Photo by Joe McNally

“Terry have you ever done a post or video on your photo storage workflow?”

This was a question one of my Adobe Colleagues, Tim asked me last month and after a few moments of blank stares I replied, “hmm, um, no.” The reason this caught me off guard is that while I have certainly talked about photography, computers and the importance of backup over the years on my own blog, I haven’t really put it all together specifically for photographers. I thought this might be a timely topic for my guest spot here. This is also the time where I have to give one of those Scott Kelby like disclaimers and say “This is MY workflow. It’s the way I do it. I understand that your workflow and requirements may be different. So take it for what it’s worth.”

Your digital images are your negatives – PROTECT THEM!

Let’s start with what happens at the shoot

My interests are primarily around portrait, fashion and glamour photography. This means that I’m either shooting on location or in my studio. If it’s the latter then 99% of the time I’m shooting tethered into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 running on my MacBook Pro. If I’m on location then chances are I’m shooting to a memory card in my camera. In either case I don’t leave the shoot without doing a backup. If I shot tethered to my laptop then the images are on my internal hard drive. That’s not good enough. Why? Because what if my drive crashes or becomes corrupted before I get home? What if my laptop is stolen between the studio and my trip home? Not likely, but I don’t chance it. I plug in a portable external Firewire 800 hard drive and copy the shoot folder over to it while I’m tearing down/packing up my gear. I think the longest it has ever taken is about 7 minutes. For me that 7 minutes is peace of mind. Either put the drive in a separate bag or in your pocket so that it’s not with your computer in case of theft (yes I’m paranoid and you should be too. How many hours did you just spend on that shoot?).  If I shot to the card then I back up the card to a portable backup device such as the iPad with the Camera Connection Kit (see my review here),  HyperDrive Color Space (see my review here) or the outrageously expensive, but very good display of the Epson P6000. Then I head home for more fun.

Have you ever lost or misplaced a Model Release Form?

Although I haven’t lost one, I did have a heck of a time finding one recently. It was over a year old and someone want to purchase one of my photos to use for a tutorial and patent application. I finally found the “paper” form and immediately scanned in all the rest of them. Now I no longer use paper release forms. I do them on my iPad instead. This way a copy of the signed form gets emailed to the model (or property owner) and myself. Once I get back to my computer I move it to my server for digital safe keeping.

The App I use on the iPad (works on iPhone and iPod touch too) is called Easy Release and you can get it here from the iTunes

If you’re looking for an App that is completely customizable for all kinds of forms then I would go with Contract Maker Pro here from the iTunes

Signing with a finger is cool looking, but get a stylus! Your model/property owner will appreciate it more. This is the one I use.

Also check out my other favorite iPad Apps for photographers here.

Review, Edit, Retouch and Distribute

The next step in my process is to go through the shoot and immediately kill the bad shots. I use the Reject flag in Lightroom 3 for this. If you’re using Star ratings, these would be the 1 Star images (unless you’re one of the backwards thinking people that believe 1 Star is the best :) In your case these would be the 5 star images – BTW, how was that 1 star restaurant you went to or the 1 star hotel you stayed in? I’m just joking. Put down the keyboard, back away. It was just a joke.) The rejects are the ones not suitable for anyone’s eyes. These are the mistakes, out of focus or otherwise horrible shots. The ones that remain are the ones that I choose my favorites from as well as provide to the client to review via the web (see my choice of Lightroom client review web template here). Before creating that web gallery I do convert my Nikon RAW files (.NEF) into DNG format. I do this with one command in Lightroom and yes I do replace the original RAW files (remember my disclaimer above?). I’ve done it this way for several years and have yet to ever miss the proprietary .NEF files.

Another Backup Has Happened in The Background – The minute I get home and open my laptop another backup kicks in automatically and wirelessly. Because I’m on a Mac with Mac OS X 10.6.x Snow Leopard, there is a native automatic backup solution that backs up any changes to my drive every hour. That solution of course is called “Time Machine.” I have a 1TB hard drive connected to my Mac mini file server (more on that in a minute) that serves as a network Time Machine backup. So even while I’m working on the shoot that I just did it’s being backed up AGAIN. Now I have the images in at least 3 places for the time being.

You’re Happy and the Client is Happy – Now What?

I’ve talked about this in the past and even recorded a video on how I handle it. See it below. The question becomes, what do you do with the hundreds of photos you snapped that no one wanted? Again I know that everyone’s situation is different. I also know that some of you may even be contractually obligated to hold on to every frame you captured. I would dare say though that most of us don’t have those restrictions. Here’s the situation: Let’s say you did a shoot and you kept 300 shots from it. You picked out the 10 favorites that you will use. Let’s say the client picked 20 and paid you. Now you’re left with 270 shots that no one chose. You didn’t want them. They didn’t want them. By the way in all my years of shooting I have NEVER had a client come back and say, “hey, you know that shot that made my nose look funny or my belly stick out? Well I want that one now.” It has never ever ever happened to me. I found that I was holding on to thousands and thousands of images that no one would ever ask for and that I would probably never go through again. Even out of the 10 or so favorites that I picked, chances are that I would only use a couple of them. If I ever needed a “different look” from that shoot, I could just pick another one from my favorites. Also remember that you typically show people your BEST work right? When do you ever go back and dig up the second or third best shots to show?

DELETE THEM!

That’s right! I said it. Delete them (see my disclaimer above before you argue your particular situation). Really? yes DELETE THEM. When you actually choose to delete them, is up to you. However, ultimately you’re better off by deleting them. If deleting them right away makes you squimish then decide WHEN you should delete them. Six months later, one year later, whatever it is, DELETE THEM!

For my Lightroom brothers and sisters out there I have a way to identify which ones to delete. I built a Smart Collection to keep a constant watch on the photos that no one choose. Here’s the video on how I did it:

Now that you’re left with the keepers where do they go?

At this point I’ve done all that I’m going to do with these photos. The client is happy. I’m happy and I left with how many ever photos that I’ve retouched or tweaked on my MacBook Pro hard drive. After a while of doing this my drive space is going to dwindle. So it’s time to MOVE them to another more permanent location. I treat my MacBook Pro as my work in progress machine. Once the shoot is complete and I’m moving on to the next shoot, I need to move those photos off to another location. This is where my Server comes in. I have a Mac mini running Mac OS X Server with a Drobo Firewire 800 attached. This server has Terabytes of space in it and no matter how much current storage I have, I know that I’m going to need more in the future.

Your need for space is never ending. You might as well accept that fact.

I had to come to the realization that as a photographer I’m going to constantly be ADDING to my collection of photos presumably for the rest of my life. Think about it. You are always going to be taking photos and even if you only kept 20 photos from every shoot, you’re probably going want access to each set of those 20 photos for life. They are your memories. Client work may be different. You probably want to archive those shots, However, for me I kinda treat them as one in the same. In other words if I do portrait session for a paying client, I will probably still have my favorites from that shoot as well as their favorites. Some may actually make it in to my portfolio. Therefore I want access to my best shots at all times. I don’t Archive! Nope, I don’t store client shots any differently than I do my personal ones. Managing multiple archives is more hassle for me than it’s worth.This is why I went with a Drobo. Before Drobo I was just using the largest hard drives available at the time and of course backing them up. Each drive would last me a year or two before I would need to increase my storage space. This is when the pain would come in because it would require being down for a day while I restored all of my files onto the new larger drive. That pain was cured for me with a Drobo. This is because I can simply Add/Replace the drives with Bigger Drives without shutting down or stopping the work.

Time to move the shoot folder from my MacBook Pro to my Server/Drobo

The remaining shots get moved over my network from my laptop to my server. I keep the catalogs on my MacBook Pro as I constantly use them and add more photos to them (unless I created a projected specific catalog for a project that then gets moved to the Drobo as well). The next time I fire up the Lightroom Catalog it will ask where the photos are (by displaying question marks on the thumbnails) and I simply point one of them to the new location of the photos on my server and Lightroom relinks all of the ones in that folder.

Lastly, I backup the Drobo every night and I have an offsite copy too

Drobos are GREAT protection for drive failure AND they give you the ability to increase your storage on the fly with little to no down time. However, what Drobos don’t protect you from is file corruption, accidental deletion and viruses. Let’s say you accidentally drag a folder over to your Drobo that just happened to have the same name as a folder already there. Yes the operating system will ask you if you want to replace the folder or not and while you meant to click NO, you accidentally clicked YES. Now that older folder is GONE! There isn’t a thing Drobo will do to help you in that case. However, if you have a backup you can restore the folder.

photo compliments of iStockphoto.com

How in the heck do you back up a Drobo?
Luckily for me my storage needs have yet to exceed the current capacity of the largest single volume drives (2 TBs) available. Since I don’t have more than 2TBs of data on my Drobo I can backup to the entire Drobo to a single 2TB external Firewire 800 drive. As a matter of fact I have TWO of these. I backup the Drobo each night using the Smart Update Feature of SuperDuper!, which only backs up the changes as needed. One drive is connected for the nightly backup and I rotate between the two drives each week between home and my safe deposit box at the bank. OK, I’m lying. I wish it were every week, but it’s more like when I remember to do it or get paranoid. In any case I have a duplicate copy of my Drobo and all my files and photos at the bank. If you think backing up a Drobo is overkill, read about my experience here. If my storage needs ever exceed the largest single drives available then I would order a second Drobo to back up the main one and then just rotate the drives from the Backup Drobo with ones in the Safe Deposit box.

The Bottom Line

I don’t proclaim my workflow to be the end all be all workflow for everyone to adopt. My goal here was to simply share what I do and why I do it. Take from it what you need and leave what you don’t need. I’ve used this method for years now and it has worked well and have the years of photos to show for it. Also by becoming more disciplined about what I keep and don’t keep, my storage requirements don’t increase as quickly as they once did.

You can see more of Terry’s photography here.