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How to Create and Use a Date-Based Digital Asset Management System

How to Create and Use a Date-Based Digital Asset Management System
By Andrew Darlow

The primary way I’ve found to avoid losing images (not difficult when you shoot with a digital camera) is to create folders for your image files organized by date. The approach below is a step-by-step way that I’ve taught many of my clients, and years later it continues to help them keep organized, regardless of whether they use Adobe Bridge, Microsoft Expression Media, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Apple Aperture, or other Digital Asset Management software application.

STEP 1: Download the suggested folder structure as a .zip file

Many people just drop a folder full of images from their media cards on their desktop and leave it there, but that’s not a very good choice. There are some very basic approaches to organizing your images that will help you to take control of where things are stored, and how they are archived. Also consider that at some point, you will need to make room for new photos on your computer. Having a system in place will help make that possible with little risk of losing precious images later on.

The main suggestion I have to help reduce the problem of losing images is to have folders with content organized by date. For example, you can start by creating a “MAIN LIBRARY” folder. Then, all the work you do in 2010 can be placed in a main folder for the year named “2010folder.” Or, it can be named “2010_upto06” which would be six months of images, from 12/01/2010 to 6/30/2010. You would then choose “2010_upto12” for pictures that you download from 7/01/2010 to 12/31/2010. Or you can create a folder for each month. Inside of each of those main folders should be the folder for your media cards using the approach described in Tip 82. A good name for the folder to hold your camera images is “DCAMraws” if you shoot Raws only or “DCAMjpgs” if you shoot JPEGs with any of your cameras. JPEGs and Raws can also be combined into just one folder if you prefer, but having them separate has some advantages when organizing and processing files.

I also recommend creating additional folders inside the “2010folder,” such as “Lo-Res,” “Processed PSD Files,” “Print Finals,” “Web Galleries,” etc. I’ve created a sample folder structure that you can download HERE for Windows and HERE for Mac. To streamline the process, make the folders and subfolders for upcoming years ahead of time when they are empty, like I have them in the provided .zip files.

IMPORTANT: I write “pictures that you download,” and not pictures that you take in those time periods because with this system it is important to add files based on when you are downloading and/or working on them. By following this system, you can back up an entire year of work without having to worry later if you’ve backed something up or not. Just to explain this a bit more. If you did not follow this system and it was 2010, you might open a file from 2009’s folder and put it back in 2009, which would be a mistake with this system. Now you have a retouched file from 2010 in the folder for 2009. But you’ve already backed up 2009 to multiple places, so for this reason, after 1/1/2010, you should not add any more files to the 2009 folder.

STEP 2: Insert your media card into a card reader and copy your files

Begin by inserting your camera’s media card into a card reader, and then manually copy the files manually to a specific date-based folder. When you insert your card, you will see an icon for your media card that usually says your camera’s name (for example, “EOS_DIGITAL”). If you open that folder, you will see a folder named DCIM. I recommend renaming that folder “DCIMa” for the first card you download. Then copy that DCIMa folder to the “DCAMraws” folder that I recommend setting up in STEP 1. If you have another card to download, name it DCIMb and copy it to the same “DCAMraws” folder, and so on.

There are three reasons for this:

1. By naming the folder something other than DCIM on the card, you will have less of a chance of overwriting another folder called DCIM that you may have copied to your computer earlier.
2. By putting it in a date-based folder, all your cards will be in one place and organized in a way that they can easily be archived and retrieved at a later time.
3. When you put the card back in a digital camera, the camera will read something like “No image” on the LCD. This is a good thing because it is a backup method that alerts you that you’ve probably already downloaded the card to your computer. If you are able to see photos, that means that the folder still reads DCIM, and you probably did not download the files yet. Only use this as a second line of defense because if you have multiple cameras they may also read “no image” if you put a card in one that you’ve shot in another camera, even if the folder reads “DCIM.”

IMPORTANT: After reinserting the card, you should reformat your media card in the camera to clear the card’s contents so that you start with an empty card. Even if you don’t use this naming system, you should always reformat your card in the camera (not the computer) after you download and backup your files.

Also note that if, after renaming the DCIM folder, you try to use the card in a kiosk or machine that allows you to print your images, the card will probably not be able to be read. You would need to change the folder name back to DCIM first for the machine to be able to see the images. And always remember to safely eject your card before removing it from a card reader. On Mac, you can choose Cmd+E or drag the main icon to the trash/eject icon (use this approach with caution-the computer will never ask you if you want to delete images, and the trash can will turn into an eject button with an arrow instead of a trash can icon). On Windows, there is usually a small safe eject icon in the bottom-right of your screen. Also, just to be safe, wait about 10 seconds after the icon disappears to remove the card from the card reader.

Another option is to change the DCIMa to a more descriptive name like DCIMa_FebDogsSnow. As long as you leave the DCIMa there, you can keep the cards listed in name order and the additional text can be very helpful. Just be sure to only use letters and numbers, and avoid spaces. Instead, use the “_” character like I did in the example I just mentioned. It can be found by pressing “Shift + the minus key.”

This system has one drawback. If you are working on a multi-year project it will be segmented across multiple folders. In that case, you could create a separate folder for that one project, and only place the retouched files (not any Raw or camera-captured files) in that folder. Though not required, it’s best to keep the Raw files in their original place so that you know that they are being archived. Then back up the folder for your project separately.

Also, if you use Aperture or Lightroom, those programs allow you to download your files directly from your media cards into a managed directory, which many people use successfully. However, I recommend only importing files into Aperture or Lightroom after you’ve already moved them into a date-based folder which you can clearly manage by year like the 2010 folder described above. To do that, when importing images, you should choose the option to keep the files where they are (don’t copy or move them). I think you will find it easier to track and re-link files inside Lightroom or Aperture once you start archiving your work to external hard drives and/or DVDs. And before you move them into Lightroom or Aperture, I highly recommend renaming them, as described below in Step 3:

STEP 3: Rename your files using a date-based system

Most digital cameras produce file names with four digit numbers, and the camera’s counter will start over after you’ve taken 10,000 pictures. For example, IMG_1234.CR2 might be a Raw file name that the camera would produce. The problem is that if files with the same names are used in any asset management system, it can lead to problems, including possible deletion of files because you may think that the files are duplicates. Believe me when I say you want to avoid this problem! And it is pretty easy to avoid.

Some cameras add a random string of text to the beginning of every file on every new card that you format, which should solve the problem, but that is rare. Instead, after downloading your images, I recommend renaming your files in one of many applications that have the capability. I often use Adobe Bridge, which comes with Photoshop. Adobe Photoshop Elements also has this capability. Links to more info about file renaming can be found under the links section of the site at link w9.5.

Which program to use is less important than how to rename the files. I recommend choosing the capture date followed by a “_” and the original file name. That way, the application will read the metadata of the file, see when it was shot, and put that date in the beginning of the file name. You will then know, while browsing through your images, exactly when the photos were taken. The result will look something like this: 20091125_IMG_1234.CR2. That means that the image was captured on 11/25/2009. Some applications even allow you to search for text and remove it during the file renaming. For example, you could have the “IMG_” removed so that your file becomes 20101224_1234.CR2. Regardless how you rename your files, don’t use any spaces or special characters. Keep it to letters and numbers.


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