Friday, May 27, 2011

A plea for basic photo organization

We've all seen it:  the proverbial shoebox full of random photos hidden away in a drawer in your parents' basement.  It's fun to look through them and be reminded of the memories they depict.  But what happens a year later when you really need to get a certain picture, but can't find it because you don't know which shoebox it was in?  Sure, laugh... but how many of our own digital photo collections are organized any better?

My day job is programming computers.  As such, I get asked by plenty of friends and family to fix their computers when something goes wrong.  Far too often, I find that amateur photographers (I would hope that professionals do better) merely copy the photos off their memory cards periodically and put them... oh, just anywhere on their hard drive that happens to be convenient, and often in a folder named "New Folder (2)."  They've created a digital shoebox.

In this day and age, there's just no excuse for this.  There are many photo management software packages available for every modern platform.  Most of these make it quite easy to tag images with their subject matter, search for photos by the date they were taken, etc.  These are great, and I won't discourage anybody from using this method for managing their images, because it's far better than the shoebox approach.  However, that's not what I use.

I've been in the computer industry long enough (several decades) to see popular software companies come and go.  I've seen people left stranded because they bought into a proprietary methodology that became unusable and held their data hostage when the software manufacturer went bankrupt or simply changed their mind on how to do things.  I have an appreciation for old things and enjoy looking through my grandparents' photos, so I want my photographs to be accessible by my grandkids when I'm dead and gone (hopefully many decades from now).  Therefore, I try to future-proof my photo management scheme as much as possible.

How?  I organize my photos into folders (directories) based on year and day.  In my top level Pictures folder, I have one folder for each year during which I've taken photos (my switch to digital photography happened in 2001).  Within each year's folder, I have one folder for each day on which I took a photo.  I name these photos following the format YYYY-MM-DD, so 27 May 2011's folder would be named 2011-05-27.  By putting the year first, followed by the  month, and finally the day (each zero-padded), these folders will be conveniently sorted in chronological order when you view the contents of each year's folder.  That wouldn't be the case if you spelled out the name of the month or put the month first in the folder name.

For example, consider the directory tree at right from somebody who doesn't shoot very many photos.

This system works pretty well, because when I'm searching for a particular photo, I usually have a pretty good idea when it was taken.  It's also a very easy system to maintain.  Every time you empty your memory card, you simply create a few more folders (one per day) and copy each photo to the appropriate day's folder.  If you choose to back up your photos by burning DVD's (more on backups in a future post), this system makes it trivial to fill each DVD with non-overlapping time periods.

Even if you choose to let your photo editing software du jour manage your photos for you, most of them can still work quite well with the folder structure I just described, so there's no reason to pick one or the other.

As for labeling the photos to make searching even easier, I use a home brew setup of text files (about as future-proof as you can get in the digital age) and Perl scripts.  It works very well for me, but would be overly troublesome for somebody that didn't eat, sleep, and breath Unix programming.  The details are really outside the scope of this post.

[Update: You can read more about the current software that I use to postprocess photos on Linux in a later post.]

So please, for the sake of your grandkids, whatever you do, don't just throw your photos into a pile in a digital shoebox!

For more basic computer skills for photographers, read about my hard drive backup strategy.

Got a better idea?  I'd love to hear it in the comment section below!

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