One Photographer’s Strategy for Image Archiving (Part One of Two)

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Every serious photographer has an archive of some form. Some of those archives become important libraries at the heart of our collective visual culture, holding significant imagery that historians utilize and the public enjoys. Others disappear into obscurity, and with them go potentially important images, never to be seen by the public. As photographers, we want our work to fall into the former category. Most photographers neglect image archiving to the point that most of their work will sadly end up in the latter category. 


Let me walk you through my strategy for organizing and managing my images. It's not a perfect system, but it is solid enough to let me sleep comfortably at night. Also, it is easy enough to manage, so I actually follow through on the necessary steps to keep it in order.

The importance of an image archive seems obvious.  I have reflected on how I look at my own archived content in previous blog posts, including here, here and here.

In this, the first of a two-part blog entry, I will outline the key points I kept in mind when building my image-archiving system. In the second part, I will discuss the technology involved in organizing the archive. This essay primarily covers my more recent digital files, however, I will also talk about my “analog” (film based) images. Film archives are relatively easy to organize, assuming that the photographers keeps their photos in archival storage facilities, and they keep appropriate caption and location information with the images.

As a professional photographer, I need to have an organized archive, so that I can find images years or even decades after the photos have been made.  With digital files, one important factor that enables me to do so is how I name my images. The system would never work if I named them something vague like “dog on beach.” After a couple thousand images with that one name, I would never be able to find anything. So I have developed my own naming method, which I have written about here and here.

Most serious professional photographers I know have a naming method that provides a simple way of giving each image a unique name, thus allowing archived images to be located in a hurry at any given time. My system, for example, is made up of a three step formula: month (two digits), followed by year (two digits), followed by some kind of geographic label. For example, "1207India" would be the name for images made in December of 2007 in India. The last four digits are the numbers assigned by the camera, so a typical file name would be "1207India1234.JPG." I tend to go to the same place every year, at the same time of year, so for me, the season is more important, thus the month is first, but that is specific to how I work.

Wedding photographers often name their files with a prefix like I do, but one that is based on the couple’s name.  Assignment photographers may use the client’s name, the subject matter, the location or the name of the publication. The important thing is to come up with a structure that works for you—then stick with it. 

Another common topic that comes up in any discussion of archiving is off-site backup. It simply means storing a copy of your files in a place other than your house or studio. This is in case disaster strikes and all of your work is damaged or destroyed.  Many photographers without off-site backup have fallen victim to such disasters. One of the more famous occurrences was when long time Life magazine photographer Peter Stackpole lost his home, along with 20 years' worth of negatives, in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. 

I personally try to address this concern by keeping my top five thousand slides and negatives in a large safe deposit box in a nearby bank. I have worked my way up the hierarchy of safety deposit box sizes, from medium to the much-coveted absolute largest, over the last decade. I also keep a large one-terabyte HD in that same safety deposit box. That backs up all of the important digital files, both images and documents. Even if disaster did strike, one copy of each would survive.

I must add, though, that even a safe deposit box for off-site backup is not foolproof. The work of the late photographer Jacques Lowe, which included more than forty thousand negatives of President John F. Kennedy and his family, was lost in the attacks of September 11, 2001. He had wisely stored his precious archive in the fireproof vault at the J.P. Morgan/Chase Bank in New York’s World Trade Center, only to have it all destroyed on that horrible day.

Lowe’s experience reminds us that one of the unfortunate aspects of analog (film) is that it is in some ways more vulnerable to being lost forever.  At least with digital, the many different copies that I have of my images are stored in enough different formats and places that even if the unimaginable happened, some copies of my work would probably survive.

What I liked about film storage was that when I was using slides, I routinely captioned my slides directly on the mount. The name became permanantly attached to the image, including caption, location and copyright notice. In the digital age, when users routinely strip metadata from files, wouldn’t it be nice to know that the important information is pretty much fixed onto the image?

The only way to realistically store a lifetime’s worth of film in one safe deposit box is to include only the very best images. This requires an honest assessment of what to keep and what to discard. Many photographers get stuck at this point. They are overwhelmed by the volume of material they have and they throw their hands up in resignation. This is why I make sure that when I edit I throw away, discard, vaporize, and weed out weak photos. Yes, there is a small risk that I might want one of those images later. It is a small chance, but a chance, nonetheless. The odds are much higher that I will suffer from a disorganized archive than I will from discarding an image I may need later.

With that in mind, my archival workflow starts during a shoot. I delete all images that are obviously trash and I will repeat the process when I upload the remainder onto my computer. Only then do I begin to archive. Out of around ten thousand photographs made during a typical month on the road, about a thousand or less will end up being archived, using the technology I will describe in part two of this blog entry.

Those select few that make the cut will end up in an archiving system that I know will work when necessary, and will allow me to find images when needed. And that fact lets me sleep well at night.

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Can't wait for part 2! Thanks for sharing!

Dealing solely with digital images as an amateur, I rename all my images by the year/month/day/time as read from the file's EXIF data. (There's a great free program for the Mac called EXIFrenamer which will do this as a batch operation upon inserting a data card to a reader.) A typical file will look like "20101028_18-52-18.rw2"

I then depend on software (Aperture originally, now Lightroom) for keywording and folder management. If I have a specific project I create virtual folders for them in that software. Good keywording makes for easy searching, and if there's something I didn't keyword right I can still find it pretty easily by searching within a date-range.

Backups are regularly cloned external drives which sit in a closet when not doing backups (to protect against electrical spikes), and my favorite photos get uploaded to the cloud. In case of a fire or theft it won't save everything, but this is good enough for my non-professional needs.

Dear Pauline:

Glad you liked the first one. Second one will be up ina couple weeks...

Dear Parachute:

Good to read you have a system in place. That is half the battle.

I enjoyed this post.  Image archiving and naming is a part of the digital workflow that needs a plan and discipline.  Thank you for sharing your routine.

By the way -- I really like the images that accompany this entry, particularly the first one.

Thank you.  This reminds me again that I need to archive my work. :)

I rarely if ever change the names.  I let lightroom pull and write it out as photography/YYYY/YYYY-MM-DD/IMG_xxxx.dng.  I tend to value the more meta data.   The ability in lightroom to do nested tags is a god sent.  I can tag a shot as "Forestville State Park" and it gains "Forestville", "Minnesota", "USA", etc automatically.

And by using the DNG I can ensure the metadata is always fushed to the file itself so I can send the DNG to someone else I'm working with and all the associated information is with it (wish Lightroom would correctly support GPS tagging so that would be in there as well *sigh*).

I've just never been a big fan of trying to rename files or create special directory names based on event names.  Unless the names are long and unwielding they are just as meaningless as labeling them all qwerty001, qwerty02, etc.  Because they never really truely releave what the images are about (wedding, florida, USA, Johnsons, January, 2010, ... Which is more meaningful? What does one pick a different one depending on the event? Are you going to remember one of the six words more than another when you are going.. "crap I knew I shot that.. It was of a cute five year old in a pink and red jumper... Where was I?").

But that is me, and how I operate.  Each person has their own backroom process that works well for them.

If you are serious about archiving, look at what museums do; I am a natural history museum professional. We use serial numbers from 1 to n, and the data are stored in a database with multiple fields. I use the same approach for my ~28,000 images, some 35 mm slides, some 4x5" chromes, some digital assets, that are just numbered from 1-n. With a database, it is much easier to find images that correspond to multiple keywords.

Consider a lizard in Europe, but I don't recall whether it was in France or Italy, or which year. I search in the database for Class Reptilia under classification, and in geography, I enter Europe for continent (or give a lat/long bracket in those fields), and voila, the list pops up. The associate serial numbers guide me to the right place, whether hard-copy or digital assets are located. The associated thumbnails help me visually to narrow down my search.

Using some cryptic file-naming scheme is not going to work in the long run, because you cannot include enough information in those few characters, and complex searches are impossible. The database approach is clearly superior. There are canned photo-dbs out there, but I don't like any of them, as they are not taylored to my requirements. I have constructed my own from off-the shelf software (FileMaker).  The one thing you have to do, is think which fields you need for your purpose. If the db becomes obsolete, export the data as tab delimited file, and import it into the new software. And, print out a hard-copy index by number as the ultimate back-up. 

I recall the day many years ago, when a colleague asked me what image of pelagic animals I had. Searched database for habitat = pelagic, and some images popped up. There was an image of a makrel, that I did not remember in the least. Looked at the slide and it clearly had the serial number in my hand-writing on it. At the time I had about 3000 images. Now with over nine times as many, I know that I don't remember everything, and the database is my auxiliary brain.