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Workflow - File Management Basics

In a recent podcast with Tony Avila, we discussed the basics of Photography Workflow. One overlooked but essential part of that is the grunt work of file management. Poor computer file management habits will catch up with you just when you most needed to find just that one image....

One great advantage of today’s digital cameras (DSLRs) is that unlike film cameras of yesteryear, there is no (apparent) cost of shooting hundreds of pictures during a day’s shoot. But there is a hidden one. Today’s DLSR cameras create a large sized computer file every time you press the shutter. It doesn’t take long before the serious photographer runs out of computer storage space. This is the hidden cost of digital photography, the time and money spent on managing thousands of image files.

It is not uncommon to find photographers who have 100’s of Gigabytes, or even Terabytes, of photos. The sheer number and size of the files can easily overwhelm the basic computer set up.

With that many images taken over the course of many years, finding a particular image is another challenge. Without a good file management system, photographers, and digital artists in general, find it time consuming and frustrating to find an image that “I know I took” sometime ago…

Developing your own file management system requires a bit of planning. It is as much a part of the photographic workflow as editing.

There are three basic concepts that need to be considered:

1. File storage and backup (Where do I store photos and how do I protect them?)

2. File structure (What file structure is best for my workflow?)

3. Organizing the files for retrieval (How do I find a photo later?)

File Storage and Backup

Avoid putting all of your photos on just one storage device. Always have your files stored in two (or even three) different storage devices.

When you return from a day of photography, the first thing is to copy all the images from your memory cards onto your computer. There are now two copies of each image. However, sooner or later you’ll want to use that memory card so it is a good idea to make a backup of the computer’s internal hard drive onto an external hard drive. This is especially important because computer hard drives have been known to fail (just ask me) and users have been known to accidentally erase photos. Backing up the photos to an external hard drive is good insurance and has saved me more than once.

Back up the hard drives often. Both Windows and Macintosh operating systems come with automatic backup applications. A lot of external hard disks ship with automatic backup applications that can be scheduled to update their backups regularly. Additionally there are many third-party cloud based back up tools that can automate the process as well.

Creating a File Structure

It starts with where. Where do you store the photos to accommodate workflow? The file structure below is an example of how to organize folders assuming you are tagging the photos with keywords. If you track your individual photos with filenames and/or file folders, I highly recommend you look into keyword tagging. (see my reasoning below)

Typical File Structure for Photo File Storage

Detailed Look at the File Structure with Suggestions

1) Camera Raw: Original files from the camera are stored in this folder. If you use keywords to keep track of your photos (which I highly recommend for large photo libraries) then store your images year, and then by date.

2) Export - Print: Images are resized and stored for a particular destination. For example, pictures to be posted on Instagram are resized into a square format and a lower resolution, and then stored in the Instagram Folder, or, images that are to be printed at Costco are stored as a High Resolution file in a Costco Folder.

3) Finals: Once editing is complete save the photo in the Finals folder in the .TIF or .JPG file format. Use folder names that make sense to you for future retrieval.

4) Working: Images that are 'under construction', that is they are being edited, are in the Working folder. Photoshop users will save them in the Photo Shop Document (PSD) format for future use.

Organizing Files for Retrieval

There are two ways to organize photo files for future retrieval. For smaller collections you can track photos by sorting and storing them in uniquely named folders and/or giving them a file name by subject, location or theme. When you have many thousand images, however, naming each of them individually is tedious. If you lack a game plan, finding one specific image is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Sorting them into directories based on subject can only really work if you have only one subject per photo or if you store multiple copies of each photo. Even broader categorization, folders for locations, people, events, types, and so on, fall apart when individual photos have multiple possible categories. Do you name by location, or event? By content, theme or client? When you have thousands of photos taken over a long time, you need another system.

The second way, and the method I prefer, is to tag each photo with keywords. It requires that each photo be tagged with as many relevant keywords as necessary to help you find that particular image in the future. If you have thousands of photos acquired before you start tagging, it can be a big job. However, the job gets easier as you go through your photos, especially if you use a good image management application such as Adobe Bridge.

Rather than grouping the actual files into relevant categories in file folders, Adobe Bridge creates collections of images by indexing on the keywords you’ve assigned, regardless of where the file resides on the hard drive. The original files remain where they are stored.

For example, a landscape photographer may have thousands of images of Yosemite National Park scattered across dozens of folders. If each image is tagged with the keyword Yosemite, then Bridge will find all photos with that keyword and display them.

Adobe Bridge allows you to build a keyword structure with several layers of sub-keywords. This is particularly useful for keeping the keyword structure manageable.

If you have Photoshop (CS, CC or Elements) Adobe Bridge is included.

Other Photo Organizing Software

Adobe products are the undisputed king of photo editing, but if you do not use Adobe Bridge there are many fine alternatives. Here is a list of highly respected Photo Organizing Software:

PaintShop Pro X9 Available at Amazon for $39.99 (as of August 2018)

Regardless of which system you use, it is important to be consistent. You will be surprised at how many photograph files you will accumulate in a short time.


About the author:  JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."

Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.

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