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Keeping track of our images

November 17, 2010

© - Prairie Dog

The digital photography revolution has been incredible.  I think it is safe to say that there has never been a time in the history of the world where so many pictures have been taken by so many people.  And this includes only what traditionally has been considered cameras:  Point & Shoot, SLR, etc.  Add cell phones to the mix and the number of images being made climb by many orders of magnitude.

Back in the day, we’d save our pictures (and occasionally our negatives) and put them in a shoe box or something similar.  The serious folks would take the negatives and put them into plastic sheets that would fit into binders or file cabinets.  And the really serious folks would take the negatives and slides and make a list of what the images were and/or put the information on 3×5 cards and file them away to be found later.

The digital equivalent to the shoe box is our hard drives.  For that matter, the digital equivalent of our file cabinets and binders is also our hard drives.  I will talk about how to safeguard those precious images at another time, but this is my quick foot stomp that you can’t rely on your hard drive to keep your images safe.  What a tangled web we weave when in backups we do not believe…

Whether you are a hobbyist or on the way to becoming a professional photographer, it is really great to be able to find images quickly when you want to find them.  As I mentioned before, in the old days many of us used 3×5 cards to remind us where our keepers were kept on film so we could make additional prints.  Really prepared folks also put notes on the 3×5 card that reminded us how to develop it, how we cropped it, and who we took it to that did a good job developing it if we were struggling for time.

In digital the rules of the road change a bit.  Sure, you can still keep a 3×5 card collection (provided you can find the nifty containers to keep the cards in–they’re awful tough to find these days).  There are many software packages that will help you keep track of your images.  There’s also a new term in this digital world to describe the process: Digital Asset Management.  I still prefer calling it being able to find what I’m looking for.

At some time during my film days I moved to a spreadsheet because it was easier to find things that way, but it still was far from ideal.  But when I needed to find something with some degree of speed, I could do it.  Case in point was putting together the 2003 NAS Keflavík Fleet & Family Support Center calendar.  When I showed up to help, my understanding was they wanted just one of my images for the calendar (Skógafoss).  When I got there I found that both they were up against a deadline and there other sources for images were not going to be able to meet that deadline.  So with my my couple of binders full of transparencies, my CD’s full of my film scans, and my spreadsheet,  we were able to find 11 images that were going to meet their needs.

As I moved into digital with my Canon 10D, I knew there had to be a better way and there were a number of programs that were available that professed to be better than the spreadsheet solution.  But for me they just didn’t work.  The problem was that now I was shooting so many more images and the spreadsheet was getting to be nearly unusable.  Too many images, too much time to update, and eventually I ran into an issue where the number of images exceeded what the spreadsheet could handle.

So where am I today?  First, I have a structured process to bringing my images into the computer and then making my virtual 3×5 cards so I can find what I am looking for.  I am a big fan of Adobe’s Lightroom 3. It is a great tool and has replaced nearly all of my other methods for image tracking and cataloging.

Lightroom has some neat bells and whistles for moving images from card to hard drive, but I still prefer handling that process manually.  Once safely onto the hard drive (and sometimes backed up elsewhere at the same time), I then bring in the images into Lightroom.  I have a couple of presets that are applied when they come in, but they are there for copyright considerations and I will discuss that at another time.

Once into Lightroom, I rename the photos using the system that works for me.  Lightroom makes it really simple–I created the preset for the renaming process and in about four keystrokes the entire process is finished.

For me the format I use involves changing the filename the camera gave to the image to one that includes the year, day, and frame number for that day.  The format looks like 10303_0041 where the 10303 is the 303rd day of 2010 (October 30th) and 0041 is the 41st image I made on that day.  I use the 5 digit format (also referred to with some accuracy as the julian date) because it works for me.  In the industry which paid my salary, julian dates kept sorting issues to a minimum and now that we’re into the 21st century and far from the 22nd, I’m not worried about rollover issues with my years.  The “20” at the beginning was extra fluff that I did not need or want.  And if there is ever a day when I shoot over 10,000 images I’ll worry about the aftermath then…

Why julian date?  Knowing what day I shot an image can help me determine if an image is going to meet a customer’s needs.  It also allows me to go back and look at my photo journal to see where I was to ensure that location was correct.  When I made my spreadwing “discovery” earlier this year, I knew the location was right based by both other things I’d shot that day and the day in which it was shot.  It works for me.  Others do other things, but it works for me.

Once into Lightroom and renamed to my specs, then it is time to look at what I shot and describe it so I can find it again.  This is done with meta-tagging or keywording (depending on who’s vernacular you are using).  Journalists have the 5W’s to tell their story (with the last W often being hoW), but I knock of the how and go with where, what, who, and when.

The when is taken care of by the camera so I need to make sure my camera was set correctly before I started shooting.

The where I will usually do in bulk to start with (State or Country) and then if I have more detailed information then I have to do them in batches.  I get as specific as I can without using GPS coordinates.  Hopefully with my next camera I will have that available, but for now I’m still relying on notes.  But as an example, if I’m in a park and on a trail and that trail is named in some fashion, I will add the name of the trail.

The who is usually non-existent as I normally don’t do portrait work or journalistic type things where knowing who is important.  If it is, I try to keep model releases handy just in case or at a minimum a notebook to get names and contact information.

The what is where I spend the bulk of my time.  If a subject in the image is a member of the animal kingdom, regardless of how small, I always try to include common names and scientific names.  If gender is determinable, I will add that, too.  For flora it is far more difficult for me because often I just don’t know.  I tend to use lots of colors to describe things.  Flowers can be tricky, but wildflowers are easier finds as there are lots of good guide books for flowers.

As an example, an image of my friend the prairie dog above and on the right would start with the date (which was recorded by the camera).  I might enter a season into the meta-tags (summer in this case).  I might even put morning, mid-day, afternoon, or evening if I think it will help in the future.  Texas was the state.  Tom Green was the county.  San Angelo State Park was the basic location.  I probably would also put Prairie Dog Town, though that may be a little bit of overkill.  I don’t bother with the vegetation because the vegetation is secondary to the image.  Then I start working down the path.  Mammal, rodent, prairie dog, Black-tailed Prairie Dog, and Cynomys ludovicianus would also be valid keywords.  I put in the gender where it is discernible (male in this case…trust me).

Where it works really nice for me in Lightroom is that if I have fifteen shots in a row of this particular creature, I can select all 15 images and apply tags all at once.  A very nice feature when you have many hundreds of images to tag in a particular day.  Once all of the images are tagged, then I know that I can do a keyword search later and find the images that I’m interested in.

Admittedly, I tag a lot of images that I likely will never work on to any depth.  But at this point in the game I don’t care.  What matters is being able to find all of them.  There are other ways I can point to the keepers later.

© - Blue Dasher Dragonfly

Why Lightroom works for me is because I can do them all at once, I can see the images while I am applying the labels, and I know that Lightroom will act as my virtual 3×5 card catalog that I can make copies of so I won’t lose the notes at a later time.

But does it work?  Yeppers.  In the recent case where my image of a Blue Dasher dragonfly was the cover photo for Lake Country Life, I got an e-mail early in the morning asking to use the image.  I said “Sure” and sent the image.  I get a phone call later asking if it was available in a more vertical format.  “Duh,” I think to myself, “…it is a magazine cover…you should have thought about that, Jim.”  I hadn’t touched that image in a couple of years.  It was an old 10D shot.  But I had tagged those images, they were broken up by date in their separate directories, and I knew approximately when I had shot it.  Into Lightroom I went, searched on my keyword and found the shoot in less than a minute.  I found the original, saw that I could recrop into a vertical format, and then gave them a rough crop with extra room so they could play as they found fit.  Total time expended:  25 minutes.  And the image ended up on the cover.  Success.

Losing things at a later time.  Hmmm, guess I need to talk about the other end of keeping track of our images the next time I sit down and write.

About the images:  I think I described it pretty well in the piece, but this is a male Black-tailed Prairie Dog.  Most folks will leave off the “Black-tailed” as this is the common prairie dog in all of America’s southwestern states.  It was made in the small prairie dog town on the south shore side of the park.  This was made from inside my car (best blind going sometimes) in mid-morning.

The Blue Dasher Dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) is a very common dragonfly in areas where water is still.  This particular image was made at International Water Lily Collection in San Angelo, Texas.  The camera data says that it was shot in mid-afternoon, but it is very likely that instead this was instead in mid-morning as at the time I kept my camera on GMT rather than on local time zones.

Both images are available for sale as prints at

Cynomys ludovicianus
One Comment leave one →
  1. November 18, 2010 12:40 pm

    Great article, Jim. I think my files are still a digital shoebox, but I think I know which end of the box I need to dig. 🙂 Great photos, too.


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