A couple of weeks ago, I returned home after an epic six-month trip through India, Britain, South Africa, and India again. Though I wasn’t shooting every day, I still managed to come back with over 120 GB worth of pictures.
If the digital age has freed us from the boundaries of three-dimensional life, it’s been a chalice poisoned with the curse of data management. The average working photographer—and I’m not talking about guys who can afford their own assistants—probably spends at least an hour hunched over a computer in the digital darkroom for every hour he/she spends out in the field getting pictures.
Keeping on top of all the images you create is half the battle won, so to avoid trauma at the end of a trip of this magnitude, I do my best to keep up with file management along the way. This is easiest if you stick to a system and, for what it’s worth, here’s mine.
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When I’m shooting heavily, I try to download and clear my memory cards every night. Every time I do this, the camera helpfully resets the folder title to “100EOS5D”, so I immediately rename this to reflect the file type and the part of the trip the card has covered—something more usable, such as “RAW Gokarna-Mumbai”. This helps distinguish the original, unworked RAW images (which can only be edited in limited ways) from the TIFFs and JPEGs I will later create for printing and Web display.
So at this point I’ve got an empty memory card ready for the next day’s shoot, and the day’s crop of images on my laptop’s hard drive. But drives are prone to failure, so before sleep kicks in, I burn a copy on to a DVD, and for the sake of easy access and double back-up, make another copy on an external Firewire hard drive. If, for any reason, I can’t back up to both formats, I tag the folders red, and they sit there bugging me until I get around to doing it. Once they’re safely backed up, I delete them from my laptop, freeing up crucial memory, and can rest easy knowing that all those pictures will be waiting for me to sift through when the time comes.
Treasures and trash
Now I’ve got a collection of uncategorized pictures, all with numbers for titles. This isn’t going to help much if I have to deliver a particular picture in a hurry, so on the external drive I split the “RAW Gokarna-Mumbai” folder into individual subjects—“Cows on Beach”, “Gokarna fishermen”, and so on—which helps speed up the search.
Then I have to find the images that will sell. Because opening 11MB RAW files on a battered old laptop is an agonizingly slow process, I recommend using a specialist image browser such as the widely endorsed Photo Mechanic (log on to www.camerabits. com). It’s a killer piece of software that helps you separate the wheat from the chaff by loading contact sheet previews of a whole folder of images at once. It also lets you tag and caption images in batches—a huge time saver.
So what becomes of the dud pictures, which even a seasoned professional will admit to shooting occasionally? The fact is, in a field where meeting deadlines takes precedence over spring-cleaning, there’s never time to go through each of those images in turn and see if it’s worth keeping. That’s why most photographers’ studios now harbour a tower of external drives, growing inexorably towards the ceiling like a magic beanstalk, cluttered with terabytes of photographs—some of them gems, others garbage, most of them never to be seen again.
David Stott is a photographer based in Australia. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org