Keeping Track

by ralph

So the phone jangled off the hook and I picked it up. It was a call from Lisa in my favorite stock picture agency and she had a problem. “Customer wants to know, in your slide M16103 – a football game – what teams were playing?

Well I had to get back to her on that. Hmmm, that number sounded pretty old, like the late 70s – better check the “photos by year list.” --- Ahh, it was 1977, so I can check the shooting records for that year. ---Got it --- “Hello Lisa, that was University of Maryland Vs. Duke in College Park, Maryland.”

A similar scenario has happened many times. Sometimes the customer needed the name of a street, mountain or flower and in another football shot they wondered if I knew the score of the game. Incredibly I did put that one in my notes (I rarely do), much to the delight of the customer. In these cases the information helped make the sale.

How many times were you at a less than pro slide show where the photographer couldn’t remember (or seem able to find out) the names of places, animals, etc. So if you’re a halfway serious amateur or are looking ahead to more professional involvement not only do you want to be able to find any photo you’ve ever taken fairly quickly, but you also want full information about it.

The system I now use developed slowly and is most fully evolved for my 35mm slides. When I started shooting snapshots as a kid I was content to put the prints in an album and pile up the negatives in a drawer (sometimes I’d remember to put a date on them) but when I got my first serious camera I figured I’d better start numbering the pictures and keeping track of them. Since I had a hunch that I might graduate to other film formats and it was obvious that you couldn’t neatly mix different sizes in the same file, I assigned the letter “B” to the tiny images from my Kodak Bantam Special, placed in their own tiny file box, and started numbering by rolls and frames, like lots of other photographers seemed to do. So the first image was B1-1 (bantam roll 1, frame 1). Later when I got a couple 2 ¼” x 3 1/4” roll film cameras (that’s 6x9cm. size on 620), and had to start a different file box for the larger negatives, I started again, arbitrarily choosing “P” (it was a popular size at the time) and was back at P1-1.

I went along with the roll plus frame numbering for a while but the roll numbering began to seem downright irrelevant. Sometimes I’d put two or three different subjects on one roll, other times I’d spread one subject over several rolls – so there was no correlation between particular rolls of film and subjects. At that point I dropped the numbering by rolls and simply went to numbering each frame in the sequence they were shot -- so P189-8 (the last of the old system) was followed by P190, P191 and so on.

I assigned other letters to other film formats as they came along, like M (miniature) for 35mm. slides and X to 4x5 because it was least likely to be mistaken for a number.

Shortly after I started numbering all my images I figured I should have some written record of them so I picked some small notebooks for the job. After a few years I changed that to a small loose leaf, infinitely expandable format, and made sure to leave a blank space for those picture numbers which tended to be assigned after the notes were written.

Those M numbered slides wound up in projection trays at first but soon that took up too much space (and cost too much) so I found some of those slotted slide file boxes to put them in. Well that pile of boxes also grew quite huge after a while and they made the process of searching for older images terribly slow since they had to be pulled up into the light one at a time.

The new (at the time) 20 slot plastic pages were the answer to that storage problem. They held more slides in the same amount of space and the images could be searched far more quickly. I opted to put the pages in office style folders in regular
ffice style letter file drawers. When I decided to move the slides from their boxes I figured it was also time to make still another move and that was to file them by subject, to make future searches even easier.

Planning those subject categories is a place where careful foresight can save you a lot of work later on and I’ll admit that I made some major goofs. For instance, I thought “California” as a heading would be sufficient to handle all the slides I would ever produce on my occasional trips there – and that’s figuring a maximum of 1000 slides in a subject file since I figured the 50 pages could be viewed in a reasonable amount of time. Alas, I already have over 100 pages in “California” and there are many more waiting to be filed. What I should have done, and now will have to go back and redo, is create separate files for the two big cities and another for the rest of the state. The original 35 subject categories that I started with have gradually grown to 80 and I would have been better off if I started with most of them. It also turns out that it can be hard to make sharp distinctions in categorizing by subject. Does a shot of some model released students on a college campus, with fall color in the frame belong in my category for Fall, Models or Schools and Colleges. When such a dilemma comes up and I arbitrarily assign the subject to Schools and Colleges I make sure I add that choice to yet another list which defines the category in growing detail.

I also realized that while dividing the slides into subjects would make them easier to find – by subject – I would no longer be able to track them down by number and would lose the direct connection I had with the written records. That meant I had to create a numerical cross file with the sequential slide (M) numbers on one side and an abbreviated category description on the other.

With all those lists and files it’s no surprise that I’m often asked, “do I have everything filed and cross filed?” Like, for instance, subject lists like Models or Fall that all lead to the same shots mentioned above. No I’m happy to say I don’t, since it would be a huge amount of work and I don’t really need that. (But the picture agencies that sell for publication need that and more, in fact they have to get into the bizarre world of keywords where the number of possible connections becomes huge. For instance, in the above campus shot, add “education”, “coeds”, “affirmative action” and many more.)

While I seem to have gradually stumbled my way to my present system even multi-million dollar agencies seem to have similar difficulties arriving at theirs. When I started placing slides in a small stock agency in Florida I was distressed that they couldn’t relate my slide number to their file numbers (so I could keep an eye on what pix were being used). Not enough digits in their filing program they complained. In fact it was so limiting that they scrapped it shortly after, and started again with a more flexible program. Even that program was limited by assigning a few numbers as subject categories (which became inadequate after a while), so when that agency was acquired by a larger one, the filing system was again scrapped and replaced by the new agency’s system. I’m rather amused at the fact that their newest system relies on a simple, sequential number very much like my own.

And what about the notes that stand behind all those pictures. I’m sure we’d all rather shoot pictures than write a book but sometimes that information is indispensable. I try to get the obvious stuff like the journalistic W’s (where, when, who, what ----) but I also try to include some history if relevant. If there is a historic plaque you can shoot a slide of it more quickly than writing notes. You might also want to keep some basic technical information on cameras and films which can be useful in problem solving.

Also you might want to get the final score of the game.