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Digital Video Editing Tips: Organizing Your Video

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This chapter will guide you in how to label tapes, take notes efficiently, and prepare for editing should you decide that’s what you want to do.
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Organizing your videotapes is so important that it’s really too bad it seems rather boring and tedious. It’s certainly not as glamorous as shooting, and it’s even more clerical than editing. Nevertheless, organizing is key. You may never edit all your tapes, but every one of them should be organized. One of the secrets to editing well is knowing what material you have to work with, and the only way you will know this is if you’ve watched all of your tapes at least once. It’s only natural to take some notes as you watch a tape, and this chapter will guide you in how to label tapes, take notes efficiently, and prepare for editing should you decide that’s what you want to do.

One of the biggest drawbacks to tapeless camcorders is the serious challenge associated with organizing, storing, and logging your video. Because tapeless alternatives pose their own series of workflows, I will deal only with tape-based video here, and save insights in the ever-changing future for my online blog (

What’s great about organizing your material is that even if you choose not to edit, you will really know what is on each of your videotapes. Sometimes years after shooting something, for example, I might be working on an unrelated project when I decide I need a certain kind of shot (a sunset, my parents on vacation, a plane landing at an airport) to fill in a hole or take advantage of an opportunity I created while editing. Through clear and simple organization, I am my own hero in these situations—and you can be one, too. Take a few easy steps to keep your video organized.

Organizing Your Materials

I was at my friend Hilary’s house recently, about a month after she began her personal adventure with digital video, and I asked to see her editing setup. I looked over her Mac, and she showed me some videos she had cut. She also had a small pile of DV tapes on the desk. None were labeled.

“Why didn’t you label your tapes?” I asked.

“Well,” she replied, “I never imagined I’d have more than a few... I thought I knew what was on them.”

Hilary’s assumption is a common one, but it can be a big mistake. Here is the typically erroneous logic behind it:

  • I’m just starting out, so labeling seems too fastidious. (Like alphabetizing your CD collection, or worse, arranging your socks.)
  • I’m just starting out and have only two or three tapes, so why bother?
  • I know what’s on my tapes, since I shot them and watched them myself.
  • Organizing is for geeks. I’m far too hip to care.

But here’s the truth: You are eventually going to have more tapes than you have today; you will forget what is on each tape in short order; and organizing (geeky though it may be) is the cornerstone to good filmmaking or even just personal enjoyment of your videos. So get used to it. Make it a habit. Here’s how.

Labeling the tape

Back in Chapter 2 I urged you to put a label referencing the date, like “S08.12.24,” on your first videotape. I hope you heeded this advice. Here’s a little more detail on the organizational process.

When you unpack a new videotape, do the following:

  1. Take the paper stuff out of the box.

  2. Label the top and long side of the tape (there’s a groove there for a label; see Figure 4.1).
    Figure 4.1

    Figure 4.1 It doesn’t matter whether you fill out your labels and then attach them to the tape, or attach them first and then fill them out. Just make it easy for yourself and keep your labeling simple and clear. Consistent is nice, too.

  3. Throw out all the paper things you just pulled out of the box.

Easy, isn’t it? Now that you have a routine for labeling every new cassette, let’s get into the details about finding material on your tapes.

Tape labels: “Reel names”

In professional circles, each tape is known as a reel. In all but the most basic editing systems, when a tape is in a camera that is connected to a computer, the software that deals with videotapes will ask you which reel you are now watching and editing. You must label your tapes with reel names—or, in our case, reel numbers.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with writing descriptive names on the labels that come with each videotape, it isn’t a particularly good way to label (or locate) your material. Neither is filling out the white cover sheet that lines the cassette box. This is one reason I throw this stuff out. So even though I do have tapes with labels like “Trip to NYC” or “Alina’s Birthday,” I devised a simple naming and numbering system to keep track of all my tapes. I use a boring alphanumeric code: a letter designating what type of tape it is, and a number—it’s simple, it’s clean, and it keeps tapes relatively orderly.

The letter code can be based on whatever is important to you. I suggest the following:

  • S for “Source”: A tape containing the original source material shot with your digital video camcorder, unedited and raw. (It could also stand for “Shooting,” if that’s easier to remember.)
  • M for “Master”: A tape dedicated to recordings of your finished edited sequences. Don’t put your edited footage back on the source tapes. It’s good to keep cut material separated from raw.
  • A for “Analog”: I have lots of material on old analog VHS, S-VHS, and Hi-8 tapes that I want to convert to the digital format for long-term storage, logging, and editing. I dub the old tapes to DV and code the new DV tape to easily differentiate it from video that originated out of a digital camera.
  • C for “Culled”: Not frequently, but on occasion, I will dump an entire S tape into the computer, and spend a rapid hour or two culling it down to 20–30 minutes. You’ll hear about this in Chapter 5, but culling is not editing in that all you’re doing is making a raw tape more watchable by deleting bad, long, or unwatchable video segments. Once culled, I dump the entire tape back onto another tape, a “C” tape with the same name.

If these letter codes don’t work for you, make up your own. A couple of suggestions, though: Don’t create a code system based on content (B for “Baby” or H for “House” or V for “Vacation”), because your raw footage may fall into many different categories. And don’t use “names” for your tapes. Forget “Las Vegas,” “Boat Launching,” or “Summer 2009.” The problem with names isn’t one of description—they may well describe precisely what is on each tape—but rather one of organization. If you go by names, you could have filed that footage from your weekend in Las Vegas under “Las” or “Vegas” or even “weekend.”

On the other hand, it’s easy to put your sources tapes in order when they’re labeled with year/month. Anyway, a consistent numbering system makes your tapes easy to identify, free from many problems of handwriting legibility, and simple to identify and organize.

For naming master tapes I use an even simpler method: I use an “M” followed by a number—just an ordinary sequential number. (I started at 1 and I’m up to 25 today.)

Consequently, it’s really easy to know where to find tape M4 (hint: It’s stacked between M3 and M5), and this is particularly important, since these tapes contain many different videos covering any kind of time range. Master tapes have no place in time, so I’ve found it’s best just to number them in order.

“S09.3” or ”M4” may not be a fun or descriptive name for a tape, but we can rely on log sheets for content description. And the name combined with a logging process really makes this system work. By glancing at my log sheets, I know for a fact that the best sunset shot I have ever recorded is about 45 minutes into tape S05.12—a tape that, under a different labeling system, would probably be called “Garden Project.” So stick with simple codes on your tapes, and if you must add text to the label, add it after the number. (Less than 5 percent of my tapes demand any kind of special notation.)

Tape labels: Minimalist descriptions

After using only reel names for about five years, I began to need a little bit more info on the tapes. Yes, I kept a log book, but more often than not, I found myself grabbing a tape to watch and having no idea what was on it. While this doesn’t replace a bona fide log book, I now believe that writing a description on the tape label is helpful. This is what I write:

  1. Date I put the tape in the camera. Since I don’t remove tapes until they are full (or almost full), a tape generally has start and end dates associated with it. I can put the start date on when I’m adding the label, and I add the end date when I remove it—both of which happen even before I sit down to log.
  2. Teeny tiny description of what events are on the tape. This is also not to be confused with logging. But if there is a general theme to the entire tape, or a big part of the tape, I’ve found it useful to add it here. Stuff like “Jonah’s Birthday” or “Boat Trip” or “Family Interviews.” The danger is that you don’t log the tape, and think this covers it—which it usually won’t. But the converse is also a danger, that you don’t have any log and no description, and you forget quickly which of the three tapes sitting here is the one from the party. I have many (most) tapes without this additional info; but by all means, feel free to add it if that helps.
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