Proper backup, storage, and archiving are the best protection against losing your images, writes David Saffir. In the final post of this three-part series, David discusses why some file formats are better than others for archiving images for the long term.
In the process of creating content for websites, publications, and individual clients, photography pros rapidly build large collections of digital images and related files. Managing these files is becoming a big issue, writes Wayne Cosshall.
Many of us have huge collections of digital images. Some of us (myself not included) have been very good about organizing those images from the start. When I first started shooting digital and scanning negatives, I really didn’t consider the fact that at some point I’d be dealing with tens of thousands of images on my computer. Back in those early days, I had sleeves for negatives and slides, and would store them by type of image in folders.
Then came digital. The organizing system that made so much sense in an analog world didn’t play out on the computer. It was much harder to find an image in a directory with hundreds of similar shots than it was to hold up a sheet of slides for a quick look. Obviously, something had to change. I needed a plan to get organized and stay that way.
I use Adobe Lightroom for my cataloging and basic workflow, but the principles apply to almost any application you might use, such as Aperture, Bridge, Expression Media, or dedicated cataloging application. Here are some tips for getting and staying organized.
1. Determine your folder structure.
While everyone has different needs, there are some common ideas that will help you when it comes time to store your images on the computer. I store images in a date named structure. I set up a master folder for each year, and within that a folder for each month. The month folders have additional folders for the date the images were shot. So, the basic structure looks like this:
While this might not seem obvious, most software, including Lightroom lets you create a collection named anything you like, which brings us to tip number 2.
2. Use Collections or Groups to sort images.
Most of my work is landscape oriented, so I have collections based on the type of subject – mountains, flowers, water, sky, etc. Within these collections are sub collections, or groups, of images. As an example, for flowers I have collections for each type of flower I shoot. For mountains, I have subcollections of mountain ranges.These collections are just references to the actual images which are stored in my date folders.
3. If your software supports it, use keywords to automatically fill your collections.
Lightroom uses the concept of Smart Collections. A keyword or other metadata attribute will automatically place an image in the correct collection for me, making it less likely to forget to add the images. So, if I have an image of Mt. Rainier, the keywords mountain and Cascades will automatically place the image into the correct collection for me.
4. Decide on standard keywords.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, will make it more difficult to find an image than inconsistent use of keywords. If you use boat one time, and ship another time, are you going to remember to look for both images? If so, you’re better than me.
One thing I’ve found that helps me out is to use the Controlled Vocabulary (www.controlledvocabulary.com). Not only does this give me a pre-built list of keywords, they are standard and accepted keywords that you’re likely to find used by editors and stock agencies when requesting images. You can’t sell them your work if you can’t find what they’re looking for!
5. Apply keywords during importing whenever possible.
If your memory card is full of similar subject matter this one is pretty easy. All of the applications you’re likely to use will support adding keywords during import, and if you assign them now, it’s more likely to be done. If you have several different subjects to import, you can always import the subset, applying the keywords for those, then import the next subset. The key here is to make sure they are keyworded. If you use the smart collection method like I do, when you’re done with your import the images will already be where they need to go.
6. Update existing images one folder at a time.
If, like me, you already have a few thousand images on the computer before you realized you didn’t do any organizing, don’t panic. Make it a point to work on one folder of images at a time, keywording a manageable subset of your images. Most applications will let you search for images that aren’t tagged, so even if you don’t have a folder organization, you can run this query (searching where keyword = blank), and work on as many images as you like.
7. Use the rating system.
Lightroom uses a star rating system with up to five stars for images. In my system, I use three stars for images I think are worth further editing and consideration for submission. Four stars are assigned to images I’ve submitted for stock or publication, and five stars are reserved for published or sold images.
8. Cull ruthlessly.
It’s easy to have an emotional attachment to our images, but that attachment is seldom shared by others. So, as difficult as it may be, evaluate your images with a critical eye. If the image isn’t your best, delete it. I make a point of reviewing every image I import, assigning ratings as I go along. If I see an image that isn’t worth keeping, it gets flagged for deleting by pressing the X key. If I’m not sure, I’ll give it a single star. Once I’ve made the initial pass, I’ll review the one star images, deciding if it’s worth keeping or deleting. When done, I filter on the X flag images and delete them immediately.
9. Back up your catalog.
You’ve spent hours cataloging and organizing your images. Do you really want to take a chance on that catalog becoming damaged? Lightroom and other applications will prompt you to back up your catalog file. Do it! The catalog files aren’t that big and it just isn’t worth the risk to pass on this.
10. Back up and archive your images.
Different from backing up your catalog, it’s also obvious that you need to back up your images. A regular backup scheme should be a part of your daily workflow. Let it run overnight and know that you’re safe in case of disaster.
Related to this is archiving your images. For this, you might archive to an external drive, or to optical media. One advantage to using the date system for folder naming is that you can easily group by year onto a set of discs or single drive that can then be stored offsite or on the shelf.
When I started in photography over 45 years ago, it was a major pain to organize my slides and filmstrips so I could find what I wanted. Originally I used index books with film and frame number codes to keep track of my images. Later I progressed to a computer program that ran on my Apple IIe. It would print labels to put on slides and could do basic keyword searches.
Some ten years ago, when I started scanning the film I shot, the issue became keeping track of the digital files. At that point I was introduced to a digital-asset management program called Portfolio, which could catalog files (whether they were on CD or hard disk). It allowed me to assign keywords and other data to each record.
Since switching from film to digital cameras I am still using Extensis Portfolio (although other similar programs exist both for Mac and PC). Portfolio files are cross platform and the software can handle lots of files, generating thumbnails to the sizes I need, etc.
Now, when I return from a shoot, I use this workflow: I transfer the images from the memory cards onto my hard drive, duplicate these files onto another network drive, and then burn the files onto DVD, which get unique serial numbers. I use Extensis Portfolio to catalog the DVD and then put the disc away in an archival storage unit. This works well for me. The files on local and network disks allow me ready access to work on them, while the DVD backups provide extra security.
Cataloging images has always been a pain because of the need to enter keywords. One way to address this task is to organize files into sub-folders or directories with meaningful names. So starting within a folder for each shooting date, I may have subfolders labeled “flower macro”, “rural landscape,” or “insect macro.” I can then set Portfolio (or similar software) to extract keywords from the file path.
The image-cataloging process has been greatly assisted by the ability of digital cameras to record EXIF data. This saves all that recording of exposure and lens details that many of us used to do.
Technology now allows possibilities that can go much further. Cameras can be fitted with GPS systems to record location information. You could conceivably link your catalogs of images with a mappying system, even Google Earth. If the GPS recording device also extracts direction information, you could work with your images in some interesting new ways. For example, you could build three-dimensional scenes or make more detailed and accurate plans for future trips to the same locations. Landscape photographers could explore their image libraries geographically, examining viewpoints and perspectives with map and other information overlays. You might even be able to check viewpoints and plan the best locations from which to shoot at particular times of the day.
I’m not sure if anyone has tied together all the pieces yet, at least for the general photographer, but I know someone will soon. Some exciting possibilities do exist for photographers willing to experiment.
Looking back at how far we’ve come in terms of image organization, don’t you love the way technology sometimes makes your life easier and your profession or hobby better?
Last week the inevitable happened. One of my hard drives died with a screeching whine. I could almost visualize the heads crashing into the disk platters as it went out. I wish I could say this was the first drive failure I’ve experienced, but the sad truth is that I’ve had several of them over the years.
Note: Ironically, as I was writing the above paragraph the first time, my computer crashed as well. Of course I hadn’t saved yet, so I was forced to start over again.
One good thing I’ve learned from these previous drive demises is that backups are critical. Of course, I learned this like most of us do--the hard way. The first time I lost data I had no backup at all.
As our image collections have grown, we’ve progressed from backing up to floppy disks (remember those?), to CDs, DVD, and tape drives. My current system uses multiple hard drives to store my images and data files so that I always have more than one copy should disaster strike. I’m using a RAID system that mirrors each file so that I have an instant backup if a drive fails, like it did last week. Luckily, all I needed to do was add a replacement drive to the array and I was back in business without a single file being lost.
At the end of each day, I back up this primary system to a duplicate RAID so that I have yet another level of safety.
I’ve also begun to consider online storage solutions like those offered by Digital Railroad and Photo Shelter. The beauty of these systems is that even if your office burns down, or all of your equipment is stolen, you have offsite storage of your valuable work.
With the cost of disk space dropping all the time, there is really no reason to not have redundant systems to backup your work. For those of us whose images are our livelihood, losing a drive that contains the only copy of valuable images isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a potential financial disaster!