A simple solution to digital photo management

I recently had a bit of a meltdown regarding the state of my digital photo management. Fortunately, a photographer friend set me straight with advice so obvious I never saw it. First, let me describe my meltdown.

I became unhappy when a photo management service that I loved, that I went all-in on, shut its doors. When I retrieved the 14,000 photos I had uploaded to it, I found that all of the EXIF data had been stripped (EXIF data includes metadata and tags that make images searchable), and I had been left with the digital equivalent of a box full of 14,000 photos in random order.

Like I said, I was not happy.

But really, the problem wasn’t with someone’s failed business. The issue was (and continues to be) the sheer number of photos we take. When I was younger, we had up to 32 opportunities to get a decent picture with a single roll of film. I emphasize decent because that dictated the care with which we shot photos. We didn’t want to waste a single frame.

Today, I’ll take the kids to the park and shoot 150 pictures in less than three hours.

This behavior spawns two problems. The first problem is digital clutter. How many of those 150 photos are worth keeping? Maybe a dozen, if I’m lucky. The second problem is backups. What is the best way to preserve the photographs worth keeping? These are modern problems with, I’ve learned, an old-school solution.

My friend CJ Chilvers is a very talented photographer and, I must say, an insightful guy. He responded to my rant (warning: there’s one mildly not-safe-for-work word in my rant) with a brilliant solution: books.

“The best solution I’ve found for all this is the humble book. Making a collection of photos into a book (even if it’s just a year book of miscellaneous shots) solves several problems,” he said. He went on to list the benefits of the good old photo book:

It’s archival. Nothing digital is archival. Even some photographic prints are not archival. But a well-made book will last for as long as anyone could possibly care about your photos and then some … It tells a better story. Instead of relying on fleeting metadata, in a book, you can actually write about what’s going on in the picture … A book doesn’t care if you took your photos with a phone or a DSLR. The resolution of the photo need only be enough for the size you’d like it printed in the book.

Photo books also solve our problem of backing up the keepers, as they’re the ones that make the cut into the photo book.

There are several companies that let you make great-looking, inexpensive photo books. A handful:

Also, books aren’t going to crash, go out of business, run out of battery life, or otherwise be inaccessible. CJ’s final point is probably my favorite: “Fun. It’s more fun holding a book of your own art, than opening a database. That should be enough reason alone.”

Printing books isn’t for everyone, but it’s the organized and archival solution that we have found works for us. I also like handing someone a book of pictures instead of seating them in front of my computer to share in our experiences.

19 Comments for “A simple solution to digital photo management”

  1. posted by Eira on

    I am a professional archivist, and statements such as “Nothing digital is archival” are profoundly misleading, not reflective of the current state of digital preservation, and printing books are not the solution for everything.

    The archival community has developed a significant number of resources on Personal Digital Archiving. A good place to start is here: http://digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/

  2. posted by Pat on

    Yes, I too believe that books are the best solution to be able to enjoy your pictures. I am in the process of combining digital photos from 3 computers, 2 iphones, an ipad, and 3 cameras into one location. I have chosen Snapfish to upload everything to, then I will sort and eliminate duplicates/bad shots etc. After the sorting is done I will be printing all the pictures, by group, to be able to write details on the backs of all the pictures. I use photo boxes to store these loose photos neatly. Then I will also make photo books, to put out in the living room, of the main “significant ” shots. Periodically I will download all the pics to CD or flash drive to store in our lockbox as well. I will also be scheduling regular uploads to keep up in the future (maybe Spring/Fall or New Years day…)

  3. posted by Becky on

    So you deleted the photos off your computer that had the original EXIF data? I just organize my photos in Windows folders. They also back up to G+ at a lower resolution, and my whole computer is backed using Crash Plan. I can’t imagine deleting the originals though.

    I’d rather take a lot of photos and delete them later than realize I don’t like the few I took. Especially when someone else is taking the photos, because I feel no one I hand my camera to knows how to take a decent picture.

    Books take a lot of time. I have yet to make one for my wedding. But showing other people your story isn’t the only reason I take pictures. I just upload them to facebook so they can look if they want. But I want digital copies of all my pictures so I can easily find them, edit, share, etc, as needed. I am often pulling up old photos and there’s nothing like either going to the folder for that event or place, using Picasa to find a specific person, or just searching by date taken in Windows.

  4. posted by Harry on

    I have nothing to say about managing digital archives but you have my full sympathy about the data loss. That’s a lot of time investment gone.

  5. posted by Claire on

    I agree with Becky. I just store my digital pictures in “My Pictures” under “My Computer” and have one folder for every month that I took pictures. So the folders are named “2013-1”, “2013-4”, or whenever the photos were taken. Naming them with the year first lets you see your folders by date range when sorted by folder name. Since you can see a preview of what’s in each folder (in certain Windows views), you get a decent idea of what pics are in the folder even without descriptions on the folder name.

    Yeah, I have less & less faith in ANY online storage site. I’d much rather back up my computer myself on an external hard drive than deal with a site that may just decide to up & leave with my bookmarks, tags, or other personal info on it (I’m talking to YOU, Google Reader!).

  6. posted by Cheryl on

    I love photo books! Starting using Shutterfly about 4 yrs ago to make a wedding photo book for my brother and I got hooked. Even the 8″x8″ format tells a great story and they look so much nicer than huge photo albums on the bookshelf. I make one for any traveling/trips we do and often do a miscellaneous one for the year.

  7. posted by Chuck Claunch on

    I disagree with the premise that archiving by printing books is either easier or “more archival”. I use Google Drive as my main backup source for photos. I copy them from my camera, use an application that renames them via the date taken EXIF tag, then copy them to the Google Drive folder, where they automatically sync. Then, a couple times per year I copy the whole shebang to a bluray disc which then gets stored in a fire safe, and another copy goes to a family member’s fire safe (in another city). If blurays start going by the wayside as a format, I’ll save the data to another format, no big deal at all.

    I couldn’t imagine having to create & order a Shutterfly book every time I wanted to keep photos. I also couldn’t imagine storing them all, not to mention you’re one disaster away from losing them all.

    It doesn’t terribly surprise me that a professional photographer recommends buying prints. That’s where they make a lot of money.

  8. posted by Sara on

    I’ve started making “family yearbooks.” It takes a few hours at the end of the year, but it is time spent pleasantly. I can put the photos from the year (at the very least, the highlights) and add brief captions quickly. I’ve used Blurb, Shutterfly & Snapfish and been happy with them. The spine is marked with “Family Yearbook 2012” etc. I only order one copy, but I share the link with my MIL and she orders a copy as well. It’s an easy way to put them together and have a record of the year. Smaller books for special events are pretty easy to do as well. The Family Yearbook is not an original idea–I saw it online–but it’s a good one, I think.

    As far as the dreaded mass of digital files: I backup digital photos on a 1TB drive, and in Flickr, where I have private groups to share photos with family and friends. Sometimes I can’t tag everything, but at the very least I tag them with a month & year. Not a perfect solution, but better than nothing.

  9. posted by Melissa on

    Like Eira, I am a professional archivist. I would add to her comment, with which I agree completely, that the metadata embedded in the digital photograph is lost when the digital copy is lost, and that that metadata is vital.

    The most “archival” way to go about digital preservation is to maintain the metadata, make sure you’re not using proprietary formats, keep two copies at a minimum, keep those two copies in different places, and do not trust cloud storage (certainly not as your only storage method).

    As it stands, the original post is misleading.

  10. posted by Ray on

    I agree with the professional archivists. I am a photographer, records manager and an archivist. When I pull my content down from a photo site I test the application to see if the exif data is coming with the photo. If you do not get the exif metadata you have the wrong application.

    As far as preservation of digital content there are plenty of standards and methodologies out there. Digital content, like any media, can be archival. My original images, both RAW and JPG are stored in multiple drives and media in multiple locations. Every six months I purchase a drive and move my 500,000+ images making sure that bit-parity checks are done and all the content is moved forward. Should one drive fail, and they do, there are backups of backups. A good migration strategy with metadata is essential. I include descriptions in PDF-A and ASCII text with folders giving general descriptions of the location and content. I use Flickr as an easy index and a back-up source for my better content. I also recommend a cloud storage provider in addition to whatever you do locally. Remember to get some geographical spread on your content. Friends can help with this. Swap out a drive every few months with your friends.

  11. posted by Pat Reble on

    Another point to consider is the future audience for photos. Photos become less and less relevant, whether digital or printed, without context. I always nagged my late parents to write on the back of photos what they were about. They didn’t. So many of those shots are now meaningless. Even with some of my own early photos I struggle to recall names and dates. People DO forget, and that’s what turns formerly magic moments into so much clutter.

  12. posted by CJ Chilvers on

    No digital format has been around long enough to be proven archival. Paper has. Film has. Books have.

    “There is no digital archival master format or process with longevity characteristics equivalent to that of film.” http://www.digitalpreservation.....ampas.html

    Books are unlimited when it comes adding context, which is why I believe they are the best option for me.

  13. posted by Meg on

    I recommend using a bindery. Ask your local college where they get graduate dissertations bound. The quality is usually superb.
    This is also a good source if you are getting anything done as a gift – family Bible rebound, wedding gift of childhood pictures, etc.
    May I mention the one we use, if I have no connection, don’t get special favors, etc. Just keep using them because the work is so good.
    http://wertbookbinding.com/

  14. posted by Patty on

    I believe both… Digital archives and books. I help people preserve their photos and stories in hardbound, library quality books. Photos without stories are memories lost. I would have loved not only photos from my grandparents…. But the stories to go with them. But I also want the digital photos so I can use them in other projects. I believe we just need to be diligent about sorting and keeping the best photos.

  15. posted by alfora on

    Please don’t confuse the selection and the presentation of good pictures with photo management and backups.

    Photo books are superb if you want to present your pictures to a small audience or if you want to think back to that great holiday a few years ago. But they don’t release you from makeing backups of your original photos! You also should think about a catastrophic event where you lose your photo books. I am not talking about your house burning down but your neighbour’s toddler taking a good bite out of the book’s corner and dropping it into the sewer, for example.

    Back to the point. You say you’ll take your kids to the park and shoot 150 pictures in less than three hours. This is fine. Just weed out the bad stuff and select the keepers. DELETE the bad pictures (less stuff to backup is good). Just make sure that the pictures you want to keep stay on your hard disk and implement a backup strategy.

    In a second step you have to decide which pictures should be printed, used as a screensaver, hung on the wall as a poster, or printed in a photo book. But please note that you never delete the original images after you’ve printed them!

    You backup strategy must take into account the “importance” of the pictures. IF you’ve used some pictures for a book these images are more important than the rest of your pictures. The photo book is NOT the backup of the pictures. The photo book is the original and one and only copy. You can never get your original pictures back FROM the photo book and you can never create another copy of that book if you don’t backup the data that was used in that process.

  16. posted by Mat on

    This is some of the worst advice I’ve ever seen on this website.

    First, digital is indeed an archival format. You can fit a terabyte or two into your pocket, and that’s just today, 2014. Image .jpg files aren’t great, but most are shooting with .jpg as the output file. Maybe it’s not a .raw, but that’s another discussion since 90% of images produced by cameras are, in fact, formats not worthy of changing for archival purposes.

    In 100 years from now, people will be able to open .jpg file.

    As for a book, if you are getting a book to not store photos, you are missing the point. A book is a DERIVATIVE WORK. It’s great for what it is, but just the thought of it makes me think “temporary”.

    Finally, for taking fewer pictures, that’s like saying “don’t use the technology – pencil in a sketchbook was good enough in the 18th century, try that”. No. Take pictures, and take lots of them. “Developing” them means getting rid of bad, mediocre, and duplicate shots. Not doing that is clutter, but the process of getting good shots means that instead of lots of film (like pros would use), we have the benefit of simply picking and choosing.

    If after being picky and choosy we leave clutter, that’s your problem. Solve that; don’t encourage bad advise after a bad experience. Your service stripping EXIF was terrible, but that’s on you. You should have had the originals. The “negatives”, if you will. With those in hand, you’d have been fine. Instead, you were saving prints and tossed the “negatives”, and you wonder why the analogy haunts you.

    Again, books are derivative works of digital photography. They are a physical arrangement that is a compilation, rather than traditional prints. Books are not some magical backup medium that’s back-to-the-future. Please don’t mischaracterize this, and learn from the other, more salient comments above.

  17. posted by mj on

    A book is only as durable as its printing processes and substrates…

    But the archival debate aside, it is a GREAT way to enjoy a selection of best images from a big digital repository. I have a family member who sends a lot of photos of her children. I made a ‘yearbook’ of my favourites and got two copies made, one for her one for me. It’s a way of adding value to the images – that old-fashioned enjoyment of browsing the photo album is still enjoyable… Then I can file the digital versions away and not feel worried that I should be looking through them.

  18. posted by Pavan LeMay on

    I believe the best and most effective way to preserve memories given current technology and real-life experience is to manage your digitals properly AND to make books. Managing properly means staying abreast of current technological options as well as maintaining more than one copy (I recommend 2-3 copies in different locations) of all digital files. The Cloud will someday offer great long-term options, but for now, I recommend Cloud storage to clients for convenience and enjoyment only, but not as a serious long-term backup. The bottom line is technology constantly changes and hardware does fail, but having a proper archiving plan can make managing the digitals stress-free and prepared for whatever comes next in the form of digital options. Meanwhile, an amazing book about trips, annual family history, heritage and other important subjects cannot begin to be compared to digital preservation because it’s like apples and oranges…and I personally want the whole bowl of fruit. A book in hand can be enjoyed anywhere any time and without electricity or any equipment…Can’t beat that. So, my prescription for all clients in the best way to organize and preserve AND ENJOY their memories is a straight-forward easy-to-execute digital archiving plan and hard-copy books!

  19. posted by JE on

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this solves the problem with your photo management. You still have to work your way through those 150 photos after every trip to the park. And those 14000 photos without EXIF is still in a big unsorted pile. You’re not going to put all 14000 shots in a book are you?

    Putting photos in a book is absolutely a great idea, but I don’t see how it solves the main issue you point out, which is the sheer number of photos we take.

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