File management isn't sexy, but for anyone who works extensively with data - including photographers - it's something that you absolutely must understand and have a strategy for. An organized system for managing your image files lays the groundwork for everything else you do with them after you've imported them from your camera. If done properly, you should be able to find individual or groups of files, sort by tags, text, rating, or other characteristics, and be able to back up your library regularly in a straightforward manner.
Over the next two posts – this one, and another next week – I'm going to go over what a good file management system looks like, what it can do for you, and why you need one.
Next week I'm going to get into the file organization aspect of file management specifically as it relates to photographers, but first I'm going to look at the most important aspect of managing your data: Protection.
To start with, I'll lay out the Golden Rule of Digital File Management:
“DATA DOES NOT EXIST UNLESS IT IS STORED IN AT LEAST TWO DISTINCT LOCATIONS”
Basically this rule states that over the course of time, there is a good chance that your data will be erased, corrupted, lost, by accident or otherwise. The chance of a disaster of this type happening is high enough that if your data is only stored in one place, it might as well not exist at all.
Hard drives are in general fairly reliable, but it is pretty much a fact that your drive(s) will fail at some point, whether that be your internal hard drive in your computer or an external drive you use for extra storage. When that happens, there are a few possible scenarios.
3 Scenarios Of Lost/Corrupted Data
1. Your files and images are gone forever
2. You may be able to spend thousands of dollars for data specialists to retrieve all or most of the data from the failed drive
3. You backed up your data regularly, and all you need to do is load you lost data from your backup drive (and pick up a new drive so your data still exists in 2+ locations)
Regardless of how likely you think it is for your hard drive(s) to fail, weigh the costs carefully between buying a $300 hard drive to back up your library, and the emotional - and possibly monetary - cost of losing all of your images (and potentially client images as well).
I've encountered situations in which I've needed my backup drive at least four times in the past five years. In one, my house was broken into and my laptop stolen. What had initially been dread when I walked into my office quickly turned to relief when I saw that my hard drives had been left in place and only the laptop was gone. I bought a new laptop the next day, booted it from my backup, and it was as if nothing had happened.
A similar situation happened when that laptop died on me a few years later. Same result, new laptop, boot from backup, back to full power.
Two other situations involved the data on the drives becoming corrupted and unreadable. One of which was when I was working as a recording engineer and record producer. We had been recording an album for nearly a month which involved renting recording studios, hiring session musicians, and getting some really awesome recordings that everyone had put their heart and soul into, and we had all fallen in love with. On one of the last days in the studio, mid day the disk failed and we couldn't load any of our recordings. Luckily I had backed up the disk the night before to an additional two locations, so it was as easy as driving home to retrieve the backup, plugging it in back at the studio, and we were good. Even in this case we had to rerecord some of the parts recorded earlier that same day, but I can only imagine if the entire album that I was responsible for was lost.
Almost everyone I know who works with digital files in both the recording and photography industries has stories of close calls, or disasters. Don't let that be you, especially if you are solely responsible for delivering your clients their files. I can hardly imagine a more terrible situation than having to call a newlywed couple that all of their wedding photos had been lost due to a lack of file management on my part.
Personally I use the Mac Time Machine to backup all of my hard drives to 2 designated backup disks. Additionally I back up my photo library and most important files to an additional disk that I store in another physical location, generally updating this disk every 1-2 weeks. I also back up a smaller selection of important files to a cloud based storage system.
Through this system, I have peace of mind that my data is backed up multiple times per day, and I have access to backups dating back months that I have the option to restore my system from should any issues arise. Additionally, my most important data is backed up a third time at least every couple weeks and stored away from my home to limit the possibility of losing everything due to theft, fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami, or alien invasion. Actually, I'm not sure my data is protected from that last one, I might have to come up with a solution for that. Maybe I can swing a rotating couple of drives that get cycled to and from the ISS via the NASA resupply shuttles...
That about covers my thoughts on the Data Protection side of file management. Hopefully you already have a strategy in place to protect your image library, but if not, I hope that this article has got you thinking and given you some strategies to implement. I really can't overstate how important it is to back up your data, and the reality that if you do a lot of work with digital files, you will face disaster in the form of hard drive failure sooner or later. Much better to make a small investment in a hard drive now and to be prepared and protected.
Next week I'm going to look into the image organization side of file management. This is an area that I am constantly trying to refine and perfect, and it took me a long time to realize it's importance and set up a functional system. Having a properly organized library of images and the corresponding file structure can make sorting and finding individual images a breeze, even when dealing with tens, or even hundreds of thousands of images.
In the mean time I'd love to hear about your file management system. Do you have a backup system in place? If so how is it set up? Have you ever had a close call or disaster yourself? Maybe you know someone who has. As always I would really appreciate it if you shared this article if you found it useful, entertaining, or informative, and send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, or just to say hi!