Organizing Photo Collections: Why No Transportabililty?Organizing your photos in a filing system with tags greatly enhances their value. Simply being able to locate immediately a particular photo — say your graduation picture or a friend’s wedding pictures — among the hundreds or thousands of digital images you have stored in My Photos increases the likelihood you will actually look at the pictures you want and not waste time rummaging. Modern photo organizers represent a major improvement over static albums for organizing and accessing precious photos.

When people think about their photo collection, often they will think first about enhancing particular images. Maybe they want to correct for fading in digitized color photographs; maybe they want to crop out a formal lover; maybe they want to try more advanced “Photoshopping.” Those are important actions, but pale next to the value added to a collection by effective organization. File clerks are belittled in our society, but good filing and organization greatly enhances data sets.

Organizing photos is essentially designing a filing system, but unlike physical filing systems, the elements can be tagged with parameters such as photos containing a person, or location, or celebration of an event. Then, wonderful to behold, the photos can be sorted by those tags in different ways. Most Boolean operations work with most organizers. You can search for photos that contain tags for Ann and Bill. You have to work a bit harder to search for photos that contain Ann and “not Bill,” but it can be done, sometimes with special keys (e.g. iPhoto).

But here is a simple question. In any organizer worth its salt, I can ask for a photo’s properties and get a window full of useful information such a when it was taken and what kind of camera was used. There is a wealth of information encoded with every modern digital photo in EIFL, and any reasonable organizer can access it. (Geotagging has some issues, but that is another story.) Note that the format is the same regardless of the make and model of the camera. This is extremely useful.

Now suppose I spent a lot of time with Adobe Elements defining people, places, and events to tag thousands of photos with. This adds great value to my collection because now I can find pictures of a given person or people who visited over a Thanksgiving vacation without hassle. These tags are useful.

After finishing my tagging chore, I will close Adobe and open Picasa. Then I will use those tags to sort the same collection. Oops — does not work. Oh well, I will just tag the photos in Picasa that are new today and which I have not tagged in Adobe. Then the tags will carry over, right? Oops again. Unlike the camera manufacturers who live in an extremely competitive world, photo organizing software companies have not seen the benefit of standards. And it is not just the two I mentioned; try going from tagged Windows Live Photo Gallery to Picasa, for instance.

And on top of non-standardized formats, numerous people are trying to get me to store my photos on their part of the cloud. They give me good reasons why I should do so, but I have not seen anyone address the basic question of a standardized tagging system. So I decline the invitations. I will occasionally use online storage as a means of sharing photos with specific persons, but that is it.

One of the things that computers can do better than humans with no quarrel is to sort data sets. Whether it is as simple as re-ordering your inbox or sorting a vector in Excel, or as complicated as sorting multiply-tagged photos, humans cannot compete. So why not take advantage of this power by establishing simple standards for sorting photos? Standards work so well with so many other things. Imagine not being able to plug in a flash drive or upgrade a hard drive without buying a manufacturer-specific piece of hardware.

“Any standard is better than no standard” (it’s an old engineering saying, not my own). In fact, there is a standard: IPTC. Does anyone know why my applications do not use it? I would love to be able to ship properly tagged photos to family members so they could sort through them using their favorite organizer and get the benefits of the tags I made. Maybe they could add further sub-division tags that I missed, and maybe they could do it not knowing what software I used. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I would even be willing to pass on the fancy facial recognition features to get simple transportability. What do you think? Am I simply off on a useless rant? Will the next generation of organizers be able to do what they should already do even without a push from frustrated users?