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The Great Photo Organization Project

Lightroom DAM

Lightroom DAM

Alternate title: I am in the fifth circle of photo organization hell, reserved for those who knew they should be organizing their photos better but didn’t because they were lazy bastards.

So begins the great personal photo organization project. Here’s the situation: I’m looking at 30,000+ photos, a mix of personal and professional work, shot with 5 different cameras, spanning 10 years, in thousands of date-coded folders. The problem is simple: I can’t find anything. I’d like, for example, to see all photos of my daughter, oldest first. Or see all of the photos I’ve shot for stock. Can’t. I don’t have any catalogs, libraries, or tags.

I know. I’m an idiot.

I’ve entered the world of digital asset management (DAM). DAM in a nutshell is a process or system for organizing photos so that you can a) find the photo you want when you need it and b) archive your photos forever. You may be tempted to rely on your memory if you have a just a few thousand photos. Maybe your memory is better than mine. But I’ve crossed a personal threshold where it’s becoming increasingly frustrating to find old photos.

So here’s the simple and daunting plan: starting with my most recent photos, tag every photo with keywords. I’m using software that can add tags to photos and then allows you to search for photos with those tags. So, all photos I shoot for stock might be tagged “Stock.” Photos of landscapes shot for stock might be “Landscape, Outdoors, Stock.” I’m committed to tagging for an hour a day, every day, until it’s done.

Aside from the sheer enormity of the task (30,000 is a lot of photos), I’m faced with some practical problems related to tagging that I hope you can help me with:

  • As soon as I tagged my second photo I realized that I need a common taxonomy for my tags. I can’t tag some photos “Bird” and others “Birds” and still others “Winged beasts.” I need to pick a definitive tag and use it for all of my photos. How do I decide? Should all tags be plural or singular? Does it matter? Also, while I’ll be the main user of the archive for now, one day my children or grandchildren will inherit my collection, so the tags will need to make sense to other people besides myself.
  • Tags don’t have heirarchy. But I’d like to group related tags together. People, for example. Is it better to tag photos of people with just their name? Or something like this: “People:John Watson”. Or use multiple tags like this: “People, John Watson”? The idea being, I’d like to see all of my photos of John Watson (handsome fellow) but I think sometimes I’d also like to see photos of all of my people.
  • Do you have an opinion on where the metadata should be stored? As I see it there are two choices: in the photo itself or in a central database. There are pros and cons for each method. Searching is much faster if you have a database. Compatibility with future DAM software is better if you store metadata inside the photo. Some people advocate not altering originals at all, not even the metadata. If you store metadata in your images, how do you alter your tags if you decide to rename one or you want to combine two similar tags into one?

How do you organize your photos? How do you find photos when you need them later?

It’s honestly driving me a little nuts right now. It’s no coincidence that I just finished reading The DAM Book, Second Edition (Krogh). I’ll have a full review (and giveaway) soon, but in short: this book is incredible—get it.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.