Refactoring your Photo Collection

In the software world, “refactoring ” is a term used today to define what happens when a programmer goes in and cleans up some existing code. In the old days, it was called “maintenance programming” and thrown at the junior programmers. Today, it’s called “refactoring”, but now it has a fancy name to make programmers feel better about doing it.

The idea behind refactoring is to  take a hunk of something that already exists, tear it apart and re-build it in a better and more effective way. This allows your to improve an existing system over time as you learn new skills and you learn about how it is being used in ways you wish you’d thought of when you originally built it.

The idea of refactoring works for more than software, you can apply it to your photo collection as well. I believe those of us who are serious about photographer should always be striving to improve the quality of our photos. You can do that in a number of ways; the obvious one is to go out and take new and better photos, raising the average quality of the collection by adding them in.

My oldest photos started out in a very early version of iPhoto. As I got more serious about my photography and the technology improved, I moved my collection from iPhoto to Aperture (first version), then to CS3 Photoshop/Bridge (when I got tired of waiting for Aperture 2.0), then to Lightroom 2.0 (when I got tired of Bridge not making my life easier and more painless), and now to Lightroom 3.0. Along the way I redefined my keywording schemes at least three times, on at least two occasions I accidently deleted all keywords off of swaths of the library accidentally and didn’t catch it until “later”, and did the same once for captions and again once on image titles — each to a different group of images that might have overlapped but none of them had things in common. All of which ended up in the “some day, I need to fix these things” pile.

Along the way I learned a lot about photography, and a lot about post-processing of images, and I figured out tricks to improve images that allowed me to create much better images than I was previously capable of. When Lightroom 3 came out, the new processing system was also much improved, especially around noise reduction, and “simply” reprocessing images in Lightroom 3 made an image better.

One nice advantage of the digital photography environment, though, is that you can go back and revisit images and reconsider decisions you made while processing them. By doing so, you can adopt techniques you’ve learned along the way, or updated tools that give you an improved image result — and make the images you shot in the past better, too.

There is a third aspect to this as well — going back through your collection and culling the weakest images and putting them into retirement. As you mature as a photographer your definition of “good enough” changes and goes up (or it should). Shouldn’t your collection reflect that standard?

Yes, going back and cleaning up older images takes some time, but it can give you insight into how your skills are changing and refresh your memory about images you took that you realize deserve more attention. For me, it’s quite common to go back and find an image (or ten) that I didn’t think was that special, and realize that I could work with it and bring out the hidden beauty. Almost like getting a free set of portfolio winners for free!

If you use Lightroom’s publish module for your uploading, when you make changes to images, those changes can be pushed out to your online image sites, so you don’t have to go chasing down images and updating them manually. (if you aren’t using the publish modules, you really should if you are publishing to sites that lightroom supports them for. they are an amazing time saver and hassle remover). The publish modules also let you push out updates to titles, captions, keywords and other meta-data, so as you do general maintenance on your collection, those changes will be updated to your online sites as well.

Here are the tasks I try to accomplish as I refactor my image collection:

  • Make sure everything is in Lightroom and nothing is lost of missing.
  • Sit down and spend some time defining what your standards are. What kind of keywords should you use? To what level of detail? What is a “good” caption? What is a “good” title? Do you geotag images? to what accuracy? if you decide on your standards up front, it doesn’t make bringing the library up to those standards less tedious — but at least you’ll be able to make easy and consistent decisions on what needs to be done, which will simplify things down the road.
  • Go through my defined keyword library and edit it into a consistent hierarchy and bring it all up to my current usage standards; that includes fixing all typos and doing things like standardizing usage and terminology, grammar, capitalization and thinking through things like your hierarchy. And spell-checking it. Twice. Trust me.
  • Implement the publish system for the sites you upload to, and go through the work needed to sync up those services to those collections so that everything is connected and updates will go where they are supposed to go.
  • Go through the library one image at a time and bring it up to your current standards: if necessary, re-keyword it. improve the caption and title. verify it’s geotagged and the geotagging is correct. validate the metadata. make sure the embedded EXIF data is complete and correct — especially contact and copyright info (you ARE adding that to all of your images via import presets, right? RIGHT?)
  • Are the images well-processed? Do they need to be re-done? Do them. If you don’t want to lose the existing version of the image, use virtual copies and learn to use sets. Are there systemic processing mistakes you’re catching? Congratulations, you just improved your workflow on new images — you know not to do that any more, right? (I found, honestly, that I went through phases where I wansn’t just bad at sharpening, I was “driving the clown car backwards through the car wash with the windows down” incompetent; I finally took great swaths of the library and put a generic re-sharpening on them to remove the damage, and then evaluated them individually again later. And this was on images that were already on flickr and published, at a time I thought that was good sharpening. Oh, god. (wince))
  • As you fix stuff, publish the fixed stuff so that the stuff that makes you wince goes away….
  • Edit your collection. you’ve become a better photographer; there’s going to be stuff you look at and wince. When you wince, don’t be afraid to retire the image and take it offline. Don’t leave images online that you feel represent you poorly just because at one point you thought they were good enough. Edit. Ruthlessly. (in my case, I retired about 10% of my collection; a smaller amount than I expected to, honestly. In my 2008 refactor, I retired 35%, but that was when I started making the jump from enthusiastic amateur who pushed the shutter and prayed to a more studied amateur who actually tried to plan shots out….)
  • And — don’t be afraid, if you get halfway through and think of something, to back up and implement it as well. Do something you decide isn’t working as well as you hoped? think of a way to make it even better? As long as you have the hood open — DO IT. because one of the things you want to do is make sure that once you put the hood down, you don’t feel any interest in opening it up and doing this again for a number of years. If you leave something half-done, or un-done, you’ve already started your next ToDo list.

This is now part of my normal routine. Whenever I have some time I’m not using productively other ways, I’ll sit down and dig into the collection. Sometimes I’ll pick a period of time and review it; I’ve also created some tags like “needs_work”, “needs_keywording” and “needs_reprocessing”, so whenever I see an image that I think I need to revisit, I can quickly tag it and won’t forget to go back and fix it later — these all tie to smart collections so I can easily find them when I want to.

So, how to do your own refactor? The key is to make it one of those things you do in small chunks over time. Most photographers I talk to hate keywording — and most of them know their collection would be easier to use and more effective online and in stock agencies with better keywords. But the reality is, keywording isn’t fun, and the thought of sitting down for a week to fix your keywords — not gonna happen. But half an hour here, an hour there, it adds up. The knowledge of how much work is needed keeps you from getting started; think of it in terms of little bits here and there, and you’ll be surprised how quickly things get into shape.

I find these days I’m constantly tweaking stuff as I see it, or sticking it in a queue with one of those tags to look at later. Today is a writing day and I’m beating a lot of little warts into submission on my blog — but I also found four images that I felt needed to be fixed. Three were minor changes and I did the tweaks and pushed the updates, but the last one needs to be redone from scratch, so it’s been stuck in the queue for when I have time and energy to focus on it.

Keep it simple, break it down into small pieces, and do it in little bits over time. You’ll be amazed how much progress you see when you do. Better yet, taking that approach helps keep you from ever hitting that point where you realize you’re going to spend the next two weeks doing nothing but cleanup. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and trust me, you want to avoid it…


Posted in Photography

Morro Bay Harbor Panorama

A stitched panorama of Morro Bay harbor, taken from Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos. In case it wasn’t obvious, it’s a negative low tide. This was shot vertical hand-held, no tripod.

  • Date Taken:
    March 11, 2011
  • Location:
    Sweet Springs Nature Preserve
  • Camera:
    Canon 7D
  • Lens:
    Canon 100-400 F5.6
  • Tags:
    California, Los Osos, Morro Bay, Morro Bay Harbor, Morro Rock, Panorama, San Luis Obispo County, Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, United States
Posted in Photo of the Day

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

Every winter the elephant seals arrive at Piedras Blancas, where the females give birth and nurse their babies. The males build harems of the females because a month after they give birth, they go into heat and it’s mating time. This means the males are going to spend their time fighting with each other, and everyone else tries to stay out of their way. Between the males, it’s usually the case that bigger wins and the smaller ones have to know when to get out of the area.

For more info on the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals and their rookery, check out the Friends of the Elephant Seals web site.

  • Species:
    Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris)
  • Date Taken:
    January 20, 2014
  • Location:
    Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
  • Camera:
    Canon 7D
  • Lens:
    Canon EF 70-200F2.8L IS II + 2.0x TC
  • Tags:
    California, Elephant Seal (Northern), Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Luis Obispo County
Posted in Photo of the Day