Image file management: Chronological folder names

Ever been looking for a photo on your hard drive, and couldn’t find it?

Discovered that you have multiple photos–or folders–with the same name, but in different places?

Or tried to copy your photo archives to another hard drive or update your backups, only to struggle with a tangle of folders and files, many with confusing and misleading names?

At the start of a new year, now’s a great time for digital photographers to review your image file management strategies and make improvements.

Although digital file management may not be a very exciting topic, it’s an essential practice for any active photographer: the ways you organize and manage your photo library is a crucial part of your workflow.

(And even if you use Lightroom or other database software to catalog your images with metadata, your choice of folder structure and naming for the files on your hard drive is still important.)

What’s in a name?

An essential element of asset management is the structure and naming of the folders containing your image files. For most photographers, organizing your images by date will be the best method. A chronological filing system has several key advantages over other systems. And, unlike other methods, a chronological system is inherently scalable.

Before I show you my recommended way of organizing and naming your image folders, let’s look at a couple of other common examples.

Naming by subject (not good)

One popular method of organizing images is by subject matter:

This structure presents several problems. First, for example: if you made photos of people at your nephew’s birthday party, would you put those images under the Events folder, or under People? In the future, would you remember which?

Another issue arises when it’s time to make backups, or you start running low on disk space. Using a subject-based filing system like the examples above means that the contents of your folders are always changing and the folders are gradually increasing in size. Archiving or migrating these folders then becomes problematic, as they are never ‘complete’. To expand the Dogs folder might mean splitting it over multiple hard drives. Would you name these Dogs-1, Dogs-2, Dogs-3? These are the most confusing kinds of names because they don’t give clear insight as to the contents of the folder.

Naming by location (less than ideal)

Another way that lots of photographers choose to name their image folders is by location, such as:

An advantage of this system might be that, when you need to find a photo on your hard drive, you’ll probably be able to easily remember the location where that photo was made. But this system imposes some of the same limitations as the previous subject-based examples.

If you take multiple trips to Spain, for example, the contents of the Spain folder will always be changing—as will its parent folder, Europe. Again, this may not present an immediate problem, until you need to migrate files or update your permanent archives. It’s far from efficient.

To add multiple batches of photos made on different dates, you’ll need another level of subfolders, e.g.

A key practice of good file management is to use as few levels of nested folders as possible. Yet the example above illustrates how you can quickly end up with many additional—and unnecessary—levels of subfolders.

Instead, if you can effectively organize your images using just two folder levels, for example, this is far preferable to using three or four levels, because each successive layer of folder nesting further complicates organizing, retrieving and otherwise managing the files.

I’ve seen too many situations wherein photographers use a combination of the two methods above: some folders named for subject, others for locations. (Not really a system at all!) What becomes even more challenging with both these approaches is they don’t take dates into account in the upper-level folders—thus there’s no underlying logic or sequencing to the system.

Here’s something else to think about: if your folders and files are a disorganized mess now, what might that look like with a few more years of frequent shooting?

Clearly you need a system that scales as your library grows.

The best method: Organizing image folders by date

With the above examples in mind, consider some alternatives. What if you could use just one standard method for organizing all your photos, regardless of whether the images are of dogs in Barcelona or people at your nephew’s birthday party?

There is such a way, and it’s so easy: name your folders and organize your images based on the date they were daken.

Inside one top-level (aka ‘parent’) folder which, ultimately, contains your entire image library, create folders titled for each year for which you have photos:

Then, within each year, make a separate folder for each distinct shooting session. This could either be a single event or a multi-day trip, with nested subfolders for each day or location. (How you name and organize the individual subfolders may be marginally less important than the year-based parent folders, but you should still take the same care when devising that part of your system.)

In the example above, I’ve used the full date at the beginning of the subfolder names, in the format YYYYMMDD. This has the advantage of sorting chronologically whenever the default alphanumeric sorting is used. When you have a full year’s worth of shoots, each in their own folder, the list will show you a clear sequence of the events, locations, subjects and dates when you made the photos.

Crucially, using the full date in the subfolder name also ensures you won’t have duplicate folder names somewhere else.

Think of each batch of original images from a single shoot like a set of old-fashioned film strips: they should all be kept together, and named as a set. (Later in the workflow, you’ll use other methods to identify and separate different collections and types of pictures.)

Also, as the last example shows, you can use this same system when you’re shooting for clients; if you maintain separate libraries of client and personal work, the same system functions equally well—even when your archives are on multiple hard drives.

About naming image files

I also use the date in my default file name (but abbreviated to two-digit year, to conserve length). I also add the subject or location, plus a three digit sequence number, e.g.

Nat-Coalson-Dubrovnik-161028-001.dng

… where 16 is the year, 10 is the month and 28 is the date, which sorts very nicely.

This example represents a logical template that can be used for naming any batch of files. It ensures that all files have a unique name and that each name includes the subject or location, along with the date, to allow easy identification.

Tip: You may have also noticed that I don’t use spaces or punctuation in my file names. This ensures that there won’t be any problems later in the workflow if and when the images are posted online. (Web-based systems present many potential problems if you use file names containing spaces and special characters; I’ll discuss file naming strategies in a future article.)

Time marches on

The advantages of using a chronological system for organizing your image files are numerous. First and foremost, it provides a method for organizing all your files in the same way, regardless of the date, location or subject of the photos.

Standardization and repeatability are hallmarks of an efficient workflow—you don’t want to be doing things differently all the time; that’s how things get lost and time is wasted.

Another advantage of the date-based system is that as each year finishes, you move on and start another parent folder for the next year. This means that, over time, the contents of each parent folder won’t change much. Even as you process your photos and potentially create new derivative files in your workflow, the number of new files being created after a year is ‘closed out’ is relatively low.

When you organize your photos by date, it’s also easier to update your backups and make permanent archives. You could sync just one year’s images after an editing session, making a backup much faster. Or you could archive to DVD several years’ images, knowing that the contents of those original folder archives will essentially remain constant in the future.

Using the date-based file system saves time and reduces confusion, allowing you more time to concentrate on more of the fun aspects of photography.

It’s your choice… choose wisely

How you organize your files is an area of photography where personal preference certainly comes into play. Of course, you should use a system that makes sense to you, and that you can live and evolve with. But your file management system must be scalable over time and remain flexible as your image library grows.

When you use any system other than organizing by date, be assured that you’ll encounter difficulties, especially as you take more and more photos.

Next steps

Make a plan to implement the new date-based method going forward. At the start of each new year, set up your new annual parent folder and, throughout the year, put images from each photo shoot in their own subfolder underneath.

Also—if you also have lots of older photos stored on your hard drive using different organizational systems—start working through them to eventually get them all organized by date; at the very least, into the annual folders. This is a project you can finish over time (and you really should take it slowly and cautiously so nothing gets lost. Using Lightroom can be a huge help with this kind of project and I’ll cover this in another article.) Whichever software you use, strive to get your image library into the the date-based folder systems.

You’ll find that using this standardized system frees you from many of the unnecessary headaches related to file management.

Free consultation

If you get hung up on this—or any other aspect of the digital photography workflow or creative process—I’m here to help.

First-time clients can get an initial consultation and assessment at no cost or obligation. Just drop me a line to start the conversation.

Photos look different on various devices

Dave asks:

I have a question regarding viewing images on different devices, I used a calibrated 24in Asus monitor and LR5.7 to process my images, I would consider myself fairly conservative with the colour sliders in general, but I’m finding that my images never look correct in terms of colour saturation when viewing on mobile devices, i.e. iphone/ipad/Nexus tablet. Images viewed on these have less colour when compared directly with my monitor.

I have compared my monitor against my ipad when viewing images on 500px, and it doesn’t look too bad – perhaps 500px optimise their mobile app?

Any ideas, is it simply a case of the mobile devices not being able to display as wide a colour range? I’m generally happy with what I’m seeing from my monitor.

My reply:

There are several factors in play here.

Firstly, your desktop display can most certainly output a much wider gamut of colours than most mobile devices. But that’s not likely the issue.

Before I get into suggestions for a solution, there are a few fundamental principles to review:

1. Your photos will never look exactly the same on every device or in every viewing scenario. So forget about that.

2. You need to work on your photos using a good quality display, properly calibrated and profiled, and use software that effective colour manages your on-screen previews. (Sounds like you’ve got most of that covered with your Asus and Lightroom…)

However, you didn’t mention what system you’re using to profile your display. I only recommend the X-Rite solutions. For most people the i1 Display range is ideal; for people on a budget or making their own prints the ColorMunki is very good too.

But unfortunately many calibration systems on the market simply don’t perform well. (The Spyder system is one of these. Avoid it!)

3. When your images are destined to be viewed on any type of display, you always need to embed the appropriate profile for on-screen viewing. This is always sRGB. Using any other colour profile will produce highly variable results. So when you export from Lightroom, make sure you’re specifying the sRGB colour space.

If any of the above conditions are not met, your viewing results will be highly variable at best.

And even if you’ve done all the above, the most you can hope for is to find a comfortable compromise.

This means getting your images to look the way you want in your colour managed environment, and then view them on several other systems to see how they look.

In many cases your images will look darker or lighter, and more (or less) contrasty and saturated when you view them on different devices. And even in different browsers or apps. This is due to the fact that the systems and software are rendering the colour values differently.

And yes, 500px is most certainly processing the photos internally when they’re uploaded, to try and make everyone’s photos more vibrant and punchy.

However, if what you’re seeing is that photos on your own display look one way and on several other systems they look different than yon your display but similar to each other, it’s most likely because your primary display is not showing you an accurate preview. Or you’re using the wrong profiles. Or both.

In my experience, my desktop display looks less contrasty and less saturated than when I view my pictures on non-colour managed systems.

If yours is more saturated, there’s likely something amiss with your colour management procedures.

Let me know what display calibration package you’re using, and try making a better profile.

And be sure your operating system is set to actually use that profile! (And in case you’re wondering, it’s never a good idea to set your display profile to sRGB or Adobe RGB… these are working spaces, not display profiles.)

Locking down your colour management can take time and there are many fiddly little bits that can throw the whole thing off. I’ve written a lot about colour management over the years, and there are many more articles on the subject here on Photography Essentials.

Hope this points you in the right direction; let me know how you get on. And thanks for your contribution!

Struggling to get correct exposure

Terri asks:

“I just purchased the D750; you know the one with great capabilities, but has a flare issue. Nikon repaired the flare and so now all is good as new. Question I have is this: The images taken with D750 (with or without the repair) seems to be on the darker side. In order to get good exposure, I am needing to regularly over expose to get the right balance. I have looked at all the settings that I can think of but to no avail. Any suggestions?”

My response:

Correct exposure is certainly a Photography Essential! If your photos are actually underexposed, it may be your metering settings and/or technique that’s causing it, not the camera itself.

Let’s look at the key factors that most affect exposure and your interpretation of it:

  • Camera shooting mode – basically, full manual vs. anything else
  • Camera metering mode – matrix, evaluative, spot, etc.
  • Camera LCD settings, especially brightness
  • Camera histogram
  • Computer display settings
  • Display calibration and profiling
  • Software (e.g. Lightroom) previews and histogram
  • Software settings, especially camera profiles and adjustment defaults

(more…)

Digital Printing Term: Giclée

One of the most misunderstood, and perhaps controversial, terms you’ll hear around the art world is “giclée”. It’s used in reference to a type of art print and is based on a French word meaning “to spray”. A giclée print is an inkjet print; however, there’s more to the name and the story behind it.

The term was coined in the early 1990s, when digital inkjet printing first started to be used to produce art prints. Prior to this time, screen printing (serigraphy) and offset printing (lithography) were the primary methods used to make reproductions of artworks.

At the time (and maybe still to this day) there was a common notion that inkjet prints had questionable value in the art market, and for understandable reasons. Early inkjet prints were rarely of very high quality. Colors were inaccurate; detail was often lost in the reproduction. Worst of all, most early inkjet prints could not be expected to survive very long before their colors started fading or shifting.

For these reasons, along with skepticism and misunderstanding about this newfangled digital printing, people were dubious about purchasing anything made using the inkjet printing process.

Humble beginnings

In the early days, there weren’t very many printers capable of producing fine art quality prints. Iris printers, a product line developed by legendary digital imaging company Scitex, were among the first. But it wasn’t long before other printer companies, most notably Epson, joined the fray. (Over the past two decades, I’ve made fine art giclée prints using Iris, Epson and Canon printers, all with excellent results. Printers from other manufacturers, including Roland and HP, can also make fine giclées, provided the inks and media are up to snuff.)

Epson 11880 495px

Epson Stylus Pro 11880. One of the best printers ever made!

The term “giclée”, then, was intended to give a fancy name to a better quality of inkjet print; one that might be expected to have archival qualities—and the resulting value—that artists and collectors desire.

Today, you’ll hear the word giclée bandied about very casually. What’s important to understand is this: while all giclée prints are inkjet, not all inkjet prints are giclée. In the fine art world—including fine art photography—correctly using the term gicleé means the print was made using archival methods and materials.

You get what you pay for

A consumer-grade inkjet printer costing $200 can’t reasonably be expected to produce fine art giclée prints. The main issue is permanence – how long the ink and paper (or other substrate) will faithfully preserve the image. (When a color begins to change, it’s referred to as fugitive.) A giclée made to archival standards can survive 100 years—or even much longer—without significant change, whereas a lower quality print will start to degrade within a few years …or sooner!

Most often, it’s a print on canvas that’s called giclée. In the case of fine reproductions of original paintings, giclée also often describes a print that has been embellished, by hand, with paint and/or other traditional mediums. Also, a giclée reproduction of a painting should match very closely the color and values in the original work—no easy feat.

But technically, a giclée can be a print on any substrate, so long as it meets archival standards. in other words, you could accurately refer to a fine print on archival watercolor paper as a giclée. But this is not the most common usage of the word.

Read the fine (art) print

If you’re a photographer or artist ordering prints from a service bureau and hoping to sell them as giclées, ask about the printing process. Be sure the materials are to archival standards. If you’re a collector or art specifier, the same rules apply, and the price of any print should always be relative to how it was made. If something is labeled giclée it should reasonably be expected to last for generations to come!

Introduction to Focus Blending

Focus blending refers to the practice of bracketing images with different points of focus and then blending them to achieve super-depth-of-field. A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Photofocus introducing the concept. It’s had great response so I thought I would also post the link here on my blog. You can read the article here.

X-Rite calibration rebates

For photographers, working with a properly calibrated and profiled display is by far the most important factor in maintaining accurate color. You need to be able to trust what you see on the screen!

For many years I’ve been using and recommending the line of color management products from X-Rite. (And frankly, you don’t need to look at any other brands for color management …)

X-Rite has been announcing many new and updated products over the past several months. Of particular interest to photographers are the brand new ColorMunki Display and i1Display Pro, both of which are getting rave reviews.

More exciting is the fact that X-Rite is offering rebates when you trade in your old profiling solution. Details on the trade-in program are here.

I’m trading in my trusty old i1Display 2 for the i1Display Pro. If you’re a photographer, I strongly recommend you consider the excellent new monitor profiling solutions from X-Rite as well.

When you’re ready to buy, you can use these links to purchase at B&H:

i1Display Pro

ColorMunki Display

Copyright watermarks for photographers

My buddy Jesse and I were recently discussing the issue of online image theft and strategies for attempting to reduce the threat.

Jesse and I are both in the midst of major redesigns of our web sites, and we’re using very large images for display. This increases the potential for theft: an unscrupulous person might want to lift a photo for their own purposes, and larger images provide more potential for reproduction. Since Jesse and I both make our living from our photos, this is a serious concern. The question is how to deal with it.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Jesse: OK, I’m REALLY posting big web images. Much larger than I ever have before. What are you doing for watermarking/copyright? I think I may need to plaster a copyright line on these.

Nat: I’ll also be using much larger images than ever before. These could definitely be printed with “decent” quality at 8×10 etc. It’s probably more likely that some folks would take them to use as screen savers/desktop wallpapers.

I think our shared fear is that someone would take an image and claim it as their own, say, in a contest or something.

In these cases, I don’t think that a larger watermark would really be much of a deterrent. To watermark a photo in such a way that nobody would want to take it would also make it horrible to look at.

In the end I think we need to serve our true customers first, and give them an exemplary experience. I like the way Photoshelter deals with it. With the Image Security on, there’s a single pixel gif in a layer above the photo, so people can’t get it with right-click or drag and drop. Of course, somebody could always do a screen capture.

Although we should take SOME measures against theft, it can’t be something we obsess about, and certainly our efforts should not get in the way of the customer experience.

So I’m against large watermarks.

This is a good reminder for me to get my next submission in to the copyright office, though. If someone steals an image and uses it for a commercial purpose at least we can [attempt to] recoup monetary damages.

I’ll do my copyright submission before the public launch of my site.

As photographers, we need to protect our property. But we shouldn’t do this in a way that inhibits our customers from engaging with our products. I will be placing my watermark on every full-size photo, but in a way that doesn’t detract from the viewing experience.

Devious thieves will remain as such; on the internet, there’s no way to completely ensure that somebody won’t steal our stuff. Registering our work at copyright.gov provides some peace of mind, and though it won’t stop somebody from taking a photo, it allows us to sue for monetary damages if we find out about it.

What do you think?

Photo web site theme for WordPress

For quite a while I’ve been recommending WordPress as the all-in-one web platform for photographers. I recently came across an example of why WordPress is becoming a solid platform for not only blogs but complete web sites. Check out the ePhoto theme from Elegant themes.

One risk I see here is that everyone will just install it and use it as-is. This would be tempting, because it’s a very professional, beautifully designed theme. However, I’d recommend that if you use ePhoto you customize if to make it unique…. colors, fonts, logo etc. It would be a shame if everybody’s web site turned out to look the same…

Monitor Envy

I’ve been very happy with my LaCie 321 for the past few years but now am lusting for a monitor with full Adobe RGB coverage. Here’s one from NEC that looks really nice and I think is very reasonably priced:

http://bit.ly/d2zn5X

Lightroom vs. Aperture… again

Since Apple released Aperture 3 a few weeks ago lots of folks are debating the pros and cons of Lightroom vs. Aperture. It’s natural for folks to want to take sides, and pick one program over the other. It’s equally unlikley that most people will be able to effectively use both products, which supports the need to choose one.

I’ve casually used and kept up with Aperture updates since it was first released. After all, I’m a huge Mac fan. For twenty years I have passionately preferred all things Mac to anything Windows.

When Aperture 1 came out, it was a time of dramatic change in photography, when digital cameras were starting to become more popular than film. Clearly, new software was needed to support the new digital photo workflow. Though other software had been produced in attempts to deal with this (Adobe Camera Raw and Bridge, Capture One, iView Media Pro etc.) Aperture really represented a significant improvement in the photographer’s workflow. (And this was before Lightroom came out.)

I still love most Apple products and always stay current with what they are up to. In several ways, Apple is well poised to change computing as we know it – as they have done several times in the past. So I never count Apple out – even in the case of Lightroom vs. Aperture.

When it comes to the important and difficult choice, then, of what software to use to process our digital photographs, when clients, students and people in the general public ask me why I prefer Lightroom over Aperture, here’s what I say:

1. Platform independence: true, I believe OS X is a superior operating system to all flavors of Windows (even 7, which doesn’t suck). That said, I think it’s a big mistake to limit your work to using Macs only… and Aperture currently will only run on a Mac (and a new, fast one at that). I myself use both Mac and Windows every day in my work, and being able to use Lightroom on both platforms is a huge advantage. Maybe someday, the majority of people will be using Macs (we can only hope) but until that day, platform independence is essential.

2. Company focus: Adobe is the undisputed champion in digital imaging software. I trust their products completely and they have led the way for two decades. Though there will always be little things that we wish Adobe would add or improve, there is no doubt that the people working for Adobe are the best and brightest in the business. Conversely, Apple contunues to show it is really a hardware company. That happens to have some really kick-ass operating systems, oh, and the industry leading video editing program 😉

3. Workflow: there are some really crazy, frustrating things about working with Aperture. One example is the Image Vault concept. This is very much like the approach taken by the horrible iPhoto, and serves no purpose other than to ensure it will be difficult to migrate away from Aperture in the future. I myself have helped a number of people through the extremely painful and nervewracking process of moving from Aperture to Lightroom. On the other hand, Lightroom’s handling of files is simple and unobtrusive. You could safely use Lightroom for all your photos for the next few years, then switch to something else, essentially without a hitch. Not so with Aperture.

These three points illustrate the main reasons why I believe Lightroom is still the way to go. The list could go on and on; other folks have already talked about Lightroom’s superior noise reduction, processing algorithms etc.

One way that I agree Aperture outshines Lightroom is the interface itself. Lightroom is designed to let you easily get the interface “out of the way” while you’re working; there are lots of cool tools to work directly on your photo, with only the photo showing on the screen. However, Aperture’s interface is clean, elegant and beautiful, providing the kind of experience where you might not want to get the interface out of the way.

Unfortunately, for me (and I believe the vast majority of photographers) the interface itself is not a good enough reason to choose one product over another.

I hope this article helps you understand why Lightroom is the better choice. I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions on this topic.

Thanks for reading!

Converting photos to CMYK for publication

A recent question from a client:

“I have prepared a few images for my winter publication, exported out of LR and sent them on to my designer. They need CMYK. So, at what point do I make that conversion. Would I do an edit into Photoshop, make the conversion and then save it from there?”

My answer:

“Conversion to CMYK needs to be done in Photoshop. When you’re done working on your master file (either in Lightroom or Photoshop), make sure to save it, then convert to CMYK as part of your process of generating the derivative file. You can do this my choosing Image > Color Mode > CMYK. (Be sure to retain your original RGB master!)

When you do this, the CMYK color space that will be used by Photoshop is determined by what’s set in Color Settings. You should use a CMYK profile that is as close as possible to the color space of the printing press being used; for example, if printing on a web press, use US Web Coated etc.. Try to get a custom profile from the printer, made specifically for their press. If you can’t get one, ask them what CMYK profile to use.

In Photoshop, You can also convert to any profile on your computer (CMYK or otherwise) under Edit > Convert to to Profile > and then select the profile from the menu. Sometimes this provides a better method than simply changing the mode due to the available options for choosing different rendering intents and a live preview.”

Image File Naming

A recent question from a client:

“I have already confused myself in my own naming conventions and would like your advice. For FolioSnap (my website) I have been putting the state first, card name (for my named cards), or State, subject, year and number (if applicable). But then getting into it for my designer and GuestGuide site, I seem to be all over the board. I then put SM_season_year_what_number, so SM_winter_skiing_01 (if I had more details like family, kids, or location, I would put that in as well. No one way seems to be correct for all uses- yet I could be starting a real mess here. Any tips on this??”

My answer:

“It’s quite possible that your “internal” naming convention might not be suitable for all outside uses; other people might want you to use specific conventions. This is fine.

For your original, working or master files, do what makes sense to you. When saving your derivative files for specific usage you can use alternate naming schemes. Lightroom’s File Naming Template make this easy.

Also, if you rename files from within Lightroom, LR will keep track of the “original” file names, on the Metadata panel.

Keep in mind that you should use keywords to describe the specific subject matter of a photo. Don’t worry about making your file name too specific; usually date and location is plenty. For example, you can always find your winter skiing pictures later, using keywords.”

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