Strategies for Organizing Your Digital Photos (Part 1/3)

Photo Tips Podcast - Strategies for Organizing Your Digital Photos (Part 1/3) #12

Photography Composition Tips Podcast


This is part one of a three part series on organizing your images. Part two will go into strategies for editing thousands of files down to a few manageable images. Part three will cover how to bring them together for publication using lightroom collections.

The two most important things you need to know when it comes to organizing your images is that you need to create a strategy and then you need to stick to it. And if that strategy becomes untenable then change it and then stick to the new one. Unfortunately what works for one person may not work for another person, so as you listen to this podcast, you decide which of my strategies work for you, which don’t, and tweak it as necessary to create your own personal scheme. Once you have a plan, make a flow chart; you can draw this on a piece of paper or you can create a power point, regardless of how you do it, make sure it’s clear and readily available, until you have it memorized. I had my flow chart taped on my wall for a couple of years before I finally didn’t need it anymore.

First up! The camera. You probably already know that when you press the shutter button to capture an image, your camera assigns a sequential number to the digital file you just created. Usually the number is preceded by two or three letters assigned by the camera. Some cameras allow you to change those letters to something that is more meaningful to you. So let’s say you are going to New York City for a vacation you could change the pre-assigned letters to NY or NYC depending on your camera’s capabilities. If you can’t change these letters in your camera, then you can do it as you upload into your computer. So don’t worry about that just yet.
After the letters, the camera will also assign a sequential number and often the camera will let you customize this too. For instance, you can have the camera start over at the number one every time you put a new memory card in the camera, or continuously number the files until it runs out of numbers. Cameras are usually capable of counting up to 9,999, at which point it starts over at 1. And for most cameras, you can still force the camera to start over at the number one at anytime, even if you have set it to number your files continuously. As you head to New York City for your vacation you can assign NYC as the prefix and then have it start at number one, so your first photo would be labeled NYC_0001. But if you left the camera set on continuous numbering then it would be NYC_5389 or wherever the camera left off last. Although this is a good way to stay organized, it’s not totally necessary because all of your images will be time stamped and you can rename it as you upload into your computer. Speaking of which. I would highly suggest that you set the current time in your camera!

Ok now that you have done the shoot the next step is to get it into your computer. When you bring it into your computer you’ll want to create a specific folder for your images. Don’t just dump all of them into the pictures folder created by your operating system. This would be a mess. I would suggest that you create a folder system for all of your images. You can have them organized by date, location or subject; it doesn't matter. And the one that works best for you is usually the way you like to remember your images. For me? Location and client works best. I have a folder for all of my commercial work and within that I have a folder for each individual client. If I have multiple projects for a client I have a folder for each project in that client’s folder as well. For my location work I have a folder for each country and then subfolders for each city the photos were taken in. If a city folder gets too big, I’ll also break it down by year.

Now that you have your folder all set and ready go to. It’s time to upload your images. When you copy to your folder you’ll want to rename all the images appropriately. If you did that in your camera and you’re satisfied with that then you’re done. If not this is the time to do it. If you are using Lightroom or converting to DNG in Adobe DNG converter, the easiest thing to do is probably to assign a new name as the images are being imported or converted, but you can also wait until after you import too. You can also do a batch rename in Adobe Bridge. Here’s a note of caution: if you have imported your files into Lightroom without renaming them, and then you decide to do so, you will want to rename them WITHIN Lightroom and not outside of Lightroom otherwise Lightroom won’t be able to find those files again.

As for file names. I like to make sure that my files are renamed with something that is meaningful to me because if I look at a list of files with no thumbnail and the file name was left with whatever the camera assigned, it means absolutely nothing to me. So just as with naming folders, I have a naming convention for all of my files too. For my commercial work, I like to use the clients name then an underscore followed by a unique sequential number for each image. If you are naming files outside of your camera you will be able to dictate how many digits the file will have; in other words the number of leading zeros. The question is what am I talking about? and why does it matter? Let’s go back to your camera. The first image you take on your camera will be assigned the number 0001, that’s four digits with three leading zeros. It will replace a zero as it needs to. So then the number ten would be 0010 with twp leading zeroes. When you rename your images in your computer you need to take this into account and consider how many digits you might need.
In the beginning I thought I would never go over 10,000 images for any single subject so I assigned all my images four digits. Well as it turns out I was wrong, so now I’m assigning all my images five digits which will allow me to get to 99,999 images before I run out of numbers. But why not just start with one digit? And then go to two digits when you get to 10 and three digits when you get to a hundred? Why add any leading zeros at all?  Unfortunately not all programs will do that. In my version of Bridge, if I don’t tell it to add leading zeros it will repeat the first number and then add a suffix of parenthesis 1 [eg: (1)] at the end of the number when it needs two digits. In other words the file number for 10 would not be one zero, instead bridge makes it 1 parenthesis 1 [eg. 1(1)], 11 would be two parenthesis 1 [eg. 2(1)] and so on because I did not tell it to have more than one digit. But even if your system willing to assign file number 10 as one zero, and 11 as one one, and 12 as one two… without a leading zero there is yet another potential problem. When we ask a computer system to sort files sequentially it often reads the number alphabetically. Yea, you heard that right. Let me explain; instead of displaying files 1-9 and then 10 after 9 and 11 after 10. It would display file number 1 followed by 10 displaying a file labeled number 2. Did you catch that? Let’s say you have 21 images. Files 1 through 9 are single digit while 10 through 21 have 2 digits, as you might expect. In an alphabetical system, your files would be displayed as number 1 followed by  10, 11, 12, through 19 followed by file number 2, 20, 21 then finally 3, 4, 5 , 6, 7, 8, and 9 [eg. 1, 10, 11, 12-19, 2, 20, 21, 3, 4, 5-9]. So you see the problem right? But if I’ve lost you, read the transcript of this podcast at, it will make more sense when you see it visually.  On the other hand, if you had a leading zero so that files 1 through 9 would read 01, 02, 03 etc. your system would display the images sequentially as you would expect. For the most part most computer systems have been programed to stop reading files alphabetically but not all programs or systems are so smart. That’s why I always take the conservative route and number my files with leading zeros.

But wait. What about the idea of not re-numbering or renaming your files at all? I know people who do this and they are successful because all our files are time stamped by the camera and you can further meta-tag your images in Lightroom which does make it easier to locate a file and it’s not a complete mess, but I think there are too many potential problems with not renumbering and renaming your files – not the least of which is running out of numbers.

It’s obvious, that I think a naming and numbering convention for your folders and files is important and should be a part of your overall organizational strategy. But as I said from the beginning; what works for me may not work for you. Lastly, that flow chart I mentioned at the beginning? It should include not only how you name your files and organize your folders, it should also contain your back up strategy, which was in podcast number 8.

Ok. That’s it, hopefully your images are all neatly organized and you’re ready for the next step. How to edit them down to just the best ones. That’ll be the next podcast.

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