Just to be clear, this is simply a set of ideas, not a set of instructions. We all think and work differently, but it’s possible you think and work like me and that you might find these ideas useful.
There is a lot of factual information in this article about image cataloguing software and its organisational tools, but also a whole bunch of things I’ve learned very slowly, often the hard way, by persisting with things that I thought ought to work, only to realise that they didn’t.
Culling is important
I didn’t used to think it was. I thought I could dump everything I ever shot and everything I ever did into a giant and ever growing catalog of images, and the the database gods would show me ways to find what I wanted and organise the rest.
That didn’t happen. I learned that the bigger the database the slower the performance. I learned that the filtering, sorting and organising didn’t happen by magic, and that someone actually had to manually add all those keywords, ratings, color labels and flags for a system like this to work.
I don’t mind doing that with ten images, perhaps a hundred, but not a thousand at a time. That’s why I’m now convinced that you should cull images before they even go into your catalog, and why I wrote a two-part guide to culling to help with that process.
Almost all image cataloguing applications display your images in their original folders on your computer. The exceptions are those that import images into a central image catalog – a ‘managed’ catalog. Mostly, though, cataloguing tools are based around ‘referenced’ images that stay in their original location on your computer.
You can browse these folders and their images in your cataloguing software just as you can browse the same folders in Windows or the Mac Finder.
Folders are very clear and obvious organising tool, but they are inflexible. Folders are ‘exclusive’. Images are in one folder or another; the are not in two places at the same time.
So you could organise your images in folders by date, by the location they were taken, by the people in the pictures – whatever. But you have to choose one of those things and then you are stuck with it.
Albums are much more adaptable and versatile. Where folders are actual containers, albums are ‘virtual’ containers. Their advantage is that a photo can be in as many different albums as you like because the album only contains a ‘reference’ to the photo, not the photo itself. This provides a level of flexibility that folders just don’t have.
Albums are ‘inclusive’ not ‘exclusive’ . Being in one album does not exclude a photo from being in another. This idea of ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’ properties comes up a lot in cataloguing.
Smart Albums (Smart Collections)
With a regular album, you choose the images you want to add to it. This can be a time-consuming process. Smart albums are different – they populate automatically, based on the properties of the photos in your library. They look a little like regular albums, but they are actually much closer to saved searches.
For example, you could create a smart album to show all the pictures taken with a particular make and model of camera, or with a particular lens, or at a particular ISO setting, or with a specific keyword – or combinations of all of these.
Smart albums can be very useful, but they can also be a little addictive. It’s very easy to end up with a lot of smart albums created for very specific purposes, long since forgotten.
One of the hazards of building an image catalog is including too many images. Another is having too many albums and smart albums, which is another, equally dangerous, form of clutter.
Keywords have long been a mainstay of image cataloguing applications, photo organising systems and stock photography websites. They are words or phrases you can create at will and attach to images to help you organise and find them later.
They sound a great idea, and are, but only if you are prepared to put the time into organising and applying them properly. Like any organising system, they can turn into a real time soak that’s eventually a distraction rather than an aid.
Keywords are not essential for everyone. For some they may the be mainstay of their system; for others (me included) they have some occasional value but are too time-consuming to apply rigorously to every image.
Keywords are ‘inclusive’. A photo can have as many different keywords applied to it as you like.
You could organise your photos by applying keywords and then creating smart albums to bring them together, or you could create regular albums and add images to them. There are many different ways to tag, organise and search your images.
Ratings are a very useful way to mark out your best photos, but they can quickly get out of control and lose their meaning.
What do I mean by that? Firstly, that unless you cull your images first, you can often end up using ratings to do that job, with the result that you can have a series of very similar images separated only by their ratings. How does that help you in the long run?
Secondly, I quickly lose my critical skills when rating images. I have to do it while my eyes are fresh, or I start downrating images artificially because I’ve grown bored, or uprating them excessively because I’ve lost my decisiveness.
A third problem is that ratings are probably too subtle for what we need. Five stars makes sense for your best shots, four stars for shots with promise, three starts perhaps for images you don’t want to get rid of… but two stars? One star? Star ratings do encourage a sort of precision about image quality judgements that perhaps isn’t justified.
But five star ratings are useful. Everyone knows what they mean. Ratings are also ‘exclusive’. A five star image can’t also be a three-star or a four-star. There’s no ambiguity.
I know a lot of photographers use color labels as a workflow tool or an additional form of organisation. It’s a bit too detailed for my way of working, but if you have a rigorous, defined workflow where you need to know the stage each image is at, color labels are a good way to do it – if you can’t use folders. I would rather use folders, but that’s not possible in all programs.
Color labels are also exclusive. Images have one color label only – they can’t be assigned more than one.
Flags and ‘picks’
If you find star ratings a little too pernickety, flags can be useful. Most cataloguing tools offer flags or their equivalents, where you can mark images as ‘flagged’, ‘unflagged’ or ‘rejected’. Or you can use flags to mark images which are ready to use, need processing or are no good.
Flags are another ‘exclusive’ image property. A photo has one flag or another – it can’t be assigned more than one.
Exclusive vs inclusive image properties
|EXCLUSIVE PROPERTIES||INCLUSIVE PROPERTIES|
So which organisational tool is best?
This is definitely a personal preference. If you have a very specific process or workflow, then folders are good. If you maintain an image library as a ‘stock’ catalog for all sorts of projects and work, then albums and keywords are very good ‘inclusive’ tools that let you find images based on all sorts of different criteria in a way that folders alone do not.
Read more: Best image cataloguing software
Ratings, color labels and flags have their place too, but just because you can’t find a use for them, it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. We all need to find an organisational system that gives us the search tools and ‘findability’ we need with an acceptable level of effort in adding ratings, tags, keywords, flags and all the rest.
I use folders as a basic container to remember where my files are actually stored, albums for short term or long term projects, star ratings (but only to mark 5-star images) and a limited number of keywords to identify specific locations, techniques and black and white images (so that I can find them separately to color ones).
As for the best organising software, there are a number of programs that can do this very effectively:
- Adobe Lightroom Classic (good for desktop based organising)
- Adobe Lightroom CC (leading the field for cloud based organising)
- Capture One 20 (three different organising approaches)
- ON1 Photo RAW 2020 (combines regular browsing with cataloguing)
- Exposure X5 (likewise)
- Luminar 4 (simplistic compared to the others, but improving)
Your organisational system has to work for you, and to work the way your mind works. Image cataloguing software offers a wide range of tools, but not on the basis that you must use them all.