I know a surprising number of people (geeks, even) who have great difficulty getting their digital photo collections organized. In many cases their photos are so badly dealt with that they are effectively inaccessible, which causes stress, risks permanent loss of irreplaceable memories, and means that the photos are giving no value.
It doesn’t have to be hard. Digital photo management should be easier than dealing with prints and negatives.
These are the simple steps to keep photos organized. Everybody should follow the first three steps, which are usually the easiest. The last two steps are open ended and potentially huge, but are optional.
- Get all the photos onto one drive
- Set up backups
- Use star ratings on new photos
- Use star ratings on old photos
- Do tagging of many photos
1. Get all the photos onto one drive
I know people who store their photos on DVD data discs. These are their only copies of these precious family photos. Storing their photos on DVDs means that the photos are not easily accessible and could be irrevocably lost due to age or accident. These DVDs need to be copied to a single drive immediately.
I know other people who have their photos stored on a succession of old hard drives from previous computers. Again, these photos are not easily accessible and could become impossible to retrieve. As interface standards change those old hard drives eventually become inaccessible so it is important to copy them to each new computer in a timely manner. As long as hard drive capacities keep growing exponentially it should always be easy to copy your old data to your new computer.
It is possible to buy 4 TB 3.5” drives and 2 TB 2.5” (laptop) drives so all but the most ridiculous photo collections can fit on a single drive.
In my case I had about 6,000 pictures that were taken with film cameras and I needed to get those pictures scanned in. I outsourced the job to ScanCafe and $1,500 later I was able to take a big stack of shoe boxes, shown to the right, and throw them out. It freed up a lot of space in my office and it was highly satisfying to replace many cubic feet of single-point-of-failure storage with digital files that can be trivially copied.
And that takes us to…
2. Set up backups
As I mentioned above, you can get single drives that can store 4 TB, which is enough for multiple backups of most computers. If you need more then get a Network Attached Storage device and load it up with 32 TB of storage. Then, set up an automated backup system. I use SyncToy to do a controlled synchronization of the photo library on my laptop with my wife’s desktop machine, and I have Windows Backup doing full machine backups of both machines every week. In addition I occasionally take a drive into work and leave a copy of the images there. Five copies, with one off-site, should be pretty safe. At the very least it is a lot safer than shoe boxes filled with degrading and crinkled negatives.
Aside: Windows Backup can be cranky and difficult with large drives. Reading this might help.
Some people swear by cloud backups, although I’m not convinced that they are a great solution for large volumes of data. If you do backup in the cloud you should also have a local copy and a local backup, because cloud services are out of your control and may disappear.
Aside: my backup drive is a 3.0 TB drive, despite the 2.73 TB displayed above. Windows still thinks that it makes sense to display drive sizes using base two. It doesn’t.
Some people do backups with xcopy, or .zip files, or crazy hybrid systems. I don’t think the details matter as long as you are reasonably confident that you frequently make multiple copies of your photos, preferably in more than one location.
3. Use star ratings on new photos
The problem with digital cameras is that they make taking photos incredibly cheap. So we take lots and lots of photos. And that can give us a digital hangover. I’ve tried various ways of managing large volumes of photos, and before I share the method that I use I want to describe some of the methods that I tried and discarded.
I started by trying to keep only the good photos. If you can delete the 90% of photos that are bad or mediocre then all of your data management issues become ten times less severe. But, while I still delete truly bad photos (out of focus, pictures of carpets, etc.) I don’t rely on deleting photos. It is too stressful. If deleting photos is the only way to distinguish the good photos from the bad then you need to delete a lot of photos and you are going to have to spend a lot of time making difficult decisions about photos that are ‘okay’. I decided that I like having lots of photos, but I still wanted a way to distinguish the great photos from the mediocre.
I then tried putting the good and bad photos in separate directories. I would have a folder of photos representing, for instance, a hike in Hawaii, and I would put the great photos in a ‘great’ subfolder and the other photos in an ‘other’ subfolder. This turns out to be quite unwieldy. It doesn’t give an easy way to step through all of the photos in order, and moving photos around is cumbersome. This didn’t last long.
I then discovered the value of star ratings. The metadata for photos lets you rate them with zero to five stars, and some photo viewing software lets you use those ratings to filter your photos. So, when looking through a batch of photos for the first time I just rate them as I go along. In Windows Live Photo Gallery (WLPG) it’s as simple as pressing ‘5’ to rate a picture as five-star, and I usually don’t use any other ratings. Because I rate the photos as I’m looking through them it really doesn’t take any time at all. When I’m finished I can tell WLPG to display all photos from that directory that are 5-star rated and I’ve got a slideshow of my favorite photos. It’s trivial to set ratings and it doesn’t require moving or deleting photos. Because the ratings are stored in the photos they are guaranteed to be backed up with the photos.
As an extra bonus, Windows comes with an option to cycle through your favorite photos as your desktop background. Just type “change desktop background” into the start menu search field and you can select Top Rated Photos as your picture location. This cycles through your four and five star photos, in my case putting up a new family favorite every five minutes. I can’t overemphasize the difference between having pictures hidden in shoe boxes for twenty years, and having the best of them popping up throughout the day. I’m getting great enjoyment from the random memories I glimpse throughout the day.
I also have a program that scans all of my photos and maintains my own ‘database’ (it’s actually just a text file) of all of the photos and their attributes. I can then, for instance, copy scaled down copies of all of the 5-star photos (all 3,668 of them) to my smart phone
Start rating your photos. Whenever you copy a new set of photos to your computer, use WLPG or some equivalent program to view them, and add star ratings as you are viewing them. It takes practically zero time and it adds valuable data that makes future viewings much better.
4. Use star ratings on old photos
The next step is to start going through your old photos, applying zero to five star ratings to those. In a perfect world this wouldn’t be a big deal because, after all, if you are keeping these photos then it must be because you want to look at them, and if you want to look at them then you must be looking at them, and if you’re looking at them then you might as well rate them (because it’s easy). Well. Maybe.
Look, if you end up applying star ratings to your old photos then you will get some value from it. Having old family photos cycle through the Top Rated Photos show on your desktop is great. But if not, well, whatever. Don’t let it stop you from doing the previous steps.
5. Do tagging of many photos
If you’ve made it this far then you may be an OCD data indexing nerd. It’s time to go to the next level. Wouldn’t you like to be able to instantly find all five-star photos of both of your kids, taken in a particular year, containing a particular tag:
The five-star ratings are easy, and the Date Taken metadata is added by the camera, but after that it is manual labor. I’ve written about photo tagging before (Photo Tagging with Windows Live Photo Gallery) so I won’t repeat myself. I’ll just mention that as of today I’ve tagged 38,672 faces in 21,215 photos. There are about 30,000 other photos that don’t have any faces tagged – either they are pictures of things other than people, or else I got lazy. Automated face recognition makes photo tagging a lot less cumbersome than it might otherwise be, and it should only get better.
Tagging can take a lot of time. It’s an open ended task. I worked pretty hard for a while at identifying faces, adding location data, and adding dates to the scanned in photos. I could still do more work on the old photos, but I eventually hit diminishing returns. I recommend focusing on tagging faces just in five-star rated photos as this is a great way to ensure that you are getting value for the photo tagging work that you do. I enjoyed tracking down the names of long-lost friends and classmates in old photos – and now I have that information for when my memory fails me – but it’s not for everyone.
I ended up adding metadata to most of my scanned in photos – estimating dates was a fun game – because I felt it would be more useful than having them tagged with the date they were scanned.
If you’re going to bother to take pictures then you should look at them. And then, you should either delete them, or take the time to do the first three steps recommended above. I enjoy doing the last two steps as well, but, maybe I’m peculiar. I use Windows Live Photo Gallery for all of my photo tagging needs, despite its many performance problems and the hacks required to work around them.