Those who photograph regularly, be it in their closer environment or during trips, certainly know the following problem: thousands of photos accumulate throughout the year and you hardly keep up with viewing and editing. At least for me, this is very true.
For me, it is great fun to be out and about and to take photos. But pressing the shutter release is only a small part of the photographic process. Only when a photo has made it to the wall, or at least into my Online Portfolio, it is truly ready. And for some photos, this can take years.
A system is very helpful to avoid losing track in view of the number of photos you are dealing with in the digital age, and to make sure that you will find the treasures in the archive even years later.
In this article, I share my system: from importing the photos with the right keywords and the first selection up to a solid backup and retrieval of the photos for printing.
Picture Import and Archiving
Whenever I return from a photo tour or trip, the first thing I do is import the photos on my home computer. For this purpose, I use Adobe Lightroom, which has been worthwhile for me throughout many years and which can even handle my archive with over 30000 photos. To this end, Lightroom organizes the photos in a catalog that is meant to ensure fast access.
Other programs such as Capture One come with similar possibilities as Lightroom. This is why the following styles are not tied to Lightroom and should be implementable with most programs that support import and archiving.
Most important for me in this context is that I do no not rely on proprietary solutions. I therefore work with open formats such as EXIF and IPTC and use their possibilities for picture import and archiving. Another important component is a clever folder structure that gives me a fast overview of my photos.
As an alternative process, one could rely entirely on the Lightroom catalog and work with collections. However, this would mean to become fully dependent on the software used, and things would quickly become chaotic.
The Right Folder Structure
As I take photos almost exclusively during my travels, classification of the photos according to destinations and years is essential.
In this section of my folder structure you see a few important points:
- all pictures from one year are stored in an annual folder
- I use the year together with the travel destination on behalf of the respective sub-folders
- each of these sub-folders has a master and a raw directory
This gives me a very quick overview of the number of photos I have taken at different destinations. This classification is usually sufficient for me to find specific photos. At least for the last ten years, I can still remember very well what I have photographed on which trip.
So, what are the raw and master directories all about? As the name already indicates, the raw folder is filled with the RAW photos after import. In the master directory, on the other hand, I save the photos edited with Photoshop that are my source to export for printing, for the web or for image agencies.
The presented folder structure gives me a rough overview. But sometimes I would like to search for a photo more systematically. An agency or a client could for example inquire about a beach photo with a rock that shows a sunrise and that was taken in South America.
Proper tagging and the open formats already mentioned can help in this case. Besides information about the camera used and the camera settings, the EXIF data also contain for example GPS data, provided that this is supported by the camera and that it had been activated when the photo was taken. This feature can be very helpful when searching for photos of specific locations.
However, my camera does not support GPS. I therefore rely entirely on IPTC and the right tagging of the pictures. Already during import in Lightroom, I create meta data and attach them directly to the pictures. I keep the meta data that I use in this stage so general that I can apply them to a larger set of pictures. This is where, for example, the location of the trip, details on the photographic genre and further characteristics appear. The more time you take to list details during this step, the more easily you will find specific photos later.
Even after the import, I keep refining the meta data in Lightroom. Especially when preparing photos for agencies, I enhance the meta data for every single photo.
After importing the photos, I view them as soon as possible. It is important in this process to sort out low-quality photos for later elimination and to label good photos for subsequent editing.
Lightroom and other programs offer different labeling options. I mark photos that I would like to delete with a single star. And photos that I would like to edit are marked in green. After a first viewing, I filter out all photos with a star and delete them.
This process is worth repeating several times. After having had a break from a trip, it is often easier to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I can assign further stars among the readily edited master data. As we can see in the detail of the master directory of Colombia, I use three to five, depending on the quality of the photos.
Searching and Filtering
As already mentioned, the folder structure is usually enough for me to find a photo. I can use tagging and labeling for more accurate research and I can search even more precisely as you can see in the example of Hanoi. In this case, I have searched for keywords and subsequently narrowed the results by means of the color and star labels.
It is not a good idea to store the photo archive in only one single place. If the hard drive breaks, all photos will quickly be lost. A backup strategy is therefore essential.
There are many possibilities for this purpose: from manual backup and automated backup up to the cloud solution. To the same extent as during archiving, it is important for me not to use any proprietary solutions. There are for example backup solutions that can automatically secure certain directories and that even enable users to return at different times. Such solutions, however, are often based on specific container formats for the backup files that cannot be opened without dedicated software.
However, I would like the files in the backup be as independent as on my PC. I therefore use the free software FreeFileSync for synchronization that enables me to determine exactly which folders I would like to synchronize how while leaving the folder structure unchanged.
I consequently synchronize my photo archive once a week with a main backup, which is a Raid-1 system with two hard drives. This main backup is located at my home. After this backup, I have three copies of my photos and could compensate very well for a hard drive failure.
However, this backup solution is not secure. Natural hazards or burglary are not taken into account for this backup. Therefore, I also have two external backups that I also synchronize once a week. I store them in different places so as to ensure that I never keep all backups at my home.
I refer to the system displayed here as Backup Rotation:
- on Saturday, I run a synchronization with the main backup
- on Monday, I synchronize the external backup 1
- on Wednesday, I synchronize the external backup 2
If you have a fast Internet connection, you can – unlike me – also consider a cloud solution. You can use it to implement the external backup without having to fetch physical memory devices regularly from different locations.
However, such solutions are quickly constrained when it comes to several terabytes of photos. Also, the price increases and protection of the photos against hacker attacks suddenly plays a role.
You should never rely exclusively on an online backup, though. The main backup should always be physical. This way, you will never face any problems, for example if you wish to switch providers at some time or if you are forced to do so by new conditions of use and prices.
Photos for Print and Other Media
To conclude the topic, I would like to explain what I do with photos that, for example, I prepare for printing. The basis for this are the master files that I now export as TIFF and adapt for the required print medium (Content in German!)
I save these photos in a separate distribution directory, together with other output formats that I create for example for agencies. Most important for me in this context is the naming of the photos. Besides photo title, the size of the print and the name of the paper on which the photo is to be printed should be visible here. In the detail below, which shows photos that I sell as a limited edition and which I have already prepared for different print sizes, you can see an example.
Whenever I upload a photo on Whitewall for printing, the naming tells me exactly how I can order it. This helps me avoid surprises.
I also show you my entire workflow with further details in the following video (English). It also contains more specific information on the distribution directory and explains for example how I organize photos for different media.