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Digital Image Organization
Life is good. No more film costs, processing fees, postage or trips to the lab, because digital photography enables us to shoot a lot of images essentially for free. With this great improvement in “image acquisition” comes added work after we come in from the field. Now take a look at some ideas on improving organization of all of those images we made for free. Organization and workflow are pretty closely tied together. If you know how your images will be organized, you can adapt the workflow process to make your computer time more efficient. Let’s consider some basic workflow and organization ideas.
The very first thing you need to do is an initial edit of your images to weed out the obvious bad ones. This first edit could be done with the LCD on the camera or a software package looking at the CF card before download. It should be really quick and weed out grossly out of focus, poor composition and bad exposure. This will then allow you to concentrate on the images that have a chance of making it to your permanent files.
After this initial edit, you are ready to download your “shoot”. But wait a minute! Have you decided how you want to file your images? The concept of file organization is boring but with a little planning you’ll be able to locate images in the future. One good way to set up (or convert your existing file structure) is to look back to how you stored images when they were on 35mm film. If what you did back then was good enough for your needs, you could create a file structure quite similar to that for your digital images. I used 3 ring binders and archival sleeves for my images and labeled the binders according to the content. Some examples are large mammals, small mammals, insects, wildflowers, etc. This worked pretty well as I had a list on my computer that had highlights of what was in each book. When I went digital photography in a big way, I kept that same basic concept but decided to use Windows™ ability to build multi level file structures to provide what amounts to binders with tabs and then sections with in each tab. Windows™ allows file names up to 256 characters so you can get a lot of descriptive information in the file name.
Here is a simplified version of my file structure:
You can see that with just 5 levels you can really get some detail. Windows™ allows nesting of file well beyond 5 levels.
Once you have you files organized, you can add additional folders at any level. Say you have never photographed wild horses before, but on a trip to western Colorado you got some great shoots. Simply add a new folder under the large mammal folder for wild horses. Note that Windows™ will arrange your files in alphabetical order so take that into account when you set up your files.
I’ve found it best to create new file folders before downloading from a CF card. I can then specify the location to store the files when I do my download. Since I use Lightroom™, I can specify the import location, then bring my images in from the memory card and do a second edit on a larger screen, add location information, key words and metadata, and group images by quality.
Before your next big shoot, take some time to organize your files. The longer you wait, the more you’ll need to move around.
When we moved to digital SLR’s we were confronted with the dilemma of which format to use for recording our images. There was JPEG and RAW or a combination of both. Many of us shoot just RAW and use post processing software to import and view the RAW images. We then export other file formats, like JPEG or TIF! Now we have yet another format to consider - digital negative which shows up in our computer as a .dng file.
Why has the digital negative come to be? The main reason is that every camera maker has developed their own RAW file format. A Nikon RAW file is different from a Canon RAW file and both are different from any other camera maker’s RAW format. Combine that with the distinct possibility that as we move forward, even within a brand, RAW formats will change. As time goes on and more features are introduced on cameras, the companies will drop support for older formats. Camera manufacturers do supply software with the products that allow us to view and do some manipulation of the captured RAW files but most photographers use the standard software tools like Photoshop and Lightroom™ . These programs are very capable of reading individual RAW files from all of the different cameras---today! What about tomorrow? When Photoshop CS12 comes out in 2015 (I’m being a little facetious here) will it still support today’s RAW images? Probably not, especially if the camera companies have dropped support for that particular format. Adobe will only provide internal software for supported formats; they can’t afford to maintain software with obsolete versions.
What are the options? First of all, you can stop shooting RAW and do only JPEG. That will limit you as RAW has many advantages over JPEG. That’s a topic for another column. Alternatively you can use one of the software tools you have to save your images as .dng (Digital Negative) files. Adobe products all provide that capability as do several other tools.
The whole premise behind digital negatives is that it’s an open standard developed by Adobe that allows image files to be saved with all of the data that is captured by RAW. The key difference is that while all RAW formats are proprietary to individual camera companies, digital negative is a public (open) format. Open formats allow software developers full access to the information. As new camera RAW formats come out, software products will be able to read the new format and create the .dng files right away. The only requirement is that the RAW formats comply with the digital negative format requirements. I can’t imagine any camera manufacturer not doing that. It would be such a competitive disadvantage that the products would not sell well at all.
So, is it time to panic and spend the next 3 weeks converting all of your RAW files to .dng? No, not really but you may want to consider altering your workflow to include copies of your images in .dng. You can then periodically convert your best images as time permits. It’s only when you upgrade your image processing software that you may eventually have a problem.
Preparing images for the Internet or projection
Over the last year or so we have seen our monthly critique images in 35mm format go to zero. That seems to be a good indication that our members are either shooting digital or are having their film images processed into digital files.
There are always lots of questions and a bit of confusion on how to manipulate digital files so they are optimized for whatever you need to do with them. There are also a myriad of sources for information and not a few opinions on the “best” way to do things. The club has set up guidelines for our submissions for monthly member images used in the theme and critique part of the meeting. These are pretty much set up so that you can easily modify your images so they can be emailed without taking a very long time and be projected with reasonable quality.
We plan a series of articles over the next few months on the hows and whys of taking your digital images and making them Internet or projection ready. This month we’d like to start with a brief tutorial on jpeg files and how they impact display and projection. Jpeg (JAY-peg) is an acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group. It is a commonly used term for a variety of different file formats used for photographic images. All digital still cameras can produce images in jpeg format. So what is the key advantage of jpeg? These files can take the digital image data and selectively throw away a certain portion of image without significantly impacting the image quality. The term used for this is “compression”. Compression is a technical term for reducing the size of a digital file (the number of kilo or megabytes) while maintaining the overall integrity of the information to a set criteria. When using jpeg in the camera, the photographer can select the “quality” of the image. In point and shoot camera, such as the Canon Digital Elph™, the compression options are Normal, Fine and Superfine, indicating increasing quality and file size. In a digital SLR, such as the Canon 40D™, the photographer has more choices (6 jpeg options plus RAW). RAW is just the basic image data from the sensor with no compression. The choice of compression is, like just about everything in photography, a tradeoff. Look in your camera manual for the options you have and the opinion of the manufacturer as to the “quality” of each setting.
When selecting the highest quality, the number of images you can store on a memory card is reduced but the quality of each image is usually better. Here is where the eventual use of the image comes into play. If your intent is to make large prints for display in a gallery or even your home, you want the absolute highest quality image you can get (and probably should stick with RAW files from the camera). If you want small prints, medium quality is usualy just fine. If you are going to email them to friends (or for the club critique) you can stand a much higher degree of compression. The reason being is that computer monitors and projectors, for the most part, cannot display all of the information in a very high quality image file. The very good flat screen computer monitors display 1280 by 1024 pixels- that’s 1.3 megapixels. If your 10 megapixel camera produces a superfine jpeg that is the equivalent of 5-6 megapixels after compression, you are still way over what your monitor can produce. Looking at projectors, they range from .5 megapixels to 2.2 megapixels, so again we can see that a 5-6 megapixel image in overkill for projection.
So what does all of this mean? When you shoot, you can pick you’re your compression based on the anticipated use of an image, or when you are doing your “post processing” at the computer, you can resize your image for a specific application. One other specification of projectors is the “aspect ratio”. That ratio is essentially the ratio of horizontal and vertical pixels. This is another thing you can use to decide on final image size. We’ll look into that in the future.
Saving your Digital Images
Now that you have that new digital camera and are starting to amass a large quantity of images, where do you plan to store them? When we were all shooting slides, they went into plastic pages and then into three ring binders (unless they stayed in boxes with illegible notes written in on the side (I've got lots of those). Now the world has changed and your images are nothing more than a large number of 1's and 0's on some form of storage medium. There are a large number of possible long-term storage methods, each with pros and cons.
Most cameras use Compact Flash (CF) memory cards to record as you shoot. It's possible just to keep buying those cards, especially if you only store jpeg files. 32-gigabyte (GB) cards are down below the $100 range and getting cheaper. A 32 GB card can store several thousand jpeg images from an 8 mega pixel camera. That's still Beware that CF cards are VOLATILE, meaning they be easily erased.
Let's assume you make the choice to down load your images to your PC (or Macintosh system). You now have many more choices for long term storage (notice I did not use the word permanent!). It's possible to add large hard disks to your system (either internal if you are comfortable taking your system apart) or external. External drives connect by either serial or USB (Universal Serial Bus). Hard drives hold lots of data, hundreds of gigabytes in some cases. These are somewhat expensive but you have the luxury of having your images on line and at your fingertips. On the down side, these things are mechanical and wear out, sometimes without warning and if your drive crashes, you may lose every bit of data on the drive.
There are also on-line storage services that allow you to store data at very low cost, sometimes at no cost. These are great as you can access your images from any computer on the internet, using a password. My only caution here is that no one can predict how long these service providers will be around and how much notice, if any, will be given if they do go out of business.
Most people store images on CD's or DVD's that they burn directly from their PC. These are flexible, very inexpensive and allow for many images to be stored in a very small space. So what's the drawback here? The recording method is called burning for a reason. If you record to a CD R or a DVD R (as opposed to one with an R/W) you are using what's known as an ablative process where a tiny laser actual burns marks in the surface of the disc. These marks aren't permanent; corrosion can start soon after recording and eventually make parts of the data unreadable. The current technology for write-once CD and DVD products will support a usable life of about 10 years for HIGH QUALITY discs. Don't use the very cheap discs, as their lifetime is a gamble; buy the best you can get. If you use R/W or rewritable CD's or DVD's you are using a similar process to record data as is used in hard disks, namely one with that is magnetic. These discs are not the best for long-term storage as they can suffer the same fate as magnetic material and can degrade over time (lose parts of the image).
So, just like every other facet of photography, storage of digital images is a handful of tradeoffs between price and ease of access, longevity, etc. The nice part is that you can easily make multiple, identical copies of your images with no degradation and if you can re-record data, again with no image degradation.
My recommended approach is to use high quality CD's or DVD's and note on each one's case when you recorded the data. Then every few years copy the data on to a new disc. As technology moves forward, new, better and more permanent products will become available.
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