (and double check it from time to time).

Folder structure

Here we’re back to our good old boxes of negatives, and the question, in which box we want to place our (now digital) negatives. To find images in the past, it was smart to file by customer or project, but now that we have a digital asset management at our disposal, this is no longer required. A better way (especially in terms of backup) is to store everything by library and year. Within, all my folders have a shooting date (month-day) and a short description of the shoot:

PHOTO HD > WORK > 2012 > 01-06__Gucci

For backup reasons, I store my files in two different folders on the same disc array, one folder for private & family images, and one for my professional work. Both are equally important to me, and knowing that hard drives will fail at some point (it’s not a question if, but when), I have different backup scenarios in place for both of them. Both folders are backed up daily to a separate disc array, however I run separate (off-site) backups, weekly for my “work” folder, and monthly for my “private” folder.

If you’re on a budget, get at least two external drives, one for your “on-site” backup, and one to keep somewhere else. Depending on the size of your library, backup your files by month or year, the above structure will make it easy for you. If doing so, don’t forget that discs can fail even if they are not connected, so it helps to spin them up once in a while and check your backups.

Why go into such detail, doesn’t everyone have their storage and backup strategies in place by now? Most people talk about it, but in reality, the answer is “Unfortunately not.”

I have friends who lost everything in the devastating fires in Victoria (Australia), and others who have nothing left after massive floods in Queensland last year. From everything they’ve lost, what they miss the most are their memories, family albums, and digital photos. In my case, both of my kids are born into the digital age, and every image, from their first day on earth, is stored on a hard drive. If these images were lost, there is no way to ever reproduce them, my daughters will never try their first steps again, or blow out the first birthday candle. These are sentimental values that can’t be replaced, and memories that are meant to be shared with future generations. Not to mention commercial shoots, where and a loss of data can become a very costly experience. Anyway, be it for financial or emotional reasons: backup your backups.

With all the worries out of the way, a clean structure and an amazingly fast way to find every image in seconds (should our client order one specific photograph we shot 4 years ago), let’s look forward to the exciting part:

Coming Soon In Part 2: How to manage your library with Catalogs.

PUBLISHER’S DISCLAIMER: This post isn’t intended to be definitive were not claiming this is the ONLY way or even the BEST way to accomplish this task in Lightroom or any other post-processing program. Were merely offering it as A way you might accomplish this task. These tips are free, offered only because they might be helpful to someone.

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