Catalog your photos

If you’ve been taking pictures for a few years, you now have hundreds of photos on your computer, or maybe thousands. How do you find the one(s) you want?

"I'm looking for that picture I took a few years ago of Cousin Joe playing tennis," you say? I currently have over 50,000 photos on my computer. Finding that one photo, if I don't have something to help me, will take me much too long.

If you only have hundreds of photos, you can search through them all manually with a viewing program. If you know that you took the picture in the summer of last year, then you can probably go right to it. If you have thousands of pictures, you may need a little help finding that one picture you are searching for. That's where a program to help you catalog your photos comes in handy.

When you import your photos to your computer, you then just need to take a few minutes to describe each photo. It shouldn't take long. Often all the photos you import at one time are related, so you may be able to put one description on all of the photos at once. For instance, you might put a caption for the photo of Cousin Joe playing tennis simply as "Joe playing tennis". Now when you want to find this photo, simply search using your viewing program for "Joe" and "tennis". In no time, you should have just those photos with "Joe" and "tennis" in the descriptions displayed. At this point it should be a simple matter to select the one photo you were looking for.

A few years ago most of the image-viewing programs that allowed you to enter information about your photos kept all that information in their own proprietary database. I was never comfortable with that. What happened if the program corrupted the database? What if you moved your images to another computer? Was all that data lost?

It always seemed like the best (to me, the only) way to store that data was with the image file, so that information always went with the file. Now that's (mostly) possible. All of the digital camera manufacturers are following a standard called EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) Format. Many file formats, including RAW, TIFF and JPEG, allow the EXIF information to be embedded in the file. EXIF information may include data such as date and time the photo was taken, camera settings such as aperture, shutter speed, lens, focal length, flash information, ISO setting, where the photo was taken, and much more.

In addition, these image files may also include IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) information. This was originally intended for use by press photographers, but has fields for such information as the photographer's name and address, the location the picture was taken, photo title and description, and Keywords.

Between EXIF and IPTC, you can record an amazing amount of information about the picture right in the image file. Wherever you take the file, the information goes along for the ride. Now, all you need is a program that can read and modify that information, and display it in useful forms.

Many programs that can display the EXIF and IPTC information also have the ability to search for photos once you’ve added descriptions or Keywords. And these same programs can help you enter these descriptions and Keywords. The program I use primarily is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, which retails for $299 (if you're already using an earlier version, upgrades are under $100 - Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Upgrade). A couple less expensive products are ACDSee (about $70) and Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 (Win/Mac) (under $100 from Amazon.com).

The more information you enter, the more useful it will be when you search for photos. A good time to enter the information is when you copy your photos from your camera to your computer. Often, many of the photos will be similar, so you can apply the same information to many photos at once. Enter the location the photos were taken. Enter a subject, e.g., “George and Sue playing tennis in Central Park”. Enter Keywords like “George”, Sue, “Tennis”, and “Central Park”.

Once you’ve entered all of the information, you can easily search for photos. The flexibility of the search depends on the program you use. Say you want photos of George playing tennis. You might search for photos that contain both words “George” and “tennis”. Depending on your program, you might be able to limit this to a date range, also. So you could look for all photos of “George” and “Sue” taken in the year 2010. Or all of the photos of “George” in “New York”. (Remember, if you shot this in Central Park in New York, you would have put New York as the city.)

As you can see, the more good information you add to your photos to begin with, the more flexibility you will have when searching for photos later.

Another level of information you could add to your photos is a rating. Many programs allow you to add a “stars” rating to your image, usually from 0 to 5 stars. This would allow you to search for all of your photos of George playing tennis (Keywords “George” and “tennis”) with 3 or more stars so you don’t also find your pooler quality photos.

I’m still tweaking my personal rating system. Currently, when I import my photos into my computer, I assign all of them a rating of 1 star. Then I make a quick pass through them and assign all of the “throw away” shots a rating of 0 stars. But I don’t delete them yet. Why? A couple reasons. First, I don’t delete the photos from my camera memory card right away. My import software is smart enough to not import photos that I’ve already imported. However, if I delete the photo from my computer, it will import the photo again. Second, as I work through my other photos, I may find that one (or more) of the “throw away” photos is the only one I have of a particular person or subject. And, even though it is of poor technical quality, or otherwise not a very good picture, if it is the only one I have I may decide to keep it anyway.

How many photos get extra stars? My rule of thumb is that for every 10 photos with a certain # of stars, one of those is good enough to get bumped to the next level. This is just a rule of thumb, a guideline, not an absolute rule. It helps me determine if I’m being too lenient or too strict in rating my photos overall.

If I start with 1000 1-star photos, about 100 of these will be good enough to get another star and become 2-star photos. And of these 100 2-star photos, about 10 will be worthy of becoming 3-star photos. Likewise, one of these 3-star photos may become a 4-star photo.

As you can see, I would expect only about 1 photo out of every 10,000 photos I shoot to become a 5-star photo. But this is only a general guideline to tell me if I’m promoting too many or too few photos. You may want to set different guidelines for yourself.

I’m an amateur photographer. I shoot for my enjoyment. So I can rate my photos however I feel without concerns about what someone else will think. Some days I just don’t shoot any photos that excite me and almost none of them are even worth 2 stars. Other times I go to a place that I really enjoy, and feel that a lot of the photos are worthy of 3 stars. I can add stars for my own reasons – maybe I know that no one else is likely to appreciate the photo, but it holds sentimental value for me. Or maybe I know I will want this photo to be easily found in a search later, so I rate it a little high so that it will show up in a smaller subset of photos in a search. I get to decide that because it is my rating system.