A digital mess

Organisation is the key to success!

That’s what Mr Fraser used to say back in my early 90’s school computer class.  Back then we had an entire subject dedicated to touch typing, the screens had just moved on from monochrome to 16 colours and displaying red text on the screen seemed revolutionary.  Things have moved on.

But some fundamentals shouldn’t change, and the smooth new interfaces on modern devices from Apple to Google don’t always help.  In the search for simplicity within a complex environment, we’re being pried away from the underlying layers until we no longer know or care what’s happening behind the scenes.  I usually trend the other way and like know what’s happening under the surface, so in my world of ignorance towards most things automated and connected, I hadn’t realised the widespread effect these glossy surface layers can have on the way photographs are stored.  Recently I’ve met a number of people who don’t know where their photo’s are.  “On the Phone”, or “On the Mac” seems a less than satisfactory answer to me.

Should we care?

Certainly, not every image we create today is important.  With around four billion photographs captured daily around the world (that’s a guestimate), attempting to organise them all would be a hefty task.  Over the last few decades, our concept of a photograph has largely shifted from one of priceless treasure, to one of short term value.  So do we still care for the longevity of photographs in a saturated digital world?  Should we?  Is sharing here and now all that truly matters?  And if we do care about our photographs, which are the most important and where will they be found?  Facebook? Google? Phones? Hard drives? Photo frames? Photo books? Wall prints? Exhibitions?  Museums? Or in a Cloud?

Most of those four billion photographs are taken on our phones, and as much as I cringe at this idea, most will only ever be of significance to the maker and perhaps a few others, with four billion photographs a day it’s the only logical conclusion.  Some of those four billion photographs will become treasured by some, or many, but only if they can be organised and found amongst the billions, and as our storage mediums change, our photographs will have to move with them.  When it comes to family records, how many do we actually need?  Tens of thousands of images could become a burden, while a select few would be more manageable and arguably safer.  As photographers though, we trend towards volume and need a reliable structure to keep them organised.

I’m worried about the way many of us store and organise our digital photographs, and the influence from the latest ‘cloud’ thinking.  If we allow the latest trends at Apple, Google, Adobe or Microsoft to dictate our organisational structure, and allow that structure to be linked exclusively with those accounts, and stored somewhere in the world, what will happen to our photographs in five, ten or twenty years time?  Will we still be able to find them or pass them on?  And how will we find the few that really matter?

Apple what have you done?

I’ve seen people running into trouble lately, especially Mac users who are relatively new to digital photography, but it could be others too.  Apple has an app called Photos which you’ll find on any new Mac, maybe you know it.  On the surface it does an excellent job at organising a library of photographs, but it’s missing a backbone, and I’ve been surprised by the number of users who have no idea where their photographs are actually being stored.  Not only has Apple ‘hidden’ those originals under the surface, but there’s no attempt to structure them usefully at the folder level, and that’s just asking for trouble in my books.  You’re locked in, Apples won.

On the whole, Photos works for a while as long as you stay within the Apple ecosystem, but why would you want to do that?  Who knows what the future holds, so here’s my prediction for doom and gloom… at some point in the future, circumstances will change and you’ll be forced to move on, and if not you, it will be the caretaker of your photographs, and if your photographs aren’t organised into a structure that’s transferrable and easily accessible, your treasures will be buried.

So let’s have a closer look.  Mac Photos stores your images in the Photos Library, on my Mac that’s located in a folder structure like this:  Users>John>Pictures>Photos Library.photoslibrary  (find your Photos Library from the Photos Menu using: Photos>Preferences>General>Show in finder).  And this is where the mess begins.  To access the original images contained inside, right click on the .photoslibrary file and choose ‘show package contents’, in here there’s a folder called Masters, and under that, a date based folder structure mess containing all your images, good luck finding treasure in there.  But before you even think about moving them…Dont.  Photos knows their location and will throw a wobbly if they’re moved.  The Masters folder is simply a dumping ground for the originals, and the entire organisational structure is handled by the Photo’s app itself.

I should mention here that Mac Photos doesn’t force the use of the ‘Photos Library’ system and it’s messed up folder structure, it’s still possible to use a traditional folder based structure within the Photos app, but it’s not the default, it’s not made obvious to new users, and if that folder structure is changed in any other way (like in the finder), Photos will lose track of them, which is probably why they’re hidden away by default in the first place.

What does work then?

Even in a cloud based world, we still need an underlying folder structure to provide a backbone, at least that’s my view, it’s just so fundamental.  And to be clear, I’m referring to real folders which can be copied from one system to another, not made up structures like ‘albums’ or ‘collections’ that are only accessible in your chosen software.  So that means at some point you’ll need to create those folders, and to think about how you think.  That is, how will you remember a photograph?  By the place it was taken, by the event it was capturing?  Most likely NOT by the date, do you know where you were on the 11th of August 2008, I don’t.

Photographs need to be organised in a way that’s software independent, which can largely be achieved by:

  1. Creating a logical folder structure
  2. Embedding ratings and keywords, at least to images that matter

From there it’s possible to search for images based on:

  1. The folder structure
  2. Ratings and keywords
  3. Text, such as a word in the file or folder name
  4. Exisiting metadata such as capture date or camera type
  5. Content such as facial recognition, available in some software

Unfortunately for Apple Photos users, the most important steps are poorly implemented, and you’ll be left to clean up the mess.  Photos does a poor job of implementing a folder structure, it doesn’t support ratings, the keywords are exported inconsistently, and any organisational structure is only available within the app.  Heard enough yet?

As a minimum you need a decent folder structure, here’s a cut down example mine:

A digital mess

All my personal photographs are stored under a single folder titled ‘PHOTOS’ to keep them together.  Categories are CAPITALISED, to indicate it’s a structural folder, and not a folder containing images.  Image folders are dated with the year and month so they flow nicely in chronological order within their category.  Once setup it doesn’t take long to maintain, the important thing is to create a structure that reflects how you think, and then stick to it.

Compare this to what I find in Photos:  Good luck finding anything in here without access to the Photo’s app, I’m sorry Apple, but I’m a little disappointed.

apple photos organisation mess

When it comes to choosing software which will do a better job than Apple Photos for basic organising and editing (and it’s not difficult), I’m still a little reluctant to make recommendations because any choice would have its drawbacks and take some learning.  The Adobe products like Lightroom (Classic) or Bridge are one obvious choice, they’re well standardised and functional but not as simple as Apple Photos, and they come at a price point some Photos users may not be happy with, simply because Photos is free.  On1 Photo Raw is another choice and doesn’t need a subscription.  I’d love to recommend others at this point, but I’m still working on it.

The flip side of these non-destructive image editors like Lightroom, Bridge/Camera Raw or On 1 is the very fact they’re non-destructive.  All those edits which look great within the application are only ever going to look great in there until a copy of the edited image is exported, that’s because the editing itself is only contained within the metadata and needs to be interpreted by the respective software, so be warned.

When it comes to storage, we’re all in the same boat, the digital world is in constant transition, and what we have now is sure to be replaced with something new in a few years time, so handing complete control of our images and their categorisation to the latest software, devices and subscriptions has ‘risk’ written all over it in my mind.  Our digital data is fragile and next to useless if it’s not accessible or searchable in a universal way.  Organisation is the key to success!

John Hardiman