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Managing Your Photographic Legacy: Part I

By now, all of us know that photography changed forever the moment we began to capture our pictures digitally rather than on film. Overnight, film was dead for most of us, and every exposure made after that had to be imported into the computer before it could be viewed at all. From that moment on, you had to manage every photograph you took in thecomputer. Photographs no longer degraded slowly, over time. Now they lasted for some unknown period of time and then would disappear instantly if (when) your hard drive crashed. Collectively, we had well over 100 years of history with filmphotography to develop effective methods of managing our celluloid libraries, but very little precedent or guidance on how to manage our exploding digital libraries.

Now that most of us have been more or less 100% digital for several years, we have some distinct advantages over that awkward beginning. We finally have large, fast and relatively inexpensive hard drives that are up to the task of holding our digital libraries. But do you have an effective strategy for building and organizing your digital library in such a way that it truly can be called an archive?

Building and maintaining a true archive of your working photographic library isn’t difficult at all. And it’s a useful effort, first and foremost because it acts to establish a mind-set of what you’re building in the long-term. After thinking about my own career and growing digital libraryfor more than a few years, and then having the opportunity to meet and consult with literally dozens of top working pros on their digitalstrategies, I finally began to see that having a concept of building a lifetime body of work is the heart of the matter. Regardless of what you ultimately want your photographic legacy to be, organizing it as you build it will be infinitely easier than trying to do it later. In fact, I’m willing to bet that starting now and organizing as you go is the only way it will getdone at all.

Why all the fuss about your legacy and the preservation of your work as a photographer? I believe that if your photographs are good, they will grow in value over time. I also believe that each individual photograph you take may or may not be valuable in itself, but that when they’re organized and preserved as a collection over time, the sum will indeed be greater than that of the individual parts. And if you’re anything like I was a few years ago, your digital library is a jumbled mess of various bits and pieces, unorganized folders and files scattered across several outdated external "backup" hard drives, discs and computers. If I would have been pushed in front of a bus, it might have been impossible for anotherperson to pull together a meaningful view of the whole library.

But don’t let me scare you off before you see how easy creating a coherent archive of your work can be. In this article, I’ll describe basic structure and what’s important to get into your archive; in part two of the article, I’ll give you five easy workflow steps that I’ve devised for building a library and archive, and keeping them up to date.

Start With Your Operating System

Given that the long-term preservation of your photographic work is the goal, I argue that the important part of your library is simply the raw photo files themselves, organized into file system folders. This is because in the course of teaching literally hundreds of workshops and seminars on the subject of digital photography and end-to-end workflows, I came to see that the single biggest confusion in the digital community is around this very issue. Way too many photographers are struggling to organize their digital lives (to create a "library") within their chosen workflow or cataloging application, while ignoring and consequently making a giant mess out of things at the level of the operating system. So I say effective asset management starts with the operating system.

My catalog is an important part of the asset-management puzzle, but it’s not the whole story. I keep a working copy on my local hard drive and back it up periodically to my external library drive. The things I’m most interested in organizing and preserving are the RAW files themselves, along with finished, rendered RGB files of the more important photographs. The catalog only references your RAW files where they’re stored and generally is a work in progress, less important than your library itself.

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