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How many times have you tried to find an image on your computer, only to spend 10 minutes searching through dozens of directories, hoping that something in the folder name will clue you in? As your photo collections grow, a disorganized (un-cataloged) collection becomes a huge burden for retrieval. Spending a few minutes up-front to get a catalog structure working will save you countless hours and much frustration!
One of the great features that "digital" has brought to photography is the ability to increase the number of photos we take. The incremental cost of taking additional photos is virtually non-existent, so we are no longer shooting sparingly. This comes at a cost. Not only in drive space, but also in management.
With the traditional photo albums, we typically arranged our photos in chronological order in a single album. Once one album was full, we would start with the next. While this is great to see events unfold over time, how hard is it to find all of the pictures of AuntBertha? What about all the pictures of AuntBertha at Disneyland? Obviously, this is where the old style of albums fail -- the lack of flexible organization.
The ability to store digital photos on your hard drive allows for a high degree of flexibility in organization. Unfortunately it provides too much flexibility without enough discipline. Most people create a uniquely-named folder for each set of photos, and the collection simply grows from there. However, giving a single name to a folder can be a daunting task -- what to name a folder when it contains many different events, places, people or themes?
Now, add in 10,000+ photos to your collection, and you had better hope that you selected an appropriate folder (and file) naming scheme. Herein lies the problem: directory-based organization of photos attempts to summarize the content of many photos with a single folder's name. Even though you have named your folder, disney-2002, you will still have to go through 100 photos in that directory to find ones of AuntBertha.
The solution: Categorization
Categorization takes a very different view of your photo collection. Instead of arbitrarily grouping hundreds of photos within individual named folders, a database allows each photo to be tagged with one or more keywords. These keywords are generally created to follow some hierarchical structure, as detailed in Category Hierarchy. Then, it becomes a simple matter to display only those photos in the database that are tagged with a particular keyword. Not only that, but it is also extremely easy to create complex search requests, such as "I want all photos of AuntBertha at Disneyland without UncleRex."
A whole line of new software packages are on the market to address this growing need. Unfortunately, the field is still relatively new and there are very few choices that meet everyone's needs.
NOTE: from this point onward, the terms keyword, tag and category will be used interchangeably.
For some very insightful and thorough analysis of the management and categorization of photos, it's worth having a read through David Reick's excellent Controlled Vocabulary site.