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Image File Organization Part One

One of the biggest hurdles for many hobbyist photographers (and some pros also) is how to properly organize digital images. Long gone are the flat boxes of print and negative storage. Today it is a matter of disc space.

But it's not just disc space. There are multiple issues that need to be considered and addressed. Working files need to be organized into logical groups. They need to be able to be accessed by Digital Asset Manager (DAM) and editing programs like Lightroom and Photoshop. They should also be available outside of any program.

In short, good file organization is key to maintaining a good workflow, from initial capture to final output.

The organizational structure explained here is not the only one available, by any means. It happens to be one I feel very comfortable with. Hopefully it gives you a starting point if your working files are, like many others I have helped over the years, all over the place. It may also offer some alternatives you may not be aware of or, at least, a springboard on which to build your own system on.

Before I get into it though, I must warn you that trying to organize and already disorganized system can be a major chore. If you see the potential benefit of this system in your own workflow I suggest implement it from this point moving forward. Then, after you have gained a level of comfort with it, go back and adjust your previous work to fit into the new system. The trickiest part is modifying the existing structure without disrupting existing catalogs in your Digital Asset Manager. I know Lightroom hates changes outside its system. While this article won't go into that aspect, feel free to post questions to any issues you may encounter. Most issues tend to have easy fixes.

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Since digital storage is computer based and access to that storage is through a file browser we must establish a system that works comfortably within the inherent structure of our system. All file browsers work in similar ways. Data is organized alpha-numerically beginning with characters (except \ / : * ? " < > | ). This means when a list is displayed it will put it in order of characters first then numbers and then names.

Why is knowing this important? When storing data your computer it is sorted alpha-numerically; #5 Fire Engine will be placed above 123 Main Street which will be above Sunset Photos. It doesn't matter if the Sunset Photos were taken two years ago and the #5 Fire Engine was last week. While some people prefer description based labels over dates I have found that using a combination of both works best. Compare the following two list of folders;

In the first, the only clue about the content of the folder is the what based on the short descriptor. You need to rely on memory of what you called the folder because you can not search by when. In the second, you can search by both when and what to find the contents of the folders. This makes folders easier to find in a real world environment. For example; if you know the year but nothing else, just browse the folders starting with the year. If you remember the season, it narrows the year down. If you remember the month the list gets even shorter. Very seldom will you not remember at least the year. If that's the case, you still have the brief description to sort by.

Organizational Nesting

Keeping with the folder structure of your computer system, organization starts by creating a logical hierarchy of nested folders. This nesting of folders creates a file structure for storing images. If you have multiple photographers on your system, each one will have their own structure. The key to a successful structure is being able to find your images. While I have advocated placing this system in the root (C:) directory of your computer, I also understand that both Windows and Mac come with a Pictures folder and tends to be a logical location to store images. If that makes sense to you then go ahead and begin building your storage structure there. For secondary drives or backup systems use the root folder as your starting point.

Here is a typical photographer's system for non-client based image storage or a personal system.

As you can see from the directory tree at left, the structure can reside anywhere. I suggest placing it as close to the root directory or your Pictures directory as possible. Below that you will create a folder for each of the photographers that will be using your computer. For example, on my system I have one for myself and one for my wife.

Below that there will be a series of folders, one for each year. This segregates all your photo shoots by year. The goal is to compartmentalize for organization.

The next level down are for individual shoots. By default, most image management programs will import images from a camera by date. At this point you have a little flexibility and technically you don't need to start the folder name with the year as it is in the parent folder above it. While it seems redundant I will give you this tip. There have been times when I have inadvertently dragged a folder by accident from the list into some other random location. By having the full date structure I know at a glance that 2015-01-01 does not belong in my 2013 folder. Oops!

Once imported and the dated folder is created I will append a short descriptor that gives me a clue to the folder's content. Basically, what was the photo shoot of? If I do two or more events or locations on the same day I will create multiple folders with the same date but different descriptors. Try doing that with a date only system. This folder will contain all my RAW files from that shoot.

Here is where the real magic happens. In Lightroom (since it's my favorite image manager) or your favorite manager, you will then go through all your images and cull all the best shots from the day. These are the ones you will be taking time to edit or, in other words, your keepers. After you have made your selection you take your seconds, or what's left over (minus any throwaways) and move them to a new sub folder I call archived, for lack of a better term. This segregates your keepers from your seconds. No need to open up Lightroom, or any other program, to determine what is what. Should anything happen and you need access to your seconds, they're still right there.

Of course there will be some images that will be edited in another program (Photoshop, Photomatix, Portrait Pro, etc.) These get their own special location as well. They are placed in a sub folder I call edits. This way I keep my edits separate from my RAW files and separate from my seconds. I you prefer segregating regular edits from, say, HDR tonemaps, you can create another sub folder called HDR. The beauty of this system is it can be configured to your needs. The goal is to be able to locate your work without having to sort through a lot of garbage. When files start getting all mixed together it starts looking like garbage.

Customize as Needed

The labels for each of the sub folders are based on what has made sense to me. Archived may mean something else to you and you may decide that Seconds is a better label. By all means, use what feels natural to you. The goal is to keep things organized in a simple and effective manner that allows you to find your work from all areas of your workflow; an editing program, an image manager, a file browser, email, FTP or whatever you happen to use.

One important note here: These sub folders are for working files only. I will be explaining a system for organizing your output files in Part Two of this article.


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