Why Organizing Your Photos By Date Isn’t Really Important

You bought a program like Aperture or Lightroom to organize your photos, yet you insist upon organizing your photos by date. It doesn’t really help.

The Folder Wars

If you ever want to start a good debate among photographers, ask a group of them to talk about their strategy for importing photos from the memory card to disk. Some folks will regale you with great details of how they carefully create a folder structure and file naming system with meticulous attention to the date they captured the photo.

It seems like such a simple thing, yet I’ve seen some nearly violent responses if you tell these folks it’s a mistake.

It’s as if you hurt their pride and insulted their intelligence. They have folders by year, month and date. The photos are carefully nestled inside, but it doesn’t stop there. Some folks even repeat the same structure for the filename of each photo, with a three or four digit numeration code at the end. The whole path ends up looking like this:

YYYY/YYYYMMDD/YYYYMMDD_###.nef

Or worse, this:

YYYY/MM/DD/YYYYMMDD_####.nef

Folders embedded into folders. You can point to any date in history and they can tell you if they took a photograph that day by using this structure.

The Descriptive Deficiency

What they can’t tell you is anything about those photos. Were they personal or for a client? Were they portraits, events, travel, commercial or just snapshots? Were they good or bad shots?

For most of us, our photos are much more than mere historical records. So why do you insist upon treating them as records to catalog and store in a meaningless organizational system?There are no relationships between your photographs under this hierarchical calendar approach.

Let’s take an example. Suppose you slip into one of those folders and you find a photograph of your trip to Las Vegas. Maybe you spent a few days there, so there’s a good bet that some of the folders next to this one contain more photographs from Las Vegas.

Now what about your other trips to Las Vegas? How do you find them? I can tell you that I rarely remember the exact dates that I visit a place once, much less when I visited at other times. All I know is that I want to show someone a photograph that I took in Las Vegas because they asked about the view from The Bellagio. Your calendar hierarchy becomes a failure because it doesn’t describe the information you really want to know about your photographs.

Consider that cameras have clocks built into them. They record the time and date when you took the photograph. You aren’t really solving a problem by creating a hierarchy by date. You’re just spending time recreating something that a computer inside the camera already recorded.

The Archival Argument

I know, this is your favorite retort. You buy a new external drive every year and load it up with your photographs. When the year is up, you put it on an archive and get another drive for your current photos.

It has the same problem, though. If you want to look for your Las Vegas photos, you’re still stuck wondering which drive has the image you want to find. So now you have to look through different physical drives, and then explore the folders of each one to locate that photo of the Bellagio for your friend.

This isn’t why you bought Aperture or Lightroom.

The Myth Of Photo Organization

There’s something I’ve heard photographers bring up over and over as I peel away the layers of their date-based argument. The truth is that they don’t really want to trust Aperture or Lightroom to manage their photos. They think that the file system is the real manager of their photos.

What if the Aperture Library or Lightroom Catalog gets corrupted? All of that organizational work is gone.  I gotta see my photos on the disk!

No, you don’t. The truth is that you could toss every single photo into one folder and it would be perfectly fine. You’re supposed to manage your photos with Aperture or Lightroom, not the Finder on your Mac.

Lightroom users have no choice but to load their photos into a folder. Aperture users can work that way, but we also have a choice of using a Managed system that imports the photographs into a database.

A database! Oh, the horror. You can’t see your photos in a database!

Yes, you can. You see them through Aperture. The Finder is a nice tool, but it’s not the one you want to use to organize your photos at a microscopic level. Even though Lightroom doesn’t store photos in a database, you still don’t have to create an elaborate file system folder structure to use it. Lightroom only needs a pointer to the folder where you store your image.

Both Aperture and Lightroom have their own, internal organizational structure. You build projects, collections and folders inside of these programs to organize your images. Even then, there’s no real value to giving those containers a date-based name.

Using The Power of Metadata

The date and time information stored in your photograph is metadata; information that describes part of your image. There’s more metadata to go along with it. Each image knows what model of camera and lens you use. It knows the exposure variables you chose for the photograph. It knows the white balance. If your camera has a GPS attachment, it even knows exactly where you were when you took the photo.

That, and quite a bit more information, is a good start. However, you can add your own metadata.  You can tell Aperture or Lightroom information to describe your photos.

  • This is a portrait of my daughter
  • This is a processional shot of the bride at the MacArthur wedding
  • This is the Grand Canyon
  • This is my big toe in the Pacific ocean

You can add keywords to describe your photos, and then search on them later when you want to find that perfect photo of your big toe and all the places its been.  Do you care what day or time it was when your big toe was in the Pacific Ocean?  Does anyone?

You don’t have to stop with Keywords, though. There are other useful tools that don’t necessarily describe your photos, but perhaps they describe where they are in your workflow process. I use color labels in Aperture to help my workflow.

  • Every imported photo starts as Orange – To Be Reviewed
  • Photos I don’t like get a Red label – Rejected
  • Photos I think have potential get a Yellow label – To Be Processed
  • Finished photos get a Green label
  • Photos I want to put in my Portfolio get a Blue label (I wish it looked like a ribbon)

Creating Conditional Albums

Between the built-in metadata and the information I’ve added, it’s easy to search for anything I want to find. If I feel like reviewing photos, I only look for the ones with an Orange label. If I want to see my photos of Las Vegas, I query keywords for Las Vegas or search for photos taken in that area of the Map feature.

Both Aperture and Lightroom can create Smart Albums or Collections. You don’t have to keep searching. You essentially have a saved search that points to the photos you want to find. If you have one for your Big Toe, then all you have to do is add they key word “Big Toe” to the photos you import

Breaking Up Your Imported Photos

While you could store everything in one big folder, I don’t go to that extreme. Neither do I keep everything in one Aperture Library or Lightroom Catalog. Your performance is better when these puppies are smaller. So what is the tipping point?

I use the following major categories.

  • Home
  • Travel
  • Portrait
  • Event
  • Product

All of my Las Vegas photos are inside an Aperture database called Travel. Inside that database, I keep a different Project for each place I visit. I can quickly look inside the Las Vegas project for my photos. It doesn’t matter when I took them – 2006 or last September. The date isn’t really important to me when I’m trying to find an image. I know that Las Vegas is a “travel” destination for me and I can look inside the Las Vegas project to see all of those images.

Most likely, I’ll then use a filter to narrow the images I see. To find that view of the Bellagio, I just type “Bellagio” in the filter.

Note that I didn’t name the photo or a folder “Bellagio.”  All I did was add a keyword. Only had to type it once, and then it’s just a Drag & Drop affair to associate it with the photos of the Bellagio. Quick and easy to prepare, but extremely powerful and useful to find images later. If I really needed to find the photo by date, no problem. That info is already inside the photo. I don’t need to recreate it. Neither do you.

Organizing Your Photos By Date Relies On The Wrong Tool

The heart of the matter is trusting your tools. The people who create these elaborate and redundant file structures and naming systems are doing things the hard way. They think that the file system is the tool for the job.

I have news for you. File systems can get corrupt, too. That’s why you always need a backup. I don’t just have backups. I have multiple backups. Generations of backups. I have backups of backups.

You see, I’ve experienced the nightmare of a crashed RAID system. I’ve experienced a corrupt Aperture database and a damaged Lightroom catalog. Both of these tools give you a quick and easy way to backup your Library or Catalog. You should use those tools. You should also use other backup tools to make sure your photos are as safe as you can make them.

There’s an old maxim – Trust, but verify. So trust Aperture and Lightroom, but use your backup to verify the safety of your images. Now stop wasting time with those elaborate folders and file names.

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Comments

  1. Marc says

    You mention that you break up your libraries; I actually consolidate mine after each trip (and eventually keep them if they have more than 5000 frames) into one Master (which is backed up on three differnet external disks) in order to then do quick searches by keywords, location etc… It sometimes crashes, but generally I am OK. What is the maximum size you find to be the limit for an Aperture Library?

    • says

      Hi, Marc:

      I don’t really have a specific size in mind. I’m simply going off the advice from Apple that smaller Aperture libraries perform better. That’s why I break them up into logical groups.

      In some cases, I do the same thing you mentioned. For example, I took a trip to St. Lucia and Las Vegas a couple of months ago. The photos I took on those trips were in new Aperture libraries on my laptop, but I imported them into my Travel and Portrait libraries when I got home.

      That’s partly because my home computer is more robust and can handle larger libraries, and also because I’m willing to accept some performance trade-off in exchange for searching convenience.

      If I did client work that had no relation to other clients (e.g., weddings, senior portraits), then I’d keep each job in its own library and store them away. If the client came back for more, I’d still update that library with the new images, but I would not put it into an overall Client library.

      • David Fraser says

        Thanks for sharing your perspective. When using Aperture, are you libraries managed? I ask because that works well for smaller libraries. But as the libraries grow, they can quickly become slower, especially if they are on external drives. And it isn’t practical to keep larger libraries on an internal drive.

        I’ve gone back and forth trying to determine how to manage my ever growing database. I have pretty much settled on dividing it by calendar year. My 2013 Aperture library is already at 800 GB. So I have to place it on an external Thunderbolt drive. My internal drive is a 1 terabyte fusion.

        • says

          Hi, David:

          Yes, I prefer having Managed Libraries in Aperture. It makes backups much easier, as well as migration to another computer. Just move the Library and install Aperture – you’re good to go.

          However, I break up my Libraries by topic to help reduce the performance problems associated with having too many photos in one big library. The last clutter Aperture (or for that matter, Lightroom) has to wade through helps you with speed. That said, I have tens of thousands of images in a few of my Libraries and don’t really have any lag problems.

          It’s extremely easy to divide your Aperture Library. Moving photos in and out of Aperture is like pouring water from a pitcher to a glass when you use a Managed Library.

          As for my drives, I have my files on an external RAID array connected to my iMac by an eSATA port (installed by OWC). My internal drive is a 256GB SSD (also by OWC).

          It doesn’t matter if the drive is internal or external. What matters is the drive performance capabilities and the channel. Your Thunderbolt is much faster than my eSATA connection, but I’m guessing my RAID drives are faster than your external drive.

          The size of my Libraries vary. The largest is 265GB and the smallest is about 3.5 GB.

  2. Glenn says

    Hi William,

    You could be the redeemer who I’ve been searching for. I love photography and have been taking picture since 1980. I converted to digital in 2002. I’ve done a lousy job of organizing my photos – both digital and print/negative. I’m now undertaking the massive job of organizing, editing, archiving, and sharing my approximate 22, 000 digital photos and prints/negatives from 1980-2002 (number unknown). It such a big elephant, I’m not sure where to start. I like your ideas and wonder if you will give me some pointers, insights and tips for my project.

    I am new to the Mac world, starting in September 2011, so I have a lot to learn. I started with iPhoto and purchased Aperture in January of 2012. When I purchased Aperture they was no Unified Library concept. I made a real mess of things by importing my iPhoto images into Aperture an referenced files and then again as managed as files, so have all my images in Aperture twice. Also, for a period in 2012 I used Aperture to ingest my images as managed images, which means that I have managed images in Aperture that do not appear in any of my 4 iPhoto Libraries, 3 of which are backups, that I created, of my main iPhoto Library, at different points in time.

    I’ve done a lot of reading to try figure out the right approach, so I stated with my default iPhoto Library by bringing organization to it…..at least until I read this article. I studiously worked hard at creating folders by year and created 900 Events in those folders. Based on what you’re saying, I probably wasted my time…….help!

    Glenn

    • Ric says

      Glen,

      I’ve been down that road, so I’ll offer what I’ve learned.

      Your first job is to untangle that mess. I’m sure you know that and are working hard to do that. Per William Beem’s advice, you needn’t do much more than get one master of each image, all in the same place, whether managed or referenced. Then make a backup(s) of that cleaned-up library or set of folders, however you did it. I always work referenced, but there’s arguments for both approaches.

      I’ve literally spent years learning the craft of scanning — negatives, slides, prints, documents — and I’m still learning. It’s not easy to do well, and it really is a craft. You’ll have a mix of things that are faded, scratched or moldy, etc., and your work becomes that of an archivist as you work to recreate a digital version that is faithful to the original photo as it looked back when.

      Given the sweat and tears that goes into it, it’s worth doing a little extra to insure that these treasures have some added value. And here William’s discussion of metadata is important. Add as much metadata as you can (or as much as the program will allow). And — again, owing to the capability of your software — write that metadata to the original files.* This is especially important if you make copies to send to others, if (as I do) you do work for others, or just for the historical record. It’s ironic that the world is now drowning in digital images, yet future historians, who are unlikely to have access to the software and databases that store whatever metadata photographers have bothered to add, will find masses of EXIF data, but precious little other information about who took the photos, who is in the photos, what they were doing, where the photos were taken (if not a recognizable landmark and no GPS data), and so on. The more immediate benefit is that all that metadata will help you in organizing and searching through your collection.

      A word about Aperture: In spite of Apple having sat on the committee which developed the definitive metadata standards, they have failed to fully implement those standards in their own software. Aperture only uses the IPTC Core set of fields, but not the IPTC Extension. (Adobe was a key player in that, and all of Adobe’s products incorporate the full set of standards.) iPhoto is even worse, but as an amateur photo library, one can’t expect much. To be sure, the set of available fields in Aperture is adequate, so at least use what you have!

      I see William’s point about the irrelevance of organizing by date, but I have a different view based on my own experience — and mistakes. First, I think filing schemes should be based on the nature of the work you are doing. What works for William as a commercial photographer may not be best for someone like yourself, who is effectively an archivist.

      Second, just dumping your new files into folders by some basic dating scheme is easy, so I don’t see the problem. You don’t even need to know, at that point, what’s in the files. Above all else, at some point you have to create folders, and I don’t see where creating one kind of folder is any easier than another. I’m not saying that one needs to be overly elaborate about it. Just do whatever comes easy. Anyway, by date is how Aperture organizes your files when they are managed.

      Third, I do think that some kind of filenaming scheme helps safeguard your images. If you have a mix of files from different cameras or different photographers, it’s not hard to accidentally have some images clobbered by new ones with the same name. If your camera has a typical naming scheme of IMG_5579.jpg or whatever, and images from another camera have the same scheme, there will come a day when you accidentally overwrite an old images with a new one of the same number. Hence, I replace that IMG with the EXIF date of the image (in a YYYYMMDD format). The odds of both images being shot on the same day are vanishingly small. For the really paranoid, you can always add the EXIF time to the end of the date. Incidentally, you can do something like this during the import into Aperture, letting Aperture do the work for you. (I quickly and easily rename mine with A Better Finder Rename, outside of Aperture and prior to import; but that’s just a personal choice.)

      Fourth, your scans won’t have any natural name, so you have to give them one anyway. Sure a program like VueScan will create an otherwise meaningless sequential name by default (e.g. scan-140104-0001.tif, etc.), but that may not be what you want.** Also, the EXIF date stamped into those scans will be the date you created the scan, not the data the original photo was taken. I find it helps to create a filename for scans that matches the above scheme I use for digital camera originals, so I put the original date in the filename. You should also put the historical date of the image somewhere in your metadata, but why not have your entire collection with a similar naming scheme?

      Not withstanding the above, I do think William’s advice about basing the bulk of your own organization around metadata is the best advice. Still, in your case, I would go just a little beyond that.

      Cheers,
      Ric

      *Aperture has a very finicky appetite. For instance, it will write out the metadata to most JPEGS, but only to some implementations of the TIFF format. None of my VueScan TIFFs are to Aperture’s liking, so I’ve had to enter and write metadata to them using Lightroom (Photomechanic and other programs are good for this as well). Aperture works fine, however, with all of my digital camera originals.

      **I would strongly advise you to create full 16-bit TIFFs as scans. Do make some minimal or necessary adjustments during the scan, but most scanning programs are not very good at really correcting color, tonal range, and so on. You will want to do that in Aperture or even Photoshop. The TIFFs will be rather large, but when you do start sprucing them up, you’ll be glad you have the extra headroom. You can always export smaller JPEGS as your working files from those spruced-up TIFFs. There’s a lot of good information on scanning online. Enjoy!

    • says

      You’re not as far off as you think.

      First, let’s talk about why your managed libraries in Aperture don’t automatically appear in iPhoto. It’s as simple as this. They’re different files. Take note of the file name of the managed library you created in Aperture. If you go to iPhoto, you can open that file. Likewise, you can open your iPhoto libraries in Aperture.

      You don’t have to import one into the other. In fact, you may have no need to do that if the subject matter is different. It’s quite fine to have different libraries that you open as you need. If you want to import one library into another, you can. If you want to export a project into a library of its own, you can. It’s like pouring water from a pitcher to a glass, and then back again.

      It sounds like you thought your Aperture libraries would automatically appear in iPhoto, but you didn’t do the same thing by importing the Library into iPhoto. I’m not recommending that you do, but just explaining why you don’t see it.

      As for the photos you imported twice, not a problem. Just Reject the photos you don’t want to keep (I prefer using Managed imports, so I would reject the Referenced part of the Library).

      You still have two copies of the photos if you follow this path. One copy is on the path that you Referenced. The other is in the Aperture Library as Managed files. If you need proof, just export an Original from the Library to a new location. You’ll see a perfect copy of your RAW file.

      Now you only have one copy of images in your Library to work. You could create a Vault to make a backup, or you could move the files you had Referenced to some archive for a backup. You could also delete them if you need the space, but I do recommend having duplicate copies of your files. Hard drives are guaranteed to crash.

  3. says

    Arguably, I think that it’s important to have a mix of both. I think somewhere down the middle is a good compromise for organization. I personally have settled on the following layout for my projects in Aperture.

    Projects:

    YYYY
    > YYYY-MM-DD | Defining Moment Description

    Smart Albums:

    * Standard Aperture Defaults (5 Stars, Videos, In the Last Week / Month / Year)
    * Family (Faces that match my family)
    * Vacations (A list of descriptions that match places I go on vacation)
    * VIPs (Individual albums that are for each VIP in my life: wife, daughters, friends, etc…)

    This gives me a best of both worlds. I get the organization that you are describing above, but I also have this wondering ability to look back in real-time and see things that happened last year, two years ago, and on the specific dates.

  4. Charles says

    I admit that I’m doing something wrong and am an organizational mess, but I’ve yet to devise a good system. For several years, I have imported things into Aperture, where I successfully organize things into folders within the program. However, the problem is that I find Aperture only useful for preliminary editing. In the end, all the best work gets exported to Photoshop, where I make further edits and then maintain external folders to house those edited images. Inevitably, I have to resort to using the MacOS Spotlight finder to look for the most recently edited version of a shot to have any chance of finding the right file. And when I must rename shots for specific submissions, they get orphaned in those folders. Am I missing something obvious with my workflow?

    • says

      Are you launching your photos into Photoshop via Aperture? I do. I have Photoshop CC set as my external editor so I can easily launch them into Photoshop. When I save the results, Aperture saves the PSD back into my Library right next to the original. You can do this multiple times with different PSDs.

      Never once have I needed to use Spotlight to find my edited files. They’re all in Aperture. The only time that I can’t use this process is when I make an HDR image from multiple photos. In that case, I export the photos, do my processing in Photomatix and Photoshop, and then Import the PSD file back into Aperture. Again, it resides right next to the original image. Aperture knows it belongs there.

      Why do you have to store renamed files? Can you just Export them with a different name before submission? If you need to track them, make a different Version of the finished file and record the name and other related data in the version. Takes less space than a completely separate file.

      Aperture will do all of this for you. For the Lightroom users out there, it will do the same stuff.

      • Charles says

        I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been missing something obvious for years that now all makes sense. I cannot thank you enough. This will save me discs and frustration.

        I had PS set as the external editor, but I was still exporting the files to edit them under the File menu, not really understanding there was a different function under the Photo menu. Normally I’m not such a dummy. Thanks again for responding to a comment that was a bit off topic.

  5. Rene Streng says

    Isn’t anybody concerned about what’s next at the horizon with digital photography as it comes to organizing all your images? Maybe today’s question is whether to use Lightroom or Aperture, but which program will everybody be using in 5 years?? I am just now starting to learn about both programs but I am concerned about Aperture (and iPhoto) managing the database, yet not physically changing the file location of a file when you move it to another album/event. In other words: ALL the work you do resides in the database yet no changes are being made to the file, or the location thereof. That could mean that in 5 years, when there is another program that people are moving to, all this work of tagging, moving and sorting might be wasted time. Wouldn’t it make more sense to first use a program such as Adobe Bridge to properly organize your images (by year, by month, by event) and then after that bring it into a program like Aperture so you can enjoy the benefits of Aperture such as connectivity back to your iPad, PhotoStream, etc.? Many people might view this as double work perhaps, but on the other hand, IF indeed 5 years from now we will all be using another program, I could just pick up my master folder with all its subfolders, and quickly move to that other program. I am not necessarily sold either way so I would appreciate any input people might have. I am looking for a long term solution. Thank you!

    • says

      Hi, Rene.

      I’m not worried in the least about what will happen in five years. First, I accept that things change. I’ve gone from Multicalc to Lotus 1-2-3 to Excel. I’ve gone from running a BBS to Prodigy to MySpace to Facebook and running my own blogs. Digital life changes, yet I’ve never been in a position where I couldn’t migrate my essential data along with me.

      The fact that Aperture and iPhoto store images in a database is not a cause for concern. You can export your images at any time. Aperture also allows you to work in Referenced mode, just like Lightroom.

      At some point, I expect I may want to migrate to another tool. When that happens, it’s going to be a royal pain. Ask anyone who switched from Aperture to Lightroom, or from Lightroom to Aperture. You will retain your original files, but you’ll lose all of the photo edits because they are proprietary to the tool you used to make them. Not fun, but not total devastation, either.

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