Image Management Without Databases

Publish date: 06 July 2019
Tags: photos, toolkit

This blog post shares the experience of organizing my photos. It’s one of those things I was dreading but I’m very happy with the result. There were a few things I wanted to get right in my setup:

  1. Portability - The entire setup below avoids platform lock-in as much as possible
  2. Flexibility - I want my photos to work for me, not the other way around. I want the freedom to organize my photos as I see fit today and change that easily in the future if need be
  3. Automation - As much of the setup should be automated or semi-automated as possible. The point of the exercise is to enjoy your photos, not to create a new chore

Of course, this won’t be the right setup for everyone and I may have missed something. Feel free to leave comments below.

Disclaimer: I have mostly Apple devices and therefore the tool and workflow selection below reflects that. If you use a Windows machine, you’ll have to do some research to find similar tools that work for you.

Storage

Make sure you choose a rock-solid storage solution. I chose Dropbox due to my positive experience storing all my other documents. But remember, this setup is platform independent, so it should work on Google Drive, OneDrive, Box, Network Attached Storage (NAS) or whatever other storage solution you choose. It should also work if you decide to change storage for whatever reason, like Dropbox raising its prices.

Continuous upload

Dropbox offers the ability on all your devices to automatically upload new photos to the Camera Uploads folder. I’ve enabled this across my devices. The Camera Uploads folder is where all my new photos land, no matter how I create or receive them (eg. even via chat apps like WhatsApp). I drag and drop photos from Camera Uploads into the appropriate year folder and event subfolder whenever I’m in a photo-organizing mood 😉. Most respectable cloud storage systems will offer automatic upload, and I’d avoid any that don’t.

This also avoids your phone holding your recent photos without any backup of them, in case you drop your phone in the river, your photos will be safe.

Organizing your files

Many photo organization apps (like Apple’s Photos) use the concept of Albums. In principle, this is a great concept but remember that it organizes your photos based on metadata about the photo external to the file itself. There’s nothing in the file itself that would tell any other photo app that photo1.jpg is part of the “Vacation 2019” album. That means that a migration away from Apple Photos could mean a loss of all that photo-to-album association. I really wanted to avoid this lock-in.

This led me to decide to organize my photos into date-based groupings using simple folders. To avoid one huge folder of photos, I group into years, and then where appropriate, into events. Here’s an example:

The other years look similar. This setup offers the flexibility of grouping photos where necessary and avoiding it when unnecessary.

File naming

Your photo filenames will often be meaningless (eg. IMG49003.jpg). Sequential naming makes sorting the files in your directories a nightmare because photos from different sources may be named in different ways. Here’s where I normalize that.

I recommend Renamer for macOS. You can drag an entire directory’s files into the edit window and batch rename them to the images’ true creation date (as stored in the Exif metadata). Exif metadata is great data about the device used to create the photo or movie that’s embedded right into the file (eg. creation date, location, camera type, etc…). Exif metadata (and other metadata) is great for organization because it has no dependencies on the photo app or storage you’re using. It’s intrinsic to the file itself. This point will be important when I address Albums and Tags.

A screenshot of Renamer for Mac

Notes

Duplicates

You will, despite your best efforts, have to deal with duplicate photos. It’s annoying. This is how I deal with them.

I use PhotoSweeper. With it, you can rapidly analyze an entire directory full of photos and tell PhotoSweeper what constitutes a duplicate (eg. exact and/or approximate image matches). You can rapidly detect the duplicates and settle on the single image you want to keep.

Photosweeper Homepage

Notes

Tagging

Tagging photos and videos is a great ability to organize your photos along concepts besides the date-based directories I introduced earlier. Here are some ways you could tag and, therefore, filter your images:

Earlier I introduced the idea of exploiting the Exif metadata to rename your files. But metadata doesn’t end there. There is also IPTC metadata. I won’t dive into the detail of what IPTC can store, but the part that’s important for tagging is called keyword. Keywords in IPTC are essentially tags; they’re comma-separated words that can be used for filtering your photos. You can add as many as you want to any photo and that metadata is saved right in the image file, avoiding dependency on any particular photo management app.

Adobe Bridge

Adobe Bridge offers a great way to manage and view your photos and their metadata. I won’t go into detail on how to use the app itself, but here are some things I really like about how it works:

Closing Thoughts

This setup works well for me given my devices and my goals. But there are some places I would love to improve it.

Do you have your own thoughts, tips or tricks on how to handle your photos? This topic is a bit of a minefield and I stopped optimizing things when I felt the setup was good enough without being perfect. Feel free to comment below with how you’ve set things up!

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