Managing Your Photographic Legacy: Part 2

In all the years I was traveling and giving talks to photo groups on Adobe products and end-to-end digital workflows, the number of photographers I met who had truly developed a rational system for managing their digital library was very small. In retrospect, this isn’t all that surprising, given the sea change photographers were experiencing trying to make sense of the new workflows that digital capture had forced upon us. The more you were shooting, it seemed, the more likely your digital asset management was going to be underwater.

While trying to evangelize the benefits of an end-to-end workflow, I discovered that in the search for a magic bullet, many photographers actually believed that a cataloging or library program could or should automatically organize them, without first building a logical workflow that started with a simple organization scheme in the operating system.

My system is based on the premise that I explained in my previous article in the December 2009 issue of DPP, “Managing Your Photographic Legacy, Part I.” The premise is that the goal of the library is to provide the most obvious and straightforward organizational scheme possible, and that the resulting archive has the greatest chance of being readable and accessible for you and for generations to come. That article also lays the groundwork for separating objective metadata from the subjective, and why I feel that subjective metadata belongs in your daily working catalog or catalogs, and probably not as the structural basis of the library or archive itself. We’ll have more on this distinction in a moment. Here are the broad strokes on the five steps:


Pictures flow first from your camera to a local hard drive for editing and immediately to a scratch, or backup, drive. Finished shoots are copied to your Working Library drive or RAID, then from there to your Archive Library device.

Step 1: Create your Working Library drive with a file system organization that’s based on objective metadata about each shoot.

Step 2: Create an entire backup drive as a duplicate of your Working Library drive. This becomes your Archive Library drive. Label it as such.

Step 3: Download your daily shoots to your local hard drive, and make a backup.

Step 4: Push your finished shoots from your local hard drive to your Working Library drive.

Step 5: Push your entire Working Library (or just shoots that have been modified, and your updated master catalog), to your Archive Library drive on a frequent basis.

Step 1: Create your Working Library drive with a file system organization that’s based on objective metadata about each shoot. For your basic organizational structure, create folder names with key descriptors that are as objective as possible. For me, the important descriptors are when, who (and/or what), and where. Starting with when, the date is more or less completely objective. It’s a descriptor on which everyone can agree (spurious arguments over travel and international dateline issues aside), and it will never change, or it will be close enough a week or two from now. (If needed, the definitive date a photo was shot should be recorded by the camera and can be found in a photo’s IPTC metadata. It’s up to you to make sure the camera is recording the correct date, taking into account your location, each time you shoot.)

The remaining descriptors, “who,” “what” and “where,” can be thought of as subjective. But the more you can keep them definitive, the better. I’ve found that basic use of single names (either first or last for the primary subject, whichever is appropriate) for “who” and city names like Mendocino, San Francisco or New York for “place” work fine. And if I’m shooting a job, I’ll frequently fill in the “what” descriptor with a job or client name.

This simple convention gives me folder names that sort chronologically in the file system that contain two or three other pieces of information, allowing me to very quickly locate a specific shoot that I’m looking for years later. It’s true that I almost always use “who” or “where” descriptors first when searching for photos in my library, but generally, when scrolling my entire library, I want to see the shoots listed in chronological order. So I put the date first, starting with the year, then a two-digit month and a two-digit day.

Of course, I recognize that what I’m creating here are essentially keywords in my folder names to help me find my photos. The important thing is that these “keywords” are in the file system and will be (with luck) easily viewable by any person years from now who happens to plug in my hard drive to look at my photos. I do believe searchable keywords can be incredibly valuable, but I feel that keywords on any finer level of granularity (or subjectivity) probably belong in your working catalog or in XMP metadata, or both. The point is to keep my file system organization as simple and uniform as possible.

It probably doesn’t matter if you build your Working Library structure on an internal or external hard drive, but I prefer an external hard drive for various reasons. If your entire digital library won’t fit on a commonly available 1 TB or 2 TB external hard drive, then your Working Library will have to span two or more mechanisms, which isn’t a problem. Label the first one appropriately, such as “Working Library 1999–2004,” and try to leave some free space on it, say 10% or so, so that you can still push new catalogs, derivative files or other changes you make to it at a later date.

Step 2: Create a backup of your Working Library drive(s) on yet another mechanism. This becomes your Archive Library drive. Label it as such. This is more or less a duplicate of your Working Library drive at this point. Ideally, your Archive Library drive will be the same size and same manufacturer as that of your Working Library drive. But the point is to have at least two copies of your entire library on separate, reliable drives at any given time. Depending upon how often you use them, how large your library is and the quality of the hard drives that you purchase, three copies might be better. Smart photographers with valuable libraries also will want to keep one set updated and stored in a completely different location to guard against theft, fire or other natural disasters.


Redundancy easily can get out of hand if you take it too far. It’s important to have backups, but making backups of backups of backups can leave you confused about which is the right one should you need it.

Step 3: Download your daily shoots to your local hard drive, and make a backup. My internal, local hard drive is where I do the bulk of my processing and editing. It’s during the first to seventh days after I download a shoot that I tend to make the most changes to it. So it doesn’t make sense for me to push daily shoots to my Working Library drive and master catalog just yet. For now, it’s important that you always have at least two copies
of every photograph you take and that you’re always pushing your photographs and your edits toward a stable and permanent archive.

I copy the first working version of each shoot onto the desktop of my local computer’s hard drive, but, of course, I’m following my guidelines for putting them into a folder with a useful name. “20090811 George Self-Portrait Denver Colorado” would be appropriate to fulfill my “when,” “who,” “what,” “where” criteria. I don’t bother very much with dashes or underscores in file or folder names any more (unless I’m e-mailing a photo) because both Mac and PC operating systems finally deal with long file names and spaces as they should, and I expect that to continue. Underscores are an outdated artifact in file naming, and if you ask me, just get in the way these days. I put my first backup on any reliable drive that I have handy and simply call the drive “scratch” or “temp bkup.” This backup is insurance in case your internal drive fails after you’ve erased your camera card and before you’ve had the chance to push the shoot to your Working Library.

Relative to my larger library, this first working copy and its backup are just temporary. As I stated earlier, this is because it’s during the first few days after a shoot that I’m accessing it and making the most changes to it. And I don’t want to plug in my Working Library drive every time I need to make a few edits to a recent shoot, or e-mail a new version of a work in progress to the client. (Of course, if you have your entire Working Library online 24/7, on a RAID that has reliable and automatic backups, then you probably know enough to easily eliminate the local editing routine in the five steps I’m outlining here.)

Once I’ve downloaded a shoot and made a backup of it, I then import it into my cataloging and processing application of choice, make edits, rank and/or apply keywords if I feel so inclined at the moment, and make a few processing decisions on the important shots. I consider most of this metadata to be subjective, and feel that it’s fine being stored in your catalog, rather than as part of your basic file system organization. (At this time I also mark the photos as “Copyrighted” and apply my name and address as the creator, my copyright string and the other metadata basics. Using Lightroom, I force this metadata to be written out to the OS in the form of XMP sidecar files that will eventually follow the digital image files into my archive, but this workflow is also the subject of a future article.)

Generally, I’ll make a fresh, new catalog for this initial editing task, inside the shoot folder on my local computer hard drive. This catalog will be temporary, just as the copy of the actual shoot on my local hard drive is temporary. It’s just used as a stage for my initial edit and color corrections. These settings then can be later imported into a master catalog, if you wish, after you’ve copied the shoot to your Working Library in the next step. Step 4: Push your finished shoots from your local hard drive to your Working Library drive. Once I feel a job or shoot has truly been put to bed, I’ll proceed to Step 4 and copy the shoot folder from my local hard drive to my Working Library drive. As a safety precaution, I’ll also refresh my very first backup on my scratch drive by basically deleting it and replacing the whole thing as a new backup once again. This time the backup contains all my edits, metadata and a small working catalog for reference. This additional backup on the scratch drive also lets me go ahead and delete the working shoot folder from my local hard drive if I want to and still have the peace of mind of knowing that I have at least two copies of the shoot at all times, somewhere on separate hard drives.
Step 5: Push your entire Working Library (or just shoots that have been modified, and your updated master catalog) to your Archive Library drive on a frequent basis. When I feel pretty certain that a shoot or group of shoots is completely edited at least in the short term, I’ll push them to my Archive drive and delete them from my local and scratch drives.

You can probably see by now that the system I’ve created makes your Working Library a sort of middle ground between the place where you do your real work (in your shoot folders on your local computer’s hard drive) and the place where you push your finished shoots for permanent, unchanging archival storage—your Archive Library. When you need to make further edits to a shoot you’ve already pushed to your Working Library drive (and you will), you can work on it directly through your master catalog on the Working Library drive. Just be careful to always have a backup of your master catalog in case you somehow corrupt it, and then always remember to push those changes to your Archive Library drive.

The system is designed to allow you always to have at least two, rock-solid copies of all your photos somewhere, in addition to giving you a structure for managing the continual flow of finished photos that should always be moving in one direction: toward your ever-growing, but stable, Archive Library.

Safety During Downloading

I personally use the operating system to make my initial copy from my camera memory card to my computer. This is because I don’t like to put yet another application in the middle of things. Call me a luddite, but over the years, I’ve just seen way too many file corruption problems stemming from the use of an intermediary program. Yes, things in this regard are better than they used to be, but I simply prefer to do them one step at a time, letting the OS do its job to get the copy done right. Because of this, and a few other simple habits like using high-quality memory cards, cables and hard drives, I’ve been rewarded with a record of never losing any digital photos. And believe me, I hear about losses and file corruption in the classroom all the time. On the subject of renaming actual photo files, I must say I wish I didn’t have to do this. My instinct is always to keep original file names the camera has given to each photo. But as soon as you’ve been shooting long enough that your camera’s numbering system rolls over, or when you start shooting with a second camera body, you can no longer sort your entire library correctly in a cataloging application by file name. This is a drag. So I’ve created a numbering scheme that solves these types of catalog-specific sorting problems, but that’s a subject for yet another article or blog entry.


The “Master Catalog”

An additional step that I didn’t include as one of “the five” would be the creation of a master catalog on your Working Drive. As I assemble my chronological sequence of finished shoot folders onto my Working Library drive, I also import them into one large master catalog. This catalog is useful for viewing all my photos in one place, creating portfolios, web galleries, etc. But I’ll reiterate here that I think it’s important to get your file organization for the long term straight in your file system first. Building and maintaining one giant catalog (yet another database to manage) is an important step along the way, but one that’s more about day-to-day photo management, and isn’t central to the basic workflow that I’m presenting here, to help you establish a bomb-proof Library and Archive.

George Jardine began his career as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens, Interior Design and many other publications. He joined Adobe Systems in 1993, and in 2002, began work on the Lightroom project. Jardine
teaches workshops, consults for digital photographers and is a freelance video producer. His websites are www.mulita.com/blog and www.bacchuseditorial.com.

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