The origins of photography date back to a simple principle — known since the time of Aristotle — called camera obscura. Latin for darkened chamber (or room), it was observed that light streaming through a small, circular hole into a dark room would project on the opposite wall an inverted image of the outside surroundings. Once it was figured out by Louis Daguerre and others in the mid-19th century how to couple lens optics with light sensitive media, photography became a practical, but more complicated, art form.
The fundamentals of aperture, shutter speed, and film sensitivity (now called ISO) form the basis of the exposure triangle and remain unchanged today. Beyond that, there are times when knowledge of the more mathematical aspects of photography, like f-stop, reciprocity, inverse square law and lighting ratios for flash, depth of field, and hyperfocal distance among others, is essential. With the advent of mainstream digital photography twenty years ago, additional technical terms like white balance, histogram, color space, dynamic range, bit depth, ETTR (expose to the right), etc., have only added to the complexity of understanding photography. All of this can make digital photography an overwhelming and daunting hobby/vocation to pursue.
Fortunately, for the beginning and amateur photographer, today’s digital cameras make it easy to take technically good photos without having to know or understand the underlying principles and techniques. Many advanced/automated features like exposure bracketing and in-camera HDR, balanced fill flash, 3-D and matrix light metering, shadow and highlight alert warnings, in-camera focus stacking, LCDs and real-time histograms, image stabilization, and so on have become standard features even in consumer/prosumer cameras. Yes, despite how technology has democratized photography and leveled the playing field, I have observed a common problem while teaching workshops that I call the digital divide.
Unlike film photography, digital photography requires using a computer (tablets aside) and herein lies the problem. While technology has enabled photographers of all skill levels to become more proficient at capturing digital images, a number of them struggle to use a computer and are unfamiliar with managing their digital assets. Like it or not, DAM (digital asset management) is an integral part of digital photography. Furthermore, amassing 100,000 images or more in a photo library is commonplace. As libraries grow, managing these assets to meet current needs and evolving to sustain them for the long term as new technologies emerge becomes more complicated and problematic. Without a certain level of computer literacy a divide is created that limits what you can do in digital photography. A collection of photos that you can’t access becomes a useless pile of files destined to be forgotten and abandoned. Below are several areas that I teach in my photography workshops to bridge the digital divide.
3-2-1 backup strategy
Unless you are a famous photographer and your prints are hanging up permanently in a national art gallery, or you print all of your photos onto archival paper and store them accordingly, our photo legacies will be digital — a bunch of files represented by ones and zeros on hard drives or other storage media. And digital assets are more than just photographic. They include our financial, health, and other personal records; music; government documents; and newspapers, magazine, trade journals, and literature. It’s important that there be more than one copy of important files because, as we all know, hard drives fail.
Digital asset managers practice what is called a 3-2-1 strategy for data redundancy: three copies of each asset, on two different media (for photographers this means hard drives), with one stored in an offsite location in case the primary location is destroyed by fire, floods, etc. Do you have a backup copy of your photographs in case your working drive fails? For Lightroom users, do you have a backup copy of your catalog? It is recommended to back up your files on a regular basis, especially after ingesting new photos from a field trip or shoot. Programs like Carbon Copy Cloner (bombich.com) for Macs or Good Sync (goodsync.com) for PCs are good programs for creating clones of drives and incremental backups.
I encounter many workshop participants who did not back up their photos. One in particular comes to mind because this person kept the originals on flash memory cards and bought new cards for every shoot! That is a lot of cards and money. However, as I stressed to this person, flash cards don’t last forever and are not a good backup strategy. Unfortunately, stories of losing entire photo libraries are all too common and heartbreaking. As always, it is best to be aware of these and learn from others to prevent this from happening to you.
Be familiar with your operating system file management. If you are a Mac user that means Finder. For users of PCs that means File or Windows Explorer. Know how to copy (duplicate), move, and rename files as well as folders and subfolders. Learn how to sort files by date, date modified, type, size, etc. Be aware of the location of important files, not only photos but things like Lightroom’s catalog file, presets, templates, and so on. For Mac users, hard drives should have descriptive and separate names, like working drive, archive drive, and off-site storage drive. Physically identify your drives with a label or indelible ink pen so there is no confusion. Keep a tally of how many photos you have and write it down, updating the total as needed.
What hierarchy do you use to organize your photo library? Is it by year, location, subject, a mix of ways, something else, or in one big folder? In my Lightroom Organization workshop, I stress that organization is essential outside of (or independent of) LR and other photo management programs. Someone looking at your photo library using a file management program should be able to figure out your organization. Organize your collection as if you did not have Lightroom or another program. Not only will it help you locate files in that event, but it also makes them easier to manage within a photo application. The bottom line is a disorganized photo library reduces efficiency to find and manage your assets. Once you find an organization strategy that works for you stick with it; consistency is the key.
Do you rename your files when you download them to your computer or do you keep them with the same name that the camera assigns (typically 2–4 letters, numbers, and an underscore specific to the camera model, followed by a four-digit file counter)? If you do not rename, what happens when the camera’s file numbering reaches 9999 and resets to 0001? This means you will start creating duplicate file names. To avoid confusion, some photo management programs will append a -2, -3, -4 and so on to avoid redundant file names. Others will keep the same name but will be able to distinguish one from the other based on a date stamp or size difference. Either way it can create confusion and havoc depending on the program.
I like to add a descriptive custom text field to my files on import for three reasons. First, it ensures that I have a unique name for each unique photo. Second, just glancing at a file name outside of Lightroom or other photo program I immediately know the subject, location, or other based on the custom text used for my image. Third, a descriptive file name will help images to be cataloged by web crawlers of websites and social media for search engines. This helps for Google searches. For example, if someone is looking for a photograph of a polar bear it would be easier to find. Finally, I also append a suffix for derivative (repurposed) files, like -fb for Facebook, -blog for blogs, -bayphoto for printing to Bay Photo, etc. This way I have a distinct name for the original (master) file and a unique name for each derivative usage of the original.
Internal Hard Drives
Many who use laptops as their main (and perhaps only) working computer store photos on the laptop’s internal drive. The same drive also contains the computer’s operating system, applications (programs), and personal documents. These drives are usually much smaller in capacity than drives in desktop computers or external drives due to space limitations. At some point these drives get filled to capacity and a couple things start to happen. If they are conventional spinning hard drives, beyond 50% capacity they begin to slow down reading and writing because it takes longer to locate files across shrinking platter space. Second when computer memory gets used up by running two or more programs simultaneously, programs like Photoshop use hard disk space as virtual memory (called a scratch disk). If there is not enough space left on an internal drive (if it is the only designated scratch disk that PS knows about), Photoshop will even lock you out from running the program because it does not have enough space to run the program. In cases like these, I have worked with clients to free up hard disk space by removing non-essential files. Once that is done, a second, external hard drive with more free space is designated as the primary scratch disk with the internal drive in the secondary position.
My recommendation is to store your photos on an external hard drive separate from the laptop’s (or desktop’s) internal drive which has the operating system on it. See the discussions on operating system and hardware upgrades for more on this topic. For Lightroom users, keeping your active catalog on a fast, internal solid state drive (SSD) will improve the program’s performance. Just remember, though, to have a backup copy of the catalog on a second drive.
Operating System Upgrades
Beware of automatic operating system upgrades to your computer especially if you have important files imbedded in the operating system’s (OS) file structure. At one time, upgrading to a major new version of your operating system often wiped out personal files if they were part of the OS file structure. Fortunately, those days are (mostly) behind us. Even so, files can get moved and cause photo management programs to behave like you have lost everything. That is another reason why I recommend keeping photos on a separate drive from the OS.
A final cautionary note applies to Mac users. In 2019, Apple launched macOS Catalina, the successor OS to macOS Mojave. However, the new operating system no longer supports 32-bit programs. Despite giving programmers ample time to convert their software to 64-bit, some waited to the last minute or not at all. As a result, Mac users who automatically upgraded to Catalina were finding 32-bit plugins to LR, PS, and other software, would not work. I held off on the OS upgrade until I could upgrade (often for free) to the 64-bit equivalent programs or find alternatives.
When is it time to upgrade your computer? Do you have a succession/upgrade plan for that eventuality? Insufficient computer memory, slow processor and graphics card speeds, and a small hard drive can make DAM and post-processing more time consuming and tedious than it needs to be. Let’s face it. Most of us would rather be out in the field generating new photos than sitting in front of a sluggish computer. Adding new technologies and peripherals to an older computer has many pitfalls. For example, upgrading your camera body to a larger mega pixel camera will not only consume more hard disk space, but will slow down data transfer especially if you are using low throughput I/O connections like USB. An outdated graphics card may not be able to drive the newer, high resolution monitors, like 4K or 5K. Check with your computer manufacturer before upgrading monitors.
With rapid changes in computer technology, especially with things like faster I/O connections, I usually upgrade my computer every four to six years. When you upgrade is a personal decision, but I recommend buying as much computer as you can afford at the time to future-proof it for as long as possible. Most Mac computers (especially laptops) are notorious for not being able to allow users to upgrade memory and storage after the initial build. Programs like LR and PS require a minimum of 16 GB of memory to function efficiently. Therefore, add enough memory, storage, and CPU/graphics card speed up front. SSDs are becoming standard on internal drives for laptops and some desktops due to their faster read/write speeds over conventional spinning hard drives. But they are more expensive. When you can afford it, opt for SSDs.
With regards to external hard drives, do not skimp on capacity. Buy a hard drive with at least double the capacity that you have currently. This gives you room to grow and you will eventually fill it. Also, buy a second drive so you have a backup to your working drive. Make sure the graphics card will be able to drive not only the current computer monitor (if you hook up a separate monitor), but any monitor upgrades you anticipate like from a 2K to a 4K or a small monitor to a 32-inch monitor. Lastly, the fastest I/O connections currently available are USB-C (Thunderbolt 3), so buy externals which natively have that connectivity like hard drives and card readers (even if you have to adapt from USB to USB-C until you get the new computer).
RAW and XMP Files
RAW image files contain all of the unprocessed pixel data from your camera’s sensor. There should be no debate that RAW image files are the best files to work with when extensive post-processing is done to retain the most color information and prevent artifacts like posterization (banding). Consider them like photo negatives or originals that are important to keep. Furthermore, many photo editors of magazines, newspapers and other publications will often request RAW files in addition to JPEGs or TIFFS to ensure no untoward photo manipulation was done to misrepresent the imagery captured.
Photographers who shoot raw will be familiar with the file extensions like .CR2 for Canon, .NEF for Nikon, .ARW for Sony, etc. But there will be a second, small text file with the same name as the RAW file that is generated by the camera. That file is appended with .XMP and is also known as a side-car file. It contains all of the metadata, like date, time, camera model, camera serial number, lens, focal length, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, and anything else that the camera records at the time of shutter release. For LR users who have the appropriate box checked in preferences, the side-car file will also store many of the post-processing steps done on a file which enables those changes to be read outside of Lightroom.
Unless you combine the RAW file and the XMP file into Adobe’s DNG (digital negative format), photographers need to keep track of and not delete the XMP file. Fortunately, the XMP file is imported/stored alongside the RAW file in photo applications.
Today’s digital cameras are marvels of technology and engineering. They combine the last vestiges of a mechanical device — with shutters and mirrors (in the case of DSLRs) and motors to move lens elements (all cameras) — with microprocessors (computers) performing thousands of calculations in a fraction of a second to record an image stored on a solid state drive (memory card). The fastest of them can do this up to 20 frames per second or more while tracking a moving subject outputting a high percentage of sharp keepers. Add to that a plethora of in-camera computational photographic features (what can seem like wizardry) and it’s no wonder the number of amazing photos generated daily by amateur and professional photographers is growing exponentially. Despite these advances, an essential — but overlooked — piece of photographic gear is the traditional computer to manage and post-process digital files. Being computer literate and facile with file manipulation and storage will allow digital photographers to get the most from their collections whether it is sharing on social media, providing imagery for publications, or delivering memories to wedding clients. Lastly, the most important computer of all is your brain. Beyond being familiar with your camera and its features, know your computer equally as well; in the digital photography age they go hand-in-hand.