Image Archiving Workflow

As photographers accumulate huge collections of digital images, the importance of creating functional archives of the images becomes even more critical. A good image archive combines a secure and dependable method of storage along with a logical strategy of embedding metadata into the images so that the archives can be searched to allow quick location of specific images.  Let’s look at the two issues separately while keeping in mind that there are multiple appropriate ways of doing things in digital photography.  Everyone has different needs, one size does not fit all.


We’ll start with the use of metadata.  Creating a consistent strategy of embedding metadata, in this case IPTC data that should describe who, what, when and where of the photo is critical.  If possible this should be done as early in the digital workflow as possible.  This information can then be utilized by cataloging software when we want to search for specific images.  The first step is simple one and involves correctly setting the date/time function in your camera.  There are two kinds of metadata available to us in our digital images.  EXIF data is the data embedded by the camera into our image files.  This type of of data will include camera settings, camera identifying information in addition to the date and time the image was taken.  This last detail is usable for us only if we’ve setup the date and time accurately in our cameras.

The second type of metadata is IPTC data.  This is text data in predefined fields that we can add to our images.  This information can include just about anything we want to say about our photos, but should at minimum include the date the photo was shot, the location, the subject and any other thing we might want to use to describe our photos.  The use of keywords—a limited pre-defined set of words that we can use to help us search for images can be vital if we are trying to manage a large image library.  I prefer to add the majority of my IPTC data on image download.  My favorite tool for doing this is Photo Mechanic by Camera Bits (  Photo Mechanic is a powerful multi-functional browser tool.  Photo Mechanic has a feature called the IPTC stationery pad. You can pre-populate the stationery pad with information about your image and have Photo Mechanic embed this data as it downloads (or ingests in Photo Mechanic speak) your images.  Once downloaded, the images open as thumbnails in a browser window, with a one-button link to the image’s IPTC data, allowing you to make quick modifications to that information.  Other browser programs with similar functionality include Adobe Bridge and Nikon View NX2.


When downloading and storing images, it is critical to work in a consistent manner, downloading images files to a predetermined location, into folders that have been renamed.  Choose a folder rename protocol that works best for you.  I like to use a date/client/subject protocol.

If I do an assignment for USA Today on September 1, 2010, on traffic.  All the images get downloaded into a folder called “100901USATtraffic”.  These images are downloaded onto an external hard drive reserved only for photographs shot in 2010.  The image files are renamed to 100901trafficXXX.jpg, with XXX being a sequential file number.  The master folder 100901USATtraffic contains subfolders.  One subfolder is the initial download folder containing all the original files.  Another subfolder might contain selects or edits that were submitted to the client.  It is important that a folder of original, unretouched images be maintained if shooting JPGS.  If shooting Raw files, the images can be edited and preserved in their raw state because they can always be reverted to their original state.


The strategy of image storage will always be a blend of paranoia and practicality. Unlike a film dupe, a digital copy is virtually identical to the original, with no loss in quality when done properly. So making multiple copies of our images is a good strategy to ensure their survival.  Perhaps no part of the archiving strategy will reveal the different paths taken by photographers than the number of backup copies and the media used by each photographer.  A secure archive, at the very least, will have two backup copies in separate locations.  My archive utilizes three backups on two different media types in two different locations.  One copy resides on an external hard drive which is stored in my office.  A second copy is stored on a NAS, a networked-attached storage device.  A third copy of the images is stored  on another external hard drive at a different location.  Another type of off-site storage that photographers might consider would be photo specific online storage such as PhotoShelter. This method would also add the ability to allow photo buyers to search a photographer’s archive as long as the photographer has made an effort to embed useful IPTC data to the image.

Keeping Track of Images

We need to have a method of finding and keeping track of our images.  This can vary in complexity based on your needs.  Lets look at three different ways of doing it.

1)    Simplest—Doesn’t require any extra software.  Just be sure you have put your images in a dated and descriptive folder so that you can just search through the folder for the picture you need.  This method is the easiest but would only work for small numbers of photographs.

2)    Easy- Utilize a spreadsheet program like Excel or a database program like FileMaker.  Keep track of your assignments in those programs, recording the dates, subjects and other pertinent information about your assignment.  This method is easy to maintain, doesn’t require a lot of work on the front end, but requires more effort when you need to find a photograph because you still need to physically find the original files.

3)    Most thorough- Use a standalone cataloging program or an all-in-one type program like Lightroom or Aperture.  These programs are essentially visual databases that allow you to search through thumbnails of your images without having to retrieve the original file.  This method is preferable for photographers with large bodies of work, or companies that store the images of multiple photographers.  This method is also able to leverage the power of keywording to maximize search efficiency.


The final piece in the archiving puzzle is cataloging software. Good cataloging software is essentially a database of photographs made up of an image thumbnail along with searchable image metadata.  Good cataloging software further allows you, if you choose, to store you images on a different volume or even a different computer.  Individual photographers should consider Extensis Portfolio or Expression Media.  Cataloging software can be setup to automatically add images to its database or it can wait for you to do it manually.  Once the images are added to the database it becomes a powerful tool.

A simple example of cataloging functionality might look a little something like this.  Suppose I get a request from an editor for a photo of mountain biking in North Georgia.  I open my cataloging program and tell it to search for photos with the phrase “mountain biking” embedded in metadata.  To be accurate, I may have to do multiple searches for variations of the phrase, so I might do “mountain bike”,  “mountain biking” or “mountain bikers”.    Up will pop thumbnails of images that meet the search criteria.  I will most likely need to further refine the search to images shot in Georgia.  The thumbnails are linked to slightly larger versions of the images to make it easier to choose selections.  The cataloging program will also tell me where the original versions of the images are which allows me to pull the full-res original versions of these images.  If the original full-res files are physically online at the time, I can open them directly from the cataloging program.

Another cataloging method that is becoming increasingly popular is the use of an all-in-one type of program like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture.  These programs contain browser, editor and cataloging functionality in one program.  The cataloging features work similarly to those in the standalone cataloging programs.

For photographers that do not have a functional image archive, get going soon. Your image library will only be growing larger and the longer you wait the more work you’ll have waiting for you. But before you start, think out your plan carefully, you’ll want to create an archiving strategy that will be viable for a long, long time.

Michael A. Schwarz is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Atlanta, Georgia.
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