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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Where do your pictures live?


Back in the day when transparency film ruled the professional photography world storing pictures was a simple business. You just stuck them in a plastic, 20 slide sleeve in a drawer of a filing cabinet.

Finding said picture again took a bit more work! I used a simple lettering and numbering system. For example all my shots with people as the main subject started with the letter P. The first people person I catalogued was P001. And up it went from there. Mammal shots started with an M, bird shots with a B and reptile shots with an R. Oh and rivers were an RV just to avoid confusion! And I had a computer database to help me find specific pictures and then I'd just go to the cabinet and fish them out.

In those days we didn't have the option of loading pictures into the computer database so you had to have a text description of the slide to find it again. So my description for this picture was: A wide-angle frontlit shot of a woman (Chiharu) in a bikini sitting on a giant swing on the beach, with a family on another swing in the background. And in another column I had details of the location, whether it was a horizontal or a vertical, the year and the season. To find the picture again I just had to do a search on any of the words.

Nowadays the physical location of our digital files isn't so important. It doesn't matter where the picture is, as long as I can find it again. And whereas with my film pictures it was kind of important to have the file names classified according to subject, with digital it's totally irrelevant. Why? Because we no longer need to search for pictures using the name of the file.

Instead we use the metadata embedded in the picture. I'm sure you've all heard of metadata - it's that information that is embedded in all the digital picture files that come out of your camera. Much of it is stuff added at the time you push the shutter button - the type of camera, focal length of the lens, ISO rating, time (down to the second), date and lots of other information.

But for our purposes there is more important metadata and that's the information you put in yourself. Some of it can be put in in bulk. The first bulk metadata you should put into all your pictures is your contact details and Copyright information. Once your pictures leave the safety of your house it's pretty hard to stop them being used here, there and everywhere but at least you can show people whose pictures they are by putting that information in there. Any time somebody opens up one of your pictures in Photoshop the little Copyright symbol will show up before the filename letting them know that the photograph belongs to somebody and they won't be able to use it without permission.

But more importantly for your own reference is the metadata about what the picture represents. Where it was taken - continent, country, state, city - go as detailed as you want. You might also want to include the names of any people in the picture. If you photograph wildlife then you'll definitely want to include the common as well as latin names of any species you photograph. In short you want to put any information in the metadata that you think will help you (or other people if you plan to put the images online) find your picture.

And when you do this you can use any one of a number of cataloguing programmes to search for those pictures afterwards. Want to find all the pictures of your Aunt Mary taken in 2008? Just do a search for Mary and the year 2008 and they'll all come up instantly. Need to do a slideshow on your local forest using pictures taken over the last 15 years? Just type in the name of the forest and they'll all come up.

By using the metadata and cataloguing software it doesn't matter where the physical files themselves are stored, or what they're called. This leaves you free to name the pictures in any way that makes sense to you, and to place them in whatever folder you feel like. All your pictures of one subject don't have to live in the one folder because your software will find them wherever they are. They don't have to be named with whatever the subject is (Aunt Mary 001 etc) because you've already put Mary in the keywords. Call the file whatever you want.

If you're posting them online and want people to find them many sites recommend you name them with basic information type words to help in Search engines. So a picture of Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo might be Asakusa_Tokyo_Japan_001 or something like that. Because I mostly deal directly with clients and my images are often either sent out on DVD or FTP'ed I have a naming system that includes my name so that no matter who is looking at the image they know straight away who the photographer is. I also use the date it was taken and then the camera file number. So a picture taken today might read Dymond_100712_2614 or something like that.

The file name gives you no clue whatsoever as to what's in the picture but that's OK with me. All the information I need is in the metadata of the picture so it's always easy to find again. And most clients are metadata-savvy enough to know to look there first for a description of the picture they're looking at. I also use the metadata area to put in usage terms for the picture as well so the client knows just exactly what rights have been licensed.

So when you think about starting on the giant task that is sorting out your pictures don't get too hung up on where you should put them in terms of folder structure on your computer. Don't worry about re-naming everything either. Just work on getting some really good, helpful-to-you metadata in there so that you can be confident of finding them quickly and easily.

1 comment:

Steve said...

G'day Paul,

I'm only just starting to come to terms with digital media storage now, and your quick and easy "Don't worry, she'll be right" post has helped me a lot! So thank you.