Organizing your Digital Images: The Science and Art of Image Cataloging & Image Management

Every new digital photographer starts out b being excited at how easy it is to retrieve their images compared to digging them out of slide files or shoeboxes. Then, as the number of image files on their computer grows from hundreds to thousands and tens of thousands the sobering reality sets in. Just because it is on your disk doesn't mean you can find it again. The process of tagging and organizing your images is most often referred to as image cataloging. In this issue we'll speed you through the essentials of setting up a process for cataloging your images and also give you some quick tips about how to use the new image cataloging capability in DigitalPro3 (now even more is possible with DigitalPro 6!) to accomplish your goals.--David Cardinal

Your catalog starts with your workflow

Whether you are an amateur or a pro, you have a workflow--whether you call it that or not. Most likely there is a pattern to how and when you shoot and what you do with the images. Understanding that pattern and your needs is the first crucial step in creating a productive cataloging system. We won't go into the details of how you process your images here--we'll save that element of workflow for another issue--but your general workflow probably falls into one of two types: event based or library based. We'll talk about how each works and how it affects your cataloging solution.

Event-based workflows center on an event or job. If you are shooting for yourself the event might be a vacation or family get together. If you are shooting for a client the event might be a press conference, baseball game, or wedding. The key thing about an event workflow is that you work through the images from a particular event or shoot, process them, print them or hand them off to a client or editor, and then can safely file or archive them based on the event. An extreme example is weddings. Once the initial job is complete, when a member of the wedding party calls in for more prints you know precisely which wedding they are from and can retrieve them from an archive of CDs or DVDs fairly easily. Event photographers can thus usually make do quite nicely with a solution that includes an offline cataloging facility like the one built into DigitalPro for retrieving images from past events.

Library-based workflows are a catch all for photographers who can't neatly compartmentalize their efforts. Stock shooters and nature photographers are great examples. An agency or an editor may want a photo of a particular type of scene or species of animal. Retrieving that image may require searching photos that were taken months or even years apart in different locations. Even with an offline cataloging facility this task can be daunting if it means retrieving images from dozens of different CDs or DVDs for a single article or book request. So those with library based workflows are best off if they can afford enough disk storage to keep their images online and catalog them there.

Most of us, of course, have a Hybrid of both Event and Library based images, which means we need a cataloging solution that can accommodate either, but it is important to know which is your primary workflow so that you can optimize the solution you establish to make you as productive as possible.

Cataloging starts with Filing: The most basic step in image cataloging is deciding how and when to file images. You can always retrieve images later using other criteria but folders and files are the natural way files are stored on your computer so you'll want to leverage that to give you a leg up on organizing.

When you file depends on your workflow. If you shoot in predictable sessions and know just where you want to file your images, then as you load the card into your computer you'll want to specify where the images get filed. This is typically a sub-folder for the particular event or date grouped under a folder which represents that sport or client. You may also want to rename the images at that time, possibly with a unique date or number code. An example of this type of filing would be:

    Weddings\2004\July\Madonna\ with images renamed: WedMad_070204_#####

DigitalPro lets you accomplish this right from the Load Card Wizard. If you delete many of your initial images or do a lot of review before filing you might be better off placing the images in a temporary location (called a "Shoot" in DigitalPro) and then filing later as a separate step.

Where you file also affects your workflow: Not everyone can effectively file by event. If you have images you need to retrieve by subject, you are probably better off filing that way. Obviously a single image may pertain to many subjects, for which we'll show you some ways to use keywords and categories, but if there is a primary subject then filing that way will give you a headstart on quick retrieval.

For example, a wildlife photographer could use Moose Peterson's filing guidelines for their bird images and file Bald Eagle images as:

    Birds\Hawk-Like\Bald Eagle\NNNN-#####

Filing using folders would work pretty well if every image was only about one thing. But of course images have multiple subjects in them (different people or species or buildings or activities) and are shot at a particular location and possibly for a particular client. They may also illustrate certain behaviors or photographic techniques. As your image library grows your memory won't be enough to remember all the "extras" for each of your images.

Tagging can be a quick fix for grouping sets of images. The simplest way to create a few groups of images is with tags. Technically these are usually implemented as IPTC Urgency codes from 0-9. The IPTC is a press consortium that had the foresight to describe a set of image annotations over 30 years ago which is the basis for Photoshop's File Info feature and have become the de facto standard for image tagging and captioning. One obvious use of tags is to give a particular number to your "favorites" or "selects" within a folder for quick retrieval when you need a submission. DigitalPro offers the "Show only Tagged" command to help with this, in addition to allowing for searching & sorting by Priority.

IPTC Captioning & Categorization

The IPTC also defines a set of image fields that can be used to describe the key elements of an image and help to retrieve it. The most commonly used of these is the Caption field, a free text string of up to 1024 characters which gets used for everything including shooting data because it is readable in Photoshop. But some of the other fields, including copyright, byline and location can be just as important and helpful in providing a good way to organize images. [NOTE: If you are submitting images to an organization which uses the IPTC standards make sure you use these fields properly as they do each have an official meaning.]

Keywords allow you to have general purpose tags which can be standardized. Beyond simple numeric tagging is assigning keywords. Kewords, unlike folders or categories, don't really nest into a tree. Instead they are just terms which apply to images. For ease of assignment DigitalPro allows you to have groups of them, but each keyword is an independent term. You can assign as many keywords as you want to each image. Very importantly, keywords are IPTC compatible so that they can be interchanged with other users. In fact many stock agencies have pre-defined keyword lists (which you can import into DigitalPro to get you started) that they want their shooters to use so that clients can easily retrieve images of interest to them.

Categories are the most powerful cataloging tool. Categories are even more powerful than keywords. They can be nested so that images can belong to a sub-category of a particular category and then be retrieved when you ask for all images belonging to that category or sub-category. Not all software implements this 'nesting' feature, but for users of products like DigitalPro that do it provides an excellent and accurate retrieval option.

Any image catalog, by definition, will keep your category assignments in their database (aka catalog). But if you are interested in a solution that lets you share images with others while maintaining this important information--or if you just want to make sure you aren't getting locked in to a vendor's proprietary catalog--make sure you get one which will also maintain your keyword and category information in the file itself using the IPTC captioning. That way it can be read by Photoshop and many other IPTC compatible applications including DigitalPro. [Note: There is one oddity about IPTC categories. The primary category in IPTC is limited to one entry of at most 3 letters. So the Supplemental Category field, which allows unlimited entries which can be much longer is more flexible for general filing.]

Many users don't make full use of the cataloging capabilities they get "for free" when shooting digital. First your system knows when the image was captured and should let you search by that. Second, it knows what camera you used and what settings you had dialed in. Those too can help you isolate particular images or techniques. Finally, if you have a GPS attached to your camera you actually know where the image was captured, which provides another quick way to look for images.

Making Cataloging Painless:

Creating a good image catalog will take you some work. Personally I wouldn't try to catalog everything at once. You'll probably wind up with a lot of information you won't use and you'll probably forget some key uses of your images that you wish you'd considered. I tend to organize or tag images as I get requests for a particular type of information or as I start to teach a course that requires examples of particular techniques, etc. However you decide to approach the task, having the right software solution is essential. Some key features to look for include:

Real-time Cataloging (Catalog while you Browse): I used to use an image catalog when I scanned my images because I had few enough images that I could live with the tedious process of importing or "cataloging" them. When I switched to digital the volume of images quickly made that impractical or at least too painful. So when we added image cataloging to DigitalPro3 we introduced the industry's first real-time catalog. DP3 catalogs while you browse! That's right, the cataloging system is so fast that it can do it while you are looking through your folders. Of course you can do it on command also, but you never need to worry about having forgotten or having to wait for a catalog import to finish!

Unlimited Size Catalogs: Here too, if you're scanning images limits are okay, but shooting digital is designed to remove limits. The only limit on the size of your catalog should be your imagination.

User Friendly Interface: Many catalog systems were designed for newspaper archivists and librarians, not working photographers. Make sure yours has a simple interface like the checkboxes in DigitalPro which let you assign keywords, categories and priorities while you browse by simply checking the box or dragging the images to the category or keyword of your choice.

Fully integrated with Folder Browsing: It also doesn't make sense to only be able to see your catalog as some type of weird database query. Make sure your catalog is seemlessly integrated with your normal file and folder browsing, so that you can use your familiar ways of finding your images rather than limiting yourself to searching. Just as importantly, make sure you can catalog your images where they exist, and not have to import or move them just so the catalog software can keep track of them for you.

Easy Backup and Restore: Make sure your cataloging solution offers a simple backup & restore capability for the image catalog.

Standard Database: You'll probably never want to look inside your image catalog, but if you ever need to, its your data (or in this case meta-data) and you have a right to it. DigitalPro is based on the same underlying engine as Microsoft Access, so you can always use Access or a compatible database to open the catalog and look at the contents.

Catalog Gotchas:

There are some tricky issues to consider when you start cataloging your images. The first is Raw Files. You can of course assign keywords or categories to your Raw files in your image catalog, but since Raw files are for the most part undocumented, they are very difficult to caption. Photoshop, for example will not save any File Info to Nikon or Canon Raw files. DigitalPro will save IPTC caption data to Nikon Raw files but not to all Canon Raw file types. PSD files have a similar issue, as they are proprietary to Adobe (although the 8-bit version is documented). Consider using TIFF instead of PSD as your save format instead if you'd rather have an open standard format for your saved images. You can still preserve all your layers.

Putting it all together:

We've really just scratched the surface of image cataloging here, but hopefully we've given you enough to think about getting started. Everyone's style and workflow are slightly different, so feel free to take the framework we've provided here and modify it to suit your needs. Better yet, please share with us what you have found worked or didn't work for you or just ask our other readers for advice in our Software forum.

DigitalPro Tip of the Week

Since you may want to have your image categories saved back to your images as IPTC categories but sometimes want to create collections of images for temporary use--like image galleries or sets of images for a show or client--DigitalPro offers not only fully nestable IPTC Categories, but Collections. You can assign either to an image or group of images simply by clicking on it in the Collections & Categories tree in the main view, but only IPTC Categories are saved to the file. Collections are kept only in the DigitalPro catalog database, saving you time and file clutter and providing privacy if you want to keep your own groups of images that aren't visible to others.