Photographs and (no) keywords – how to organize this?

A few months ago I bought a small film scanner. One of that $200 kind that scans one frame at a time. It scans surprisingly fast and fairly good quality. I wouldn’t use the scan as a basis to make a print, this is more for archival purposes. For that reason, I also don’t throw away my old negatives. When my parents passed away, I got all of their films, slides, and negatives. Along with my own films that I had forgotten about for nearly 40 years.

This is going to be a long read, but bear with me Smile.

As I realise today, I already was a kind of organisational nerd back then. Most of the films have at least a month/year on them, along with names of people. Sometimes. Obviously there is no EXIF or GPS data, so the locations still need to rely on my memory. Sometimes that works, sometimes not so much. So now, after 40 years I find myself keywording from memory. Family is easy, I still remember all of them. Holiday locations? Most of the time. We travelled a lot in those days. And no keywords on the negatives or contact sheets from back then…

Handy little scanner

Handy little scanner

Today, I like to keyword my photos so I can find them again. I’m lost without them and wouldn’t be able to locate any of my pics without keywords. Lightroom allows me an extensive use of keywords and I use it a lot.

But it made me think.

Can I use a Lightroom catalogue without bothering to keyword my pictures?

If you start with keywords right in the beginning, the habit is easily kept up. However, those that “finally” use Lightroom and initially fill their catalog with 150k pictures will have a serious disadvantage here. Would they ever catch up? Not likely. Blanket keywording is hardly effective. I shoot primarily landscapes and wildlife, mostly birds. Keywording all my bird pics with “bird” is not going to be effective if I want to find a Baltimore Oriole or a Bald Eagle.

All my photos are stored in yearly folders. Everything inside of a year is mixed together, Windows Explorer will not find me any pictures based on criteria other than date or filename. For a long time, it didn’t even want to give me a preview of the files themselves. RAW file previews were not supported back then. Today, at least I can see a preview of the files. But that still doesn’t give me a decent search capability.

So if I don’t want to use keywords, what can I do to organize my pictures? One premise is that there should be no more than ONE copy of any file in the system, no duplicates allowed. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume we already culled all the bad pics and the files we see are the ones we want to keep.

So if I have bird pics, I’d create a folder called “Birds” and put all my bird pics inside of it. Then I’d create “[bird name]” folders, one for each bird species I ever shot and place my pics in those. That is the way that programs like Adobe Bridge work. Of course you can still work by date as well. Then I’d create a folder called “Landscapes” and fill that with all my landscape photos. Subfolders would indicate where the pics were taken and what the subjects were.

This looks like a very feasible system. Until you have people involved. Then you’d get “John with a Baltimore Oriole in a Nova Scotia”. Where should that picture go? Into “People”, “Birds” or “Landscapes”? Perhaps place a copy of the same file in all folders? In principle, there is no objection, apart from the fact that it goes against my rule of “No duplicates”. Throw the rule overboard and all is well.

Until you want to develop the picture.

Which one should you develop? Should you make them all the same? Different? Ignore the other copies? Or even create a new folder with “Developed pictures” ?

Apparently, the folder structure is not cutting it here. As a rough triage, it will do, but don’t expect much of it.

Comes in Lightroom. Lightroom is capable of mimicking your existing folder structure and can “import” it as such. The folders in Lightroom are the same as the ones on your disk. That’s comforting and reassuring that nothing gets left behind.

Lightroom also has the capability to use Collections. A collection is nothing more than a label that behaves like a folder but without the inconvenience of creating or needing copies of each file to work. Call them Virtual Folders, if you like. One occurrence of a file is sufficient for this to work. So now I can create my People>John and Landscapes>Nova Scotia and “Birds>Baltimore Oriole” collections and drag that same picture into the THREE collections. Developing ONE instance of the picture will also develop all other instances at the same time.

Note that I still have not used a single keyword here. All I need to know is what the folder name is. Can I rename the file as well? Sure, but I have the same restrictions as with the folders: you can only do so much in one single filename.

Lightroom has more than one way to skin a cat, though. You can use your physical folders, your Collections and more. The “more” here can also be Colours. You have 5 different colours that can be used to differentiate your pictures. All in all not that handy if you have 6 or more different picture styles. Rating your pictures with stars might help, but you need to remember what each number of stars represents. If the stars represent quality then, as some like to put it, why would you want to keep pics that have no stars because they are so bad, nobody will ever see them? For identifying a rare bird, perhaps? If a pic deserves no rating, it had better be gone from my catalogue, so I don’t rate my pics with stars.

The filter bar in Lightroom Classic is powerful, but can’t tell you anything about the content of a picture, only what it knows about the picture, called metadata. It can find the pics you have taken with a specific camera, a specific shutter speed, lens etc. But it won’t tell you that it is your uncle Bob in the picture. For people, there is a people feature, but that puts a keyword on each identified person in the picture. So here the keywords start creeping back in. Identifying birds or landscape features is not implemented.

Lightroom CC, the “Cloudy” version has another way to find your pictures, provided the pictures are clear and unambiguous. Simply type in “bird” in the search box and most of your birds will show up. Yet it won’t show you the unclear pictures of a bird half-hidden in a tree. Nor will it find your Baltimore Oriole just by identifying the bird. In principle, that should be possible, but we’re still years away from that level of finesse.

Finer levels of selection will result in both Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC to use some kind of keywording, be they manual or automatically assigned.

So if even the program itself wants to use keywords, why not use them yourself as well?

It looks like today, only keywords will help you effectively find your pictures. So the answer to my question above will have to be “Nope!”. Keywording is key.

Usually, I assign a basic keyword to my pictures upon import. During the first phase of their life in my catalog, the pictures are all in the “Previous Import” collection. Easier to find them that way. During this phase, they also get their more specific keywords and a first round of deletion for those pics that really won’t make the cut. Yet, that can sometimes be days later. Importing pics in the middle of the night may be fine for the import, but the brain will not be up to the task of correctly keywording each image or deciding which pic can stay or has to go.

Do I keyword all images to the max in the first few days/weeks? Nope, I find myself adding keywords to 15 year old digital pictures as if they had just arrived. Sometimes, a viable keyword pops up on the internet or in my own head (that hurts!) and I simply add that to all deserving pictures. Yes, my keyword list is big and unwieldy. While in the beginning I mostly used that list to find my pictures, nowadays the filter bar (press \ ) gives me what I want. I rarely open the keyword list anymore. I only open it to do some cleaning up or reorganizing some of it. Sometimes I capitalize them, sometimes I forget. The Edit Keyword feature allows me to correct that.

The sudden influx of pictures from my old negatives shows me that keywords and annotations go a long way to organize my catalog or library. If you only have a few hundred pictures in there and they’re all recent, you will probably remember the subjects, locations, and anecdotes that go with the pictures. At least for the next few years, but 40 years from now, it’s almost a given: you will have gaps in your memories.

So now I find myself keywording pictures my parents took in 1967. I still remember them, but barely. Memory lane all the way.

Keywording is a drag. I get it. But if you want to find your pictures again in the future, there is no other effective way to do that than with keywords. I can’t rely on Artificial Intelligence in the form of a Sensei (in Lightroom CC) today to find out who was in that picture of 40-50 years ago.

Keywords are King, whether you like it or not Sarcastic smile.

Did this long story convince you to use them?