Kevin Merchant Photography Articles

Image File Organization

Folder Structure

Image file organization - sooner or later, everybody has to do it. Or, you end up with a mess. Or worse, you accidently overwrite image files and lose valuable photos. Organizing your image files doesn't seem so daunting when you first start shooting digital - you have one camera body and might take just a few images on any given outing. But go on a two week trip, upgrade to an newer camera body or, worse yet, add a second camera body and it quickly becomes evident that you need a systematic way to find your files, even if you are using a management system like Adobe Lightroom. Over the years I have refined a system that works for me so I thought I would share it.

How might you overwrite your image files? Each camera body names files in a sequential order. For example, Canon bodies start naming files IMG_0001 all the way up to IMG_9999 and then roll over to IMG_0001. So, unless you have a file organization scheme and/or a file re-naming scheme, it could easily happen.

At first, I had one digital body and life was pretty simple. Then I purchased a second body, then a third and now a fourth (these don't include my little point-n-shoots). Since these are all Canon bodies, they all, by default, name the image files the same. For this reason I like to keep the images from different bodies separate - I don't want to overwrite images from one camera with images from another. And, I re-name all the images that don't get deleted, but I'll get to that later. Another reason that I keep images from different bodies separate is that I typically shoot landscapes with one body and wildlife with a different body. Keeping the images of the camera bodies separate makes things a lot cleaner and easier for me to deal with.

The first step in my organization is to create camera folders, in my case Canon_EOS_20D, Canon_EOS_5D, Canon_1D_III and Canon_EOS_5D_III.

Camera folders in Windows Explorer
Camera folders in Windows Explorer

It quickly made sense to use a chronological system, creating year folders in each camera folder. As a new year rolls around, I add a new year folder to each camera folder for the cameras that I am actively shooting with.

Camera & Year folders in Windows Explorer
Camera & Year folders in Windows Explorer

At first, I thought month and subject/location descriptors would be sufficient for folder names inside the year folders. But, eventually this became unwieldy because I might have multiple subjects or locations on the same day of the same month but this was before tools such as Lightroom became available. I had trouble tracking down certain images with the tool of choice at the time - Adobe Bridge.

So, I decided that month, day, and location folder descriptors were necessary. The format for folder names inside of year folders is mm_dd_location.

I suppose if my shooting schedule involved creating images every day or almost every day, it might make sense to create month folders. This adds a layer of complexity that I have not found useful so it has made more sense to just create a folder for each day that I am shooting.

So the basic folder structure looks like this:

   camera » year » mm_dd_location

with as many mm_dd_location folders as there are days of shooting.

Camera, Year & Month/Day/Location folders in Windows Explorer
Camera, Year & Month/Day/Location folders in Windows Explorer

File Naming Conventions

The next part of my file organization has to do with file names. Clearly, re-naming image files helps to avoid the overwriting issue mentioned above. But, you could still end up naming files from different cameras with the same file name. This isn't a problem as long as the files reside in different folders on your hard drive. What happens if for any reason they need to be in the same folder? One of them will get overwritten. How do you go about choosing a naming convention that will definitively avoid this? This is where I went back to my film days and used subject category codes I had created - A for Animals, B for Birds, C for Coastal scenery, and so on. The key is to not create so many categories that you can't remember what the codes stand for. Part of the reason to have the codes in the first place is to be able to quickly identify what category an image falls into.

NOTE: This system was created after systematically identifying major subject category groups. Yours will most likely be different than mine.

Fall ColorFC
National MonumentNM
National ParkNP
Night ScenicNS
Winter ScenicWS

With the category codes, a month/day/year time stamp, the camera and a sequence number I am able to create unique file names where I am certain there will be no file name duplications. And so, there shouldn't be any possibility of overwriting one image file with another. The general file name structure looks like this - category_mmddyy_camera-sequence#; For example, C_012610_5D-26, a coastal scenic taken on January 26th, 2010 with my Canon EOS 5D.

What happens if you have two of the same camera body? When that day comes, I'll need another file naming refinement.

File name convention in Windows Explorer
File name convention in Windows Explorer

Workflow - uploading files

From a workflow perspective, I create all the folders first using Windows Explorer (my file management tool of choice since Windows 3.1). I use a USB memory card reader to load files from the memory cards into their respective folders. Next, I import files into Lightroom without re-naming. In fact, re-naming image files won't happen until an extensive editing and deleting of images has been done, particularly with birds and other wildlife where I tend to have what some might consider an excessive number of shots. Un-sharp or out of focus shots will not get any better no matter how long they sit on the hard drive, and so I delete them. This editing process usually consists of at least two passes with an attempt to be ruthless. Cheap storage is no reason to keep every image I shoot.

Workflow - keywords

At this point, I'm ready to apply keywords to all the images that have just been imported. Why bother keyword-ing images? I can't emphasize enough how important keywords are to image management, especially when using a tool like Lightroom whose search/filter features were created with keywords in mind. Even if you are not doing this as a business, when you have accumulated thousands (or, in my case, tens of thousands) of images keywords become a critical component in your digital asset management. Don't believe me? Try finding an image you shot five years ago in a collection of 70,000 (my current library size). It just makes finding an image much easier if you do this bit of work on the front end, especially while it is all fresh in your mind.

On a side-note, about two years ago, I converted my flat keyword list to a hierarchical keyword list. It makes keywording much less laborious because you are able to capture a whole group of keywords by just adding one. Do an Internet search on hierarchical keywords to get a better idea of what I'm talking about.

Here is an example:
   national park
            Mt. Rainier National Park
               Mt. Rainier
                  Eunice Lake

Without keywords, you have a jumbled mass of images that are only organized by whatever folder structure you have created. And, while I do think my organizational methodology is well thought out, I would never consider it sufficient when a tool such as Lightroom is avaiable. If you are disciplined about keywording you will be able to track down images from say, a given location or a particular flower, etc. without spending too much time.

Workflow - renaming files

Now that I'm fairly certain I have deleted all or most of the images I do not want to keep, it's time to rename the files based on the naming convention described above. This is all done before doing any processing on the RAW image files (I only shoot RAW and hope you do, too).

I consider all of the files on the memory cards (RAW files in my case) to be masters - these are gold, the stuff I've spent considerable time, effort and money to capture. I keep them separate from any of my edited files. And, even though I spend a lot of time and effort creating the edited files I prefer to keep these separate from the original masters. So, like with the RAW files I create a work folder for each camera body and inside these folders a year folder. So far I have found no reason to make any further organizational distinctions. I suppose if my shooting were more client based a different means of organizing would make sense. Until then, this works for me and I suspect it will for you as well.

Work Folders in Windows Explorer
Work Folders in Windows Explorer

Workflow - backup

Once I have renamed my files, then it is time to back them up. You do back up your images, right? Even if I weren't doing this as a business, I would want to take a rather rigorous approach to preserving my digital images. This is a part of the digital imaging world that is a must. None of the current technologies are 100% reliable. CD-R's - not really; DVD-R's - not really; internal or external hard drives - not really; memory cards - to a higher degree but they would get very expensive not to mention un-managable. What do I do? Right now, I have enough internal storage on my desktop computer to have all of my images available, and I maintain two full backups of all master (RAW/JPEG) and edited files on external drive(s) (currently two 3TB drives). One of my backup drives lives at a friend's house - you can never be too safe.

My backup tool of choice is a free Microsoft utility - SyncToy 2.1 which runs on Windows XP and Windows 7.

In the field

That covers the process I go through in dealing with my images from the time of capture to backup. What do I do on a multi-day trip where I'm away from my main desktop computer? This is where things can get a bit tricky. I have resorted to traveling with a laptop (loaded with Photoshop and Lightroom) and two smaller 250GB external hard drives. At the end of every shooting day (or during any down time during the day) I load all images onto the laptop, using a similar folder structure as described above. As a matter of course, I back up all files to the two external hard drives before doing any work in Lightroom as there is not always time or energy to edit (shooting at both ends of the day when the sun rises early and sets late does not leave a lot of time for anything but the most important things - backing up, eating and sleeping). The number one priority is to have three copies of all the images before re-using any of the memory cards. On the road, I will at least try to keyword all of the images so that I get location information captured while it is fresh. Sometimes this helps me to realize I need to gather more details about a location for keywording purposes.

Happy shooting and let me know if you find this article useful. Also, let me know if you have questions or comments.
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