Dear George…

by George on February 18, 2013


Photographs © George A. Jardine

Sadly, I receive an e-mail something like this at least once a week. Sometimes as often as once a day. This one came in this morning:

Dear George,
I recently purchased your Lightroom Catalog Management videos. Alas, I have done every possible wrong scenario you described setting up my Lightroom Catalog on my C: drive. I currently have so many copies of the same photograph in various locations on the C: drive and the external J: drive I don’t know if I will ever be able to sort it all out.

I’ve already written a bit about how we all get into this situation, but this e-mail reminded me that it’s more than just the problem of trying to organize a large digital photo library by subject. That’s a sleeper that has not yet received nearly enough attention. Of course I don’t try to find my pictures by remembering the date they were shot!, but I digress. It’s actually more about our approach to dealing with digital files in general.

I think that basic approach can be summarized by saying, you make multiple copies of your important files, because you can! Of course working on computers reinforces that idea that you ‘make a copy, so that you have a backup.

Indeed, many of the so-called pundits in the space take it one step further, by basically saying your best backup strategy is to have “lots of copies.” I would call that pretty sloppy thinking, but in the end, it’s more or less true. Having said that, I do feel that the heart of most of our organizational problems is closely related—falling into the trap of simply relying on having multiple copies… because after all, they’re all identical, right?

Iron Worker

And this is especially true, if you try to closely follow the organize-by-subject strategy. If you put pictures of your wife into one folder that is named with her name, and you put pictures from your travels to Croatia into a folder named Croatia, where will you put photos of her, the next time she travels to Croatia with you?

This is the fundamental problem that databases solved quite a while ago. But still, for most non-technical people the idea that precisely where a digital photo lives is completely irrelevant, is just a bit hard to wrap your head around. We’re so completely wreaked by relying on file and folder icons, that we’ve surrendered to it, and want to forever organize our photos by subject. It’s in our bones.

My solution to this problem grew out of thinking a bit about the differences between digital libraries, and film libraries. For those of us who still have film libraries, you know that you tucked those precious originals into poly-sleeves, and stored them away very carefully. Because you had to. There was always only one original.

Then when finally sitting down to think about how I wanted to organize my digital library moving forward, I started to see the problem from a very different point of view. All of a sudden, it started to seem incredibly obvious that all I needed to do was to begin treating my digital photos the same as I treated my film originals. In terms of duplicates and backups, anyway. The idea is incredibly simple, and just requires that you tell yourself to start thinking of one device (or one set of devices…), as your “originals.

Ascor Sun Tube

Of course it’s a silly idea. The real originals were on the camera card, and were erased long ago. But setting aside one hard drive or RAID device, and putting a big label on the outside of the case that says “Masters,” or “Originals,”—whatever it takes to identify that one device as your master library—is the place to start. I call mine, “Photo Library Working,” because that says to me, ‘this is the one place you should always to go when you are correcting color, cropping, making exports, or whatever. This is THE… Photo Library. The originals.

And then I have at least two more identical devices, labeled “Photo Library Backup,” and “Photo Library Archive.” I always do my organizational work and color correction on the “Working” drive, and daily, incremental backups get pushed to the “Backup” and “Archive” drives.

Of course there is nothing magical about anointing one special device as the “master”. But it does establish the idea that you need to break the habit of treating digital files as if each copy has the same value. It’s just a mental discipline to force yourself to always work in one place. After that, the rest is easy. Incremental backups to devices you keep off-site or whatever, become even more reassuring as an archive. If disaster strikes, you now have an exact mirror of your Working library, that you can mount up and be back up and running in just seconds. No tape, no decompressing archives, no muss, no fuss. No worrying that you might have lost some randomly placed file.

So if the prospect of organizing a completely neglected pile of digital photos seems impossible, I would suggest one simple starting point: buy a new drive, copy everything over to it, and start there. Bless it as the one, then start hammering it into shape. And back it up once in a while. Trust me. It will be worth the effort.

Sure, I still spend time going back and adding new scans of legacy material once in a while (see above…), and I’m also constantly tweaking raw photos from my travels. But it all happens in one place. And so when it comes to adding new photos to my library, or searching for something that a client needs, it all happens very quickly. I can put my hands on any version of any photo I’ve ever worked on, in seconds.

The San Rafael Swell

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Roger Walton February 22, 2013 at 3:13 AM

A great rationale George.

Whenever I introduce people to Lightroom getting them to abandon the old idea of putting things in folders by subject is one of the hardest things to do.

I wonder if it’s easier for people who never used film?

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