Starting with planning and a method to your archiving can pay off dividends in the future, literally.

We spend a lot of time talking about cameras around DPReview, but gear is just half the equation. To get the most out of our image making, we need to put our images to work for us. Having a good method for managing your files will help ensure your treasures are here for years to come, and it’ll make it easier to access them when you need them.

One Thing: Advice, tips and tricks from the DPReview editors

About this series:
Our team cuts through the noise to share the things that made the biggest impact on our work and what lessons you can bring into your own work.

Read the entire series here.

In Part One we looked at how to better organize our cameras, lenses, cables, accessories and other gear. Today we turn our gaze toward establishing a system for organizing your digital assets in way that makes them easier to find and access today and tomorrow, from anywhere at any time.

I learned these lessons from my experiences in the professional space, where my income depended on assignment work, archival sales and the ability to be quickly responsive to editors and clients when they call.

When being organized pays off

I’ve been using Photo Mechanic since about 2004. The software helps me quickly edit, enter metadata, color-code, organize and move files to editors and clients. When I started out, Lightroom and Capture One weren’t on the scene, so in the absence of ‘libraries’ I came up with my own system.

On more than one occasion I’ve gotten a call from someone looking to license one of my images on deadline. I’m lucky if I have until the morning; usually it’s a matter of minutes, not days. If I don’t know where my stuff is I’m in trouble.

A few months ago I was contacted by a London-based magazine that wished to license a portrait I had created years earlier of Rick Riordan at his home. I had been on assignment for the UK Guardian to spend the day with Riordan upon the eve of the first movie release of the Percy Jackson series.

Only two of my images got published at the time of the job, but I had also made dozens of portraits and documentary images that ended up as outtakes. Thanks to my careful archiving of my work, over the years I have been able to make multiple sales to other publications of this work.

I had shot the assignment nearly a decade ago, but thanks to being organized I was able to get a contact sheet to the editor quickly for an edit.

That’s what happened a few months ago. An editor working on a story about Riordan and plans for a new Percy Jackson TV series for Disney+ was curious if I had any outtakes. At this point I had shot the assignment nearly a decade ago, but thanks to being organized I was able to get a contact sheet to the editor quickly for an edit. They were able to pick out something they liked and I was able to make their deadline.

Not only was I able to quickly find the images, but with an organized approach to file archiving, I also knew exactly where to look for the high-resolution versions of the files that they needed.

Metadata is king

At a bare minimum, set the date in your camera before using it. If your camera allows for it, also set up location and copyright info. The more metadata you add, the easier you’ll make it for your future self to double-check information about images.

If you talk to some professionals, they may tell you that a photo must be able to stand on its own and it’s a poor photo that needs a caption to tell you the story. I’m here to say, outside of a few cases, this advice is bull****. When a client asks you for an image, they also want a lot of hard information about what’s in it.

It’s good practice to get into the habit of filling out metadata on all your images as soon as possible. Think like a historian or a journalist and include the who, what, where, when, why and any other key information that you think you may need in the future.

In my caption fields I make it a point to write Associated Press style captions: first sentence is straightforward details on who or what is in the photo, second sentence is the context and ‘why’ of the event. I also sometimes include quotes from people I interviewed along with their phone number and e-mail.

This level of detail helps me years down the road when I need to remember the details of an assignment, need to be confident that what I think is in the photo is actually in the photo or want to follow up with a source long after the fact.

And an added bonus – the more information I enter, the more keywords I’ve made available for my future searching.

File structure you can explain to a five-year-old

Beyond building a way to save your data and structure your file architecture, being able to explain it to others may save you when time is of the essence.

Whether you use an off-the-shelf solution like Lightroom libraries, pay for a service like PhotoShelter or came up with your own solution that pre-dates these tools and now you’re in too deep or are too stubborn to adapt (not that I would know anything about that), the key to it all is to have a system that works for you and is simple enough that you can talk someone else through it when you can’t be in the room.

You need a system you can explain to someone else in another language.

You need a system you can explain to someone else in another language over a bad phone connection. I’m being a little absurdly conspicuous with this notion, but I’m doing it to make a key point. There will be times you don’t have online access, are away from home, or for whatever reason need someone else to access your remote backups, and you may need to have them do it quick. Unless you have a full-time assistant that intimately knows how you’ve set up your archive, you’ll have to be able to explain to someone else how to find a file – the right version of it – access its metadata and send the file to you or someone else.

I’ll share a real-world example. While I was at Newsweek I had hired a photographer to go to Egypt for an assignment documenting the protests and aftermath of the removal of president Mohamed Morsi in a military coup d’état. While the photographer was away, it just so happened that I needed to access one of their photos from a previous trip of theirs.

I was on deadline, hours away from sending files to the printers and I needed this photo, but the photographer was currently in Egypt shooting for me, and the archive with the file I needed was in another country entirely. On top that, Internet service was intermittent and phone calls were just as unreliable.

It could have been a disaster, but thankfully the photojournalist had a system.

It could have been a disaster, but thankfully the photojournalist had a system and a family member back home who could be quickly walked through how to retrieve the file and send it to me. It took a few ‘explain it like I’m five’ SMS messages with the family member, but it worked and I made deadline.

In my personal work there have also been many times I’ve been away from my files and had to call up someone and direct them over the phone to find my processed and unprocessed images from years (or decades) ago to send to me. This only works because I know exactly where to look even when I’m not in the room.

Be someone others can count on

Being organized allows you to stay in the game.

Hand-in-hand with the practical benefits of being organized is the glow of building a reputation as someone others don’t hesitate to ring. If you want to sell your images or work with others, this can be huge added bonus.

Allow me to peel back the curtain and share something I learned as a director of photography and studio head at multiple publications: the best way to get future work is to show your success with past work.

When an editor calls, they are entering into a partnership.

There are a couple of ways to go about this. You can put together a nice portfolio of your work, cull together clips and references of your work onto a website, or even social media, but the best way is to build trust.

When an editor calls, they are entering into a partnership. In addition to the assignment, which the editor supports with money and advocacy for the work, there a trust-building investment that is happening below the surface. When an editor calls, they are saying they trust you, they are saying they’re investing in you because they are confident you will deliver, and they are telling their bosses at work that they are willing to put their own reputation on the line to support you.

The professional photo world is small. Having a good reputation for doing good work and doing it on deadline goes a long way.

Editors need responsiveness and the full picture. Editors want it fast. Editors want outtakes. Editors want to see high-resolution images. Most of all, editors need a trustworthy partnership.

The professional photo world is small. Having a good reputation for doing good work and doing it on deadline goes a long way. Editors know they can count on you and you know you can make promises you can keep.

Every time a photographer comes through for an editor on deadline, they’re building equity and upping their chances for future work. Here again, a good archival system and being organized helps you come through when supplying past work, and helps set up good habits and organization for future work.

There are no guarantees, but if you can deliver on time and leave editors feeling confident in your ability, they’re more likely to call again.

A quick word about security

I’ve found the cloud is great for moving files and saving data temporarily, but having been burned by data loss from multiple cloud platforms I keep all my most important data offline these days.

If you work with sensitive subjects and need to secure your data, consider taking a couple of steps to slow down bad actors, scammers or government officials from accessing your work without your permission.

Here’s another example. Years ago I was working on a project about Stateless people in the United States and Europe. As part of my reporting I was criss-crossing the US to visit with people living in hiding, often collecting private information that could do them harm if misused. It was crucial that I secured my notes, images and other sensitive documents in order to protect my sources. This is where I come to my next tip. Keep it off the cloud.

Keep it off the cloud.

I may be a special use case (or maybe just super paranoid) but I don’t trust the cloud. I don’t like the idea of my archive going into a black box which I just hope behaves as it’s supposed to behave.

Not everyone has the same security concerns, but there’s a second reason I don’t trust the cloud. I’ve lost my data in the past to cloud solutions, and had platforms compress my files without my knowing.

Remember that trust I mentioned in the last section? Well, cloud solutions from multiple vendors have left me with little trust and I don’t use or recommend them for storage beyond the temporary needs of a few hours or days.

Get organized and live better

In a nutshell: if you’re a pro, get paid. If you’re not a pro, don’t drive your family crazy when you ask them to fetch something.

Don’t let laziness today stop you from making a sale or revisiting images down the road.

My advice is this article has been skewed toward people trying to generate an income from their archive, but the same principles apply to anyone who wants to make their library of images more discoverable by others or even themselves, today and tomorrow.

And don’t just organize your files, make sure they are also backed up with some redundancy as well. A good rule of thumb is to have at least two full backups at all times, with one of them off-site. That way, if one location meets a bad fate, there is at least one backup copy that is safe at another location.

If you only have your file backups saved in one physical location, then you don’t really have backups. One fire, flood, theft or power surge and ‘poof,’ all gone.

And it should go without saying, but a backup is only as good as the effort you put into making sure it is updated and maintained often. Having a backed up set of hard drives at your parents’ home may seem like a solid backup, but if you aren’t spinning them up to make sure they’re up-to-date and still working then they aren’t really reliable backups. Don’t let laziness today keep you from making a sale or revisiting images down the road.

Unfortunately data failures happen, drives do deteriorate over time, and checking in to activate the backup drives and make sure you can access your data is one way you’ll be aware of potential trouble as soon as possible.

Another note that goes hand-in-hand with redundant backups: stay up-to-date with how you are saving your files.

Data storage standards don’t change as often as they once did (I’ve got Zip discs with files that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to access again, but hope springs eternal and I just can’t bring myself to throw them out), but I/O port standards do change over time (I’ve also got old eSATA drives, but even Firewire 400 adapters are becoming harder to come by).

My point is, standards change, interfaces change, even system architectures change over time. Staying updated and on top of technology changes helps ensure your archive is always accessible no matter what format or dongle comes out next.

Bonus principle: it’s okay to save everything*

This may seem counter to everything you’ve learned. We’ve seen many reader comments, online how-tos and even some of our editors say it – the idea that being a digital packrat is wasteful and pointless in the long run.

Why save images you know are bad? Why waste storage space on images you don’t think you’ll need? Get rid of it! Well… yes and no.

That asterisk is the fault of Bill Clinton.

Friends, I stand before you to say, ‘Hi, my name is Shaminder and I’m a digital packrat.’ I have saved virtually everything I have shot (from film to digital) from the mid-’90s to today. Every outtake, every ‘bad’ frame, every sequence of similar images from a burst, even the focus check images that are throwaways from the start. I save everything and have terabytes of images and video files, all carefully catalogued and archived, just in case.

Yes, it’s overkill, but it makes sense for me because of how I work, and this is where the asterisk in the section header comes from. That asterisk is the fault of Bill Clinton.

Photojournalist Dirck Halstead’s image on a 1998 issue of Time magazine.

In 1998 US President Bill Clinton was impeached on charges of attempting to obstruct justice by lying under oath to a federal grand jury about an affair with a 21-year-old unpaid intern.

There was no clear evidence that they knew each other; her working at the White House was not a guarantee that they ever even spoke. Investigators putting their case together, and media publications digging through their archives, found nothing to show that anyone had seen them together. The president denied he knew the intern, but rumors swirled around Washington D.C.

The image that ended up on the cover of Time magazine was only due to photojournalist Dirck Halstead recognizing the intern’s face and becoming convinced he had seen her before.

Halstead had covered the presidential election in 1996 and had thousands of film slides in his archive.

‘I hired a researcher, and she started to go through the piles of slides in the light room.’ Halstead would recall years later. ‘After four days, and more than 5,000 slides, she found ONE image, from a fund-raising event in 1996.’

Five months later, the image ran on Time.

Now, I’m not expecting anything in my archive to change the course of history. But thanks to my system, if it ever has to, I can find it a lot faster than four days.

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