Best practices in organizing a digital, image-based inspiration file
December 17, 2012 1:13 PM   Subscribe

As an aspiring artist, I've recently acquired a habit of saving to Dropbox every image I find particularly inspiring or useful as an artistic reference. This is fun and motivating, except I'm realizing that my Finder-based 'folder > subfolder' organizational structure is doing a poor job of keeping up with my needs. I'm looking for software recommendations (Mac OS X) or general tips re: sorting a frequently-accessed image collection that will eventually number into the thousands. The catch: the system needs to sync with an iPhone/iPad.

I currently organize my images using a series of folders in Finder, e.g., 'references > environments > forest'. However, it's proving inadequate for situations where I have to deal with images that belong in two or more categories ('reference > environments > forest' and 'reference > animals > deer' and 'inspiration > style > animal'??). I'm also an indecisive dumbass when it comes to naming and organizing the folders themselves (is 'inspiration' different from 'reference'? how many subcategories of 'technique' can I get into?). Really the nicest thing about using a simple folder system is that I can easily access my references on-the-go using the Dropbox app on my iPad.

Can anyone recommend any other solutions? I'd love to find an app that:
- is reasonably lightweight and fast,
- has a robust tagging system (bonus points if there's a field for inputting source urls),
- allows me to filter images by chaining/excluding multiple tags,
- has thumbnail-based overview pages,
- allows me to keep my images in Dropbox,
- is relatively inexpensive,
- works on a 2007 (slow) MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard for the foreseeable future, and
- the biggest question mark: also works on iPhone/iPad.
While a native iPhone/iPad app would be best, the iDevice compatibility isn't strictly necessary as long as the app allows me to edit filenames and source folders quickly and efficiently (either in-app or in-Finder), in which case I'd just use the desktop app while on my computer and Dropbox while on my iDevice.

Things I don't need:
- any social aspects, e.g., sharing, multiple user access, etc.,
- image editing capabilities,
- any facial-recognition or other 'helpful' (slow) tools
I'm also not really interested in photography, so I'd prefer to not invest in something weighed down with functions I'll never use unless I know the rest of the app is exactly what I need.

I've tried organizing my images using Tumblr, but it's slow, somewhat unreliable, and handles tags poorly. I would like to have the images readily available offline.

I've seen iPhoto, Picasa, Aperture, Extensis, Adobe Bridge, and Adobe Lightroom recommended in previous AskMes (1, 2, 3), but I've don't think I've seen anyone ask about my particular situation. Lightroom looks pretty great, but would Adobe Revel be the only way I can access the images on my iDevice?

Otherwise, if my dream image database software is but a fantasy, I'd love to hear about your own file-based system of image organization!

If you're also in the habit of saving tons of images, whether for hilarious gif response purposes or for your own morgue file, how do you wrangle your collection? Do you dump everything into one folder and rely on filenames? Use a complex system of folders/subfolders? Tag your images somehow? Copy/paste your images so that there's a copy in every relevant category? I get really pedantic about my image categorization, so any advice wrt staying flexible and not overthinking things would be appreciated.

Thank you so much for your suggestions! This has been driving me crazy over the past few months (I must have restructured my folder hierarchy five times by now) and I'd love to find a solution more intelligent and elegant than my current brute-forcing ways.
posted by brieche to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I was thinking "hmm, why not Pinterest?" up until you said you wanted offline availability - it's much better than Tumblr for finding things long after they're categorized.

Another thought: Move away from the "photo" focus and recognize that what you really have is just a lot of Stuff, and set up a database with Bento that just happens to pretty much only contain photos, with whatever organizational tags you want. Might require more setup, but the power level's pretty high compared to trying to shove your purposes into a photo-management program.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:21 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

A long time ago, I tried Deep. Back then, it didn't do everything I wanted, and had a few kinks, but I see that it's been majorly updated and might be worth a look. There's a free demo version.
posted by agentmitten at 1:38 PM on December 17, 2012

Yojimbo might handle some of the things you're looking for, but I'm not so intimately familiar with it to know if will meet all of your criteria. It's got robust tagging, syncs to iPad and iPhone, works with Dropbox, and provides offline access. It's built more for all kinds of digital scraps, not just photos. Plus it's relatively cheap!
posted by slogger at 1:47 PM on December 17, 2012

I wonder if Evernote might work for this.

I've used Zootool in the past but migrated to Pinterest as I'm lazy about tagging. I think it might be up your alley, but I'm not sure about the offline/multi platform aspect of it.
posted by thirdletter at 2:11 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use Evernote for this exact thing. Offline access is part of the premium package and costs $45/yr. I don't use the tagging function in the way that you want to so I can't comment on that, but it's worth checking out.
posted by Gusaroo at 2:30 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Evernote! I don't know if you can use the tagging function for excluding tags, but it is definitely robust, syncs with iOS devices, available offline, and fantastic for cataloguing snippets of images/inspiration/anything really.
posted by shazzam! at 4:20 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Other options I found in the course of researching this question: Sparkbox and Pixa. They weren't right for me but might be for someone else?)

After a couple days spent downloading and tinkering with every suggestion, I decided to go with Evernote, though Yojimbo was a close, close second (speedy but no thumbnail view, alas!). I'm a little concerned about how sluggish Evernote will become once my notes get into thousands, but for now I'm merely in the hundreds and happily tagging like a maniac.

Thanks again, everyone!
posted by brieche at 4:14 PM on January 21, 2013

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