Organizing an Image Library

The ISO 8601 Date Format

Before I discuss the way I organize my folders, here's a brief plug for writing dates properly.

The International Standards Organization has suggested that the best way to express dates so that they're understood by the widest group of people and computer applications is to put them in a consistent format: 2005-03-18 They suggest the largest unit (year) should come first, and the smallest unit (day) to come last. They suggest dashes instead of slashes or colons. They suggest numbers instead of words, and they suggest using zeroes to ensure the month and day fields are always two digits long.

To me, the biggest benefit to the 2005-03-18 format is that a computer can sort these items into chronological order, even without knowing that they're dates. Any program that can sort filenames or other strings will sort these by year, then month, then day, which is precisely what we want. Other date formats like "180305" or "3/18/05" won't sort in any useful way at all unless the computer has a special routine to figure out the dates.

Organizing with Daily Directories

When I download images from my camera, the files which are on the CompactFlash card each have the date and time they were created. My downloading script uses this information to its advantage. It groups any pictures taken on a given day, and it creates subdirectories for each day that had photos. Then it puts those files into those subdirectories automatically.

The full pathname of an original photograph on my system might be:

In my ~/photos folder, there are just a few directories, one for each year. Inside the ~/photos/2005 folder, there are more folders, one for each month. And a last level has folders for each day in that month.

The first thing I do after downloading my images is to give the daily folders more descriptive names. I keep the date portion, but I add an extra word or two at the end; .../2005-03-18jewelry.macros for example.

In the situations that I have two or more distinct photographic projects in the same day, I just make a second directory next to the first, not inside the first, and move some of the originals into that folder. For example, I might have a .../ directory right next to the jewelry folder.

The screenshot image above shows a real directory structure from the year 2004. With the sorted folder names, you can immediately see that I shot two different sorts of things on the day before Thanksgiving.

After I have this directory structure and the original files all organized, it's time for me to inspect the photographs and decide what to do with them.

Distinguishing Originals from Created Works

What is worth saving?

In my daily subdirectories, right after downloading files, I have many non-descript files. I may have a couple hundred files with simple numbered names like .../img12345.jpg or .../crw21436.crw which appear to tell me nothing.

The first thing I do is to scan through the thumbnails for these images. At thumbnail scale, you can't really tell much about quality, but there are a few obvious cases. For example, I delete any all-black or all-white photographs. There's no way I can recover the image from being that far overexposed or underexposed, so I save myself the grief.

At this point, I archive my originals. Before I go any farther, it's time to make sure I have backup copies. Even the remaining junk images will live on. I may have a use for them later.

Making Images

Ansel Adams was of the opinion that "an image is not taken, it is made." Now that the virgin data has been collected onto my hard drive, and safely archived away, the art may commence.

I never save over the top of an original image. I never rename an original data file, once it's in my system. An untouched frame of my beautiful daughter will bear the non-descript name img18082.jpg forever. The raw data I shot of a product photo will remain crw20435.crw in my archives.

Instead, I give descriptive names to the derivative work, the artistic interpretation, the aesthetic treatment of those images I choose to edit. That picture of my little girl becomes and the product photo becomes acme.flange.detail.xcf. It's the difference between an uncut rough rock, and a brilliant faceted gem.

I keep the derivatives in with the daily photos, though. You never know when you'll want to revisit other images taken on the same project day.

Another advantage of keeping daily folders is that I can store any other useful associated information. A README.txt or a data file, a few logo images from the company website, etc. These can be kept with all of the images, so they're easier to find later.

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