with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Managing Your Photographic Images

slides on a light tableMonday, Time Magazine calls you for a photograph of an American Alligator with his eyes poking out from the water. They have to have it by Wednesday. You hang up the phone and stand in your once-a-bedroom-now-an-office and think, “Now, where did I put that?”

When a client calls, can you find what they need? Can you find it quickly? How do you store your work? Is it easy to get to? Or do you have to move boxes of unedited film and junk to get to your files? Do you have a way of tracking what image is with which client?

At the start of your photographic career you may only have a couple hundred images. As you expand your creative horizons, your inventory of images quickly expands to thousands. Not all are worth saving, but most are, and you have to find a place to put them along with a method of finding the image you need when you need it. You also need to devise a method to keep track of where each image is when it leaves your files. When developing your storage system, you also have to plan for it to grow with you over time. It must be flexible and accessible because Time Magazine doesn’t like to be kept waiting.

Designing the Storage System

Whether starting your storage system early in your photography career or in the middle, you have to create a system that fits your specific needs. Your system should take into account:

Barometer Awareness
When planning your office and storage space, take into consideration the temperature and humidity of the room throughout the year. High humidity can mean warped prints and slide mounts and may invite mildew. Extreme light and heat isn’t good for any kind of film; the best conditions are cool temperatures and low humidity. To protect your images for many years, watch out for dust and moisture of any kind.
  • The type of film you use
  • How best to store and protect it
  • Office space
  • How to best access your images.

The storage system for a commercial photography business may differ from one for someone who only produces slide shows or workshops. If you do assignment work rather than produce individual images, you may want to group your work by assignment. If your images are for a variety of uses, create a flexible system to accommodate those different needs.

Your film medium sets much of the standard. If you use print film, prints should be stored flat to prevent curling and negatives should be stored in protective plastic sleeves or pages. Do you want to store the prints and the negatives together or separately? Do you want the prints in folders or boxes? What kind of boxes? What kind of shelf space do you need to accommodate them? An old shoe box is probably not the best method.

Slide pages make for efficient storage.With slide film there are normally no prints to store, but how do you store the slides? In the boxes they arrived in? In slide trays? In slide pages? Do you put the slide pages in notebooks or in file folders? Or just put them in boxes? The most common method of storing slides is in slide pages: twenty images per page. Ten to fifteen slide pages fit in a file or Pendaflex hanging folder, so each folder stores about 300 slides within an inch or two of space in a box or file cabinet.

While many photography shops offer film storage supplies, Light Impressions is a mail order company specializing in museum and art storage supplies for various storage systems and uses. Their products are of excellent archival quality and durability, protecting your investment over time. Their helpful catalogs and web pages can assist you in putting your storage system together.

Accessing Your Images

Go Sideways
A little calculation found traditional vertical filing cabinets took up more “space” in the room while horizontal cabinets hug the wall like book cases. Horizontal filing cabinets are like bureau drawers, the folders fitting in sideways to the front of the cabinet. Many such cabinets feature slide out shelves providing extra work table space. If space is at a premium, check out the different options like mobile filing systems (move to allow access), rotating filing cabinets, and other options that you can find on the web and through your local office supply dealer.

How you search through your images by hand dictates the way you should store them. Use a method that is comfortable for you. When storing their images in slide or negative pages, many people work from a stack of pages and hold each over the light table as they go through them. Some people like to store slide pages in notebooks.Plastic storage pages are slippery and tend to slide around as you work with them, and you have to find a way to store the pages. If you store them in notebooks, you have to take them out of the note book in order to view them on a light table, and returning them means lining up the binder holes to get the pages back in, which is time consuming and cumbersome for many people. Most people use filing cabinets, as they efficiently store the most in the least “room” space. Using hanging folders (Pendaflex) keeps the pages from slipping down in the cabinet, potentially damaging them. With catalog tags you can easily organize your work in the folders and drawers.

When working with prints, you can use boxes or drawers to organize and store your work. Which one you choose depends upon the space you have in the room, the cost, and the flexibility towards growth. Drawers, especially those designed for prints and architectural drawings, are great for storing prints, but are not always easy to “add to”. You only have so much space for drawers, while boxes can be stacked up and around in different places. Is a box easier to pick up and move to a large table or work space for going through the images, or can you pull out the drawer and do the same thing? Think about how you will use it, sort through it, and how to make the process fast and easy.

Categorizing Your Images

Make a list of what items you photograph and write them down.With the storage system set up, it is time to figure out how you want to keep track of your images. How do you want to find your images? By subject, by date, by season, by project…there are many choices. Begin by starting simple and inventory what you already have.

Is this a picture of a mountain, lake, rocks, or Alaska? Portage Lake, Alaska, photo by Brent VanFossenWith the storage system set up, it is time to figure out how you want to keep track of your images. How do you want to find your images? By subject, by date, by season, by project…there are many choices. Begin by starting simple and inventory what you already have.

Do your arranging on paper first before you start moving your images around. Make a list on paper and note what types of images you have the most of and sort them into those larger groups. Start vague and then work down to specifics. Think about your work. What subjects are you drawn to? Do you find yourself photographing more birds than mammals? More amphibians than insects? More man-made subjects than nature?

On paper and checking against your image inventory, begin with main subjects, like animal, earth, water, sky, and man-made. If you find you have no images of anything in the sky, like lightning or clouds, then drop that category. If you find lots of landscape images grouped under “earth”, examine what kind of landscape images you have and whether or not it is important to categorize these by location or habitat. When you think of a landscape image, do you think of it as a photograph of a habitat like a wetland or desert? Or do you just remember you photographed this in Florida and that in Arizona? If the latter, then organize your images by location. If the former, then organize them by habitat. When you stop to consider how you think about your work, you can easily come up with the categories.

Our Filing System

This is an example of our filing system.

  • Atmospherical and Geological
    • Clouds
    • Fog
    • Frost
    • Ice
    • Mountains
    • Rocks
    • Snow
    • Water Patterns
    • Water Falls
    • Waterways
  • Birds
    • Eagles and Hawks
    • Waders
    • Shorebirds
    • Songbirds
    • Herons
    • Egrets
  • Mammals
    • Bear
    • Marmots
    • Rabbits
    • Pika
    • Deer
    • Elk
    • Moose
    • Squirrel
  • Manmade
    • Buildings
    • Fences
    • Doors/Windows
    • Roads
  • Locations
    • Olympic National Park
    • Israel
    • Alaska
    • Arizona
    • Florida
    • Texas

When we started our system, we set up the initial list by subject and location. We have a lot of images of the Olympic National Park so these were grouped together. Categories were set up for amphibians, mammals, birds, and so on. Then we narrowed down the specifics within each main category. We found ourselves making a lot of assumptions. Since seagulls are everywhere in Washington State, we set a section up under birds for seagulls. After sorting the slides into their categories, we found only five images of seagulls. When seagulls are everywhere, it is easy to assume you have lots of pictures of them. Sorting this way helps you keep track of what images you really have and don’t have, and what you need to go out and get.

for us, rocks were hard to categorize. How would you categorize this picture of rocks? Photo by Brent VanFossenOur filing system is based on very simple techniques. Our lives are filled with a lot of living and doing and not much time for time-consuming office practices. Fast and easy is our motto. We needed a system to grow and change with us and our photographic interests. We group everything into several major categories: Mammals, Insects, Amphibians, Fish, Birds, Plants and Flowers, Locations, and so on. Not all images drop into nice and neat categories. We had a hard time with mountains, rivers, streams, clouds, fog, ice, snow, rain, and rocks. We finally realized these were all things of the earth and sky, so we created a group called Atmospherical and Geological.

Under each major category we have specific subjects in alphabetical order. Under Mammals we have Cats, Chipmunks, Deer, Elk, Goats, Marmots, Moose, Pika, Sheep, Squirrels, and Whales. If needed we will break those down even further. We spent several years practically living with the rare Olympic Marmots and have hundreds of slide pages filled with many facets of marmot life. Under Marmots we’ve sorted them by Adults, Babies, and Family Groups. Our folder tabs are color coded helping us move our eyes directly to the main categories and then through the sub-categories. As you develop your own system, consider how to keep it flexible by expanding it to meet your needs.

One Comment

  • Posted July 19, 2005 at 23:05 | Permalink

    I love to categorize easy with the adobe photoshop 2.0 !
    saves pictures even when lost or deleted by accident that tiny image them so know what had and easy categories and low price instant picture improvement – my favorite.

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