Talking about Digital Asset Management (DAM) isn’t particularly sexy. It’s the digital photography equivalent of paying your car insurance. You know it’s something you need to do but you don’t really want to do. The best-case scenario is if you never have to call upon it at all. But in this 100% digital age, I don’t think most people are giving enough thought into how they’re going to preserve their photos for the long haul.
I’ve spent a significant chunk of the last 15 years generating images that I’m proud of in one fashion or another. To be sure, the vast majority of them aren’t award-winners, but they do mean quite a lot to me. These images document the stories of my life, not only as a photographer, but as a husband and father. I can’t think of anything tangible that I own that is more important to me. If they were somehow lost, of course I would get over it. Other things in life are obviously much more important. But their loss is not something I would suffer easily.
So as a mostly amateur photographer, how do I personally safeguard against disaster? I’ll be the first to admit that my system isn’t the best-case scenario, but it’s one that I am comfortable with considering I don’t make my living from photography and am not ultimately responsible to paying clients. If that was the case, my solution would be much different with a different monetary investment level.
So how do I handle my damn DAM?
Step 1. Physical Backup, Backup, Backup
Twice a month I backup all of my photos (including my RAW files and finished jpegs) from my primary computer to an aging external backup hard drive, a second generation DROBO storage unit. My unit can store up to 8 terabytes of redundant storage. To me it’s that redundancy that’s important. That means if one of the four hard drives that comprise my DROBO unit fails (and they have) all I have to do is pull it out and replace it with a new one and I’ve lost none of my data. It’s like having your own personal little RAID array.
There are drawbacks to this system. Since I have an older unit it operates on USB 2.0 which is painfully slow, and it offers no WIFI or ethernet connectivity like DROBO’s newer models. The unit is big (about the size of two loafs of Italian bread) and decently heavy. Also, if the DROBO itself were to fail (not the hard drives within) you would be locked in to buying a new DROBO shell because of the proprietary way it sets up the redundant drives.
That’s part of the reason why I copy of all of my data onto a second external hard drive (currently an 8 Terabyte Seagate Portable) at the same time I’m updating the DROBO. It’s USB 3.0 and about the size of two decks of cards laying down side by side. Of course it’s not redundant, so if something happens to that drive… poof, everything on it is toast. Between my DROBO and the more traditional external Seagate hard drive, I have two physical backups that are current within a two week period at any given time.
Step 2. Look Up at the Clouds
I should mention that before I upload or backup my jpeg files anywhere, I minimize their storage footprint by running them through JPEGMini. JPEGMini is an amazing little program (or you can get it as a plugin for Lightroom or Photoshop for a little extra dough) that reduces the file size of my exported jpegs by about 66% without any loss of visual quality.
After I reduce my jpegs, my cloud backup strategy used to solely revolve around uploading my finished files to Flickr. I have unlimited storage on that service (because of my grandfathered status as one of the original PRO members) as long as I keep paying my $25 per year subscription. It’s still the most easily searchable service I use and uploading is a breeze since I have a hot folder on my desktop that automatically picks up any jpegs I drop into it. There’s plenty of reasons I still like Flickr for organizing and storing my photos online that I won’t get into here, but I am increasingly worried about its future.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Yahoo (Flickr’s parent company) with their sale to AOL/Verizon, I don’t trust that the long-term viability of Flickr is assured. In recent years, I started to diversify my jpeg uploads to include Google Photos. While Google Photos isn’t necessarily the searchable archive for my photos that Flickr is, I do have a little more faith (not all my faith, just more than Yahoo) in Google that my data won’t up and disappear one day. As long as their size requirements are met (and they are fairly generous in that department) you can upload an unlimited number of photos to their service for free. And I have. Every single one of my photos from the past 15 years.
There are a couple of drawbacks to the aforementioned services. First of all, since these services are offered at a low cost or for free, the parent companies are under no obligation to continue these services in their current permeation, or at all for that matter. You have to weigh that risk with how much you’re willing to pay for peace of mind. Secondly, there’s no easy way to extract all of your data at once from these services. Sure, you can download each photo individually, but if we’re talking about tens or hundreds of thousands of photos, that becomes a real problem.
For the reasons listed above, if I was a professional photographer I would go with a more traditional monthly fee based data backup company like Carbonite, Crashplan, Dropbox or Backblaze. I’m not here to offer pros and cons of any of these services, but they seem to offer the options I would require from a professional standpoint: a singular data dump of all my files, and some sort of guarantee of services.
Step 3. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mari… I Mean the Raw File
You may have noticed in the last section I didn’t mention an online solution for my RAW files. Until a few months ago, this was one of the weak links in my backup strategy chain. Uploading RAW files always has been impractical because of the time it takes to upload the files and the way in which some of the cloud services handle RAW (converting them to another format, or not supporting them altogether.) Late last year, I started to address this problem one gigabyte at a time.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, as part of their service you can upload an unlimited number of photos to their Prime Photos product. This includes RAW photo file formats. Since the fall of last year, little by little, I have been uploading 15 years’ worth of RAW files to my Amazon Prime account. Again, this service falls prey to the same kind of flaw that plagues Flickr and Google Photos (not being able to reclaim all of my files at once) but I feel better knowing that in addition to my physical backups, my RAW files are at least somewhere offsite.
Step 4. Printing the Most Important Things
One can only hope that online storage solutions become easier and more seamless than they currently are and none of us will have to worry about what becomes of all of our important photos and memories as the years progress. Unfortunately, I’m not the type to put all my eggs in one basket. I don’t implicitly trust any one company to care about my photos as much as I do.
That’s why I’ve started printing 48 photos a month and throwing them in a shoebox. No, that doesn’t encompass all the photos I’ve taken in a month, but it does more than encapsulate the best highlights. This way, the only thing that controls the fate of these prints is me, not a flighty corporation or a piece of hardware that someone in a office somewhere decides to sunset support for.
Why 48? It’s the equivalent of about two rolls of 35mm film. That’s probably way more photos than my parents ever took per month and I feel like there is plenty of documentation of my childhood. There’s still something about holding a print in your hand and really looking at it, that no backlit display can replicate.
While prints are still susceptible to fires, misplacement, and neglect, I’ve seen photos first-hand that have lasted more than 100 years and that kind of longevity really can’t be replicated by any of the products or services I’ve mentioned.
Is my DAM solution perfect? Of course not, but I’m actively engaged in it, always looking for ways to improve it within the time and budget restraints I have to deal with. I want my photos to travel with me during my lifetime and hopefully with my family beyond that.