Digital Photography Fundamentals: Storing and Managing Your Images

By Paul Duncanson

Excerpted from Photography for the Web (SitePoint)


A modest-size memory card in a modest digital camera—say a four gigabyte card in an eight mega-pixel camera—can hold over 400 photos if you’re shooting raw and hundreds more if you only save as JPEG. Yet, this could be less room than needed for one afternoon’s work if you’re a wedding photographer. If you’re new to photography and you follow our suggestion that the best way to learn to take one good photo is to take a few thousand really bad ones, it could be too little for you too. You probably won’t want to keep every single image—even the best event photographers toss out more shots than they keep—but at some point storing, sorting, evaluating, and filing those images will be necessary. And it’s a very good idea to plan for that before you fill your first gigabyte.

The Importance of Backups

Before we dive into the exciting world of filing and sorting images, it would be good to review the single most common piece of advice (and single most ignored) ever given to people who work with computers:

Always make backups!

When you return home after a long day’s photography and copy all your shiny new images from your memory cards onto your computer, that’s a good start. There are now two copies of each image. Sooner or later you’ll need to erase the memory card to shoot more photos, so you’re back to one copy of each image. If your computer fails, if you accidentally delete or overwrite a file, if anything bad happens to your home or your computer—the photo is gone. A good insurance policy will cover you for missing hardware and any applications installed on that hardware. But it cannot replace a lost photo.

Avoid trusting your photos to any one device. Most people seem to think that it won’t happen to them right up until the moment that it happens. Computer hardware failures do happen, and they can happen very suddenly and surprisingly. During the writing of this book, my computer, camera, and memory cards performed flawlessly but my external backup disk failed without warning, wiping out a whole terabyte of data. The drive went from okay to inaccessible between hourly backups in the middle of a very large job. Nothing was lost because I’m rather paranoid about losing photos and book manuscripts. My backup plan works like this:

Work in progress lives on my main desktop computer’s hard drive (an iMac). An external 1.5 terabyte drive(three times the size of the iMac’s drive) backs everything up automatically every hour via Apple’s nifty Time Machine application. As well as the current version, Time Machine backs up all the earlier data for as far back as your drive capacity allows (which is why a drive three times the size of the one it’s backing up is useful).

My whole image library and all my active projects are also backed up on a 250GB portable USB hard disk, which lives in my everyday carry bag. When I’m out shooting photos, the bag holds my main camera; when I’m writing, it holds my laptop. No matter what I’m doing, it holds that portable drive. Files are updated on the portable drive when major changes are made or at the end of a day of shooting.

My main active project (the manuscript for this book at this time) also lives on an 8GB USB flash drive that hangs from my keychain and in an online dropbox at The online copies are more for exchanging files with editors, but they’ll do as a backup if everything else is lost. The flash drive can be taken out and plugged into any nearby computer for an impromptu writing session.

Finally, I keep a number of extra memory cards for my camera and don’t erase them until its contents are copied to at least two of the above drives.

It might seem excessive, but it makes my projects hard to kill. Losing any one drive costs me nothing but the replacement of the hardware. Losing my main backup drive was annoying, but all that was permanently destroyed were some early drafts of old, completed projects. It was still frustrating, but less so than permanently losing everything. You should hope that you never need backups, but always keep several.

Never Work on Your Originals
There’s another reason why you should always keep backups of your work: to have an original copy of your work. That way, if you do any work on your images, you always have the option of starting again from scratch. If the finished edit fails to look as good as you hoped, or the client wants the image done differently, or even if you just want to show off your Photoshops kills, having the untouched original means you can always go back to the start.

Make a habit of backing your work up often. A lot of external hard disks ship with automatic backup applications that can be scheduled to update their backups regularly. As I’ve mentioned, Apple’s Time Machine application, included in the Macintosh operating system since version 10.5, automatically makes hourly backups of any changed files. There really is no excuse for being without backups of any of your important files.

Metadata and Tags

When you take a photo, your camera records more than just the image that’s in front of it. Embedded in the file is a large amount of extra data: the make and model of the camera, the exposure settings, whether the flash fired, the time and date the shot was taken, and much, much more. Once the photo has been copied to your computer, this metadata can be used to sort, file, and search through your images. The illustration below shows the metadata retrieved from a photo by the Adobe Bridge application.

A part of the metadata panel in Adobe Bridge

The usefulness of metadata goes beyond this, though. Further information can be added in which ever application you use to catalog your images: names of people in the photo, the event or occasion, ratings, the name of the location and its GPS coordinates, the project or which it was shot, the name and contact details of the photographer, the copyright details, and as many different relevant keywords you can think of—all can be filed with the image.

Metadata is not always stored in the image file itself. The details of your camera and its settings at the time of shooting are added to the file by the camera, but titles, notes, and records of adjustments—the details added after you transfer the image to your computer—might be kept separate from the image file. Your image management application might store extra information in either a library file that holds the data for all your images (Apple’s iPhoto does this) or a sidecar file—a separate file containing the additional metadata—for each individual image (Adobe’s products tend to use this method). A sidecar file should always be in the Adobe-developed XMP format and be readable by most other applications. Storing the metadata in an application-specific library file might mean that the data can only be read by the one application that you created it in. Metadata can store a whole lot more information about a file than the filename can, so using it to sort and index your images will give you a much more flexible and searchable catalogue.

Naming, Sorting, and Rating

On a small scale you can keep track of your photos by sorting and storing them in folders or naming them by subject or theme. When you have a thousand images to file, however, naming each of them individually is tedious—not to mention a little difficult. If you lack some sort of a plan, finding one specific image can be like trying to find a particular needle in a needlestack. Sorting them into directories based on subject can only really work if you have only one subject per photo or if you store multiple copies of each photo. Even broader categorization—folders for locations, people, events, phototypes, and so on—fall apart when people stage an event in a specific location. On a small scale, say the work done from one day’s shooting, you can accomplish this because there’s fewer photos to sort and they all at least have the date in common. When you have thousands taken over a long time, you need another system.

The key to keeping track of thousands of images lies not in filing but in indexing, labeling, and tagging. The idea of spending any significant amount of time in organizing and filing is probably filling you with a desire to bail. If so, you’re in good company! When you first start cataloging images there will likely be a lot of them to work through. You can be forgiven for wanting to put off naming and labeling and tagging and cataloging your images, but the sooner you start, the easier it will be. With a good image management application, the process becomes easier the more you do.

A lot of stress can be avoided if you let your computer do as much of the work as possible. It is, after all, what computers are for. They think about the tedious stuff to save you the effort. The applications we’ll be looking at spend most of their time creating and maintaining indexes of image files. Rather than grouping the actual files into relevant categories, an image-organizing application keeps track of where your image files are and allows you to create indexes, collections, and sets of images by manipulating the indexes. It looks like you’re seeing your image files rearranged and reordered onscreen, but actually you’re just seeing previews displayed according to the index you and the application create. The original files remain where they were put.

Adobe Bridge: If you have Photoshop (CS or Elements) you’ll also have an application called Adobe Bridge. Bridge is unlike the image organizers and editors we’ll be looking at. Rather than build indexes and base collections on them, Bridge browses and manipulates the image files in their actual location and performs most editing functions by opening the image with Photoshop. It was designed by Adobe to browse and work with files from all the Creative Suite applications. It’s very good for browsing images—especially if you already have them sorted and filed in an organized way—but doing the initial organizing is a little tedious.

Your camera should have shipped with an application to handle importing and organizing the photos from it. There are other applications available from alternate sources which often do a better job (and support a wider range of cameras; for instance, the software provided with your camera might be unable to read the raw images from other brands or even later models of your brand). We’ll look at some of the application choices a bit later.

The first step in becoming organized is to import your images into the application. You might be given the option to have the application scan your entire hard drive and look for images to catalog. This can be time consuming and may result in a large number of images found that you’ve no wish to catalog. It can also help you find that image you misplaced several projects ago. It’s your choice. If your hard disks are a disorganized mess of folders without any real plan, a full scan might be a good idea. You can always delete the unwanted images from the application later. Adobe Lightroom’s import dialog, shown below, lets you choose images, rename them, and attach metadata while it imports.

Adobe Lightroom’s import dialog

If you’re given the option of moving all the files to be cataloged to the one folder, you should consider taking it. Image files can be backed up easily, as you know from your habit of making backups. Keeping your image files in the one place—Windows and Mac OSX both provide a unique folder for storing pictures—makes backing them up easier. Dragging just one folder to another drive is simpler than finding and dragging many. In the event that you need to restore your files from a backup, having them all together will speed up the moving, and also make the rebuilding of indexes and previews easier and quicker. How the files are sorted within the folder is a little less important. Once you have them stored you’ll almost always be using your new image organizer to find and work with them. Most applications default to storing them in subfolders by date, and this is also a good idea.

How the files are sorted within the folder is a little less important. Once you have them stored you’ll almost always be using your new image organizer to find and work with them. Most applications default to storing them in subfolders by date, and this is also a good idea.

Once everything is imported into the application, it is time to go to work tagging and rating images. The images should all have the dates and times they were taken attached to them and they’ll probably be sorted chronologically. The photos of any events should all be grouped together that way, so that’s a good place to start adding keywords. Birthdays, Christmases, holidays, and soon should all be labeled as such. Locations should be named if they’re important. Even if you have GPS coordinates attached to your images, 37°45'52"S144°58'13"E hardly says “home.” If your application can detect faces, tell it to do so and name the faces it finds. Each time you add a keyword or name to a photo, that word will be available in a list, a menu, or some other control, so subsequent images can be labeled with just a mouse-click or two. Multiple images can be selected and have the same keywords applied to all of them. You can never have too many keywords. iPhoto’s location tag works with Google Maps to show you the geographical location from within iPhoto, as shown below.

iPhoto’s location tag working with Google Maps

While you’re adding names and places and other keywords,you should find the option to rate images. Most applications support ratings from 1 to 5, except Picasa which only lets you add a single star, disappointingly. You can use the ratings in many ways. Five-star images can be picked out for easy showing off or uploading of your best stuff. One-star images can easily be gathered together for trashing, and ratings in between can indicate the degree of work they might need to make them work. (Check your keyboard shortcuts. Number ratings are often given an easy shortcut—usually Ctrl+1 to 5 in Windows or Command+1 to 5 on a Mac. It’s the quickest way to mark the images to which you want to return.)

The point of all this tagging and rating is that the organizing application can find and sort your photos using the tags and metadata included at the time of shooting. If, for example, you filter your whole photo collection by date, focal length, keyword, and subject name, and only show five-star-rated photos, finding your favorite photo of your child on her birthday, shot with your best lens, will be much easier.

For further organizing, you can create collections or albums. The names vary according to the applications but the concept is the same. A collection is a list of photos, much like a playlist in a media player application. The filtering and sorting functions can make groups of images related by common data. Collections allow you to build groups based purely on how you want to group them together. Most applications also have the option to create smart albums. You define a set of rules that tell the application what you want to collect—say, images with a rating of four or higher taken between the start and end dates of your last holiday—and it will gather images that match the criteria into a collection.

While writing this book, I’ve spent a lot of time playing with many applications on different platforms to see what they’re capable of and what they do well. Adobe’s Lightroom best suits my style of working. I import images from my camera directly into Lightroom, which adds my name and copyright details at that point, plus any keywords that I want to add to the whole batch. The newest batch of images in Lightroom are cataloged under Previous Import until the next time you import images, which is worth taking advantage of. Before importing the next memory card of images, I drop any existing images for specific projects into the collections I created for those projects when they began. I also add obvious keywords—location, the names of significant people in them—and give a star to any that appear worthy of (or needing) extra attention at first.

That’s all I do at the time of importing. Later, when all the day’s memory cards are imported and backed up,I go through each collection’s new images and add stars to the ones that are probable keepers, flags to the ones that need work, and consign the ones that are unusable to the trash. If I come across a photo I don’t like, or where the subject has a silly expression, it may still qualify as usable; they could very well form the basis for a composite image that’s better than any unedited image from the shoot.The only photos that are trashed at this point are ones where a flash failed to fire or the whole scene is blurred due to focus or movement issues.

Next, I use Lightroom’s Develop module to make easy fixes to the images I flagged as being worthy of attention: crooked images are straightened; brightness, contrast, and color balance are fixed; and cropping is done. Anything more complex is done in Photoshop later.

Outside of Lightroom, I keep all the camera raw files in my Mac’s Pictures directory in subfolders for years, months, and dates. This makes it a bit easier to share large amounts of raw files with a collaborator: I just copy the appropriate day’s folder for them.

Files to be worked on in Photoshop are exported to a new folder for each major project, and these copies are worked on until finished. Many projects require another application in addition to Photoshop for further work—usually Illustrator or InDesign for layout—and since I mostly work with Adobe applications, I use Bridge to browse and manage the work. When I’m done working on them, I import the finished files back into Lightroom and file them in the same catalog as the original images. This keeps everything for each project in the same place and makes managing a final product easy. From Lightroom I can take a bunch of raw images, some lightly retouched and several heavily Photoshopped pictures, and export them all to the one email message, all in the same format at the same size for the client to look over.

Image Organizing Applications

Your camera, no doubt, came with an image management and editing application included. Depending on the camera manufacturer and your taste in software, the bundled application could be everything you need or it could be the worst software idea since Microsoft Clippy. Even if it does make you think of the Microsoft Office assistant, put down the hammer. There are a lot of applications on the market. One of them will almost certainly suit your style and needs, but nearly all of them allow free trials. It would be silly not to test a few of them. And until you’ve found the one that’s right for you, it would be wise to hang on to the manufacturer’s offering. It’s the one you can be absolutely sure is compatible with the files your camera produces when you shoot raw.

The Cheaper Options
If you’re on a limited budget, spending a few hundred dollars on Aperture or Lightroom could well be beyond your means. If that’s the case, there are some free options that are nearly as good as the expensive ones—perhaps better, depending on your taste. Some of them include features that the expensive packages lack. Designed with the consumer-level novice user in mind, some functions are simplified or more heavily automated compared with applications aimed at the professional. Some of the extra automatic functions come at the cost of some loss of flexibility, but the value for money is hard to beat.

Somewhere in the box your camera came in was probably a disk full of software that you barely noticed at the time. On that disk there was almost certainly an application that imports and organizes images from your camera. Most of these applications made by camera companies are just fine for small-scale photo collections and if you’re already satisfied with the way yours performs, by all means continue using it.

If you’re after a bit more power or flexibility than what’s bundled with your camera, you might already have what you need. If you have an Apple Mac, it should have come with the iLife suite of applications, which includes iPhoto as seen below.

Apple iPhoto

Windows Vista includes Windows Photo Gallery and an upgraded version—Windows Live Photo Gallery shown below—is only a small download away for Windows 7, Vista and XP. Both iPhoto and Photo Gallery are excellent applications. They have their drawbacks—support for camera raw files may require additional codec plugins for Photo Gallery, and new versions of iLife beyond what was bundled with your Mac are not free—but most users are likely to be happy with what’s included.

Windows Live Photo Gallery

A further option is available from Google. Picasa (shown below) is an image organizing and editing application that’s free and is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux. It’s designed for working with the Picasa Web online photo-sharing application but works perfectly well as a stand-alone organizing and editing application.


The feature sets for all three are very similar. All can search your computer to find images wherever they might be hiding and, if you choose, relocate them to a more central place. All of them support adding tags, labels, and ratings by which they can search and sort. All can build collections of images, upload to online photo-sharing sites, and manage printing, emailing, and backing up of images. In addition, they all can associate names with individual faces in your images. When a name is associated witha face in iPhoto, the application can search your other photos for a similar-looking face and present you with the option to confirm the identity of the person. While falling short of being 100% accurate, it can greatly speed up the tagging of a large catalog and is a nice flashy gimmick to show off to your friends.

The Picasa application is unable to recognize faces itself but the Picasa website can. Images need to be uploaded to your online albums before people in them can be identified. It’s quite likely that programmers at Microsoft are being worked extra hard until they too can include this feature. At this time, neither Aperture nor Lightroom can detect faces.

Windows Live Photo Gallery and Picasa are closely tied to their respective online services, and iPhoto has built-in uploading to several sites. These applications can only upload to their respective services, and some of the more advanced functions of Picasa and Photo Gallery are only available through those online services. Yet all are very capable editors and all can save and export images in suitable formats for uploading and sharing, even if you have to use another application or an online upload form to do the uploading to your site of choice.

The Pro Options: Aperture and Lightroom
At the other end of the price range are those applications designed for the professional user. Aperture was developed by Apple as an advanced option for users who demanded more from a photo organizer than iPhoto had to offer. Lightroom was developed by Adobe for photographers who found Photoshop and its attendant applications to be a far more powerful and expensive photo editor than they would ever need. By beefing up iPhoto on one hand and toning down Photoshop on the other, both Apple and Adobe have arrived at very similar applications.

Both Aperture and Lightroom are designed for the photographer who has thousands of photos to organize and edit and needs the workflow to be as streamlined as possible. Which of the two is best for you depends a lot on your taste, your approach to working on your photos, and whether or not you have a Mac. For the moment at least, Aperture is not available for any non-Apple platform. The professional photo industry is very Macintosh oriented but it is also very Adobe oriented. There are a few more applications at the professional end of the market, but none have as significant a share of that market as Lightroom and Aperture.

Apart from cosmetic differences, Lightroom and Aperture are very similar. The biggest difference is in their attitude to workflow and how they try to balance creative freedom with efficient work. Lightroom is designed to promote processing images in an orderly sequence. It’s divided into five modules: Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, and Web. As evident in the illustration below, photos are imported into the Library where they can be viewed, tagged, rated, and made into collections.

Lightroom’s Library module

They can be processed, edited, and retouched in the Develop module (shown below), displayed via the Slideshow module, and output through Print and Web. In each module, commands, controls, and functions are laid out down sidebars in the best sequence for performing those tasks on an image: big changes at the top, smaller tweaks toward the bottom. You can hop back and forth between modules as much as you like to tweak edits or add new images to a presentation but, in general, the processing of images works best if you follow the path Library/Develop/Output and work through each module’s controls from top to bottom. This orderly progression makes Lightroom a good choice for beginners and educators; it can help establish good working habits and it’s easy to choose where to go next as you work through your images.

Lightroom’s Develop module

Aperture is a bit more flexible in its approach to workflow. The display, seen below, is divided into three panes: a file browser, which displays thumbnails of images in the library; the file viewer, which shows the currently selected images; and the file information inspector pane, a tabbed set of controls for navigating projects, viewing and editing metadata, and making adjustments. In Aperture, everything is done in the one view rather than switching between modules as in Lightroom. If you want to arrange images into albums, click on the Projects tab in the inspector panel and off you go. The Adjustments tab contains all the editing controls. The main view stays the same,though each of the three components can be switched on and off to allow more screen space for the others. While Lightroom has modules that handle printing, slide shows, and webpages, Aperture produces these as specialized types of projects, created via the Projects tab (shown below) in the Inspector pane.

Aperture’s default layout shows the browser at the bottom, the viewer above it, and the inspector pane that features the Projects, Metadata, and Adjustment tabs at the left

Creating a new project in Aperture gives you a lot of options

Both applications can be extended and enhanced with plugins, both from their manufacturers as well as from independent developers. Plugins are available to automate exporting directly to most popular online photo-sharing sites and add new functions to the applications. Aperture plugins can be downloaded from Apple. Lightroom plugins can be found via Adobe. If you work with Lightroom to process images for online use, Jeffrey Friedl is the source of a lot of very useful plugins. An independent camera geek and programmer, he develops them as a hobby and releases them via his blog.


An individual JPEG image takes up little storage space. You can fit a ten-megapixel photo in less than a megabyte without losing much in quality. A camera raw image is a little larger. Depending on your sensor, it might be ten megabytes, maybe a little more. None of them are particularly large compared to the size of even a basic hard drive. Storage shouldn’t be a problem, right? If you only take a couple of images a year, this probably is right. Shoot photos regularly, though, and the space requirements can build up. A hundred raw files might fill up a gigabyte. That might take months to shoot; it might only take a few minutes (The last wedding I shot resulted in 658 raw files in one afternoon and early evening). If you shoot that many photos often (and you do need to practice the skills you’re learning), the gigabytes will accumulate quickly. Start working on the images in Photoshop and the files eat up even more space. Photoshop files of a few hundred megabytes are easy to create if you’re combining multiple images. A CD or DVD might do the job for storing the images from a single photo shoot. That’s great if you need to send the photos to a person. It’s less than ideal if you’re taking photos every day. Taking photography seriously means lots of images, which means lots of storage space. That means hard drives—the bigger the better.

Fortunately, large hard drives are becoming cheaper all the time. Terabyte drives are now common and affordable. It’s probably a good idea to buy a decent large drive and use it just for your photography, Photoshop work files, and related files your image managing software requires or generates. And while you’re doing that, grab another that’s easily portable for your backups. A small, portable USB hard disk makes it easy to keep a backup of your most important files with you.

Make Your Life Easier

You now have a lot of work ahead of you, but once it’s done your life will be a whole lot easier. We’ve discussed the basic principles of organizing your photos using image organizing applications, but the practical details are up to you. With the exception of iPhoto, all of the applications we discussed here have free trial versions available for download (and any Mac should have shipped with a version of iPhoto), so you can try them all before you commit to one.

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Excerpted with permission from Photography for the Web (SitePoint) by Paul Duncanson. Copyright © 2010 SitePoint Pty Ltd