Thursday, August 22, 2013

Organizing and preserving 10 years of digital photography

In the next month, it will be 10 year since I got my first digital camera, an Olympus C750UZ. Since then I went through a Canon S2 in 2007 and a dSLR Canon 500D/T1i in 2009. In 2008 I also introduced iPhone to my digital photography: first the 3G, then the 4, and now the 5.

I have always been organizing my photos using a nested file system, with folders inside folders. As long as it is done meticulously, such an hierarchical system is the best way for me to keep track of the photos (or any other type of digital media). Solutions like Everpix or simply a timelined photostream  (like Dropbox) do not work for me, neither do keywords or tags. I need to be seeing a physical hierarchy.

My Photos folder has 170,000 files in it, and includes photos from the digital cameras and the iPhones. My root folders are organized by the period of my life: 2003-2008 US, 2008-2010 UK, 2010-2011 Greece, 2011-now UK. Inside each period I have event subfolders: Party at Mike's house, Walk in the Houses of Parliament, Parents visit, etc. All folders start with an ISO format date, e.g. 20130816 - Wife's Birthday, so that the alphabetical order automatically results in chronological order.

In addition, since I travel a lot, I have a separate root folder called Trips. In there I organize all the trips by location: USA, Europe, Exotic, etc., and then the (dated) event subfolders might be New York City, Florida, Chicago, etc.

Each event subfolder has a "Best of" folder in it. After each event, I go through all the photos and pick the best ones, typically 10% of the total number of photos. If it's a major event like my wedding or the trip to Maui, where I have 5000+ original photos per event, I might create another folder "best of best of" with the absolutely 1% best pictures.

Because of the 10 year anniversary, I decided to print 10 photo albums, one for each year, with my favorite pictures. I figured that if I don't do that now, I won't be doing it again due to the sheer amount of data collected. So, in the past couple of weeks I went through my whole photo library, all 170,000 photos, one by one, to pick the best ones. I picked about 2,000 of them. And after seeing my library with such a perspective, I reached some interesting conclusions.

  • The hierarchical folder system I curated in the past 10 years has served me extremely well: If I want to find a specific photo from a certain time, city or event, I can browse to it in a reasonable amount of time. I will stick to that system.
  • Almost none of the hand-picked photos are iPhone photos. Maybe 30 or 40, max, from 1,500 iPhone photos I captured per year in the last 6 years. Smartphone photos look great on the small smartphone screens, but as soon as you blow them up (I have a 27" monitor) the magic goes away. In the short term, they are good reminders of how I spent my time, but in the long term they are irrelevant, with a few notable exceptions.
  • I realized I want to print two types of photos: i) The "Artistic" ones, where I put the effort into taking a quality, artsy photograph. These are typically photos of landmarks, landscapes, objects, and more rarely people (which I may not even know well). ii) The "Candid" ones, which are not necessarily of great quality, but include memorable moments and people. These trigger feelings of past moment to me.
  • My plan to geotag and facetag all of my library failed. However, it *is* possible to manually tag the selected 2,000 photos. It still took me some time, but it was manageable.
  • I had to import my "best of" photos to Aperture for editing. The main reason is that some photos fall under more than one category (e.g. both candids and artistic), and also in original folder. It is hard to keep track and edit 3 or more files in the same way. I export everything out when I am finished though. I also LOVE seeing my photos on a map.
Then there is the issue of future-proofing my photos. They've been around for 10 years already. How can I make sure they'll be around for another 50 years?

There is a new Greek startup called longaccess that aims at preserving our digital lives. One of the founders has a nice post on how he migrated his photo library from iPhoto to Dropbox. I am not sure exactly how they plan to handle the photo archive issue, but here is what I will be doing.

First, I need a feature-rich application to edit and organize my photos and also to have features like geotagging and editing the same photo existing in multiple locations. That being said, I will simultaneously keep storing jpgs on the filesystem level while having an encrypted backup online. 

  • I do not expect the jpg compatibility to be dropped from computers anytime soon (and by soon I mean decades). It is simple enough to be implemented everywhere, and its already been around for more than 20 years. (The same holds true for MP3).
  • Backing up is absolutely essential. The more time goes by, the more precious the photos become. They are irreplaceable if they get lost. I currently backup all my personal files to a NAS in the house and to an online backup service (in this case, my own FTP server at the office).
What I am missing right now is an automated way to link the two processes: having my photos in the feature-rich software, and then automatically exporting them at a filesystem level which can be backed up and accessed by the iPhotos and Lightrooms of year 2040.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Kids, revisited

There is a not-so-visited spot along the river Thames that has majestic views of the Houses of Parliament. You get there by crossing the Westminster bridge right in front of Big Ben, and then, instead of turning left towards the London Eye where most tourists go, just make a right. There are about 100 times less people on that side.

We first visited London with the Wife in the summer of 2004 (little did we know at the time that we would return as residents to London 4 years later). We discovered that spot and took some really nice photographs with the Big Ben in the background, such as the one below.

I will return to that in a bit.


I got my first digital camera in 2003. When I got my first dSLR camera in 2009, I wanted to go back and revisit all my favorite places so that I had them in high-quality pictures.

When I got a subwoofer for the first time in 2011, I went back and re-listened to all my favorite songs. The added richness of the sound made me to want and re-experience the feeling of listening to a song right.

The same thing happened when I started to have access to HD content, sometime in 2007. As soon as some of my favorite movies were re-released in HD, I watched them again to experience them more fully.

When our twin girls were born last month, something happened that I never expected. That same urge of re-visiting experiences came back, only this time for life moments. I want to go back to my favorite places and re-live the experiences, but this time I want to do this with my kids. They enhance my experiences. It is a very strange, more real form of excitement.

And so, on the first "major" trip with the kids outside our home, we decided to revisit that spot on the Thames where we took one of our first photos in the city that our kids would be born. This time we had a much better camera and few more years and pounds on our backs.

9 years had passed.

It felt AWESOME.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

A Live Birth

Three weeks ago we had our twin girls born.

I was inside the delivery room for the whole process of natural delivery, which lasted about 20 hours. The final 3 hours that included all the pushing and the delivery of the babies were one of the top 3 life experiences I have ever had (probably the top, but let's wait a few more years to settle on that).

I definitely recommend witnessing a live birth (even more so if it's your own kids). The process is animalistic, brutal and just exhilarating. Words cannot really describe the feeling of watching a human being coming out from the inside of another human being. 

We live in a mostly artificial world with artificial experiences. Most things that surround us are man made objects of our civilization. Some activities remain natural, such as eating, going to the toilet and having sex. Giving birth is taking such as non-artificial activity as far as it gets, a stunning reminder of our roots and our non-civilized past.

It's not easy to explain the awesome feeling we have when we take care of the babies at home every day. Up until a few weeks ago, for as long as I can remember I would come home from work and watch TV, make dinner, or browse online. 

Suddenly, I come home and I help my kids grow up. Feeding them, changing, them, interacting with them. Even though these day to day actions are quite mundane, the purpose of the whole thing is way more rewarding. It feels much more important to help a human being grow rather than myself just consuming stuff. Suddenly, our evenings became purposeful.

Maybe you have been unlucky enough to stay out of work or school for prolonged periods of time. You wake up and have nothing to do, so you start walking around, going online, trying to get hold of other people. It's an almost excruciating process, having to stay at home every day. And suddenly, you find a job and then your morning acquire a purpose: you go to work, interact with other people, you have a common goal, you are contributing to society. You life suddenly acquires meaning.

Having kids is an evening version of that "I got a job and now I have a purpose in society" feeling.