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“Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” Chapter 4

by Jeff Carlson

This article is a pre-release chapter in Jeff Carlson’s upcoming “Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” scheduled for public release in August 2013. Apart from the introduction [1], these chapters are available only to TidBITS members [2]; see “Streamed Advice for Managing Your Digital Photos [3]” for details.

Best Practices for Importing Photos

Moving photos from a camera or memory card to the computer seems like mere transportation: bits captured and stored in one location are copied and saved to a new location. That sounds about as exciting as bringing groceries home from the market.

But what if those groceries could assemble themselves into prepared meals by the time you delivered them to your kitchen? And what if your photos could organize themselves on the way to your hard disk by detailing what’s in each image, where it was shot, and by whom?

Your computer can do more than just shuttle files from one location to another. By taking advantage of software’s capability to assign metadata during the import stage, much of the drudgery of organizing photos is handled upfront with minimal interaction required by you.

Apply Metadata at Import

Computers were designed for grunt work, whether that’s decrypting World War II ciphers or batch-applying keywords to hundreds of photo files in one go. Yes, you can always manually add metadata later, but will you really? Maybe for a few terms here and there (which is inevitable, and useful, as I cover in Assign Keywords and Other Data), but probably not for all the images in a shoot.

Spending a tiny amount of time optimizing the import process—especially in applications that support metadata templates—gives you a tremendous advantage when locating photos down the line after you’ve moved on to the next batch of shots.

Specifically, what items are we talking about? In the applications that support it—we’re largely talking about Aperture and Lightroom here—you can apply any of the following metadata during import:

  • Keywords. Apply any descriptive terms for this set of photos that you are likely to search for later, such as the name of an event or landmarks that appear. For accuracy, include only keywords that apply to all of the images being imported. For example, if I’m importing 100 photos of trains and my friend Mark Smith appears in 30 of them, I would not include the keyword “mark smith” during the import process. It’s better to add the tag to those 30 shots later than to do a search for “mark smith” at some point and turn up 70 images that don’t contain Mark. It’s also easier to add new terms later than to dig out errant ones.
  • IPTC metadata. If IPTC presets didn’t make it so easy, I’d likely never assign this identifying information to my photos. (IPTC stands for International Press Telecommunications Council, the group that established this model of assigning uniform metadata.) Many of the fields are specific to industries or projects (IPTC Subject Code, Intellectual Genre) but basic fields such as Creator, Contact Email, and Copyright Notice are useful to anyone. If you need to submit the file somewhere, such as a file-sharing site, that information stays with the file (and can be useful for identifying ownership if someone swipes it when they shouldn’t).
  • Caption. I use this to include contextual information that applies to every shot I’m importing, such as “California Science Center” or “Family Vacation 2013,” knowing that it will show up in the Description field at Flickr when friends and family view the images I upload.
  • Rating. You can assign a rating for everything, such as giving each photo one star (I explain the reasoning behind this in Judge Your Photos).

Since some of this information—such as IPTC fields—typically remains the same from shoot to shoot, the best method of applying it is to create presets that fill in the data for you when the images are copied to your computer. You gain the benefit of valuable metadata without having to deal with it manually each time. Remember that this information is just a baseline—you can add specific keywords and other data in the import window before you begin the transfer.

Dealing with Video Files

I keep saying “photos” when talking about importing files, but today’s cameras are just as capable of capturing video footage. For the most part, applications treat videos the same as photos in terms of organizing them. You can rate, assign keywords, and apply other metadata such as IPTC and location information.

Some applications also feature basic editing options, figuring correctly that you don’t want to send the file to another program just to trim the ends of clips before posting them to a sharing site.

So let’s look at an example of how this works by creating a new preset in Lightroom:

  1. Open the Import window.
  2. Click the Apply During Import expansion triangle.
  3. From the Metadata pop-up menu, choose New. A window appears with fields for the metadata that Lightroom supports (Figure 1).
  4. Give the preset a name and fill in the fields you wish to be applied to the imported images.
  5. Click the Create button.
    Figure 1: Creating a new metadata preset in Lightroom." />

    Figure 1: Creating a new metadata preset in Lightroom.

Aperture includes a similar control under Metadata Presets in the Import interface. You can also import other presets you’ve created (say, on another computer).

When you’re ready to import the images, choose the preset you created, and then add any other information relevant to this particular batch of photos (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The information in the “Jeff Carlson Standard” preset I created in Lightroom will be applied in addition to specific keywords I enter." />

Figure 2: The information in the “Jeff Carlson Standard” preset I created in Lightroom will be applied in addition to specific keywords I enter.

Photoshop Elements Doesn’t Make It Easy

Photoshop Elements offers metadata presets, too, but good luck stumbling upon how to create them. The Import window in the Elements Organizer application (the component of Elements that manages your library) includes only a pop-up menu for choosing presets, not a way to actually create them. Here’s the skinny:

  1. Launch the Photoshop Elements Editor application (not the Organizer), and then open any image.
  2. Choose File > File Info.
  3. In the dialog that appears, enter the metadata you want to include.
  4. Click the first pop-up button at the bottom of the window (to the right of Preferences; the name depends on what was last selected) and choose Export.
  5. Give the preset a name and click Save.
  6. Click OK to close the dialog and apply the metadata to the open image.

To apply the preset during import in the Organizer, choose File > Get Photos and Video > From Camera or Card Reader. Click the Advanced Dialog button to reveal all of the import settings, and then choose the preset you created from the Template to Use pop-up menu under Apply Metadata.

I know, the process is kind of ridiculous, but once the template is set up it will save you the trouble of applying that information later.

Apply Metadata in iPhoto

iPhoto offers no opportunity to apply any metadata during import. You can import all photos from a camera or memory card or you can select some to import. It pays attention only to the times the photos were captured.

You’re not entirely out of luck, though. After the files transfer to the computer, iPhoto displays them together under the Last Import heading in the sidebar, giving you an opportunity to quickly batch-apply metadata after import. Select all the photos (press Command-A), click the Info button to reveal the Info sidebar, and enter keywords (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Do an end-run around iPhoto by applying keywords to the batch of photos after they’re imported." />

Figure 3: Do an end-run around iPhoto by applying keywords to the batch of photos after they’re imported.

With all of the last-imported photos selected, you can also apply a rating (press Command and a number key, or go to Photos > My Rating).

iPhoto doesn’t dig into IPTC metadata, but it’s possible to apply text to the Description field of each selected photo—to include your contact information, for example. Choose Photos > Batch Change, choose Description from the Set pop-up menu, enter your text, and click OK.

Tip: If you don’t want to bother with setting up presets in Photoshop Elements, you can apply metadata after importing in the same way as iPhoto. After new photos appear in the Last Import window, select them all and click the Tags/Info button to display the Information sidebar. Click the Add IPTC Information button that appears when multiple images are selected and fill in the fields in the dialog—it’s a smaller subset of IPTC fields, but that’s better than nothing.

Choose Where Files Will End Up

One of the core ideas behind iPhoto and Aperture is that the software handles the organization for you. All imported photos are stored in one location on disk, and that location appears as a single library file. (As we discussed earlier, the file is actually a “package,” a folder that looks like a file.) The idea is that you shouldn’t need to care where the actual image files are, because you’re interacting with the photos within the software.

That approach isn’t a terrible idea. However, it does have a couple of problems. One, photos continue to take up vast quantities of disk space at a time when many hard disk capacities are shrinking. Laptops and even desktop computers are moving to solid-state drives (SSDs), which offer fantastic performance but are still relatively short in the storage department. That means you need to split your library into pieces or relocate it to an external disk.

Two, the fact that you’re reading this book means you’re not a photographic beginner, which means you don’t necessarily need software to hold your hand every step of the way. I’m not suggesting you need to be able to field-strip a laptop blindfolded and build your own OS kernel, but you probably want more control over where the software is putting your files.

For example, Lightroom on my machine saves files in a sensible way, stored in ~/Pictures/[Year]/[Year]-[Month]-[Day]/. A photo named “IMG_1234.JPG” captured on July 4, 2013 can be found at ~/Pictures/2013/2013-07-04/IMG_1234.JPG. If Adobe were to cancel Lightroom today and make it stop working (if Adobe had some black-helicopter, joy-hating division, I suppose), I could easily traverse my photo library or point another application at it without extricating the files from the package folder.

When possible, take advantage of the ability to specify where imported files will end up. This will give you more flexibility in how you deal with large libraries and archives. For example, on my computer, a MacBook Pro, imported photos are stored on a 500 GB internal hard disk, even though the bulk of my photo library exists on an external drive. If I take my laptop to a coffee shop to work, the most recent imported photos are available for editing. And then, every month or so, depending on how many photos I’ve shot and how much free space is available on the internal disk, I move the older photos to the large external disk. (I do that within Lightroom so the software keeps track of where the files are located.)

Most applications other than iPhoto give you the option of choosing where files from the camera or memory card will be saved.

Tip: Even though Aperture wants to work within a single library package, I recommend you choose an alternative location. From the Store Files pop-up menu in the Import window, specify a destination on disk. For example, since I prefer images to be filed in date-based folders, I created a folder called “2013” and then chose Image Year/Month/Day from the Subfolder pop-up menu that appears.

Another file-related option is to automatically make a backup copy of each image to a separate location during the import process. This feature is good for creating immediate backups while you’re in the field (to a portable hard disk, for instance) or other specific uses. I don’t use this feature for general backups, however; I prefer to stick with a holistic backup system (see Futureproof Your Photos).

Handling Raw+JPEG Images

If you shoot in Raw+JPEG format (see Choose a Format), Aperture offers a control so you can choose how the two interlinked files are treated. From the Import Settings pop-up menu, choose Raw+JPEG Pairs and then pick an action: import both (with either the raw file or the JPEG specified as the original image), import both as separate unlinked photos, or import only JPEG or raw files (Figure 4). (You can also import raw files that match JPEGs that were previously added to the library.)

Figure 4: Aperture can handle Raw+JPEG files smartly." />

Figure 4: Aperture can handle Raw+JPEG files smartly.

Aperture is designed to work with raw files, so, for example, you can conserve disk space by not importing the (typically high-resolution) JPEG files the camera created.

Auto-Upload Services

A fairly recent wrinkle in the photo-management game is services that automatically upload your images and store them “in the cloud,” on remote computers. When you take a photo using a mobile device such as an iPhone, or when you insert a memory card into your computer, the photos you captured are copied to the service and made available to any device you own. You don’t have to wonder if you synced photos to your phone or tablet, because they’re just there.

In terms of organizing your library, these services are great for creating automatic off-site backups of your photos. Without any work on your part, duplicates of your shots are uploaded and are available in case something happens to your library.

Dropbox, for example, has an option to copy files to a Camera Uploads folder in your Dropbox folder. When you connect a camera device (which includes phones and tablets that identify themselves as cameras to the operating system) or a memory card, you’re given the option of copying the images (Figure 5). That copying happens in the background; you can still import the photos into your chosen photo-management application—assuming you don’t mind keeping two copies of everything on your hard disk.

Figure 5: Dropbox can automatically import photos when a camera or memory card is connected." />

Figure 5: Dropbox can automatically import photos when a camera or memory card is connected.

However, the photos don’t retain any metadata other than the information provided by the camera when they were shot (typically just time, date, and location if the camera is GPS-capable). That means no ratings, keywords, or other essential information.

Similarly, Apple’s iCloud Photo Stream is a neat feature, automatically uploading photos you capture using an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch and making them available to other iOS devices and either Aperture or iPhoto—but not both; you can use Photo Stream with just one application on your computer at a time. But again, custom metadata doesn’t apply. You can’t add keywords or even rate pictures in your Photo Stream.

These services do have value, don’t get me wrong. In addition to providing an easy offsite backup of your original images, they offer sharing options. Dropbox makes it easy to share a link to view a photo, and Photo Stream offers Shared Photo Streams, photo groups that stay up to date for everyone who subscribes to them. For example, I created a Shared Photo Stream containing recent pictures of my daughter that my extended family subscribes to. When I add a new photo to the set, it appears within minutes on the iPhones and iPads belonging to her grandparents.

However, for now I view the services as secondary options that don’t fit well into a system of organization that values metadata and searchability. I hope to see broader support for including metadata in the future.

Understand Auto-Organizing Schemes

iPhoto and Photoshop Elements 11 aid the organization process by grouping photos into “events,” clusters of images based on when the images were imported. This approach provides a higher level view of your library (Figure 6). Moving the mouse pointer over an event reveals thumbnails of the photos inside, and double-clicking an event lets you browse them. In Aperture, events are referred to as projects (in fact, when you open an iPhoto library in Aperture, events appear as projects).

Figure 6: iPhoto groups imported photos into events." />

Figure 6: iPhoto groups imported photos into events.

If you’ve imported photos in separate batches, or if the program has made the wrong assumption about which photos should be grouped together, you can combine events or projects. In Figure 6, you can see that I imported photos taken on the same day but in two import sessions, creating two events in iPhoto. Since the pictures were from the same real-life event—a visit to a butterfly exhibit—I can combine the events, by selecting them and choosing Events > Merge Events (or just dragging one event onto another).

In Aperture, you can combine projects by selecting them and choosing File > Merge Projects.

Similarly, single events can be split into multiple events based on the photos’ date stamps. If you imported a full memory card’s worth of images that spanned several days, choosing Events > Autosplit Selected Events in iPhoto creates new events according to their dates. In the Elements Organizer, all you need to do is open the Events view and move the Events switch to Smart Events (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The Photoshop Elements Organizer automatically breaks out events by date in the Smart Events mode." />

Figure 7: The Photoshop Elements Organizer automatically breaks out events by date in the Smart Events mode.

Given that this is a book aiming to make photo-management easier, I understand that it sounds like I’m saddling you with a lot of work—you’re no doubt eager to import your photos quickly and start working with them! But applying this metadata at the start of the process—especially by setting up templates to automatically fill in the basics—reaps benefits later.

Read More: About [4] | Chapter 1 [5] | Chapter 2 [6] | Chapter 3 [7] | Chapter 4 [8] | Chapter 5 [9] | Chapter 6 [10] | Chapter 7 [11] | Chapter 8 [12] | Chapter 9 [13]