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.

The underlying problem isn’t just thinking that you can automatically organize a pile of digital photographs simply by slapping another database on top of your file system. More to the point, it’s that not enough thought has been given to the actual goals for the photographer’s library and archive. The relevant questions: What is my library? What function do I want it to serve? How long do I expect it to last?

In my view, the operating system is a basic but relatively decent database and organizational tool, and it’s one that’s given to you with your computer. Yes, it’s limited. But it’s the first thing that you, or one of your heirs, are going to have to deal with at some point in the future when trying to get a look at things. Yes, versions of today’s popular digital photography cataloging or "workflow" applications that can open your catalog may still exist well into the future. But just as likely, they may not. Many databases and cataloging programs for desktop computers have already come and gone, not to mention device types and formats. So I’m going to argue that a simple chronological folder scheme in your operating system, and the raw photo files within those folders, should constitute the first thing you should focus on as the basic structure for your library.

When thinking about building an archive, it’s important to look at the long-term stability and accessibility of the various pieces of the system. From here, it’s looking like disc formats and operating-system versions are becoming more stable and seem somewhat more likely to have cross-platform and backward compatibility than today’s cataloging and organizational tools have.

Starting to organize at the operating-system level might sound incredibly obvious to you, and I hope it does. But I’m always amazed at how many photographers fall for the thinking that cataloging product X will help you get organized.

Where are you going to store your file adjustments? Catalogs are useful, but pushing your settings out into the operating system as an XMP file gives you a nice insurance policy. This will give you a better chance of recovering a precise rendering if your catalog is corrupt or you’re unable to open it at a later date.

In short, a catalog isn’t your library! The files are the important thing. JPEG, PSD and TIFF are file formats that are very well understood at this point, and for that matter, CR2 and NEF formats are so ubiquitous by now as to be perfectly safe from an archiving standpoint. Many programs can and will be able to open them well into the future. But will you be able to open a version 2.0 Aperture vault or a version 2.4 Lightroom catalog 30 years from now? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely that those formats won’t change or possibly even go away.

At this point you may ask, what about my RAW processing or developing settings? This is a valid question, so let’s try to get it in perspective. Are the rendering choices that you may make today in your photo-processing application du jour going to change next month or next year? Is your distinction between four stars or five stars
going to be important to your heirs years from now? Perhaps. But with time it will become much more important that they can make sense of your organization scheme to even be able to view your photographs! I’m not saying your rendering settings are not worthy of being stored. I’m just saying that they have their place, and they’re not something on which to base your fundamental organizational structure.
So the first step in setting up your library to be best organized for the long-term is to start with a clean, new, high-quality external hard drive. Then get things organized in chronological order with meaningful folder names. After that, you can add all the keywords, star ratings and color labels you wish in the cataloging program of your choice. In my next article, I’ll go into more detail that will help you plan effective workflows for getting photos pushed through your system and out onto your archive drive.

Of course, I don’t imagine the asset-management story is nearly this simplistic. I only wish it were! But taking a long-term view is an important prerequisite for being able to see the various elements in the proper perspective. After that, things begin to fall into place.

Finally, as long as we’re looking forward, I think it’s fun to keep an eye on where technology might be taking us in the near future. I’m personally excited about trends in online applications and cloud computing, or online storage of my data. I finally have reliable-enough web access that I’ve made the transition to 100% online e-mail.

I don’t store anything locally, andthe interesting result of that is that I’m now free from worrying about backups and the problems associated with having different versions of my mail database scattered among multiple computers. And I fully expect the same thing to eventually happen with my photo library.

Yes, there are all sorts of bandwidth issues that we’ll have to overcome, not to mention a whole new host of user-interface ideas that will need to be innovated to make online storage for the photographer’s library a reality. But I’m absolutely convinced that one day it will be real and infinitelymore productive for me as a photographer. Just imagine being able to access your entire library, from any device,in any location.

George Jardine began his career as a professional photographer; 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 and

"Library" Or "Archive": What’s The Difference?

At first it may appear that I use the two terms interchangeably, but I want to be a bit more precise than that. When I use the word "library," I mean any working collection of photographs. That could mean all of your digital photographs, but also could mean one shoot or a group of shoots that you’ve imported into a catalog (in the sense of a Lightroom or Expression Media catalog). It could mean your commercial library as distinct from your personal library. When I talk about your "archive," I mean an organized, up-to-date collection of digital files that you store in a safe place, that’s there for you in case your working hard drive fails or in case you fall off a cliff tomorrow. It’s a physical thing that you wish to use to preserve and to pass forward your life’s work—your entire, organized, photographic legacy.

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