Often, I need to locate a photograph’s original file, either the actual film strip or the digital camera’s RAW file. With tens of thousands of images, spanning over twenty-five years, it can be quite challenging to organize and group film or digital files. To make my life easier, I use a unique identifier for every roll of film or series of digital images (by “series” I mean photographs made on one day). Back during film days, while on a photo trip, rolls of film were all kept together in a bag which then went to the lab upon returning home. For every box of slides or 120 or 220 roll of film, I used a coded system that included information about the images along with a spreadsheet that managed the list. If I needed to know more about the film, I would search the spreadsheet. This process eventually became tedious.
When I switched to digital, I was concerned I would lose control of so many files and I needed an easier system; I devised a method of pre-numbered DVDs that I would use while on a photo shoot (long or short). Before leaving on a trip, I print a series of numbers on blank DVDs (i.e. 47xxxx for a 4.7gb DVD and 85xxxx for 8.5gb). At the end of every day, I burn the photographs from each memory card onto the DVDs. Each photograph file name has the DVD number as a prefix (i.e. 850088_12345678). When I return from the shoot, the DVDs go into a library of DVDs. Since each photo file name has the DVD number (i.e. 850088), it takes a matter of seconds to locate the original DVD when necessary.
I refrain from using larger capacity DVDs (today 50gb or 100gb are relatively inexpensive and readily available) because if the DVD is scratched or damaged the quantity of images lost forever can be quite enormous. I have DVDs from over 15 years ago that still work and I have not lost any DVD to time. I have considered switching to M-DISC type discs, which are more permanent than standard optical discs. Unlike the standard DVDs, data stored on an M-DISC is engraved on a patented inorganic write layer that will not fade or deteriorate; this renders these archival grade discs, which are practically impervious to environmental exposure, including light, temperature and humidity. M-DISCs have withstood rigorous testing by the US Department of Defense and have a projected lifetime of several hundred years, if not more.
The physical storage media is not the only thing to consider when it comes to image organization. Another major factor is the software that organizes my digital assets (the term Digital Asset Management, or DAM, is often used). Over the decades, I have tried several software programs to track images, including Media Pro and Adobe Bridge. Based on my experience, at this point in my career, I have stepped away from using any software management products because I cannot keep up with software updates (that feels like job in itself) and I need the flexibility to move (or backup) my images without having to remember complicated proprietary procedures for doing so. Further, several companies went out of business and with them went the support for their software. Instead, I organize my photographs in folders on large hard drives and I can rapidly search by title, DVD number, year or volume; using the file numbering system described above, if necessary, I can easily locate the original DVD in few moments. I backup the drives using a simple copy (I also mirror them) and keep backups in a different physical location. I also created an online web page that stores snap shot versions of hundreds of my top photographs along with a categorization system. Ultimately, I decided to uncomplicate my life and I prefer to keep image management simple with no stings attached to any product or company.
When I first began making photographs, I only needed boxes for film. I realize that new or young photographers today need much more because digital cameras can create tens of thousands of files rapidly. (Personally, I only need one incredible photograph per shoot and I rarely create over 100 photographs in a day!) Other successful photographers use cloud storage, which is wonderful for instant access from anywhere. There are a plethora of options and I recommend exploring them all; choose the best for your process, however, make sure you do not get married to a system that depends on one particular company or will be restrictive down the road, in other words, make your system is easily movable or convertible to something else if necessary. Lastly, I never let image organization get in the way of my creativity or take time away from my process.