Image Organization and Metadata Workflow

by John Downey

If you capture a lot of images, establishing a solid workflow during the import and selection process is paramount to organizing your shots in a reasonable amount of time.  If you are a casual or freelance photographer like me, than the last task you want to think about is captioning and tagging several hundred images at a sitting.  If workflow is not ironed out early, you will frustrate yourself to no end, having to return to a massive grid of pictures and attempt to organize the mass of frames.  No thanks.  You need metadata behind all of the images you care about.

Metadata is data about data.  Maybe it was the four vs. six syllables that brought about that one but the point is clear – the sooner you decide (and stick with) a labeling system, the more time saved.  The idea behind attaching descriptors to an image are twofold; 1) to lay claim to your shot of Uncle Barney, lest someone decide to copy it for the company’s next life insurance ad, and 2) facilitate easy retrieval from your ten terabytes of glorious Droboness.  As photographers who are interested in tangible, visible information, metadata is hidden and cumbersome.  But it is important.  Even if you only take family snapshots, I guarantee there are many of them in your hard drive.  The typical thought is that ‘we’ll keep these so Johnny’s kids will get to see what a goofball he was when they’re all grown up.’  Ever thought about digging out those slides from the ’70s?  Right, I thought so.

The following method works for me best but is not the only way to get your eyes around gobs of images.  For those who have not decided or are frustrated in deciding on a process, I offer my experience.

Open a new catalog and choose rejects first (I use Lightroom terms, but the point is the same). This eliminates the chaff right off.  The tendency is to linger over the keepers and the “possibles” because you’re there scoping for the best selection of your shoot.    Instead, reject all the frames that are just not going to cut it no matter the possibilities with future advances in technology.  If you’re going to get PTSD over deleting any images at all, at least get them out of the way so you can concentrate on organizing the keepers.

I then look for the absolute standouts.  These are the shots that are five-star, period.  Rate them, pick them, whatever.  Those left in the grid are like the Misfit Toys – either they cannot compete with the five-star rated picks or need significant face lifting in post to make the cut.  Send those nagging buggers packing to No Man’s Land – that other external hard drive.  Don’t worry, they’ll sit there staring at each other until you decide to surf the light table some rainy afternoon.  Why waste time on the misfits when five-star celebrities are itching to get on the information highway?  Ensure they are codified and organized before letting them go.  Think I’m kidding?  If you don’t add concise metadata, no one will be able to find your images in the billions floating in the cyberspacious skies of the internet.

Organization and Classification

Again, forgive the Lightroom terminology, but I prefer to import images into separate catalogs for each major shoot or trip.  Conversations with my good friend and fellow photographer, Craig Corl, have led me to understand that an entire years’ pictures will likely bring your cataloging program of choice to its knees from the insurmountable volume of data that flood your RAM (thought you had enough, eh?).  So I now use a separate catalog if warranted and can later move pictures to other catalogs if necessary.  On import into whatever program you use, you’ll need to have default metadata that covers the entire shoot.

It’s All About You

Author, Copyright, Location, Time – think of these as standard fields that can be applied to a single catalog or shoot.  Create a default set so it’s only a click away before choosing >Import.  One of the most important reasons for this first and important step include claiming ownership and establishing usage rights to your images.  Even if you never sell a single photo, its wise to protect what is rightfully yours and avoid unscrupulous thieves from not only using your images for personal financial gain but in possible defamatory or profane ways as well.  There’s no need to write a book.  Fill out basic contact information and be concise with usage rights (best is All Rights Reserved) and save it as a template.

Collections – Catalog Subsets

So you metroed to NYC and shot for two days straight.  You are the author of everything (in your own mind), you lay claim to all the shots (don’t forget to register with the National Copyright Office – see forthcoming post) and you remained in the same general location.  After arriving, you visited several different districts, particular places, so create subsets or collections of the catalog.  Collections are ready for some attention like that of an AA support group – they all have some common issues that need to be addressed but are still unique individuals at heart.

Broad to Narrow

Hopefully you now have a manageable amount of frames in front of you.  Think in terms of the following:

Who or what is it? Think unique keywording, often referred to as tags.

When was it taken?  Aside from the actual date/time stamp embedded in the RAW file (make sure your camera’s clock is correct), think season or weather if germane to image description.

What is interesting?  Here is the meat of what the individual image is all about; its title, copy name, caption, scene, label and very specific tags, applicable to individual frames.

So as an example, I spent two days shooting around Manhattan, created a catalog titled Manhattan 2010 and imported with default author, copyright, city, state and country information, adding overall keywords like ‘urban’ or ‘city.’  Next I separated the catalog into collections as in Times Square, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Brooklyn, etc.  Within each collection, I selected subsets and tagged them with keywords like ‘peoplescape,’ ‘traffic,’ ‘taxies,’ ‘theater district,’ etc.  Finally, for the five-star bubbas, rename these individually with concise, descriptive titles, dates and sequence numbers (e.g, Man Running With Egg 20100312_2.dng).  Writing captions assist in thinking about the image – the who, what, when, where, as in single-sentance copy for an attention-grabbing news headline.  The why of the image should give pause to why you shot it in the first place.  While not necessarily a descriptor for a metadata field, thinking about the reasons why you capture your subjects defines personality and style that uniquely ties your photographs to you as the artist.

Finally, add some unique tags to differentiate those two or three similar shots of the same subject.  At the end of the day, you’ll be able to search through masses of storage with ease, draw more visitors to your site through optimal SEO keywords, and ensure the images you created belong to you.  It’s not that difficult if you start now with a small group of frames.  Don’t put it off – commit a few hours in front of the monitor now so you’ll have a more enjoyable time behind the lens.

Canon G11, ISO 200, 1/80@f8

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