Digital Imaging: Safeguarding Your Photo Collection

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By Hans Weichselbaum www.digital-image.co.nz

Have you ever desperately looked for a photo you needed now? And ‘now’ usually means right now.

There are two issues here. First, we need to store our images safely. Whole image libraries have been wiped out through a single hardware failure or user error. If your images only live on your hard drive and nowhere else, you are playing Russian roulette with your photo collection.

Secondly, we have the issue of data management. As your collection grows it needs organising and cataloguing. What’s the use of having tens of thousands of images, even if they are stored safely, when you don’t know where to find the right image, when you don’t even know what images you have in your collection?

A whole software industry has grown around the topic of Digital Asset Management (DAM). There are dozens of programs designed for organising and cataloguing your image, audio and video file collection.

In Case of an Emergency

Finding yourself with a crashed hard drive certainly is an adrenaline-producing experience. It is annoying enough if you have a recent backup – if not, then rule number one is not to panic. Switch to another computer and calmly look at your options. There are data recovery specialist firms which you can google, but they are not cheap.

One option which I can recommend from personal experience (yes, it has happened to me as well) is to download a program called ‘Recover My Files’. You run it and it can detect as well as show you all the files that can be recovered. If you want to go ahead and retrieve the lost data, you need to purchase an activation key.

Depending on circumstances, you can recover files even after emptying the Recycle Bin, from accidental formatting, hard disk crashes, partitioning errors and corrupt camera cards.

About Archiving and Backups

The question of being able to physically retrieve an image was never an issue when using film and prints. Both media will always be readable with a scanner. Storing information in digital form brings up new challenges. Are our TIFF, JPEG, and camera RAW files going to be readable in 20 or 50 years’ time? This used to be a major concern a decade or two ago, but today we find all common image formats so well entrenched and widely used that there will be ample warning and time to migrate to another format if this should ever become necessary.

Secondly, we used to worry a lot about the storage medium and its durability. Remember floppy disks? And rivers of ink have been spent on the longevity of optical media (CDs and DVDs). Again, these headaches have faded since we mainly use hard drives today, which are pretty robust and reliable. In the near future these are going to be replaced by the even more durable solid state drives (SSDs).

But this convenience must not make us complacent. Every hard drive is going to fail one day. There is a long list of other possible disasters waiting to happen: dropping your laptop, loss through theft, a stroll through a magnetic field, overheating, a power surge, fire or flood damage – and let’s not forget computer viruses. Or it might be simple wear and tear that will make your data inaccessible one day.

Today, with affordable external hard drives, there is no excuse for not having a duplicate of your irreplaceable photo collection. Ideally you should have a third copy stored safely at a different location. Particularly handy are the compact, light-weight, USB-powered devices. You simply plug them in without any software installation and they work on any computer. For security reasons you can password protect your files. You can get external hard drives up to around 8 TBytes, but the USB-powered ones are currently limited to 2 TBytes. Another popular option today is to make use of Cloud storage.

Choosing your DAM Software

That leaves us now with the other problem of having a proper data management system. Having gone through half a dozen DAM (Digital Asset Management) programs over the last 20 years, my biggest worry was always the lifetime of the software. It is not an issue if you are happy with a simple image browser, but having gone through the pains of creating a catalogue of all your images with hierarchical keyword structure, star-ratings, captions, geotagging, etc., you certainly want to be able to migrate your existing catalogue to your new software.

One option is to choose software that ensures metadata is written into the image files, but that’s not to everybody’s liking either. Or you might opt for a database that you expect to be around for a very long time. Adobe Photoshop comes to mind, with a history going back all the way to 1990. That’s about as long as you can look back in time when it comes to digital imaging. Adobe’s Lightroom is a relative newcomer (2007) but it was specifically designed for the photographer. Lightroom’s popularity among photographers, the regular upgrades and its integration with Photoshop makes it a very attractive option for anybody looking for a reliable data management program with a solid future to entrust their photo collection.

Then there is Adobe’s Bridge. It started out as a humble file browser as part of Photoshop 7 but is now an independent application and you need to download it separately if you migrated to the Adobe CC suite. One of the advantages of Bridge, in comparison to Lightroom, is that you can see all the files you have in a folder: on top of the common image file formats, Bridge also displays GIF, PDFs, Illustrator files, even text files and a dozen of other file formats. In short, you use Bridge as a file browser and you don’t need to create a database to see your files. Lightroom, on the other hand, is restricted to a handful of image formats, but it comes with all the bells and whistles of relational database.

In the next issue we’ll look at the process of quickly finding any particular image in your collection.

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