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Digital Photography Workflow

Organizing Your Photo Files

Here is a tree from the Lightroom Library that shows two projects- one on Manchester- Essex Woods and one on Monarch Butterflies.
When you move your images from your camera to your computer and then to a CD/DVD disc, you need to do so in an organized way. It doesn't take long to be overrun with images; and all of them with meaningless names to boot. Luckily, with some planning, and the right tools and knowledge, you can work with thousands of images without getting lost.

Before transferring images from your camera to your computer, you should develop a system that lets you quickly find them later. Folders are the heart of any image management system. The best way to organize images on your computer is to create one or more folders for images and then subfolders that meaningfully identify the images stored in them. The thing to keep in mind is that your organization is not about storing images, but about finding them. Ask yourself, where you'd most likely look for pictures of interest a year from now, long after you've forgotten where you stored them.

There are a variety of ways to organize and name folders, depending on what kind of photos you take or how you use them.

  • A chronological organization uses folders named with dates in the format yyyy-mm-dd. For example, a folder named 2008-02-10 would contain photos taken or downloaded on February 10, 2008. When using dates, be sure to add zeros to single digit months and days or the folders won't sort into a perfect chronological order. You can use hyphens or underscores between elements, but should avoid using spaces.
  • A subject organization uses folders named after subjects, events, projects, or experiences. For example, a folder named Christmas 2008 would contain images of that day. Emilys Birthday 2008 would contain images of the birthday party.
These two approaches aren't mutually exclusive. For example, if you organize images chronologically, you can add a comment after the date that indicates the subject or project. Although duplicating images should be avoided as much as possible, you can also create a chronological system, and then copy the desired images to separate subject or project folders. The chronological folders act as an archive of original images, and the subject or project folders become the versions you edit, print, or distribute. This system has the advantage that you never actually edit your original photos. The drawback is that you can have different versions of the same image in more than one folder. As you'll soon see, the latest image management programs give you the same advantages using collections or albums (based on the same concept as iTunes playlists), and non-destructive editing so you never need more than one master copy of any photo on your system, because each master can have many exported variations.
Shorthand ways of ordering and separating days, months, and years vary from country to country. However, sorting on the computer works best when dates are in the format yyyy-mm- dd.

Once you have developed an organizational system that works for you, you need to decide what folders and files should be moved to CD/DVDs or other form of long term archival storage. In most cases they would be images you anticipate no longer wanting to look at, edit, or use. If you ever do need them, they are still accessible.

The tools you use to create folders, and view, transfer, and manage images include those that come with your computer as part of the operating system. However, image management applications store thumbnails and descriptions in a database so you can even locate images that are stored on CD/DVDs in a drawer. We'll explore these tools in the sections that follow.

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