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

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In this second part of a two-part blog entry, I will be talking about the technological strategies I use when I organize my image archive. In the first segment, I explored the thinking points I had in mind when I was first organizing my archive. One important point I tried to make was that image archiving is one area of photography where you should never let the perfect get in the way of the good.



Some kind of system, mine or any other, is so much better than no system at all, that you really have to come away from reading this pair of entries with a committment to creating and using some kind of archiving system.

Let me backtrack to the start of my archiving process, which is, of course, creating the images. When I am out photographing, I use relatively small memory cards, usually 2 or 4 GB, but no bigger. I do not want to have all the images from one shoot on a single, massive 32GB memory card, in case something goes wrong. In the past I have crashed CF cards, I have bent SD cards making them unreadable, and I have misplaced all types of cards. So if I spread the images out among many cards, the chances of complete disaster are reduced (but never fully eliminated).

Sometimes I carry a laptop with me, and external hard drives to which I can back up my digital images. More often I do not have a laptop with me, so instead I use portable multimedia storage devices, sometimes called photo wallets. These are, in essence, battery-powered hard drives, with memory-card readers built right in. These enable me to transfer images from the memory cards to the hard drives without a computer. You can read more about the particular ones that I use, made by a company called Wolverine

I carry two of those, for double back up, since everything in digital storage is built around always having two (or more) copies. The Epson P-6000 multimedia photo viewer is probably the best known example of this same technology. I stay away from that gear because they are notably more expensive, and they (at least the older models) will download—but not allow me to view—my Olympus RAW files. I like to be able to see what I am doing, even if the screen is not that good for editing, etc. Once I have the exact same set of files backed up in two places, then I format my memory cards and reuse them. 

Once I am back home, I transfer the files from the portable multimedia storage device onto my desktop computer. Then I rename them using my naming convention, which I highlighted in the first part of this blog entry. Programs like Bridge, Photoshop, Lightroom and a host of others enable you to rename files in bulk, with a minimal amount of effort.

Next, I make DNG versions of the same files. DNG refers to Adobe’s digital negative format, which Adobe created hoping it would become a universal RAW format. The reason I make (and archive) the DNGs along with my original RAW files is because having the same image in two formats doubles the chances that the files will be readable twenty or fifty years down the road. An archive, after all, is for the next generation to go in to, in order to access its contents. Since a universal RAW format does not yet exist, and camera manufacturers come and go, I side with caution and archive two versions of the RAW files. These sets of RAW files, along with the DNGs, are backed up on hard drives on my desktop. The two hard drives that store my work mirror each other and are—when I am diligent—updated weekly.

I currently have twelve HDs on my desktop. One pair backs up my laptop computer. One pair backs up my desktop computer. One pair backs up my stock images that have already been through my system and are out with the various photo agencies that license my images. One pair backs up the stock photography that is still in the middle that syndication system. One pair backs up the multi-media/video work which I am doing more of these days. Those files are so big, that I see another set of HDs in my future...

The next thing I do is to back up the DNGs and the RAWs on DVDs. I use special DVDs that are made with gold foil, rather than the vegetable-based dye that is used on conventional DVDs. Conventional DVDs have an archival life of twenty years or so, compared to Gold Archival-Grade DVDs that, if stored properly, are supposed to be archival for 100 years or more. Again, I have to make two copies of everything and keep those DVDs in special double-spindle DVD jewel cases which are made to hold two DVDs in one case. 

Two things about the Gold Archival-Grade DVDs:

1)    Yes, I am aware that this is a more complex, and potentially redundant process, but I prefer to have too many copies of my files rather than too few. The gold-foil DVDs are put into my archive and largely left untouched. The work that I do on those RAW files that are in use within my photography business—those going through my stock photography dissemination system—are also backed up on conventional hard drives.

2)    This is one of those rare technologies where I have a strong brand preference, which is based on using DVDs made by all the three of the biggest manufacturers of Gold Archival-Grade DVDs. My experience has shown me that the disks by Verbatim and Mitsui (now MAM-A), are the most reliable, with a failure rate of about 5% or less!

So the RAW files, as they come out of the camera are stored largely to be left alone on DVDs. They also exist, and are more regularly accessed, on conventional HDs. About once a month (more often, if I am diligent,) I back up all the HDs on my desk onto the one terabyte HD stored in the bank safe deposit box. Every couple of weeks (more often if I am diligent) I copy the complete contents, files, programs, settings, etc., to the paired HDs that back up my respective desktop and laptop computers. The day-to-day back up is performed by Apple’s Time Machine program. I am NOT depending on Time Machine for long term back up. I just use it occasionally to go back to something I did a few days earlier.

I prefer to have all of my backups (those on HDs and DVDs) as simple, direct backups of the uncompressed digital information. I fear that if I have my files compressed in some way through too many different types of proprietary software, and the manufacturer of that system goes out of business, I am stuck. Similarly, though, I read a lot about RAID systems, and more recently, the DROBO, those are not for me. Part of what I like about my system is having developed it and refined it, I know it works perfectly for me.

That is my archiving strategy. Is it overkill? Maybe. Is it what you should use? Probably not! Can you find a hundred other approaches you could consider when planning your archiving strategy? Absolutely!   Should you research other systems and then devise your own? Certainly! 

My system is not perfect! It does not take into account all contingencies! Is what I use (and what I hope you will set up) something that is easy to update regularly? Absolutely! Is what I am using the best possible system that I could set up within all the constraints that I have to work under? That is the one thing that I am completely certain of!

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Having once used multiple individual hard drives for backup like yourself, and then consolidated that into a RAID solution, I can definitely say it's worthwhile. All my data is automatically mirrored on multiple drives, so that if one is lost, the system can still be rebuilt. It removes the possibility of accidentally skipping files or having them be corrupted during a manual copy-paste process involved in using standalone drives (which I had happen countless ***** before implementing RAID!). What's more, if you get a RAID-capable NAS device by a company like QNAP, you can set up remote file syndication. For me, I use this to backup all my photos, etc to a remote server overseas. Combine this with local offsite storage such as in a (bank) vault, and you have ample redundancy.

Your point on proprietary filetypes and software is interesting. I hadn't really thought about that before from a long term (~50-100 years time) perspective. Definitely something to keep in mind!

Can you touch on why you don't backup your files with some type of online/cloud service? That would seem to me to be easier when traveling. Granted, I haven't done any of this yet. I'm searching for the solution as well. Thanks for the blog about the MacBook Air. I had been eyeing it for a while. I am glad to know its limitations, but I think I can live with that. I am no pro, so I will probably just back my cards up to the computer and some other form, then when I get home go through them on the Mini Mac.