Getting Organized with Digital Photography

I spend a lot of time working with digital media, and this week I thought I'd share some of the digital-photography tips and tricks that I've developed over the years. I can't help you take better pictures—a task that, often enough, seems beyond me as well—but I might be able to help you better organize and manage your digital photo collection.

Back Up!
Once you do go digital, you face a daunting task: Although you're likely accustomed to storing traditional photos in paper-based photo albums, digital photos exist only electronically and are therefore susceptible to the vagaries of hard-disk reliability. Therefore, my first tip is simple: Back up. Back up early and often. Back up to multiple locations and media types, and make sure that these backups are in physically separate locations. For example, I back up my entire data set to two external hard disks weekly, and I keep one of them at my parent's house on the other side of town. If you can't be this serious about backing up your media, you will lose data. It's only a matter of time.

I've spent a lot of time using digital photo management applications such as Apple Computer iPhoto (Mac only), Google Picasa 2, and Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 Library, but I still prefer to use the Windows shell and its My Pictures folder for organizing photos. I have two reasons for this preference. First, the My Pictures folder, with its graphical thumbnail views, is attractive looking and lends itself to various organizational styles. Second, because I use a Media Center PC in my living room, the structure I've set up in My Pictures is duplicated on the TV, providing a delightfully visual way to view photos.

It's likely that many readers won't be using a Media Center PC, but I still think it's worthwhile to consider how you might view photos in the future. As I noted above, traditional photo albums provide a bulky and paper-based system for viewing photos. But once you go digital, new methods are at your disposal. So, although it's possible to have photo prints made and place them in an old-school album, that's not necessarily the way to go. Instead, you should start considering other ways to consume photos.

These photo-consumption methods are directly tied to the organizational styles I'd like to discuss. If you organize photos nicely on your PC, you can more easily transfer them to other digital devices, such as notebooks and Tablet PCs, Media Center PCs, PDAs and other handheld devices, and color iPods and other photo-enabled MP3 players. Likewise, you can create DVD movies of photo slideshows for viewing on any standard DVD player. After you've seen your photos glide by in an elegant slideshow set to music, you'll lose all desire for paper-based photo albums.

Mind the Details!
But first, we must organize. I'm a bit of a nut when it comes to photo organization, and I'm sure this need satisfies some anal-retentive gene I'd rather not discuss at the moment. In any event, I use a hierarchical, date-based structure for organizing photos. So, in the top level of the My Pictures folder, I’ve created folders for each year (e.g., 2005, 2004, 2003). Inside each year’s folder, I’ve inserted separate folders for each event, organized by date. For example, we recently took pictures at my son's first soccer game of the season. I used Windows XP's Camera and Scanner Wizard to import the photos (using a plain English name such as Mark's first soccer game). Then, I renamed the folder containing those photos to 2005-09-10 - Mark's first soccer game so that it would fit in, alphabetically (and, thus, chronologically) with the other photo collections in the 2005 folder.

When we go on a trip, that trip gets its own folder. So a recent trip to Los Angeles gets a folder called 2005-09-12 Los Angeles trip, and individual events within that trip get their own subfolders (e.g., 2005-09-14 - Universal Studios, 2005-09-15 Dinner in LA). To make the trip folders stand out, I create a custom folder.jpg file for each one, using a favorite photo from the trip. That way, trip folders are visually differentiated from the other events, both in My Pictures and on the Media Center PC. And they look really cool.

To create a special folder.jpg file, find your favorite photo from the trip, use an image editor to crop it to a square size, then resize it to about 400x400 pixels, and save the resulting edited file as folder.jpg. Place the folder.jpg file in the root of the trip folder, right-click, and choose Properties. On the first page of the Properties sheet, click Hidden and then click OK. Voila! A beautiful new folder image.

In Media Center, you can take this type of organization method to the next level by creating shortcuts to specific folders. I mentioned how I differentiated trip folders, for example. You can also drag shortcuts to each of these trip folders into a folder called, say, Trips. Then, when you view your photo collection in Media Center, you can trigger a photo slideshow that includes only those photos that are from trips. You can create similar folders (and thus, slideshows) for other things, of course, such as family events or sporting events. Because we live near Boston, we even have one that's dedicated to snow storms.

If you think about it, there's no reason not to organize your photos just as you organize your music. Just as you can organize favorite songs into playlists, you can organize lists of favorite photos (although we might think of these photo lists as slideshows, since that's how you’ll typically view them).

Now, if you’re a bit more forward-looking, you might consider using a program such as Picasa (which is free) or Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 Library to add custom metadata tags to your photos. These programs can tag photos invisibly with such special textual information that places each in certain groups. For example, you could create tags for family events, trips, and similar events. Then, using the application, you could run slideshows based on these tags. The problem with this approach is that it's application-specific. There's no way to trigger these types of slideshows from Windows, Media Center, or any other devices. That's why a file system-based approach works so well right now.

Looking Forward
In the distant future, Windows Vista (the next major Windows version) will add this capability directly into the shell. Presumably, the Media Center version that ships with various Windows Vista versions will let you more easily organize and visualize photos based on keywords, and not on monolithic directory structures. Until then, you must organize photos yourself to enjoy them to the fullest. I think it's a worthwhile effort. If you have any related tips and tricks, send them along: I'll share the best ones here in Connected Home Express.

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