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A Beginner’s Guide on Safekeeping Digital Photos

by David Tong

Circa 2000

We all learn the hard way when it comes to insuring our possessions, only when something goes wrong will we ever say “damn, I should’ve…”, but it’s often too late.

When I first started digital photography around the late 90’s (darn I’m old!), the company I worked for bought a Kodak DC290, a 2MB digital camera that was uber high-tech for most of us and a far cry from the clunky Sony Mavica floppy-disk storage cameras. I was able to borrow the camera from the company for quite a while and took some wonderful family shots with the camera, especially when my niece, Nicole, was still a little toddler.

At that time, the popular online photo storage site was Yahoo! Photos (which later was dissolved and integrated into Flickr), I stored quite a few photos in Yahoo! Photos and nowhere else, which was fine until I realized that Yahoo! Photos only stored low-resolution files at that time. A few years down the road, when I learned the importance of having an original file, I didn’t have much to work with.

It was quite ironic as I was pretty organized with my film negatives since my early college days as I knew the importance of having an original negative instead of just a 4R print in hand. How could I have ignored that a 800×600 pixel image is borderline useless compared to a proper 1 to 2Mb original jpeg.

Many users may think “I don’t have a lot of pictures, there’s no need to worry”, or “They’re all in my hard drive, they’re good enough”, or worse “The files are so large! I’ll just save a resized one”.

It’s never too early nor too late to have a proper file storage workflow. Whether you’re a budding professional or just a proud parent snapping shots of your children, you need to be organized with your files. Not having a proper file repository structure will be like dumping your valuables in a large container, you know it’s there, but good luck finding it when you need it.

There are tons of different ways to develop a workflow, and this is a very personal decision that you have to make to find out what works for you, but the basic guidelines to a basic file repository workflow are the same – safety and ease-of-retrieval.

In order to be safe, you have to expect the worse. In order to make you’re files easy to find, you have to sort and label appropriately – just like filing important tangible items in a safe.

Safety

Digital files themselves may be intangible, unlike negatives or prints, but they also are more volatile in storage. There are a lot of mays where files can get damaged either by physical damage to its storage device, or the files may be damaged by corrupted data and virus attacks. You have to cover all the bases as much as possible.

There was a time when I was cleaning up our work server’s repository drive and started deleting old and redundant files for easier maintenance and ease the network’s load a little. My boss stopped me from doing so simply because of one valid statement, “megabytes are cheap, data isn’t”. That is so true.

The cost of storage nowadays are getting cheaper and cheaper. A gigabyte of storage costs around S$ 20 cents on a retail-priced, external hard disk. That’s ridiculously cheap to be “chimping” on storage space.

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

In addition, the cost of optical media is just as affordable with CD and DVD writers packaged as standard in most computers nowadays.

So what’s the safe way to store our photographs? The answer is redundancy. Have multiple storage sources and locations for the same set of files.

Hard disks are prone to aging and shock damage, while optical media are prone to scratches, warping and other physical damages. I have had quite a few CDRs damaged due to heat, humidity, and poor quality over the years, and it’s painful to know your files are gone forever. Having multiple copies in multiple mediums are your safest and cheapest way of safe-keeping your files.

My technique is rather simple, but tedious. On average, I shoot around 25,000-30,000 images in 12-months. My Adobe Lightroom catalog is tracking my images from the past 1-1/2 years and it’s currently showing just under 40k images. I have yet to catalog my images from 2006 and older.

1. I usually buy a 150-250gb internal hard disk (let’s call this Disk A) to store one year’s worth of photograph. I’m not a professional so my image count isn’t as high, not to mention I’m still using an old 6-megapixel camera that keeps my file sizes relatively small. These drives can be bought really cheap in the used market as most folks sell their low-capacity drives in favor of higher capacity ones in their brand new PCs.

Disk A will be my repository drive. As soon as I transfer my images from my memory card, it goes straight to this drive. Regardless of how much space I still have left, I only use a hard disk for 1 year’s worth of images. I remove this disk from it’s casing and the drive goes into my dry box for storage while I buy a new drive of the same capacity for the next year. I do not use these drive for everyday access. This drive is located at home.

2. I then copy the same set of files into a larger external drive (currently a 720GB external drive, we’ll call it Drive B) that has the same folder structure but the images in this drive contains more than a year’s worth of images. This is also my “working” drive, I store my modified jpegs, working Photoshop files, and other miscellaneous alterations to my images in this drive.

Drive B will be used daily and is located on my office desk. I’ll continue using the drive until I have around 10-15% storage space left, when that happens, I’ll get another drive (most probably a much larger one as hard disk capacity can double in a 12-24 month timeframe) and copy everything to the new drive. I haven’t reached this stage yet.

3. At the end of the month, I burn two identical backup copies on DVDs for the whole month’s original images from Drive A. I then label the discs and store one copy at home, and another copy in the office. I only burn on quality DVDs and at the burner’s slowest writing speed.

In essence, each location (office and home) has a hard disk copy and a DVD copy. The odds of all four repositories getting damaged at the same time is pretty slim.

There are other ways you can safeguard your images offsite, and that’s by signing up to online storage facilities.

Popular paid image sharing sites allow storage of your full-size images in their storage facilities. The advantage will be the fact that these sites will often have redundant backups themselves and your files are pretty portable as long as you have an internet access.

One notable service provider is Carbonite.com (http://www.carbonite.com), where you sign up for US$50 and you’ll get unlimited storage for a year. The great thing about their service is you can assign a “watched folder” and any changes in that designated folder will be synced with their off-site storage instantly without the user intervening. As long as your computer is hooked up to the internet, Carbonite will be able to check your files and make sure the repository has the latest copy of your files. Great for those who hates doing this manually.

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Lastly, print your images!

The importance of printing your images is a topic on its own, but for the sake of our discussion, I have to say that you have to print your images. Digital files may be kept safe virtually forever, but the tangible print will never get old to the viewer. Having a print in an album or on your wall does not only remind you of the image itself, it’ll also make you want to look at the soft-copies often, which gives you the chance to check if your files are still alright.

I don’t print all my images, but I do print those that I like during the time of viewing, whether you send it out to a lab or print it at home, having something tangible is very different than seeing an image on screen.

Ease of Retrieval

If you only have a hundred images or so, it may seem logical to dump all the files in your My Pictures folder and view all them them in one location. However, when you have thousands of images of different events, location, and subjects, dumping all your images in one folder without any form of labeling is a nightmare to retrieve.

Imagine storing a year’s worth of receipts for your accounting purposes and not having individual envelopes to separate by month or by category. You’ll spend hours and hours just to sort the receipts before you can get any work done.

I’m not an organized person in real life, but my image files are decently sorted for my needs. There are still a lot of loopholes in my workflow but I’m working on it.

Here is a basic checklist of what you need to do from the moment you transfer your files from your memory card to your computer.

  1. Create appropriate folders for your images to stay in. Personally, I prefer storing my files in dated folders. I start with the year (i.e. \2008), then drill-down an “original” folder that stores unaltered images (\Orig) as I sometimes add modified images underneath. Then we drill-down to the month (i.e. \2008_08). Then I create a “day” folder (i.e. \08_19), then to an event, if appropriate (i.e. \Yoki_Bday). If there’s no event, the files will just go under the “day” folder.
  2. Rename – During import, you may choose to rename your files automatically. Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Bridge can do this pretty easily. I suggest you read the help file on each of those applications. I may write an article about Adobe Lightroom in the future. Currently, I simply rename my files to yyyymmdd_event_origfilename format.
  3. The two steps above should already make searching your files a lot easier, but we can improve it further by adding some contact sheets. Contact sheet contains a group of small thumbnail of images of all the files inside a particular folder. I like to create contact sheets for a whole month’s worth of photos, so 30-day’s worth of photos in a a couple of contact sheets (a large jpeg) that will be stored in the “month” folder. This way, I only need to look at 2 or 3 contact sheet files to see what’s inside all the image folders underneath. Adobe Lightroom and Adobe PhotoShop can do this for you.
  4. To make things even easier down the road (it’s a lot of hard work now, but it’ll pay off as soon as you make your first file search, I promise), it’s best if you assign keywords and tags to your images in Bridge or Lightroom (or whatever software you want to use to catalog images). By tagging your images with relevant and concise keywords, it’ll be a cinch when you need to look for “travel, Paris, honeymoon” in your image repository, or when you need to find all images in Paris, regardless of event.

Those four key steps should be a good, basic workflow starting point for you. I need to mention that you do not necessarily have to follow my examples. I showed you what I do, you should develop your own file structure that you’re comfortable to work with on a daily basis.

The last advice I’m giving you is…

GET STARTED NOW!

Don’t wait, as the more images you have, the more tedious this will become. If you’re just starting digital photography, you already have the benefit of starting from scratch and doing things right from the start. Early digital photography adopters like myself are still struggling to backtrack on our old files for cataloguing.

If you’re thinking of buying hard disks online, you can help me out by using the Amazon.com search tool at the right side of this page.

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