Photographs © George A. Jardine
File names are hard.
Nailing down a coherent and consistent file naming strategy for my own library took some time. Let alone for my clients. And the thread goes way back. Back to before we even starting thinking about how to support folder structures and manipulate file names in Lightroom.
I think a lot of the reason why photographers have such a hard time with file names in general, goes all the way back to the innovation of “files and folders” in early desktop computer user interfaces. As much of an innovation as the graphical display of files and folders was, the one fatal flaw was that it reinforced a very distinct real-world behavior that eventually conspired to actually make finding a specific thing in the computer more difficult.
But that took years and years. At first, the files and folders thing represented a true innovation.
Especially for photographers and designers. People who—for whatever reason—are more visually oriented than most others. Files and folders gave us an immediate reference to the real world, that made organizing stuff in the computer easier. In fact, the metaphor still works wonders. Each day I sit down at my computer, and I look at my desktop, and I can immediately put my hands on the stuff that’s top of mind. And if I need to dig deeper, into stuff that’s more permanently filed away, I know to go into the Documents folder, and then further into my Tax Documents folder, or whatever. And I can always pretty easily find precisely what I’m looking for.
Even after building 4 fairly large tutorial series, with scripts, sound files, video captures, graphics, and all the other associated junk that you need to create in order to mount such a venture, organizing essentially by subject, into folders is the only way to go. I’ve even gone to the extreme of having hard drives dedicated to just the tutorial production files. But you don’t have to dig very far down inside there, before you’ll find folders with names like Amazon Parts, Original Captures, Compressed Audio, etc., etc. Some files have version numbers that might go from xyz.01.doc up to xyz.09.doc… but not much beyond that. It’s manageable. At least for me.
When I get pushed under the bus, they may not be exactly transparent to anyone who cared enough to plug in that hard drive. But by then, those files wouldn’t matter, would they?
It was in the course of thinking about how to design a user interface for a digital photo library that we started to dig deeper into the problem. The engineers were asking those of us in product management what photographers wanted. And so we in turn went out and asked photographers how they organized their libraries. Which, at the time, meant… film. And two things about what I found struck me as interesting. First, nearly every photographer that I talked to organized their photos by subject. Date was an afterthought, if it was taken into consideration at all. The date-stamp on a Kodachrome slide mount was enough, and if it wasn’t, a small amount of what we today call metadata could be written onto the poly sleeve with a sharpie. Photographs taken 20 years apart were archived right next to each other, even in the same binder, if they were taken of the same subject.
The second thing that struck me was that each and every photographer we talked to could walk into their library, or their vault, or whatever that storage space was, and literally put their hands on a specific piece of film that they were looking for, in just seconds.
This very same thing was true in the archives of much larger institutions that I was able to see; artworks everywhere are stored, and organized by subject.
So something was clearly working here. And sure enough, my own personal film library from nearly 15 years of shooting professionally was no different. I could literally find any photograph that I was looking for, in just moments.
My personal digital library was not huge… but of course it was starting to grow. Just like everybody else’s. The advent of what I call “viable digital capture” had dawned with the release of the Canon 1Ds MKII, and all of a sudden photographers could embrace digital without all the insecurity, and have immediate image quality that was equal to, or even better than what they were used to when shooting film. Digital photo libraries started to explode.
What did I do? I did the very same thing almost every other photographer out there did. I started making a lot of folders on my hard drives with names like Workshop in Mendocino, and Wine Tasting in Napa. And then as those libraries grew and grew, a funny thing happened. Eventually it became impossible to find anything. My photographs were no longer stored in binders that occupied specific locations on specific library shelves, but were simply buried in long lists of words, in the folder views of my hard drives. Words and words and more words. Your eyes glazed over looking for something.
Of course the other thing that contributed to this problem was that once freed from the shackles of paying for film and toxic chemicals, we began to shoot 10 times as many photos as we did in the pre-digital age. We were no longer simply dealing with those exposures that we wanted to get into the computer to print, or to retouch for publishing. All of a sudden, you had to have a computer to even see your photos, much less organize them! And so a system that had worked just fine before digital capture came along—giving each file some sort of meaningful name that included what amounted to keywords—became much less useful. After all, once you have thousands of photos with the word Mendocino or Workshop in the file name, those words simply become meaningless.
And so it seemed that when it came to finding a certain photo in a digital library, something had been lost. I eventually came to think of this intangible thing as a sort of tactile and spatial identity that each and every photograph had for me, in my film library. Which becomes… strangely… an intuitive component of that how-do-I-find-my-pictures formula that very few of us ever stopped to think about. When you make a photograph (especially a good one…), you almost immediately develop an emotional connection to the image. And then when you file it away, as a physical piece of film in a place that you’re aware of and familiar with, then I think a kind of spatial connection to that photograph becomes part of the visual memory. The location of the actual film… on your shelf.
My digital photographs no longer had a place, that I could put my hand on, in my library. Any individual file, or folder, looked just exactly the same as the next, once it was in the computer.
After that, the question becomes how do you look for, and with any luck, find… your digital photos? And then the question that immediately follows would be… how do you organize them? Because the two have become inextricably connected. Hence we come to file names, folder names, and library organization.
OK.. I admit it. I was a slob. I didn’t get it. Even though I was shooting literally thousands and thousands of digital exposures all through my years as Pro Photography Evangelist at Adobe Systems, I will still just copying them onto hard drives into folders with names like Sunset Over the North Coast. And yes, there was more than just a one or two files named _MG_4444.CR2. and _MG_9999.CR2. It was a mess.
Despite the fact that I had worked on the development of an asset management product, and had interviewed literally hundreds of photographers on the subject of their library organization (or lack thereof…), it still felt like there was no clear and definitive answer. Each and every photographer that I knew was still doing their own thing. And each one came up with their own individual solution. There was very little consistency across the industry, if any!
But in the process of hunkering down to build my Library video series last year, I knew that I finally had to bite the bullet. It was time to tie it all together, and that meant starting with my own library. So I literally spent another year thinking about the problem and researching further. More reading… and more interviews. Only this time I had a purpose: getting my own horribly disfigured library beaten into shape. Which I would sit down and work on every evening.
Anyway, long story short, the thing that I finally came to, is this. Just a few key factors play a role in determining why organizing photos into folders by subject no longer works as well as it used to, after you put pictures into the computer. One is simply the fact that we have so damned many of them now. Another reason is related to the way we need to cross-reference them. We no longer have to decide whether to put a photo of The Carlyle into the Art Deco and Design binder, or put it with the other photos taken in Miami, or into the Architecture folder. But you can—and certainly should—tag it with those keywords!
And so the concept of organizing by subject, changes complexion. Once you can slice and dice 100,000 photographs in the blink of an eye, by lens, by camera, by keyword, by ISO, or any combination of attributes, then the organization by subject is done for you. I can do a search, and in seconds show you every photo in my library that has the word motorcycle associated with it. And then if I can’t remember anything further about a specific photograph to help me narrow the search, it becomes a visual search. And we all know how that works. The visual identification of any given photograph is vastly faster and easier than most other methods, once you’ve narrowed down the field. And this is especially true for digital, when you can literally scan hundreds of photographs on the screen at once.
This is where chronology begins to come into play. The exact order in which any group of photos was taken becomes the last remaining relevant context for display, once you’ve narrowed down the search to a subject that you’re looking for. If I do a search for the word Yosemite, I want to see those search results in the order in which I shot them, because it helps me narrow the search. Visually. If I locate a specific shoot that I did for a certain client, seeing that group of photos the the precise order that I shot them helps me narrow my search, again, visually. Chronology is the last remaining context for a sort that can help you find the shot.
And so before we get to file names and more about chronology, just a few more thoughts about folder organization. Despite the fact that I changed my mind about organizing by global subject on the folder level, doesn’t mean that I’ve thrown the concept of subjective organization under the bus entirely. It’s just shifted focus. Folders are certainly useful as a way to keep groups of photos together in the file system, but to what end? And when faced with the question of just how to structure my photo library—given that by now… grouping by global subject was out of the question—I took that question to mean, what is the smallest unit of organization (grouping) that has meaning in my library. And the answer was…. the shoot. Don’t get me wrong. A shoot is still a level of folder organization by subject. But it’s a useful subject, because you rarely need to break it up into smaller groups, and if you do, you can use keywords for that. A shoot is a group of photographs that were taken together, generally during one day, and generally of one subject. When I’m traveling, each day becomes one shoot, unless I’m in reasonably different places in the morning and afternoon. Or if I’m shooting two jobs on one day. Those two jobs will each have their own shoot folder.
Each time I go out and shoot, I come home and create a shoot folder in my library, and copy the photos into it. And those shoot folders get the date as the first part of the folder name, so that my chronology is preserved, both in my catalog, and in the file system. And so my shoot folders from this last ICP workshop in September, look like this:
And so for consistency, the shoot folder (the smallest grouping of photos in the library…) gets when, who, what, and where keywords, starting with the date (the when) in a format that gives me chronology—as I said—both in my catalog and in the file system. The keywords-in-folder names scheme correlates the keywords to the entire shoot, and that means I don’t have to put any of that stuff into the file names, which would be annoying and redundant. Any good database or search engine will recognize words in folder names as valid search criteria, returning all the photos in a shoot.
Besides…. once you have thousands and thousands of photos in a system, putting keywords into file names by subject simply becomes ridiculous too. But many pros that I know still do this. Once you have long lists of file names that are are all almost identical, even when they have meaningful keywords in them…. once they’re in long lists, the individual names become meaningless. And this becomes especially apparent when you finally embrace the way you really find a specific photo, after you’ve narrowed the search. And that’s visually.
That leaves me with the last, two remaining criteria that I feel your file names must fulfill. File names should give you 1) an absolutely unique identifier for each file within your catalog or database (no two files have the same name…), and… within the file system, and 2) your file names should give you an easy way to display any kind of search result you choose to view, in chronological order. Whether the search is done, again… from within your catalog, or, in the file system.
To that end, notice a couple of things about the file names in the screenshot above. First, the date in the file name gives me a one-to-one correlation to the parent shoot folder. So there is never any question about where an individual file belongs. Second, if the date-stamp on the file + the original camera file name (which is appended back onto the renamed files, for archival purposes) does not give you perfect chronology when sorting by file name, then the inclusion of the actual time-stamp will. And that’s the middle 6-digit number in these file names. Including the precise hour, minute and second of exposure in the file names, will give you perfect chronology, both within the shoot, and globally, within your entire library.
Finally, more careful readers will be asking, what are the times when I must have finer-grained date-time information in file names, besides date + original camera sequence number? (Meaning… when do I need to include the hour, minute and second time-stamp info?) Well….there are two circumstances when you will need this info to preserve the chronology for file name sorting. You need this finer-grained time-stamp information in your file names, when 1) you’re shooting with two or more cameras, and 2) when one of your camera sequence counters rolls over from 9999 to 0001 during the middle of a shoot.
Looking back at the file names again, you’ll see a jump after the first photo number 2808, to 4724. And that’s the type of jump that will occur when you’re shooting with two cameras. When you are shooting with two cameras, it’s the time-stamp that preserves the chronology in your sorting. And then last but not least, it should be obvious that all of the above is dependent upon having all your cameras set to the correct local date and time, each and every time you go out and shoot!
Special thanks to Seth Resnick for his steadfast and common-sense guidance on file naming and library organization…. from the very beginning.