Folders and tags are two complimentary methods for organizing your digital pictures on your computer. I have written in the past about the differences and similarities of folders and tags and people have written and asked questions (Read Tags vs Folders the big debate). This article explores one key difference between the two methods and how to use it for your own advantage.
Many people associate using folders for organizing digital pictures with being antiquated and “old school”. The same people indicate that using tags is the only way to organize your digital pictures. When asked why, some of the same people don’t really understand the real power of tags and they don’t understand how to harness that power (Read the series Learn how to harness the power of tags).
Tags vs Folders is not about right or wrong but it is about using the right method for the right purpose.
However, the reality is that folders represent a straight forward way for us to organize our digital pictures (Read Why folders will remain the most popular method for organizing pictures). On the other hand, when tags are used for what they’re intended for they can bring great benefit.
A little history of how tags came about is in order now. I hope is not boring even though it is long.
The strength of folders is hierarchical representation
The real strength of folders is the ability to create “folders of folders” or in other words categories of folders. It is very easy to create parent-child relationships between folders and this make sense to us. I can create a folder called
Europe and in it I can create a folder for
France and one for
Italy to categorize my pictures taken in each country. Anyone understands this structure because it is easy to understand that
Europe is a category of “country folders”, it is a container. This is the real strength of folders. In addition, a folder structure can be simply copied and shared with someone else and the relationship can be preserved.
If you only use a single criterion for organizing your pictures (i.e
countries, then folders are your easiest and most efficient method for organizing your digital pictures.
The weakness of folders is capturing only one relationship
Folders are also weak because you can assign a single picture to a single folder that is part of a single folder structure. The only way to get around this limitation is to copy the same image in another folder structure.
For example, a picture taken in
Italy showing a
red old truck will be saved normally in
Europe/Italy. This is the only relationship that this folder structure captures. If I want this picture to also belong to my folder showing
Auto/Trucks then I have to copy this picture in folder structure as well. So, I create two copies of the same image if I want to capture two relationships.
The strength of tags is the ability to associate multiple tags to a single picture
Tags were created exactly to fill the weakness of folders. Pictures can be categorized in a myriad of ways depending on the criterion chosen for categorization (Read Divide and conquer for efficient picture organization). Folders can only capture one criterion be it
persons or any other of the many criteria possible.
So, instead of thinking about assigning a picture to a category (represented by one folder structure) how about assigning many categories to the picture. This was indeed a new way of thinking that paid off. So now, you can assign multiple tags (categories) to a single picture without having to make a copy for assignment to each category. Now, this is powerful !
If you need more criteria for organizing your pictures (i.e.
events) then your only efficient choice is to use tags for organizing your digital pictures.
The weakness of tags is that tag hierarchy is not being preserved
To continue my story, standards have been created for capturing these tags (IPTC and XMP). Now, we can save these tags in the image file itself and thus your tags become mobile (Read The road traveled by metadata).
However, with tags there is no hierarchy. In other words, if I create tags like
Europe, Italy, France, Paris, Rome I cannot create any parent-child relationship between these tags. Many software package allow you to add tags to your pictures (XnView and Picasa for example) but they don’t allow you to create categories of tags. So you create an endless string of tags without any rhyme or reason…unless you add your own rules to it.
Some smarter and more expensive software like Adobe Lightroom and Photo Mechanic allow you to categorize your tags. In other words you create tags that are just place holders for your own organization so that you don’t create duplicate tags (Read Adobe Lightroom an exercise in keywording). This is indeed cool!
The problem comes when tags are being saved to the image file itself. Whatever hierarchy you have created in Lightroom for example cannot be saved to XMP or IPTC. The only thing you can save is the tags themselves, no hierarchy. In other words, if for example in Lightroom you have created
Europe, when you save them to an image file you will only see
Europe, Italy with no hierarchy preserved.