Storage wars: Smart tips for better image storage (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on better image storage. You can see part one, here.
It’s critically important that your cataloguing strategy allows you to find images easily and quickly – otherwise what’s the point? As a real world example, all the images in this article are from my latest book, Heart of Australia (published in March 2020) which saw me visiting 25 different festivals and events around the country. I shot more than 30,000 images in a 12-month period and I’m sure you can imagine that staying very well organised was of huge importance.
I don’t want to get into the specifics of different cataloguing applications, although I should say that I do use Adobe Lightroom Classic for my collection of 360,000 images and it is the only application I have found that does what I need at an affordable price. A full enterprise-grade DAM (digital asset manager) can cost upwards of $5000, and the only other one I have seriously looked at is Daminion, and even that’s over $1000.
However, there are some principles of a robust cataloguing strategy that are worth discussing, regardless of the software you use.
Location of Images
All data, and by that I mean all videos, raw files, jpegs, etc, should all be stored externally to your computer – either on a DAS or NAS. The cataloguing application itself should be installed on your computer. This application then references the images where they live on the external storage but are not considered to be in the app. Storing images on a high quality external system will speed up the day-to-day use of the system, too, and with big collections, this is no trivial matter.
I have been teaching Lightroom for many years and one thing I see all the time is people organising their images into folders by only the date. They might have a folder for each year, containing folders for each month. If you Import using Lightroom, this is what you get by default.
Don’t do it, or at least don’t do it without a good, well thought-out reason. It seems convenient at first but, without some further metadata work, has a couple of serious flaws. The first is you cannot easily search across multiple folders, and the second is you don’t know where to start looking unless you can vaguely remember when you took the photo.
Images are time-stamped by the camera when shot. If you need to sort by date for some reason the cataloguing app can already do this anyway, and very easily. There is no reason to duplicate this by using folder names that are just dates. In theory, a properly constructed catalogue could consist of one big folder – computers are very good at keeping track of things.
Here’s an example: I have been to Uluru about a dozen times, possibly more. If I want to see all my images of Uluru I’d need to know which folders to look in and thus I’d need to remember when I was there. There would be no obvious way to find those photos across all folders without referring to my diary or wracking my brain.
Clearly there is a much better way to do this – by labelling the individual images in some way. This is where metadata comes in, in this case, the Location Metadata fields.
By far the most powerful way to organise your photos is to do the following:
Firstly, import the photos into folders which are named by the shoot, the location or any label that gives you a clue as to what’s in that folder. Feel free to add a date to the name if you really feel the need, but don’t use just the date. If you go to a place multiple times, the date will help distinguish the different trips if you need to. As far as the cataloguing application is concerned, Uluru1, Uluru2, etc, is just as good as Uluru2014 and Uluru2019.
Secondly, add accurate metadata to all images, relating to whatever is important to you. This will usually be the location of the images, but could be the name of the bride for a wedding photographer. Adding metadata can be batched, ie. select multiple images and copy/paste across all of them.
On the road I try to do this every evening, and at least the basics of where the photo was taken, country, state and city, plus location if I have time. It does not take long and if you keep on top of it you will not be faced with an overwhelming task when you get home. If the task is overwhelming, you will probably not do it – and then you will get into a progressively worse mess.
As you gradually build up an image collection you will find that metadata allows you to perform searches almost impossible to do in any other way. Out of my 360,000 images, I can find a single image taken in a specific place, using a specific lens, at a specific exposure – and do it in less than 30 seconds. That’s actually quite easy. What’s much more powerful is finding all images with certain criteria, regardless of which folder they are in, even which hard drive they are on, or when they were taken.
Using metadata properly is the secret superpower of a good cataloguing system. When I say properly, I mean diligently, carefully and meticulously. Good software such as Lightroom will help you do this and, seriously, I have a short attention span – I hate repetitive chores and even I do this. ❂