Like most people I know, I learn things the hard way. Although I should have known better, a few years ago I lost a hard drive that just died on me for no reason, taking with it to its cold cybery grave, a passel of unbacked up images that no one will ever see again. It was a heavy blow at the time, as it contained some of my best work as a wedding photographer, and a huge collection of creative work I’d done over the years prior. But it had one positive result: it taught me the vital importance of backing up my work.
Since then, I’ve adopted the habit of backing up everything I do in triplicate (two separate hard drives, and one on the cloud). I don’t do it with every single image I produce, but once I’ve curated the set, I do it for the ones I want to keep. With the exception of my personal family photos and videos which I indiscriminately keep all of, around this time of year I do a big purge. As a busy conference and event photographer, I accumulate a lot of digital detritus just doing my job. While my clients want to see the full set of images I shot for them, once the event has come and gone, there is no reason for me to keep the majority of the images I’ve shot. There are only so many photos of an engaged audience looking up at a speaker that I need in my portfolio to prove I can capture the energy and excitement in a room. After the 30th conference of the year, I have to admit that the rooms all start to look the same, and the faces tend to blur into one another. Hence the need for the purge.
It’s hard going at first, but once I get into the flow of it, it starts to feel really good, as most decluttering sessions do. I’m currently still using Aperture (though plan to switch over to Lightroom in 2016 now that Apple has abandoned its pro software in favour of its new Photos), but what I find particularly useful for purge sessions – or curation sessions if you want to use a prettier word – is an old version of Adobe’s Bridge that I have. I like the way you can copy, move or trash a lot of files at once, and visually assess their quality from a grid perspective with ease. But regardless of the tool you use, the key to an effective photo library cleansing session is to not get too attached to any one image and really be brutal in selecting only the very best. There is just no need to save everything. The world is awash in images, (an estimated 80 million photos are posted on Instagram alone – daily!)
If you are facing a mountain of unsorted image across multiple devices, the digital equivalent of an office with folders strewn across the floor you have to thread your way through to reach the door, I understand your reticence in dealing with this task. It is easier to just buy more space, add a new hard drive, dump everything in there and move on. But it’s not what I would recommend. For one thing, doing so just kicks the problem down the road. No matter how much digital storage space you acquire, you will still be at risk of one or more of the drives failing (and if they contain disorganized files, you won’t even know what you’ve lost). But even more importantly, if you don’t take the time to review what you already have – whether you are a professional photographer, amateur or just camera happy mom and dad clicking away at every second of your child’s life, you won’t ever really get any enjoyment from the images. And what’s the point of a picture locked away on a hard drive that no one ever looks at?
As with any big task, my suggestion is to break it down into bite-sized chunks. If you work on multiple devices, start with the one you use most often. Put all the images in one place. Then break that down further, either folder by folder, or by date, or some other logical system that you can start and stop at, picking up the next time where you left off. Getting started is the hardest part. Once you move past your current state of inertia, you’ll get more efficient at doing it, and the mountain will chip away, one gigabyte at a time until you’ve got a neat little set of images, properly ordered, that you can then save on at least two hard drives, and pump up a copy to whatever cloud storage service you use (I like Dropbox, but there are several to choose from like Google Drive, or even your own hosted server).
2016 is around the corner, and it will be full of new events, new people and places to photograph and another 500+ gigabytes of image files (if you’re a professional photographer). Don’t wait until you lose a year or more’s worth of images before getting organized and backing up your work.