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Organizing Your Digital Media: 3. Managing Digital Media

How to organize and work with digital media files (images, videos, audios) on your Windows or Macintosh computer

Created by Health Science Librarians

Managing Digital Media

3. Managing Digital Media

This section covers these topics related to managing digital media:

Folder hierarchy and organization

Folder hierarchy and organization

Carefully think through how you want to organize your folders and files. Rather than randomly dumping files into folder willy nilly, you need to structure a hierarchy of folders and files that will work for you. There is no single right way. 

Metadata (discussed below) can help you to retrieve images or other media files, but is it still important to have a filing system that makes sense for the way you think and the way you work. 

With images, a good approach for many people is to organize folders by year, and possibly by month within each year. For example, an image in such a system could be: 

Sample Hierarchy

where 2012 is a folder for the year, July is the month, and eventname_#### is the name of the event and a 4-digit file number. 

Organizing by date-range “buckets” as shown above makes backing up and archiving easier, because you can more easily identify groups of files that need to be backed up, and more easily add to your media backups over time. 

Separating Originals from Derivatives

It is important to separate original files from derivatives. For example you could use a single RAW image file to create multiple compressed, lower-resolution derivative files (often jpegs) for various purposes, such as a web site, a brochure, and a poster.  To avoid confusion it is good to clearly separate these. 

Project Folders and Files

A particular project you work on may contain numerous files of different types, including multiple versions of derivative files. Keeping a folder for a project is almost always necessary to work efficiently and avoid confusion. The more complex the project, the more essential this becomes.  

Naming folders and files

Naming Folders and Files

• Use file names that are meaningful to you and serve your purposes. 

• Do not use blank spaces or special characters in file names. 

• Use a consistent file-naming approach (for example, date_event_####) that works for you. 

• If your file-naming approach isn’t working well, consider changing it. If you need to change a large number of file names, there are software tools that can help you (see Renaming Multiple Files, below). 

• Be certain that the file-naming strategy you use will avoid the possibility of giving two different items the same name. 

Renaming Multiple Files

Digital cameras assign filenames to files that are not likely to be meaningful. For example, Canon uses file names such as IMG_9819.CR2  (for a camera raw file) or IMG_2904.JPG (for a jpeg file).  It is almost always advisable to rename these files.  Ideally the best time is when you import them from your camera memory card to the computer.  (See “Importing Media Files” below).  

However. at some point you may want to rename files that you previously imported or already have on your computer. For example, if you had a large number of photos that you took at the beach, you may want to rename them so that they would all have "beach" at the end of the filename.  It would be very time consuming to change the names of all these files individually.  Techniques for changing multiple filenames in batches are described below. 

IMPORTANT:  The following techniques for changing filenames should normally be used before importing files into a cataloging program such as Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture.  If you are using a cataloging program and so this after you have imported files, you will probably need to re-import them. This is also an issue in video editing programs such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere. If you are NOT using a cataloging program, you don’t need to worry about this. 

Windows Explorer

To rename multiple files in Windows explorer, do the following: 

1. Select the files you want to rename. You can do this by selecting the first filename that you want to rename, holding the shift key, then selecting the last file you want to rename. 

2. While all the filenames selected, press F2 and then enter a new name for one of the files.  All the selected files will automatically be renamed, with incremental numbers attached to the filenames (Filename(1), Filename(2), etc.).

This method works well but is limited. For more flexibility, use a third-party utility or Adobe Bridge. 


On the Mac, batch renaming of files can be done using a Mac utility called Automator, which is included on all Macs (described on the Apple website at  

Automator allows you to create lists of actions (called a workflow) that will be carried out automatically on a group of files. You can then save the Automator workflow and reuse it later. 

Macintosh Utilities

Other Macintosh Utilities 

If you find Automator a bit intimidating or too cumbersome, there are several free or low-cost Macintosh utilities available that make the process of renaming files very easy. Name Mangler ($10 from the Apple App Store) is one of the better ones. It includes several options which make it flexible and easier to set up than Automator.  

Other Macintosh Utilities

Renaming files with Adobe Bridge 

With Adobe Bridge, you can rename a batch of files by choosing Tools > Batch Rename.  Terry White describes this process in a video tutorial at: .

Browsing vs. cataloging

Browsing and Cataloging

Thus far we have looked at methods of working with media files using Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and Adobe Bridge. These are all examples of browsing software, which allows you to view and and work with your files directly. Everyone uses this kind of software and it is the only kind that many people will ever need to use. 

However for some purposes, catalog (or database) software programs have certain advantages, especially for photography. 

The database, or catalog, doesn’t contain the actual images (or other media files). Instead it contains information about those files, which is contained in a separate catalog, or database. 

Catalog programs are often used by media professionals, especially photographers, but many non-professionals also use them. Examples include Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture. Video editing programs use a “project” approach which is similar in concept to catalogs (see Managing Video, below). 

Here are some of the advantages of using catalog (or database) media software:

  • Catalogs allow you to non-destructively edit files. For example, in Lightroom, you can apply edits such as contrast, color adjustments, cropping, etc. without affecting the original image or degrading it in any way. 
  • Because it is nondestructive, catalog software encourages experimentation and allows you to quickly apply edits to many images simultaneously. 
  • Catalogs allow you to create “virtual copies” of files, which (at least in theory!) reduces the clutter of proliferating versions of files. 
  • Cataloging software has powerful searching capabilities, and allows you to create virtual collections of files that match criteria you specify

On the downside, catalog software takes time to set up and requires maintenance to ensure the integrity of the catalog. You need to import files into the catalog to work with them. You need to be careful when manipulating files outside of the catalog software because if you do, the catalog may lose track of where files are located (which then requires you to reimport the files into the catalog).

Many people believe that the advantages of catalogs far outweigh the difficulties in setting up and maintaining them… but other people still prefer working with browsers. There is no right or wrong answer for everyone.

Managing Video with Project Files: A Catalog-Like Approach

This guide does not focus on video, because video is such a huge topic that it would require a separate guide.  But it may help to point out that many of the same issues apply to video as to other types of media.

File management is especially critical with video because a single video may be composed of pieces of hundreds or thousands of files. With video, a catalog-like approach is virtually a necessity, and is built into video editing software such as Final Cut Pro, iMovie, and Adobe Premiere. 

Most videos combine many pieces of different shoots. A project file is a database that combines files (video clips, audios, stills)  and applies instructions to them. The completed video is compiled from the project file into a file that is exported. A single project file can be used to create different videos, or different versions of the same video.

A video project file is analogous to a Lightroom catalog in that the project contains “thumbnails” of many files, and editing video clips doesn’t affect the original files, which are separate from the project file and (usually) untouched by editing process. 

Note: One difference is that often multiple video projects reference the same files. In Lightroom you are more likely to have a single catalog that you will use for all of your  projects.

Adobe Lightroom catalogs can include video files, but Lightroom’s video editing capabilities are limited.  

Managing other media types

Most media software for purposes such as presentations (Powerpoint), graphic design and illustration (Illustrator), and page layout (InDesign and Acrobat) do not require or use catalogs in the same way as Lightroom or Aperture. 

However, when using media software of any kind, when you embed or import media files into other media files (e.g., a photo in an InDesign document or an audio file in a Powerpoint presentation) you should keep all your imported or embedded files together in a single folder. This is often required and always good practice.  


About Metadata

About Metadata

Metadata concepts are the same regardless of software. Metadata is "data about data," for example, data about media files.  

There are several kinds of metadata. Some metadata is automatically generated, and some is assigned by users. Both automatically-generated and user-created metadata are are important for working with media. 

Important types of metadata include: 

  • data about files (name, format, file size, etc.)
  • data about the creator or owner of the file
  • camera settings, such as shutter speed 
  • descriptive data that you can assign, including tags (keywords), and ratings (e.g. 0 to 5 stars). 

Digtal Asset Management expert Peter Krogh describes three categories, or classes, of metadata, including: 

Class 1:  Automatically generated (file properties and camera-created data)

Class 2: Bulk-entry data (applied to many images at once) including photographer, rights, client, and location information

Class 3: Higher Metadata (including keywords [tags] and ratings)

Say What?

One cause of confusion is the use of acronyms that may initially seem intimidating.  In metadata about photography, important acronyms include: 

  • EXIF (Exchangeable image file format
  • IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council)
  • XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform)

EXIF data includes camera settings and the date and time a photograph is taken. For more information, see

IPTC was originally a standard developed for exchanging data between news organizations. IPTC data includes information about the creator, owner, and subject matter of the image, including (in the 2008 IPTC extension) model releases. For more information, see

XMP:  According to Adobe, its creator, “Adobe's Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP) is a labeling technology that allows you to embed data about a file, known as metadata, into the file itself.” For more information, see 

It is useful to know the above acronyms, but you probably don’t need to know a lot of the details about them. The most important thing is understanding the basics of how to create and use metadata to view and work with files. These topics are addressed below. 

Where is it?

Where the heck is the metadata stored? Metadata is often stored in the image file itself, but may be stored in an “XMP sidecar” file.  It is good to have the metadata in the file itself because it will stay intact. Sidecar files are files that hold metadata and need to reside in the same folder as the image file they reference. So if you see  an xmp file somewhere, that’s what it is.