Managing Your Archive

Every time I enter my office, I have to walk around a row of file cabinets. Meticulously captioned, labeled and organized are nearly 150,000 slides. Blood, sweat and tears went into creating that database of chromes.

How times have changed! Next to my row of file cabinets is an 8 TB RAID drive with nearly 200,000 images—four years of images packed into a shiny enclosure about the size of a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream. Where will it go next?


Modern image database management is critical for all photographers. Digital images need their own caption and archiving strategy, just like slides. A good system will allow you to quickly organize, find and back up your images.


The first question to ask yourself is, "How am I going to organize my images?" While a basic system of folders works for small image libraries, for professionals, I recommend using a database program that facilitates searches and offers basic photo-editing tools.


Most pro photographers use Adobe Lightroom to manage their image libraries, and with good reason. Adobe has designed this program to be the one-stop shop for both amateur and professional photographers alike. Lightroom offers extensive organizational and search tools, as well as powerful editing and output modules. Many photographers can do all their editing in Lightroom without using Photoshop at all. Importing new images into Lightroom is fairly straightforward. Open Lightroom and plug your storage card into your card reader. This brings up the Lightroom Import window. At the top of the window, Copy should be selected. Copying files from your storage card will duplicate them in a new location (your hard drive) and add them to a new catalog. (If you already had the images on your hard drive, you would select Add, which wouldn’t move the original files, but simply add them to a new catalog.)

On the right side on the Import window are some important choices. First, under File Handling, I choose Minimal under Build Previews. This generates a small preview image, which renders faster when you’re searching large image databases. Also in File Handling is an option to download a second copy of your images to another hard drive. If you store your images on your computer hard drive, this option lets you make a second copy to an external drive for more backup.

File Renaming is next. There are many options to name your image files; at my studio, we use Custom Name-Sequence. The subject is identified by the custom name, and the number indicates that specific image in the subject series. For instance, we label portraits with "port" followed by a number to indicate that specific shot in "Portraits".

Apply During Import is next, and this makes or breaks how easy it is to find your images. In this window, you add your keywords and other metadata. Lightroom offers templates to caption similar images, which speeds up the process. Your database search capabilities are only as good as the amount of information you add to your images. If you want to find "portraits", "female", "blonde hair", "teenager" and "happy", you need to add these keywords to those images.


Finally, in the Destination pane, choose a location for your images to be stored on your hard drive. This is where Lightroom will link to your original files. Lightroom will generate previews of your images so, if the hard drive containing your images isn’t connected, you can still search your database for images.

To reconnect an image preview to the original file, reconnect the external drive. Next, in the Library module, choose Library > Find All Missing Photos. Click on the Photo Is Missing icon (exclamation mark in the image preview window) to reconnect the original file to the preview.


Now we have our images organized in a Lightroom catalog file and our original image files stored on one or two hard drives. Let’s talk about backup.


No matter what system you choose to organize and back up your images, two key aspects must be built into your system: redundancy and offsite backup.

Redundancy is just what you think it is. The more places you have your irreplaceable images, the less likelihood of losing them if something happens to one backup source. And directly tied to sound redundant backup systems is to have offsite backup solutions. Imagine this worst-case scenario: Your ground floor home office where you store your images floods to the ceiling, ruining your hard drive. Did you just lose all your images? Not if you had a second backup hard drive stored out of your home office.

Most photographers feel comfortable having two independent backup sources, one at their office and another offsite. There are many options for this strategy. First, consider the hard drive where you store your images. We use G-Technology G-SPEED Q RAID 5 systems to back up our images. RAID 5 systems use multiple drives that are redundant, meaning if one drive fails, you can replace it and not lose any data. If you have a single external hard drive backing up your images and it fails, you potentially could lose all your data. If you’re using single drives, back up to multiple drives to increase the redundancy of your database system and image backup.

Good-Bye Aperture, Hello Photos For OS X

For years, the majority of professional photographers used one of two systems, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. These programs were designed to handle large image databases and have extensive editing controls. When Apple announced they would stop development of Aperture last year, those photographers were left with a choice of switching to Lightroom or waiting to see what Apple had in mind as a replacement.

Both Aperture and Apple’s amateur-oriented iPhoto will be replaced by a new Photos app for OS X (as of this writing, Photos is currently in beta). This app will allow images to be stored in iCloud, with access to images on Apple devices like the iPhone and iPad. Aperture users can migrate their photo libraries directly into Photos for OS X. The app will offer editing tools so users can edit their photos from anywhere on their devices via access through iCloud. This new app may be the solution for some photographers, but it won’t offer all the editing tools that were available in Aperture.

For former Aperture users, in the latest version of Lightroom, 5.7, Adobe has added an Aperture import plug-in that will allow you to import your image library from Aperture into Lightroom. In the Library module, choose File > Plug-in Extras > Import from Aperture Library. Lightroom will recognize image keywords, star ratings and flags—but Lightroom won’t recognize your edits done in Aperture. During import, Lightroom allows you to save a JPEG version with your Aperture RAW editing applied to the image, preserving those adjustments, to some exte
nt, at least.

Another system many photographers use is storing images on a home hard drive and also storing them on a third-party offsite service. Photo-specific backup is offered by companies such as Mylio, PhotoShelter and SmugVault. For an annual fee, these companies offer backup of files and images on your computer. Some companies offer automatic backup, while others have you manually upload your files to the server.

For smaller image libraries, you might consider cloud storage sites such as Apple iCloud Drive, Dropbox and Flickr. All these offsite backup options offer access to your images online anywhere you have Internet access. The points to consider are their pricing plans, maximum storage available, file types allowed and image security online.

With your images now backed up in two places, you can start sleeping a little easier. What happens if your Lightroom catalog files disappear when your computer hard drive crashes? Not good. Another backup consideration is backing up your database files like Lightroom catalogs. Be sure to regularly back up your Lightroom catalog, and have it stored in multiple locations so if your computer hard drive crashes, you have copies of your Lightroom catalogs in other locations.

One quick point: Backing up your Lightroom catalog is only backing up the organization structure of the image catalog. Your original images aren’t getting backed up when you back up your Lightroom catalog. You need to back up your original image files, as well. At photo workshops, many times I’ve encountered participants who thought backing up their Lightroom catalogs was backing up their original image files. This isn’t the case—back up your images, too!

In the end, image database management is very specific to the individual photographer. Shooting habits, file size, operating systems and many other variables will determine what system best works for you. Databases and image searches are only as good as the information that’s entered into the system (think keywords), and you need to have images and database catalogs backed up in case of disaster. The real question is, "Can you sleep soundly at night with your current system?" If not, use these principles to create a solid image database system.


Another new database management program offering even more cross-platform compatibility is Mylio ( This program allows you to organize, edit, back up and sync photos across devices and to the cloud. The editing tools are nondestructive, and images can be organized in albums and searched using star and flag ratings. What really caught my attention with Mylio was the program’s automatic backup of newly added images and the ability to work with existing libraries from Aperture, Lightroom, iPhoto, Flickr, Facebook and even Instagram. Mylio offers a variety of annual subscription plans, depending on the number of images and devices you want to sync. The Basic Plan ($50/year) includes 50,000 images and three devices.

To see more of Tom Bol’s work, visit his website at

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