Grouping your files for storage

In my earlier post about image storage, I introduced some of the fundamental guidelines which should help you in designing a filing system that’s going to work for you. I’ve already expanded on the topic of filenames, now we’ll move on to where you put those files.

Group your files into different sets
Consider the various files you work on. For photography it’s primarily going to be images and catalogs (e.g. Lightroom databases). I’ll leave other more general-purpose files (e.g. email) out of this for now. Any system to organise your files is going to be much simpler if you can group the files together. For example, you might have a folder on your computers internal drive called Images1 containing lots of photo files, and an Images2 on an external Firewire or USB drive containing more.

EOS 5DmkII, 24-105mm/4 (A2_020073)
Putting all your photo files under one or two folders your management of the files is going to be easier than having them scattered across the rest of your files. Not only will it make it simpler when it comes to backing them up (and restoring them if necessary) but it will make your day-to-day operations simpler also. If you create some new files (e.g. PSD composites) and want to add them to your Lightroom database, all you’ll need to do is use Import or Synchronize Folder to find any new files within the tree.
A corollary to that is that if you’re using something like Lightroom to manage the files within a folder tree, you should only place files into that tree that you intend to import to Lightroom’s database. Don’t clutter the folders up with exported JPEG copies (e.g. formatted for the web or for printing) if you don’t need to keep those files long-term. If they’re easy to recreate with a batch operation, you should write them to an output folder outside your storage area (e.g. a “temp” folder) for later deletion. If your workflow involves saving and cataloging the files delivered to clients you may want to place that output folder inside one of your storage areas, but consider keeping them separate from the original/”master” files. Keeping them amongst the master files can complicate using things like using Synchronize Folder within Lightroom.
Whether you use the English “catalogue” or the American “catalog” is up to you. Here I’m just being consistent with the spelling used by Lightroom and Expression Media.
You should also have another folder somewhere to contain your Lightroom database (catalog) itself. For a Lightroom catalog called SampleCatalog there will be a folder called SampleCatalog which contains SampleCatalog.lrcat along with other files such as the matching Previews database. I like to have a Catalogs folder to contain the SampleCatalog sub-folder. This provides a known place to put any additional catalogs you decide to work with. I also place Expression Media catalogs within the Catalogs folder (I use EM to manage my video and audio files). If you’re using Apple’s Aperture you should be aware of where the Aperture database is being stored.
By default Lightroom will place its catalog within your Pictures (Mac) or My Pictures (Windows) folders, but you can easily move it to somewhere of your own choosing. On my laptop this Catalogs folder is located within my home directory so I can access the catalogs even if the external Firewire drives are disconnected. In some scenarios you might decide to place the Catalogs folder on the same drive as your Images folder so you can plug the drive into various computers and have both the catalogs and the images accessible (this is useful in school environments so students can work on the same files at home as easily as at school).

Don’t be tempted to place the Catalogs folder within the Images folder. This will complicate things like backups, as well as opening yourself up to accidentally importing files within Catalogs as new images into the Lightroom database.

From here on I’ll be referring to these top-level folders (e.g. Catalogs, Images1, Images2) as “sets”. Later on we’ll be talking about how to maintain backup copies of these sets. Your sets might contain images, catalogs/databases, movies, etc. By separating them we can easily do things like tell Apple’s Time Machine to ignore them. Exactly how you separate them is in your hands: in my environment I put recorded videos, audio, and photos into the same set.
Don’t tie the folder/set names to the name of the drive they’re on. The drive’s name will probably be something boring. Whatever naming scheme you use, be prepared for the future addition of more drives and don’t get too attached to a name like Jim’s Image Drive. The names I’ve been using for a while are Store01, Store02, etc.
Don’t make the drive itself the root of the set: even if the drive only contains the Images2 set, you should have an Images2 folder. You should have the flexibility to move the sets between drives. Maybe because you’re moving it to a bigger drive, maybe because the original drive is failing. The Images2 set might start out on Drive2, but in a year’s time it might be on Drive5

If you do move the location of a set containing images, all you have to do is in your Lightroom catalog is use the Find Missing Folder function to reset the location of the top folder in the set. Lightroom will then reset the locations in the catalog of however many thousand affected images and you can then continue on as normal. Expression Media has an equivalent Reset Folder Path function.
Organising your files within sets
One of the things I haven’t spelt out is how to organise the sub-folders within these sets. Different people find different systems work for them. In my own system I usually use date-based folder trees (ending in per-month, per-week, or even per-day folders). Some people prefer to group their files by job (e.g. SmithWedding). As long as you’ve adhered to the guideline that all your files should have unique names, you will have the flexibility to reorganise the files as you experiment and find a system that works for you.

You should at least be consistent in your folder structures: you should consider the possibility of merging these folders in the future.
For example to make space on a drive you may wish to move a sub-folder to a storage area on a different drive, and life is going to be easier if the sub-folder doesn’t need renaming. If you have two different SmithWedding folders which had been on different drives, you would have to first rename one of them to avoid a mess. This is very similar to the guideline about having unique filenames: sub-folder paths should be unique across your entire setup.
Keep checking back for the next installment in this series, where we’ll talk about maintaining backups of your sets.
— David

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