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Heresy In Library Organization

Scanning the horizon, there are so-called workflow tutorials everywhere you look. Each and every one of them is promoted under the guise that it will help you become "fast and efficient." But what fast and efficient really means for most of the gurus out there is automating everything, and trying to do all 10 steps (or whatever) of the workflow at the same time, during import.

But automation may not be all it’s cracked up to be. What you’re doing when you adopt one of these workflows, unfortunately, is buying into a routine that’s narrowly dictated by the capabilities of the chosen software and by the design of someone else’s digital photo library. The reality is that the pro workflows are highly customized and rarely fit into a neatly prepackaged routine of doing everything during import. If your library design and workflow are well thought out, they will be based on your individual ideas about how you need to store, organize and find the photos that you work with on a daily basis. Your workflow and your library design are married in this adventure, and the library design is the driving force in the marriage. The workflow should follow the lead of your library design and should never dictate the basic structure or capabilities of the library.

Figure 1: A Short List of Collections by Subject

So let’s start with library design. Most photographers organize their photo libraries by subject because that’s the way our brains work and because that’s the way we organize objects in the real world. An example of organizing your library by subject would have portrait photos going into one folder and photos taken in Thailand going into another folder. I can smell trouble with this thinking right from the start, where two seemingly unrelated subjects, Portrait and Thailand, become top-level folder structures in your library. But once you have tens of thousands of digital photos, the system starts to break down. What happens when you take portraits while traveling in Thailand? Do they go into the Portrait folder or into the Thailand folder?

Besides that dilemma, once you have a large enough library, you don’t find some specific photo by digging through folders. So why organize them into folders by subject in the first place? Are you going to physically separate those photos that include portraits taken during one day in Thailand? The idea of exactly where a digital photo is should have been your first clue that you’ve maybe taken an outdated idea of organization a bit too far. Trying to think literally about where your photos are inside the computer or on a hard drive is an illusion anyway. It’s all just bits. There is no where!

Anyway, this is what databases are for. Once you’ve started using a database-driven cataloging software like Lightroom, the way that you approach finding your photos changes. With a visual database, there are basically two modes of search. First, if I’ve ever published the photo before, it will be in a collection. A collection is a virtual grouping by subject that might contain photos from a dozen different "places" (folders) on my hard drive. It’s a selection of photos that have been arranged to tell some story, but because it’s a virtual grouping, the photos need not be duplicated or physically together in the same folder. I don’t care "where" a given photo is; I can always find it visually by looking into one of a short list of collections. These collections have become the "organize-by-subject" structure that I rely on, rather than the physical organization of folders on disk (Fig. 1).

If the photo I’m looking for isn’t a member of a collection, it becomes a more general search, by text or keyword. Searching by text or keyword doesn’t return photos neatly edited into groups by subject the way collections do; rather it returns a lot more photos that have been tagged by theme. Common keyword or text searches might be for places like "Mendocino," or for broader subjects like "salmon" or "bridge." In my library, the results returned from searches like this will be much larger, so this is where chronology plays a role.

Once you’ve done a text or keyword search, narrowing the results becomes a visual search. And when you’re in visual search mode, chronologically is the only context you have to help you narrow the search down to the one.

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