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.