The time had finally arrived: I had to bring some order to my large and disorderly collection of digital photographs. I had been putting the task off for a long time in spite of the fact that I knew I was taking a risk in losing some to various digital calamities. Now, after having done the work, I’m pleased to say that it was easier than I expected.
I should the work was easy after I spent a fair bit of time tracking down the right tools and figuring out a method to do the job. In the hope that I can save others some time, I’ve laid out my step-by-step process below, including the tools I used with Windows Vista. Most of the tools have versions for other operating systems, and are free to download and use.
But before grabbing any tools, take some time to decide on a basic process for doing the job. I first had to think about the steps involved; the professional term for this is “workflow.” The steps suggested by the Library of Congress are one way to go. (Full disclosure: I work with the team that established these guidelines.)
The steps are:
- Make copies and store in different places
Identify. This was the hardest step for me. I started taking digital photos in 2003 and had pictures scattered across a laptop, two desktops, two portable hard drives and a clutch of Secure Digital (SD) flash media cards. I also had dozens of pictures on Flickr. Most of the shots were of family and friends, but there were also pictures of places, animals and other things.
I had grouped pictures into file folders using random subject names. I also had copies of the same pictures in multiple places. Plus I had not fully identified pictures nor deleted all the blurry or repetitive shots. The end result: many hundreds of semi-organized pictures, incompletely described, with many duplicates.
My head throbbed when I realized the extent of the situation. “No wonder I’ve been putting this job off,” I thought. This quickly passed, however, as I counted my blessings. I still had all the pictures that mattered. It would have been so easy for a hard drive to fail and to loose many of them forever. Time to get going.
The first thing I did was to install Dropbox, a tool that copies and syncs files among multiple computers. It also stores a copy of the files on a web server in the cloud.
Dropbox gave me a simple backup system and also let me manage all my photos using either my laptop or desktop. The program provides two gigabytes of storage for free; more space is available for a fee.
Next, I created a new file folder under “MyDropbox” named “all_photos” on my desktop computer. I then made subfolders for each of my multiple devices and locations where I had digital photographs. After installing Dropbox on my other computers, I copied all the photographs into the appropriate subfolder. The same process applies for the external hard drives: hook them up and copy the files.
Remember to copy the files, not move them. Copy leaves the original files in place, while move deletes the originals. You want the originals as a backup in case you make any mistakes with the steps that follow. You can delete them when finished, if you wish.
I still had the pictures on Flickr. I used Flump to download them to Dropbox. There are similar tools available, but Flump is easy to install and use. It does require Adobe AIR 1.1, also free, to be installed first. Note that the tool will only download the original image–it won’t bring back any different sizes and it won’t capture the tags or any other descriptive information that you entered through Flickr.
Dropbox will create identical copies of the folders and files on all the computers in which it is installed. This might take some time to complete depending on the speed of your internet connection and the size of your collection.
Decide. Now that I had everything in one location the next step was to figure out what to keep. There are a range of choices here. You can choose not to choose: just keep everything, which has the advantage of saving time at this stage. The problem with this approach is that you may have lots of copies of the same image, or can also have many shots that essentially duplicate the same scene. These duplicative images add little to the content of you collection, take up extra space and can cause extra work and confusion later on.
I decided to delete duplicative images. I used Visipics to identify them. The program has settings to determine how strictly it determines what a duplicate is and also has an auto-select mode. All detected duplicates are shown side by side with information such as file name, type and size. You can also manually select the files you want to keep. After running the program, I decided which images I really needed: in situations where I took six shots of basically the same thing I picked the one or two I liked best. The best rule of thumb is to keep the highest resolution version an image, which is usually the original camera file.
Organize. This was the most time consuming step. Actually, I have to confess that I’m still working on it. I figure that it is better have full preservation of the files as quickly as possible while I continue to work on their management; I can always create updated preservation copies later on. Plus I can work on individual pictures using Dropbox on either my desktop or my laptop, which is very convenient. Organization involves several activities:
- Give individual photos descriptive file names
- Tag photos with names of people and descriptive subjects
- Create a directory/folder structure on your computer to put the images you picked
- Write a brief description of the directory structure and the photos
I started by deciding on a basic organization scheme for my photographs and by creating another set of file folders to implement it.
I named the main folder “archived_ photos” and created sub-folders for each year that I had pictures. Under each year I used a few basic subject headings such as “around home,” “family visit,” “vacation” and so on. Where necessary I created sub-folders under a heading. I aimed to be as consistent as possible in using the same headings under different years. This scheme serves two purposes. First, it helped me organize my jumbled mass of pictures. Second, it should help others use the collection in the future.
I used XnView to sort photographs into the right year and right subject heading, as well as to rename files. I chose a simple method of renaming involving subject names, but there are other more detailed options available. I also added captions. Most of this work is done in the the XnView browse view, which shows a thumbnail version of the pictures along with the date it was taken. This is all the information I needed to sort and caption the pictures, since I was the original photographer.
Another way to think about describing photos is as metadata. Digital photo metadata is an extensive subject that is well worth learning more about. Two great sources are photometadata.org and dpbestflow.org.
The next task was to copy the revised photos to the new “archived_photos” directory as shown in the picture. XnView is fairly intuitive, but it is worth reading the User Guide to figure out how to get the most out of it in browse view.
I then created a written listing of my photos as they are organized under “archived_photos.” The list is a handy tool for reference and also will be very important to my children or anyone else who will be interested in the photographs later. I used TreeSize Free to print a full, multi-page list. The report has a lots of details, some of which can seem cryptic, but it does the job well.
Make Copies and Store in Different Places. This is the most important of all the steps because this is how you ensure that you won’t lose your digital photo collection due to a single point of failure, such as a crashed computer. The handy Dropbox program already made copies of my photos on my laptop and desktop, as well as on a web server somewhere off on the cloud. For some added insurance I also copied the entire “archived_photos” folder to a portable hard drive, which I stored in my safety deposit box along with the printed file listing.
This is not the end of the story, of course. I continue to take digital pictures, so I periodically have to add new images to my central archived collection using the steps above. I also quickly browse my Dropbox files and portable hard drive every year or so to make sure all appears well. My plan is to replace all the storage devices for my photos every five years. When I get a new desktop, laptop, tablet or whatever, the first thing I will do is to install Dropbox and sync all the photo files. I’ll also get a new portable hard drive–or whatever device eventually replaces it.