Minor Milestone Yields Thoughts On Cataloging

I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop since before we started this endeavor but didn’t buy Lightroom 3 until December 2010. I bought Lightroom so I could catalog and keep track of Nancy’s growing collection of photographs (I still do virtually all of our photo editing in Photoshop). At the time, Nancy already had about 15 thousand digital images (we won’t even talk about all of her slides and negatives). After a number of unsuccessful campaigns, I can now report that essentially all of THOSE photographs have been entered into Lightroom. In the process, I have also cataloged some of her more recent work. Altogether, I’ve now cataloged 29 thousand of her 64 thousand digital photographs (and counting). I’ve identified 360 species of bird, 45 species of butterflies and moths, about 100 mammals (including eleven types of squirrels). In her digital era, we have made eleven trips out of the country to five different continents (the other two continents haven’t been visited since the days of film). So you are probably wondering what I learned about cataloging.

Well, I’m still learning. Part of the problem is that we cater to some discriminating classes of consumer, like birders (and others), who want to know about the specific type of bird or butterfly. But not being an expert, I’ve not always been successful at identifying those subjects, even after spending quite some time doing research. This is part of the reason you may have noticed I have actually lost ground so far (if you’ve done the math). But I have learned a few things.

In The Beginning

First, some background. Before Lightroom, I thought it would be good, as some experts had suggested, to put our photographs in folders based on content. I think I had a folder (they may have called them directories back then) for dogs and another for people, each of which had subfolders, but it soon became apparent that some images had both dogs and people and the whole system became a bit of a mess before I realized a need to move on to a better system.

Our Workflow

Now, at the end of a day of photographing I upload the pictures to the computer into a folder labeled with the date, which is in another folder labeled with the year. It’s simpler this way. If we are away from home, they get uploaded onto the laptop and immediately backed up onto an external hard drive before formatting the camera’s memory card to be ready for the next day. Then when I get home I transfer the laptop copies to my desktop. I also regularly back up our whole portfolio to one of our larger external hard drives on a basis that is never quite as regular as it should be, but that part is beyond the scope of this article. And then when I get around to it, I sit down and import the pictures into Lightroom one daily folder at a time. I already have a metadata preset giving Nancy’s contact information but before each upload, I update the preset’s location. We don’t religiously get GPS data, but at least try to add sublocation, city, and state. After importing, I go through and add keywords. It is the keywords I’m relying on to find the pictures I’m looking for years later. As far as the other parts of the workflow that people write about, like rating and weeding, that’s Nancy’s job; she will decide to look through a day’s work and together we will evaluate how to handle each picture. She has “the eye”; generally I’m there just to remind her of what is possible and what isn’t feasible and to take notes on how or if she wants each one edited. But when I’m cataloging, I only cull the obvious – the hopelessly out of focus or those with the cut-off (or missing) subject, for example. There are good reasons for not being too aggressive with the delete button at this stage (which I may get a chance to comment on in the near future so stay tuned).

My Lessons On Keywording

So here my current thoughts:

  • Embrace hierarchical cataloging. If somebody is looking for just a butterfly picture, that’s fine, asking for ‘butterfly’ will bring up all subcategories. but if they specifically want a giant swallowtail, you can search for it directly.
  • Your categories should follow your own needs, not official scientific classifications. Under ‘woodpecker’ (which is under ‘bird’) I have seven different species, but ‘northern yellow-shafted flicker’ is listed separately (under ‘bird’). If someone looking through the results of a search for ‘woodpecker’ could be expected to ask “where are the flickers?” then I made a mistake. But it is easy to move things around. Which brings us to the next point-
  • Develop your hierarchy organically, or as needed. Start with simple categories, like ‘amphibian’ maybe, and subdivide as the number of amphibians makes searching for your favorite species of frog more time-consuming. Or if flowers are your specialty and you listed each individual species under ‘flower’ (or even if you didn’t start with the ‘flower’ keyword), combining all roses into their own subgroup of ‘flower’ (and/or supergroup of the individual varieties) might someday be appropriate. Being too detailed may be overkill at first, but those details can become more critical when you are searching through tens of thousands of pictures. Although we have a ‘bird’ category, which is well developed with many levels of subcategories, I don’t yet have ‘mammal’ as a separate category. As I mentioned, we do have ‘squirrel’, which has 11 subcategories and other things like giraffe are also subdivided. I don’t expect somebody to ask to see all of our mammal pictures, but if it does happen I can adjust.
  • Not all of my subcategories of ‘bird’ are individual species (or genus, or family, etc). Some of the subgroups are based on the type of bird or likely habitat; I group them with other birds they are likely to be confused with. For example, I have ‘shorebird’, which to me means all those little birds that run back and forth at the beach just ahead of the waves to feed in the sand (and includes a number of scientific families). This way if I use up my allotted time without identifying the species I can throw it in the ‘shorebird’ class and maybe identify it later (perhaps as a bonus when identifying another bird in that class). Things like moorhens or spoonbills that would never be confused with those guys would not be part of the class. Sometimes even when you cannot identify the particular species, it helps to narrow it down.
  • As another example of mixed classification types, under ‘people’ I have individual names. If I have pictures of related people, I might throw them together in a group by their last or family name, or add the last name as an intermediate group between ‘people’ and the individuals. But maybe more important for search purposes, I have other ‘people’ subclasses based on what they are doing, like ‘surfer’, ‘cowboy’, or ‘tourist’.
  • Your strict hierarchy alone may not always be the best answer. You may well wind up with a hybrid scheme. Sometimes within a species, if I have a lot of pictures (or if I expect people to ask for a particular subset of the group), I may subclassify. For example, I have both ‘male painted bunting’ and ‘female painted bunting’ under ‘painted bunting’, and for some animals, we have another subgroup for ‘immature’. But both butterflies and moths, which are separate classes in my scheme, have caterpillars. I could have ‘Species A caterpillar’, ‘Species B caterpillar’, etcetera as subcategories of every species for which I have caterpillar pictures, but this makes it difficult if someone wants to see all of my caterpillars. In this case, I made ‘caterpillar’ its own independent category and I add it to the keywords of both butterflies and moths.
    To see the Note click here.To hide the Note click here.
    Of course to complicate things, the caterpillar of some moths, like the Carolina sphinx moth, have their own distinct name (e.g. tobacco hornworm), so in those cases, I kept the hornworm keyword and still added ‘caterpillar’ to the picture’s keyword collection (even though it seemed redundant).
  • Another nice thing about keywording is the synonym list for each keyword so that one can add scientific names, or other local/common names to all of your animals, or strange nicknames to crewmates (those are the ones you will most likely remember when you do try to dig them up later). Each of those synonyms is searchable.
  • Keep in mind, the main purpose of cataloging/keywording is to be able to find that picture years later. The first secret would be to have a good idea of what characteristics will need to search for (and hope those requirements don’t change over the intervening years).
  • A secondary purpose is to record notes that would be useful in those later years. For example, having a keyword for everyone on your cruise that happened to find their way in front of your camera might not seem important now (since you won’t likely be searching specifically for them later), but if they do wind up in front of your favorite humpback whale you may need their name later and it’s best to get it down while it is still fresh.

Final Thoughts

These comments just show my current method for this process. My scheme will probably continue to evolve, and even if it doesn’t, I give no guarantee that is the best plan for you. I hope I’ve given some ideas that will be useful and maybe even save you the time of learning everything the hard way, but in the end, the most efficient cataloging scheme is probably the one that most closely matches the workings of your own brain. Whether you list individual species of plants under ‘purple flower’ or just add ‘purple flower’ as an independent subcategory of ‘flower’ (or ‘plant’) depends on how your brain normally processes these attributes. Thinking about and/or understanding how you think could be the hardest part of this process.

Author: Bruce

Although I grew up in Garden Grove, California, I have lived here in South Miami longer than I've lived anywhere else in the world. I've been married to my wonderful wife, Nancy, longer than I was ever without her. We were both teachers. Nancy recently retired after 40 years. I have also spent time as an officer in the Coast Guard, a commercial property appraiser, and an electrical engineering student. Now I'm technical support for Bee Happy Graphics. That means I handle this blog, our web page, and all E-mail, I do all post-processing and printing of the images, I cut mats and glass and frames. If you have a technical question, I would be the one trying to answer it.

2 thoughts on “Minor Milestone Yields Thoughts On Cataloging”

  1. Bruce, Thanks for sharing your thoughts on cataloging. I also have a long background with PS and LR. My total library is closing in on 300k images. I thought I’d share my evolution of “how do you find that image”. I have a very similar keywording process to yours, 15 master folders, 30ish subfolders with 2 to 20 keywords and about 800 keywords total. I don’t worry about small differences in a subject as when I’m post processing I flag maybes, 1 star images for processing and 2-5 stars for better images. So once I sort by a keyword a click on the flag button gets me all the images I originally liked and a click on 5 star gets me all the images in that category (usually only a few) which is usually the ones I’m looking for anyway.

    What I really wanted to throw out to you is I recently purchased a slide/negative scanner. With great effort I have scanned all of my slides and negatives from back to the 70’s . In addition I photographed pictures my mother had back to the early 40’s. I would be glad to sell or loan you the scanner if you care to take on a similar task.

    My library has become a diary of my life, way more valuable than the images I make money from.

    Mike
    https://michaelharris.photoshelter.com/

    1. Thanks for the comments, Mike. And while I appreciate the scanner offer, we already have a Pacific Image PrimeFilm XE scanner, which is supposed to be pretty good, but I haven’t really tested it because I haven’t been able to devote any time to a campaign to convert her old slides and negatives to digital yet. Case pends.

      I really like your idea of adding a rating system to the keywording as a means of finding and sorting images. If we were ever to get to the point that we could identify all cardinal pictures, for example, in real time and could even take requests from potential customers on the spot, it would probably be best not to show them EVERY image in all states of development. And even before that happens (if it happens), it could reduce the number of candidates in a search so one wouldn’t need to be as specific in the keywording to find what they are looking for. We just need to work on the implementation – right now evaluating the artistic merit of an image is Nancy’s responsibility – but I could probably do some pre-sorting. I’ll work on that. Thanks again!

Your "two cents worth" is welcome (but I don't give change).

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