I am often asked how I organize my images. It’s a great question! To our camera and computer, each image is simply a file… a file that is no more or less important than any other file. To us humans, however, the importance of one image (or a set of images) over another can be all the difference in the world.
Now, before I begin, I want to let you know right away that my system is imperfect and built largely around a storage plan, rather than an easy retrieval plan. Various software programs can help, such as Aperture, Lightroom, and Picasa. Rule number one for my system, though, is that it is software independent. It’s a bit heartless, as well, as in my system no single image is any more important than any other image. In fact, my system is downright boring.
My organization and backup system is built around folders. Folders? Yes, folders, or perhaps you may call them ‘directories’ as I often do. The top level folders are the year. I have been storing my images this way since 2007. Prior to 2007, I stored my images in sequentially numbered 700mb folders, so that each folder was easily archived to CD. In 2007, I began backing up my folders to DVD+R media, so I gained more folder flexibility.
OK, so the top level is the four digit year. So, presently at the top level I have folders named 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Underneath each folder, I have each month of the year in a 6 digit format. For example, the first three folders underneath 2008 are 200801, 200802, and 200803. For me, this works very well, as I tend to remember events in sequence.
Subordinate to each monthly folder are folders by camera. I have used many different cameras and I tend to associate events with which camera(s) I was using. This scheme works well because it avoids redundant filenames between cameras. Although filename prefixes can be customized on my Nikon cameras, I leave the naming prefix as the default setting.
I use a Mac with Time Machine, Apple’s backup software, so as I work daily, my files are backed up from the source external drive to my Time Machine external drive. My source drive is a 2tb Western Digital Elements drive while my Time Machine drive is a 3tb Western Digital Elements drive. The hard drive residing in my iMac is also backed up as part of this process. Time Machine allows me to recover specific files from a particular point in time. What this means is that if I deleted a file yesterday and a backup ran this morning, I can open Time Machine and flip to the day before yesterday to retrieve the file even though I deleted it prior to the most recent backup. This has saved my behind on more than one occasion.
I like live backups and short of theft, fire, or a double-hard-drive-failure catastrophe, my files are safe.
That is not enough for me, however. I also burn two copies of my monthly folders to two separate sets of DVD+R media. Every couple of years, I remove one of the two sets and completely rebuild it from scratch, while also keeping the original optical backups that I replaced. This leaves me with multiple redundant, refreshed optical copies, stored in separate locations. I keep the discs in dark, temperature controlled locations, and occasionally spot check the oldest backup batches to assure that they are working.
Are there other, perhaps better ways? Sure. Online backups are becoming a less expensive option, and, even free depending on the total size of the backup. Hard drives are inexpensive enough to keep multiple redundant live backups.
Ultimately, there is no ‘right’ and ‘foolproof’ answer. Online backups are dependent on a 3rd party provider to maintain availability of your files. On-site backups are prone to various risks, including fire and theft. The key is to be aware of the risks and develop a plan which has an acceptable level of risk while not consuming significant cost and time to maintain the system. Life is full of compromises. Every time you leave the house to take pictures, your files are at risk.
Know your options, pick a path that will work for you, and let me know if you have any questions. 🙂