How to Store, Process and Protect Your Digital Photos.
If you use digital images for your own or clients’ businesses the chances are you’ve a pretty large collection of photos accumulating somewhere on your hard drive.
Like a lot of people with hundreds and even thousands of digital images on their computer, it can be a real challenge to keep things orderly, safe and accessible without seriously clogging your computer’s hard drive and interfering with your workflow.
This article lays out the system I use to process digital images that I feel is quick and easy to follow, keeps your assets safe and secure without compromising your computer’s memory, space and resources.
Software Combination – I’m a Mac user and have happily used Aperture for many years to manage a 39,000 (and growing) image library. Sadly, Apple have decided to retire (and no longer support) their software. So, like other Aperture users, I’ve been forced to move to an alternative image management solution and although there are other options (such as Apple’s new ‘Photos’ or ‘Capture One Pro’ from Phase One). After much research, the system I feel most comfortable with is Adobe Lightroom, which is available for both Mac and PC.
Image Correction – Adobe Lightroom does a great job of correcting most issues with digital images, but I also use additional image correction software DxO Optics Pro which provides better results on tasks like noise reduction and correcting lens distortion. LR and DxO together are a world beating team.
Storing Digital Assets
First thing. Personally I never, ever keep data of any kind on my computers. Everything (depending on size) is sent to either an external hard drive and/or cloud storage.
DropBox is where all live client work is stored. That includes project files such as graphics, artwork and web optimised images. HTML and other code is also kept there.
dRAW images, TIFFs and JPEGs from mobile devices are also stored in DropBox temporarily until work is complete and fault-free copies are safely in permanent storage.
When processed, jpeg and png images are uploaded to a project-related folder in SmugMug for easy viewing, sharing and download when needed. This avoids having to trawl through external hard drives later on. However, if you do need to search external drives, I can recommend a great way to do that, which I’ll talk about in a moment.
I use Amazon S3 as an extra backup for secure, permanent safekeeping of all media and related project files once a job is completed and it’s unlikely I’ll need access anytime soon.
Storage and Sharing – The ability to store and share digital images quickly and easily is an important factor. Cloud storage has quickly come of age and SmugMug has been my online photo solution of choice for more than a decade. I really can’t recommend any alternative at this time. Their ease of use and security is second to none and I entrust everything (including family photographs) to their brilliant system.
The great thing is I can publish to my SmugMug account directly from Lightroom (which provides top notch integration) and share secure galleries with family, friends and clients so they can view images as I upload them and download copies when needed.
Every project is created and remains on an external hard drive, even when uploaded to cloud storage. Once the disc is about 75% full with completed jobs, I scan it through DiskTracker so that I can quickly find projects, folders and individual files at a later date. It’s then disconnected from the system, sealed up and stashed away until needed. Most of the time it’s easier to retrieve material from the S3 account but the physical hard drive is always there as an extra backup if necessary.
All images (including those temporarily sitting in DropBox) are copied across to the external hard drive through Lightroom for processing. This means I have at least two copies of every shot from the word GO… those still on the camera’s SD cards and the mobile device photos in DropBox – all are copied over to the external drive.
This is a basic summary of the system I use to process digital photography.
- Capture images with cameras, phone etc.
- Import virgin image files onto an external hard drive through Lightroom
- Sort the images into project folders for future access
- Keep everything, but filter out best images
- Copy/edit best images and save
- Output copies of best images for use in print or online.
- Upload to cloud-based storage
It is a pretty straight forward process. Here’s how it looks in more detail.
- I use a variety of cameras as well as iPhone and iPad and shoot RAW on camera and dRAW (uncompressed TIFF) on iPhone and iPad, using the excellent 645 PRO photography app. As soon as I’m back at base I get images off my devices and straight into the workflow. Sometimes (to save time) while I’m travelling back from a job, I start the ball rolling by wirelessly transferring iPhone or iPad images to a ‘Camera Uploads’ folder set up in DropBox, using the very handy PhotoSync app.
- Once back at my desk it’s time to pull everything together through ‘Lightroom’. The first thing to do is import images. You can import from the camera, an SD card or a selected folder. Lightroom automatically creates a folder in a date format of your choice. I prefer 2016/2016–06–25 which is basically YEAR/DATE OF CAPTURE. Make sure to set ‘Copy as DNG’ as the preferred import format. DNG is a proprietary Adobe RAW file that preserves every single piece of data and stores images in a highly-compatible format for later edits. During import the original is copied and stays in place while all RAW images are converted to DNG. Other file types are copied across in their original state (ie: jpegs remain as jpegs), only RAW files are converted.
- Once files have been imported I add a descriptive label to the DATE OF CAPTURE folder so it becomes something like DATE OF CAPTURE/EVENT/LOCATION so the previous example would be renamed to something like 2016–06–25 Holy Island Festival Lindisfarne. This makes it easy to identify the folder at a later date. Inside that main folder I add four sub-folders; Captures, Selects, Masters and Outputs. I then select all of the imported images and drop them into the Captures folder. Now we’re ready to edit the images and do some basic development.
- I run through all the photos and flag any that are potential keepers. I then filter out the unflagged photos to leave just flagged ones and run through them again, marking the absolute keepers with a yellow label and the others with a red label. I filter out the red labelled photos so I’m left with only the yellow labelled ones. These are my definite selections.
- I send them across to DxO (File > Plug-In Extras > Transfer to DxO Optics Pro) for image correction, noise reduction, colour balancing etc. I then export them from DxO as TIFFs back to the original folder and synchronize it (Library > Synchronize Folder). The newly edited images appear inside the folder unlabelled and unflagged with the suffix _DxO at the end of the file name. I filter out the yellow labelled photos which leaves only the DxO edited versions. I select all of them and drag them into the Selects folder. We’re now done with the Captures folder.
- I then run through the photos in the Selects folder and assign a star rating to each one. Five stars for absolutely must use at this moment and three stars for good but can do without right now. This doesn’t mean they’re no good, it just means I don’t need to use them today. I may assign a different star rating at a future date for a different project. I also add a green label to every photo in this folder, as well as titles, captions and copyright information.
- I now filter out three star photos, leaving all five-star images and send them across to (Photo > Edit In > PhotoShop) as copies to add final edits, tweaks and any fancy stuff I can’t do in DxO or Lightroom Develop. Even if I don’t intend to do extra edits to a photo I still send it over so I have another copy of the photo, because once this is done all copies are going into the Masters folder. NOTE: You’re not restricted to PhotoShop at this stage, you can use any photo editing software you wish. Once extra edits are done and saved all copies (still in TIFF format) are selected and dragged into the Masters folder.
- At this point we now have three folders containing high resolution RAW and TIFF images at different stages of production. Captures with all untouched RAW files. Selects contains sorted, corrected, titled, captioned and copyrighted images and Masters with extra edits and ready to go for output. Now it’s time to prepare versions of the master images for use in a variety of projects. Let’s say we need a high resolution jpeg for publication in a newspaper and a reduced size web optimised image for the website. I select the image in the Masters folder and (Photo > Edit In > PhotoShop) creating another copy to work with. Lightroom adds a second copy TIFF to the Masters folder and Photoshop opens it up to work with. I apply the changes in PhotoShop and click (File > Save). PhotoShop applies the changes to the new copy in the Masters folder. Flip back to Lightroom to synchronise the folder as before. I can double check that it’s the copy I want because every time I edit in Photoshop (or other software) Lightroom adds a new suffix -EDIT to the filename. The new file (a copy of what was itself a copy from the Selects folder) will have -EDIT-EDIT at the end of the filename because it’s a second copy… don’t forget, this is still a TIFF file. I flip back into PhotoShop and this time (File > Save As) and select jpeg as the file format and the Outputs folder as the destination. I also need a web optimised version of the image so (still in PhotoShop) I go to (File > Save As) this time I’ll save it as a png file and again choose the Outputs folder as the destination. I could also do (File > Export > Save for Web) but that would lose the metadata, colour label, star rating etc. so I prefer to Save As instead.
- This is what we’ve achieved so far. We’ve taken our untouched digital images from a variety of sources and pulled them together into the Captures folder. We’ve made our selections, added metadata, made basic edits and copied them into the Selects folder. We’ve made extra edits to our preferred images and copied them into the Masters folder and we’ve made further changes to some of the master images (ready for specific uses) and copied them into the Outputs folder. This gives us multiple versions of our best images that we can use at any time. It also provides an easy-to-follow backtrack to original images if we need to use them in the future.
- Two final tasks. We now want to save all files to secure cloud storage. As I mentioned earlier, SmugMug is my preferred choice for storing, viewing and sharing jpeg and png files. There’s a handy plugin that integrates nicely with Lightroom. With that installed it’s simply a matter of activating SmugMug as a Publish Service in Lightroom and publishing images directly to SmugMug from there. Here’s a link to the help article in SmugMug on how to upload from Lightroom – The last thing is to take the whole project folder and upload it to Amazon S3 for permanent safekeeping… DONE
Disclaimer – This is my personal preferred method. I’m not saying it is the only way to go, but it works well for me and gives peace of mind as I know my images are easy to get at, quick to manage and safe from most computer catastrophes.
If you really want to get a grip on your digital assets, with the ability to work quickly and efficiently, with minimum risk of losing your media. I hope this article points you in the right direction.