Photos scanned and stored consistently: never lose an image

Maybe you’re old enough to remember what it felt like to have a stack of prints, negatives or slides in your hand as the result of your photographic labour. Or maybe you’re less of a fossil than that and your results reside in a folder on a hard drive, on or off site. In either case, as a (semi) professional photographer you need to have a filing system that will allow you to locate a file, negative or print quickly and have some details on lens used, camera used, film or (digital) processing used, etc. so you can re-create an iconic image with some consistency.

This blog post shows you my MO when it comes to keeping tabs on what I did and where the results are stored.

Photography with a hybrid workflow

First of all, the filing system I carefully devised is usable in all three workflows, digital, hybrid and traditional. I run a hybrid workflow. Which means, I work both in ‘traditional’ and digital photography. Some of my shooting is entirely digital, from camera to print. Some is partly digital, where I use a traditional camera and scan the negative or slide to a digital image which is then digitally processed and digitally printed. I do not run a ‘wet darkroom’ anymore so there’s no completely ‘traditional’ workflow in my work. However, the system presented here allows any type of photographer to file his or her images and prints and negatives or slides in an orderly and easily understood (file) structure.

Image organising software, do I need it?

Image organising software is a must in my humble opinion. You need it to keep track of what your images look like and it will allow you to quickly find images through their date, their camera, their lens used or whatever property of the image you would want to search in your images. Whether or not you need batch editing software depends on the sort of photographer you are. Are you the more deliberate shooter who takes only a few images or a well-defines set of images with them from an event? You would likely be perfectly fine with Adobe Bridge™ as a file browsing program, and Photoshop as an image editing program.

On the other hand, if you shoot many images on an assignment (for instance if you’re working as an editorial photographer or a fashion photographer or a wedding photographer), it’s nice to have a file browsing program to pick out the good shots, but it’s a real pain in the rear when you need to edit those images one at a time in Photoshop or similar software. So if you need to also edit a larger volume of images and chances are that the image lighting conditions do not vary from image to image, using software that can also batch edit the images is a better way to go. You need a program like Adobe Lightroom™ or Apple Photos™ or Capture One Pro™.

And then there’s the folks who do some of both and add some traditional photography in the mix, like me. So how do you get everything in sight in a consistent fashion, and how do you keep track on just which image it was that you posted to Flickr, Facebook, or with a blog post or an article?

Setting up cameras, scanners and software

I started out with Nikon DSLRs and they have an option in the menu to replace the standard ‘DSC’ file prefix with your own code. Look for it and change it to something that will identify the camera you work with. I used a D700 and a D600 alongside and had set the prefixes to ‘JN7′ and JN6’. It allowed me to quickly see what camera had taken the shot, from its filename. It’s also very useful if you work with a crew of photographers, to later instantly see whose shots you’re looking at! Fuji X-T1 and other models have the option too, it’s in the menu. I used ‘JT1’ for shots from my X-T1. My current Sony A7 unfortunately does not have this option. I consider it a great omission but since I currently work with only one camera I have no need to distinct between cameras. If you can set your camera to an alternate file name prefix, do it!

Also, Nikon DSLRs have a lens bank for 10 manual lenses that can be hand-selected from the menu, I assigned a quick button to the lens bank and made sure I always set the correct lens if a manual-focus un-chipped lens was on the camera. Again, not possible with Sony’s A7… Not sure about the X-T1, I shot that camera only briefly.

If you’re scanning negatives or slides, set the scanner to always store the images in the same folder. The rest of file handling with negatives or slides will be in one of the next paragraphs, that’s where the magic happens for hybrid workflow-lovers… 😉

If you’re using software like Lightroom or Capture One Pro, set a rule to import any files with a prefix that reflects the date shot. I use a prefix format ‘20161229_’, meaning 2016, December 29th with an underscore. So a file shot with the Nikon D700 on July 17, 2015 would be named: ‘20150717_JN7_8453.NEF’ Not only does this instantly tell me what camera was used and when the image was shot, but the date prefix also eliminates the risk of ending up with two images with the same ‘JN7_8453.NEF’ name, which would still leave you at risk of overwriting the image of your grandmother waterskiing with an out-of-focus shot of your cat.

Can’t happen now, the date prefixes will prevent that from happening. Grandmother’s safe!

On your hard drive

On your hard drive, create a folder structure! No matter how much the software manufacturers tell you it doesn’t matter anymore where your images are stored, it’s still very useful to keep them together! You may need to back up a specific set of images, or a specific period of your work or you name it. If your images are scattered across your hard drive or multiple hard drives, that only complicates the process. Also, if something should happen to you and others need to access your images, having a folder structure that provides easy access may help them!

My folder structure is simple. For scanned negatives:

Or for digital files:

So I distinct between traditional and digital shots. Digital shots are stored in an annual folder, a monthly folder and a daily folder. Scanned images go into an annual folder first and next in a daily folder straight away due to less shoots or rolls per year. The extra step of months isn’t necessary there. (In case you’re wondering, the ’66FineGrain’ scans you see listed above come from a found film, that was in a camera I bought at a flea market. It was B&W film and was only marked ‘Fine Grain’ at the edges. No clue what brand it was. Images date it to the seventies, I’d say.)

Naming scanned photos

When it comes to scanned files, you already saw how I name the folders. Well surprise, the files are named in exactly the same way! I use the date, and a code for the film format. These codes do the trick for me, I don’t shoot other formats but I suppose you can figure their codes out when you shoot 8×10 inch sheet film or 127 roll film… 😉

Code Dimensions of film scanned
Code ’45’ 4×5 inch sheet film
Code ’69’ 6×9 cm roll film
Code ’67’ 6×7 cm roll film
Code ’66’ 6×6 cm roll film
Code ‘645’ 6×4.5 cm roll film
Code ’35’ full frame film
Code ’72’ half frame film

Images get a suffix number to indicate the scan from the roll. So image ‘20161129_66Velvia50_3’ is the third scan from a roll of Velvia 50 that was shot in 6×6 format and scanned on the 29th of November, 2016. This way, I can always locate a file pretty easily. In an internet post, I list the original file name or I use files with their original name. Click the file name to see how that looks in a Flickr post:  file: 20130508-35Kodak400CN-3977.jpg.

The scanned files and the digital files end up in the same Lightroom catalog. I can select folders and work on the files in that folder, batch edit files if necessary, and if I need to do some work on a file that Lightroom can’t do, I can easily open it in Photoshop.

To get scanned files to the right location in Lightroom, I tell it where to look for new files, to which folder to move the images, and what the subfolder should be named. Now, with Lightroom opened, if I scan the image (always to the same destination folder), Lightroom will spot any file the moment the scanning software writes it, and move it to the correct folder while it’s imported in Lightroom. Sounds cool, but there’s a catch. Scanning software will often decide the sequence number of an image based on the file already present in the folder and if you let Lightroom carry a scan away instantly, you end up with a load of files with identical names! That won’t work! So before I start scanning I disable the automated import, and only once the scanning is done will I import all files at once.That way, if scanning is done, all files are instantly available for editing in Lightroom! Sweet, huh?

Exporting to your hard drive

When exporting images after editing, I still use the same naming convention, but add a prefix ‘Exp’ to the folder name. That way, I can see the difference between a folder with RAW files and a folder with edited, exported files without having to open the folder, or without them getting in one folder together. Exports are always in JPEG, originals are always in the manufacturers RAW format or in TIFF if it’s a scan. Again, no risk of overwriting images.

Storing your photos: Better safe than sorry

To complete things: my folders are located on a Networked Access Storage (NAS) drive, with two hard drives and RAID set up. Anything copied to the NAS, is mirrored on both drives.

I also copy the monthly Lightroom catalog files to that drive. Lightroom catalog files are named ‘201612’, ‘201611’, etc so that their name reflects year and date. For specific bigger shoots, I create a dedicated Lightroom catalog file, which is usually named ‘201611_EventName’. Copying the files and catalogs to that NAS drive makes sure there’s always a back-up of the catalog (which contains an index of the edits made with an image) and all original files. This way, I’m always double secure.

Working off-site with Lightroom

Whenever I need to work somewhere else, before I leave I copy the catalog file and the originals to a Dropbox folder (might take some time to sync) and I can pick my work up by downloading the catalog and originals at the other end. This way, there’s no risk of losing valuable images (or a client!) when somebody steals your physical storage while you’re traveling or when your luggage gets shipped to Timbuktu.

Physical storage of negatives and prints

But what about the physical storage of negatives, slides, prints etc? Pretty simple! I use the same naming convention there.

The negatives are wrapped in typing paper and taped shut. On it, I write the same name as the folder has. (You can see I have a pretty extensive backlog in scanning, images from a summer 2015 Berlin trip scanned in December 2016… I have an opinion on time in relation to photography…) Every three months, I dump the wrapped negatives in an envelope and write something like ‘2016Q4’ on it. Envelopes with prints get the name of the roll they come from right away.

I store the envelopes in the correct order in a plastic storage container, and keep them dry with the little bags that come with your new sneakers.

So that’s it! This way of record keeping has not yet lost me a single image, there’s a pretty consistent archive that dates back to 2003. It has taken quite a few hours extra to get everything in order, I gotta admit I started this workflow in 2012 when I really started to get lost in my personal Fangorn Forest of Photos…

But it’s not too late for you either! Makes a fine New Years Resolution with personal profit for years to come! Let me know what you think in the comments below, or share your own approach to the matter with fellow readers.

Happy New Year, happy 2017 and Good Light to all!

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