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Managing Your Photo Database

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Your photos are your babies. They are your treasures.

How many of you, bend and cry, shouting SH*TTTT!! WTF! soon after you realize, you formatted the wrong CF/SD card? Or simply delete the wrong folder in your external hard drive, pushing hard to press the cancel button, while the numbers of the files in the state of “permanently deleted” slowly slipping away. Counting down from thousands to zero. Yup! You just killed your babies.

Sure you can brought them back to live [SOMETIMES].. but there’s no real guarantee that everything will be just the way they were, some files are even completely damaged. And if those are the pix that brings you money in the past.. Even if they might not gonna do the same in the future, still you’d feel very V E R Y stupid for deleting them.. those treasures of yours.

So, stop doing stupidity or limiting that possibility of regretting by managing your photo database. And just stop saying you’ll do it later. Once you got a day or two without assignments at all, thats when you should manage your babies.

If you dont know where to start, well, here’s an example. This is how I do it.

1. Get yourself a new external hard drive [min 1 TB].

For me, this is a must. It actually minimize the possibility of the need to delete some folders just to make extra room for new files. Considering the fact that am actually shooting RAW since 2008, so I definitely need a loot of space. And at the end of the day, I can use the old external HD (usually in smaller sizes, like 250 GB or 500 GB) for temporary storage during my travels. But if you cant afford one, dont let it stop you from starting to do all the photo managing session. Dont use it as an excuse. YOU JUST HAVE TO BE MORE CAREFUL in sorting and deleting files, thats all.

2. Prepare all the files you have from day 1 you shoot until the day before you start managing them.

Make sure you dont left out recent pictures you got on your 32 GB CF card, for example. Just bring them all in, infront of you.

3. Make folders in your new external hard drive.

You know your works better than anyone. And everyone has their own approach in “searching” the files they need, if they are in the hurry to find one. So, think like you need to find a certain file in a very short limited time, and make your folders based on that. Some people like to search by dates of the pix taken, some are by places. As for me, I made up some categories in which I alone can understand.

For example, these are the list in my new external HD :

  • 001 TEMPO (2004-2009)
  • 002 TEMPO Advertorial
  • 003 Assignments
  • 004 Animals and Pets
  • 005 Airports and Planes
  • 006 Baby and Children
  • 007 Words and Signs
  • 008 On Going Projects
  • 009 Family
  • 010 Friends
  • 011 Videos

I use numbering, because by default, folder names will be arranged in alphabetical order, and I still want to keep them in prioritize order. So I have my old files of the editorial pix I took when I worked for TEMPO (2004-2009), and a separate folder for advertorials I do for TEMPO in the current years. I do this because even up until now, TEMPO has been my regular client (even after I resigned from the editorial work in 2009). The subfolders of these two folders would be the years when I took the pix (2004, 2005, 2006, all the way to 2012)

My third folder is Assignment folder, which I dedicate for saving my works on assignments that are not for TEMPO. The sub folders in the Assignment folder are named after the clients. Like Readers Digest, Weekend Australian, Greenpeace, etc.

Then you can see there are weird folders named after Animals and Pets, Airports and Planes, Baby and Children and Words and Signs. If you have been following my works, you must have noticed that am currently working on new projects of shooting pix of pets ( Thats why I dedicate a whole folder for it. Then as for Airports and Planes, I make a folder for them because apparently, I have thousands of pix of airports and planes from places in Indonesia and several airports in Asia. I consider them a potential stock images. Photos of flight attendants, and sometimes funny things I found at airports as I wait for my flights, are being put in this folder. Similar explanation goes to Baby and Children folder, as well as Words and Signs.

On Going Projects folder have subfolders of my many on going projects. I even consider to put them not in just one folder, so it would be easier for a reminder about these projects. Am planning to let them out, not as sub folders anymore, but folders that named like “on going – india in indonesia” ; “on going – papua cataract” ; “on going – papua AIDS” and some thing like that. Just to make those folders as if they are in the same category, and placed in a certain orders to make it neat.

And then I have folders of Family and Friends, of which have subfolders of the years I took their pix. I do this because pix of friends and family can be really random and it’s always fun to see how people are changing (and ageing) from time to time. Different wrinkles on different folders of the same person. 😛

Basically, you can name your folders in any way you like them to be. You can make adjustments too, along the way, and its just fine. These folders are intended to make things easier for you. This is the first step in managing your files.

Do the rest of the steps, folder by folder to minimize mistakes and let you enjoy the process of being a file manager (or pretend that you are).

4. RENAME the files

Start with a folder in your old external hard drive. And rename the files. To do this, you need to have a photo manager software. It can be Photo Mechanic, Foto Station Pro or Lightroom. I have all of them, but only familiar with Photo Mechanic and Foto Station Pro. The Lightroom I have is only the beta version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. Personally, I would only use the Photo Mechanic to rename the files. Photo Mechanic works like magic, and put the files by default, according to the date taken. And if you have the exact same photo, of which you’ve accidentally renamed them in different names, they would still be put side by side and you can just delete one of them, so that the same image wont take up the space. [BUT MAKE SURE that they are exactly the same picture, with same file size and everything – You can check the metadata just to make sure]. Of course, it wont mean anything if you only delete one picture who happens to have a twins in the same folder. But imagine all the free space, if you actually the kind of person who repeatedly do the same mistake by copying the same file under different names.

How to rename them? Now this is the most important thing in the managing process. But also goes to your own preference.

See those 4 digits number on your original filenames? For example, DSC_0001.NEF or IMG_0003.JPG. I would strongly advice you to keep them, even when you rename them. And to do that in Photo Mechanic, is just so easy. Select the files, then click FILE, then choose Rename Photos (command+M in mac). Check marked the sequence after you set the sequence variable, and keep that 4 digit system, while you enter the photo renaming string on the column provided. You can rename them by the places, or the subject itself. See if the file renaming on the preview is adjusted to your likeness. Then click Rename.

Why keep the 4 digits? Because while you’re managing your old files, you also need to start building a system that you can use in the long run. Read more below to see what am talking about. If you have the habit to rename the files to as simple as “Nickmatulhuda001”, then you need to think of a better renaming system.

5. LABEL the files or make RATINGS

This is when you have to be true to yourself. How many percent of your works that actually good and not junk? Those blurry pictures which you cant define under the term “art”, or out of focus Presidents and rock stars you took, trash them! I have to admit, after I rate my pictures based on best, good, quite good, okay, nah, and delete!, I can save up until half of the disk. Well, its either telling me that am not a great photographer yet, or am just getting better in setting my bar and become a good editor for myself.

Photo Mechanic has 10 different colors to help you determine color class of the picture. (They use the term Winner for purple, Winner Alt for red, Superior for orange, etc.). While Foto Station Pro use the term Priority of High, 2, 3, 4, Normal and etc, with the same coloring system. This way, even if you colored your pictures red in Photo Mechanic, the color will also appear the same in Foto Station Pro.

So, color your picture, and get rid of the ones who doesnt colored. Be mean, but be flexible. Dont just put them as good pic or bad pic category, nobody is that good. Compromise, but be truthful. If it’s that bad, delete them.

6. Copy [DONT MOVE] the files from your old external HD to the new ones and put them in the folders you made.

Got all those rainbow on your files? Recheck them by viewing the files in the folder according to Color Class (if you’re using Photo Mechanic) or Priority (if you’re using Foto Station Pro. See the ones without colors? Well, if you dont have the heart to delete them now, you can do it later (though it only meant postponing the work). But once you are certain in making them priority to be deleted, when you need that extra space, thats when they will eventually have to go.

Now, back to those colorful files. Copy them [DONT MOVE THEM just yet, because you still need back up files for now] to your new external hard drives, and put them in the folders you made.

Do this one folder at a time, until all the files in your old external hard drives are renamed, labeled, and copied to their new home, in their new rooms. You can make notes, if you are stuck in rearranging the files in your old hard drives, because you cant afford to buy a new ones.

After all done, make sure you have enough money to buy another external hard drives to make a copy of everything! And dont put those hard drives in one drawer, because then it will be useless. The idea to make a back up is when you lost one, you still have….? back up! Ding ding ding! Correct!

So put it else where, or take it to the bank and put it in safe-deposit box if they are really precious. I have a friend who have five back ups of the same files of photos he took in Afghanistan. That would seem a little paranoid, but seeing that he now has two best selling books about Afghanistan, and its neighboring countries with those pictures, well.. they’re a treasure, alright..

Okay, now about that new system you need to have ;

Before I saved my new works in the hard drive, I will do this following ;

    • Copy the pictures in my laptop.
    • Rename them all using the 4 digits as numbering system. [for example : PapuaAIDS2011_1234 instead of PapuaAIDS1]
    • Edit the pictures by labeling them based on quality.
    • Once am sure about my selection, then I MOVE them to the external hard drive. [at this stage, I decide to MOVE, not just copy, to prevent me having the same pictures scattered all over the place, in my card, laptop, and hard drives]
    • Every month, sometimes every two months, depends on how frequent is my work that month, I will copy the new pictures to another external hard drives for back ups.


One other important thing :

In photojournalism, we only do minor editing. Which then saved as JPG in different quality and size images depend on your client’s need. Some are delivered via FTP, some others are okay by emails. This is when the 4 digits come in handy. I will rename the .JPG files with the exact same renaming as the .NEF and still can save them in the same folder, without over writes the files. And I will use that 4 digits as my file reference. Like a catalog.

Even if the clients asked us to rename it the way they want, they usually dont mind with your numbering system, and we can still use their file naming system at front. If you need to put them in specific order, you can rename them like 01PapuaAIDS_1256 ; 02PapuaAIDS_1092. So they still will be in an order you want, even if they are not in their original sequence.

Another example, If I send picture PapuaAIDS_1234 and PapuaAIDS_1235 to my client and a year later he asked for the same files in bigger file size, I can easily look up for the files by searching the numbers. Am not really good at math science, but am pretty sure the chances of having the same number on different files, will not as high as having a renaming file system as easy as Nickmatulhuda001.

And since am shooting RAW, I will have that .XMP file accompany my edited files. Thus, I wont be needing my JPG files. Especially those .JPG that need to be saved in highest quality. That would just eat up the space. Having both .NEF and .XMP allowed me to have my latest edit on the pictures I saved, and easily saved them as .JPG anytime I need them in the future. Although, some are specially edited for the client’s preference, and I like to keep a copy. A few big sized .JPG files wont hurt. Just make sure this special treatment only for your special pictures. Also, if we send the edited pictures by email, most likely we can still have a copy of that in our email account. Just use the search button in your email settings, and voila! its there for you to use.

The cool thing in managing your database is when you find that old pictures that is great, but a bit forgotten. And as you grow in your work, the way you see pictures you took 3-5 years ago, can be really different now. You can see them as disgusting, or potential for a certain project. Setting up a workflow in managing your photo database can be a pain in the ass just to think of it, but once you do it, you cant stop. Well.. actually YOU SHOULDN’T STOP until all the pictures are well managed, and got yourself a few copies for back ups.

Hmm… I guess thats about it! And its just an example of workflow you can find on the internet. This system has been working out for me for years. You can adopt it until you have your own managing system which will be developed as you go along. Chase Jarvis, one of my favorite – innovative photographer/entrepreneur has a whole team for backing up files alone! Check how he and his team do it in

Of course, thats very huge and not every photographer as successful as he is. But one thing is for sure, even a not (yet!) successful photographer needs a good workflow! It will ease yourself in the future, and being organized can actually make you look very efficient in front of your client. Because the last thing they want to hear when they ask for “Picture A” is having you all confused and said, “Gee.. let me see if I still have the picture. Not sure where I put them. Am sure it’s there somewhere. Let me get back to you later.” And by the time you find the picture — a week later.. you’re old news, man!


Written by nickmatulhuda

January 24, 2012 at 9:19 pm

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