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Roadblocks in Digital Photo Organizing

Depending on the challenges encountered, digital photo organizing may involve the evaluation of thousands of photos for a variety of reasons. There are apps and software to assist with various parts of the process, enabling you to navigate around the roadblocks you will face.  Preserve the original file structure for reference, and then apply a systematic process to a copy of the original files.

Digital photo organizing includes identifying each photo’s origination date, removing duplicates (while making sure to retain the highest resolution image), placing each photo into a folder or album structure (typically by month/year or event), uniquely naming each file, properly aligning the images, identifying any corresponding videos, and correcting photo origination dates when possible.

The beginning

A client presented images on three devices:  two external hard drives (EHDs) and one USB drive.  She did not know how many images she had or how many were duplicates.  My first step was to copy the picture and video files from her devices and return the unmodified devices to her.  There were over 24,000 images and videos spanning 12 years.

A black seagate EHD with cord in upper left; a black Toshiba EHD with cord in lower right; a red and black SanDisk USB in lower left.

The client images were stored on two external hard drives (EHDs) and one USB drive.

We agreed the project scope would include removal of duplicates and organizing chronologically; files would not be renamed.  Renaming is a best practice, since a naming convention can be applied that will ensure each file (regardless of where it appears in the folder or album structure) has a unique identifier.  While the client appreciated the value of this, elimination of the renaming enabled the project to stay within budget.

Preserve the original structure

The client had completed some “uploads” in batches, (e.g., quarterly).  When file origination dates are missing or obviously incorrect (see “Photo date fields” below), these original structures can be quite helpful in determining an accurate year, year/season, or year/month. 

A list of four items, each a quarterly update from an iPhone.

The original file structure included folders of pictures grouped by calendar quarter.

For example, if the file naming assigned by the camera followed a numbering convention, even if the file origination dates are compromised, the file names and where the files appear in the overall structure may provide clues as to the date the photo was actually taken.  Before you begin to organize digital files, preserve the original structure and work from a copy of the original files. 

Photo date fields (origination, creation, modification)

Digital pictures have several dates associated with the files:  last modified, created, EXIF, etc.  For most purposes, folks desire to organize their photo memories by date taken (also called origination date or EXIF date).  The creation date is the date the picture file was created on a specific system/computer (not on the device actually taking the picture).  Modification date is the date the file was last modified.   For purposes of photo organization, the EXIF date is the most meaningful date; unfortunately, it is not the default date displayed by most computer operating systems (e.g., Finder).  Most applications dedicated to photo organizing will give you an option to sort or display by EXIF date; if not, reconsider the application you are using.    

In the image below, the dates that appear by default in Finder are not the EXIF date.  On my iMac, the Date Modified field was displayed:  

A screen shot showing four columns: filenames with IMG and number following, date modified of February 11, 2006, file size, and kind of file (all JPEG).

Finder shows that these photo files were modified on Feb 11, 2006, but this is not the origination date of the photo files.

Right-clicking on one of these files and selecting “Get Info” shows the Created and Modified dates (although neither of these is the origination date or date taken):

Created and Modified dates in Finder

It is not unusual for copied files to have the created date fall after the modified date, adding to the confusion.

To view the EXIF date (Date Time Original), open a file (Preview it) and choose Tools – Show Inspector, then select the EXIF tab (if there isn’t one, see “Correcting EXIF dates” below):  

A screen shot of a More Info window showing an EXIF tab with 8 fields, including Date Time Original.

This tab shows that the photo was taken on February 4, 2006.

When viewing EXIF dates, you should always do a reality check – does the date seem correct based on where the file appears in the original file structure?  Do people in the image appear to be the appropriate age, given the EXIF date shown?  If the event in the image is known, does the EXIF date seem accurate for the event pictured?  Unfortunately, EXIF dates can be compromised – so you should apply some basic logic to quickly assess if they seem correct or not. 

In the examples above, what can we deduce from all of these different dates for a single image?  Here is the likely scenario:  an image was shot on February 4, 2006.  It was copied from its original storage medium (e.g. a camera card) on February 11, 2006.  Then it was copied again on June 5, 2012, and a file was created on a computer operating system with that date; at this time, the original copy date (February 11) became the modified date.   It is confusing; the dates associated with computer files are not very helpful when assessing photo files!

Removing duplicates

There are various ways (apps, software) to identify, assess, and remove duplicates.  If a comparison tool is provided, I use it to ensure that the highest resolution image (largest size) is retained.  I completed this project on an iMac, and I elected to use PhotoSweeper; the settings below worked for my project.

A screen shot where "Similar Photos" is selected. Four settings are reflected.

These settings enabled me to identify duplicate photos in the client’s digital collection.

I ultimately removed over 8,000 duplicates (34% of the images); most were single duplicates, but there were a handful of images with more than two copies.  For most of the images with duplicates, the two (or more) were not the same size; don’t assume that just because an image looks the same on a screen, that all of the image data are the same.  If you accidentally retain the smaller image, you will be sacrificing data and compromising the image for future use.  I used the Auto Mark feature to assist with identifying the smallest duplicates – it marked the file(s) with the smaller size for deletion.  

A screen shot of the Auto Mark feature in PhotoSweeper, showing #14 File Size selected.

I kept it simple and used only File Size to auto mark files for deletion.

I did not use PhotoSweeper to address Bursts, as I wanted the client to be able to select which burst images she wanted to retain. 

Correcting EXIF dates

Remember EXIF dates can be viewed after opening an image in Preview (Tools – Show Inspector, then select the EXIF tab).  You cannot view EXIF dates under Get Info (i.e., by right-clicking on the file in Finder).  

I encountered 1,300 images with missing or incorrect EXIF dates.  Dates that were obviously incorrect included:

  • December 31, 1969 (all at the same time of day)
  • various dates between January 1 and April 14, 1970 
  • December 31, 2037
A screen shot with four files (DSCN followed by numbers), JPG format, with Modified Dates of Dec 31, 1969.

A sample of four photo files with a Modified Date of Dec 31, 1969.

Additional images were missing an EXIF date altogether; I came across 150 wedding photos with no EXIF date.  In situations like this, the More Info view under Tools – Show Inspector yields this (note there is no EXIF tab):

The More Info window shows only two tabs: General and JFIF, no EXIF origination date is available for this photo.

There is no EXIF tab for this particular photo, and thus no origination date.

First of all, what causes this to happen?  Sometimes the EXIF dates get stripped by various applications during the transfer, copy, upload, or download processes.  Other times, the dates are incorrect (e.g., years of 2037 or 1969) due to battery issues with digital cameras. 

I used two approaches to apply EXIF dates to images when they were missing or obviously incorrect:  A Better Finder Attributes and Apple Photos.  The first step in correcting EXIF dates is to determine, as best you can, the appropriate dates for your images.  For the 150 wedding photos mentioned above, I was fortunate that there were other photos of the same event that did have reliable EXIF dates, so I was able to confirm the appropriate date in that manner. In a different situation, I extrapolated dates for a series of 2011-2012 photos (see “Extrapolation dates” below).  Sometimes, there is no way to identify the exact date an image was taken.  In those situations, if I can identify the month and year, then I select either the first, fifteenth, or last day of a month for dating purposes.  If I know a year, I may elect to use January 1 as the EXIF date, or I may elect to leave the EXIF date field blank.

This series of screen shots demonstrates how I used A Better Finder Attributes on an iMac to correct EXIF dates:

A screen shot of the EXIF tab in the More Info window; this shows a Date Time Original of December 31, 2037.

Examining the EXIF date using Tools – Show Inspector. I know Dec 31, 2037 cannot be correct in 2018!

A screen shot from A Better Finder Attributes; on the right, I see 15 files with the incorrect EXIF timestamp.

Viewing the files in A Better Finder Attributes; the incorrect date is showing at right.  On the left, I have selected “Set EXIF timestamp” and set a date of 4/7/2012.  I used the default time of noon.

Screen shot showing the dates for the 15 or so images on the right having changed to April 7, 2012.

The dates on the right have been changed as a result of the settings at left.

A Better Finder Attributes 4 of 4

Double-checking my work under Tools – Show Inspector:  sure enough, the EXIF – Date Time Original is now Apr 7, 2012.

A Better Finder Attributes did not work on all of the files that I identified with EXIF date problems.  When it didn’t work, I utilized Apple Photos.  See this post about changing EXIF dates in Apple Photos.  

Extrapolating dates

As noted above, I also came across a series of photos with EXIF dates between January 1 and April 14, 1970; I knew from the original file structure (remember to always preserve it for reference!) that these were 2011 or 2012 images.  This situation was interesting, because I noticed that the dates were incrementing from January 1.  If I could confidently date at least one event in that timeframe, then I could work backwards or forwards from the known date to accurately determine dates for all other events in the timeframe.  

For example, in the table below, I knew the exact date of the wedding shower (other photos of the same event had a reliable EXIF date), so I could extrapolate the dates for the events that preceded it.  

Extrapolating dates

I then used A Better Finder Attributes or Apple Photos to make the appropriate changes.  

A few other tips for digital photo organizing

Determining video origination dates

First, I utilized the original file structure:  what photos (with EXIF dates) were the videos grouped with?  I examined what people were wearing in the videos and looked for photos with the same clothing, helping to date the videos.  For the videos I was able to date, I added the date to the video filename using the YYYYMMDD format.  

Pictures of pictures

I came across a number of files that were not native digital photos; instead, a digital camera had been used to take a picture of a print.  Some of these were old wedding photos from the 1980s; I had no exact date, so I just filed them in a folder/album with an appropriate descriptive name.  In other cases, the photos were more recent, and I could identify the timeframe (e.g., pictures of senior portrait prints); in this situation, I sorted them into the appropriate month/year folder or album.    

Folders and albums for topics

Finally, I came across a number of images that were intended to serve as reminders, temporary records, or might be needed for future reference.  Examples included digital pictures of:  

  • recipes
  • spiritual phrases
  • business cards
  • furniture
  • books
  • greeting cards
  • shopping

The client and I determined that these items need not be filed by date (as the family photos were), but would be more useful filed in folders or albums by topic.  

Wrapping it up

The client elected to have me copy the organized files back onto her two EHDs.  The USB drive did not have sufficient space to serve as a copy.  I recommend copies on three different media to guard against a variety of hazards.  The EHDs were several years old (at least), and the previous level of use was unknown, so I was a bit concerned that one or both of them might fail at some future date.  Therefore, I also delivered copies on DVDs; I advised the client to consider the DVDs a disaster recovery copy. Portable DVD players can be purchased for less than $50.00 if recovery from DVDs becomes a necessity.  Lastly, I encouraged the client to copy to a home computer (preferably one that is backed up regularly) as soon as possible.  

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