Organizing 100,000+ Images
Per Year Made Easy
|Copyright 2021 by Michael Brochstein
I spend very little time, effort or money working to keep the 100,000+ images I create each year organized. The secret is to have a workflow for handling these images and to stick to using it. Using my workflow I can quickly find any image or set of images. This article will explain my workflow.
File & Folder Names
Before you can organize your images you'll need to name them in a logical manner. Leaving the image file names as they come out of a camera (i.e. DSC_1234) will result in images from multiple shoots having identical names. If you accidently copy files with their original names to another folder which already has similarly named image files in them then you run the risk of overwriting and deleting some images. Files with names like DSC_1234 give no sense of what the image might be of or when it was taken.
The exact way to name them can vary based upon your needs but at the minimum there should be a few meaningful characters, a date (written numerically as year, month, day) and a sequence number in the file name. Images from the White House on June 15, 2021 might be named something like the following;
As you might photograph different events in the course of a day at a single location, writing a few characters after the date will help you get you know which set of images is from which event just by looking at their file names.
As an alternative, a portrait photographer might name their images something like FredRo210615_0001. An event photographer might name their images something like wedding_210615_0001 or party_210615_0001. The important point here is to use a naming system that is friendly to humans and not too unwieldy.
Computers Are Not Human
File and folder listings are generally sorted in by computers in alphanumeric order and writing a date with the year followed by the month followed by the day (i.e. 210615 = June 15, 2021) results in folders that are sorted in chronological order. Please note that the leading zero is very important. A computer will sort 210615 differently than 21615 so the leading zero is very important even if a human might not need it. Using the classic American style of writing a date (month, day, year) will result in folders *not* being sorted in chronological order.
How to Easily Rename Files
There are multiple software applications that make renaming image files easy. My personal favorite is Photo Mechanic. Other programs that offer flexible naming options include Adobe Bridge and Adobe Lightroom.
Potential Complications When Using Multiple Cameras
Using multiple cameras brings up a complication in file naming. If you named all images from one camera first (i.e. Italy_2021_0001 - Italy_2021_0456) and then all images from a second camera second (Italy_2021_0457 - Italy_2021_0656) then when you sort them by filename they will sort, in alphanumeric order, with the first camera's images all coming before the second camera's images. This will present a problem as the images will all not be in chronological order overall, just for each camera's images.
If you photographed people with both cameras then their images, when viewed after renaming, will be in two groups, first with one camera's set of images and then with the second camera's set of images. You will then need to jump around going back and forth between the two camera's images to examine all the images of the person. The secret is to sort all the images from all cameras into chronological order before renaming them all so that the renamed (with sequence numbers) images will all be renamed in chronological order.
Long before we can sort sets of images from two or more cameras into chronological order, the dates and times must be set accurately in all the cameras. I recommend using https://time.gov/ as the time to set all one's cameras to (for your appropriate time zone!). Note here that if you are traveling then you need to be careful to change your camera's time (and/or time zone) when arriving in a new destination. If you forget to set your camera's dates and times accurately then some software programs such as Photo Mechanic and Adobe Lightroom can alter your images capture times after the fact.
Be careful when putting images from multiple cameras into the same folder before renaming them. They will generally all have names like DSC_1234 and it is possible that files from different cameras will have the same name. Putting them into one folder together will result in the deletion of one of each of the similarly named files. My suggestion is to temporarily rename one camera's images at a time to temporary names and sequence numbers (i.e. temp_1234) and then when they all have different names then rename them all when they are sorted into chronological order to the names you want them to have (i.e. WH_210615_0001 etc).
Folder Organization: Starting at the Bottom
Let's start at the bottom; How do you organize the folders for each logical group of images. Using an example of images from the White House on June 15, 2021, the folder could be named "WH 210615". Below that folder are at least three subfolders; RAW, LRcat, and export. The RAW folder may have a subfolder in it called "queue:" In addition, folders for audio and video might also be created if you regularly record audio or video.
The files as they come out of the camera go into the queue folder. As speed is an issue for photojournalists (otherwise "news becomes history"), the purpose of the queue folder is to have a place to initially put files until I figure out which are the ones I wish to edit and file. Once I figure that out I will move those into the RAW folder and then import them into Lightroom from there. Later on, when time is less critical, I can move the images that I did not plan to file from the queue folder into the RAW folder and then import them into Lightroom. If time is less critical in your work then you can skip creating and using a queue folder.
In the area I use to store recently created images I keep a template folder called "temporary folder";
When I shoot a new set of images I copy this "temporary folder:" and then rename it as appropriate (i.e. WH 210615). This way I do not have to create all the subfolders for every shoot. All I have to do is copy the temporary folder and rename it.
As I use Adobe Lightroom, the Lightroom catalog goes into the LRcat folder. If you use Adobe Photoshop then there would be a folder for Photoshop files. Lastly, there is a folder called export for putting all the image files that were created from the RAW files using Lightroom (or Photoshop).
If you regularly create sets of images for different purposes or clients then you might have subfolders in the export folder in the temporary folder so that you will not have to create them for every shoot. I do this for my regular clients and also have a subfolder for "social media use" where I put images sized for social media use which have a watermark on them with my name and copyright.
Many times there will be various types of documentation such as emails, schedules, logistical and financial information connected to a shoot and these files typically go into the shoot's top level folder (WH 210615 in the above example).
A fuller example of a folder then might look something like this;
Folder Organization: From the Top
My very top folder is named PHOTOS (I know, very original!). The top level folders below that are named after years; 2019. 2020. 2021 etc.
If your work is organized differently then top level folders by subject area might make sense for you. Subject area folders could include Vacations, Family, Events, Headshots, Weddings and the like. What you probably don't want is to have a folder with thousands of subfolders in it as that could be hard to navigate so pick your top level folder names carefully.
In each of my folders named after a year I will have subfolders for each project, shoot or logical grouping. I name these folders with a word or two followed by a date so that I can quickly get a sense of what is likely to be in these folders. An example might be "Capitol 210615" or "Wedding 210509 Smith - Jones". Since I spend a lot of days taking photos at the Capitol I will have a multiple of these folders in any year's top level folder.
If you take photos in Italy and only expect to do it once in a year then a folder named "Italy 2021" might make sense to be put in a Vacation (or 2021) top level folder, If you expect to go to Israel a few times in 2021 then you can name the folders something like "Israel 2021-03", "Israel 2021-07" or you can put all the photos from Israel into one Israel 2021 folder.
If you have a very large number of images from Israel and go to different cities there then you might want to divide them up to make them easier to organize. Below the Israel folder could be subfolders named Jerusalem , Tel-Aviv, Beersheva, and similar. The best way to organize your folders depends on what makes sense for you and is easy to use.
Putting it all together, a more complete folder listing might look something like this (within the PHOTOS top level folder);
An old joke; There are two types of computer users; those who backup their files and those who have never had a hard disk crash.
Regardless of what type of backup methodology you use, all of the above could be for naught if you don't back up your files. It is more important that you do some sort of regular backups than the specifics of your backup system. Having said that, here are my tips;
Multiple Backups - If you backup to one place (i.e. an external hard drive) and it fails then you have no backups. My suggestion is to backup to two or more places so that you have no single point of failure.
Offline Backups - If your computer is the victim of malware or ransomware then all attached drives may be compromised. Make sure at least one of your backups is not physically connected to your computer except when backing up to it.
Offsite Backups - If your home or office is burglarized or suffers physical damage (i.e. a fire) then having one backup off site will be critical to not losing your files. Off site backup should be stored in buildings not attached to your own. Ideas of where that might be could include a friend's or relative's home, a safe deposit box, your office or home etc.
Backup Regularly - Think about how unhappy you would be if you lost last week's files or last month's files. I recommend at least weekly backups.
Cloud Backups - There are various services that will back your files up automatically on a regular basis to the cloud (the Internet). The advantage here is that the backups are offsite, are automated, and the company offering this service is responsible for maintaining it.
Finding that Image(s)
Now that you've set up a well thought out system for naming files and folders and organizing them then how do you find images in it? The obvious way is to recall enough about the image(s) so that you can go directly to the appropriate well-organized and named folder and pick out the correct file. You might use a program such as Photo Mechanic, Adobe Bridge or Adobe Lightroom to browse (in a contact sheet type screen that shows multiple images at once) the appropriate set of images to find it in a folder. This is great when it works but what if you can't recall enough to know where that file is.
If you are looking for a specific image or set of images but can't recall enough detailed information about it and have too many folders where it could be to manually search then that is where your favorite clairvoyant (just kidding) or metadata might save you.
Metadata is data stored in fields in every image file that give information about the file. Every image file created by a digital camera (or phone) has information automatically put in it by the camera that created it that tells you information about the image. This includes the date (you did set it correctly in your camera?), the camera model, lens, exposure, ISO setting and other information about the image. This type of information is referred to as EXIF (EXchangeable Image Format) data.
There are fields that can be used by us that can tell lots of information about an image including where it was taken, who or what is in the image and many other things. This information is found in the IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) fields of the metadata and the above listed software applications can be used to enter information into these fields. Once it is in these fields it can then be searched by programs designed to do that.
The catch to using IPTC fields to search for an image is that you need software designed to do that and that someone has to enter data into these fields. Entering data is not hard but obviously takes time. If you are a photojournalist then you generally are required to do this for all images you file. For most others it may not be required and may be more than what you are willing to do.
Since I am a photojournalist, I am required to enter data into various IPTC fields so then the question is how do I recommend doing this and how do I recommend searching for the specific file(s) that you are looking for. Like most photojournalists I use (and recommend) Photo Mechanic Plus. Here is an article I wrote on searching for images using Photo Mechanic Plus - https://www.michaelbrochstein.com/misc/PMplusDatabase.htm
Digital Asset Management
There is an established / general name for what I have discussed in
this article, "Digital Asset Management" (a.k.a. DAM). Knowing this term can be
useful if you wish to probe further or discuss this topic with others.
Michael Brochstein is an independent photojournalist based in Washington, DC and New York City.
Last update: 8/7/2023
Copyright © 2021-2023 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.