Rethinking My Photographic Process

With Apple drawing my productive yet frustrating decade-long relationship with its pro photo management app, Aperture, to a close, I’ve started examining my photographic process to understand how it works today to figure out what I should do tomorrow.

Ten years ago, my main camera was a Nikon F3 and my process was tied to film. I dabbled with digital point-and-shoots, and borrowed a Nikon D1 and Kodak DCS-14n for weekend shoots. My digital image collection was in its infancy, but I knew that it would grow for when I did the math, film was simply financially unsustainable and digital in the long run was cheaper. My hard drives were filling with images and managing them by hand started to become a very real issue. I wanted a tool that first and foremost could help me get a handle on my photo collection and secondarily, could replace the basic digital darkroom functions that Photoshop had outgrown. Aperture was released and like I did with Photoshop almost 15 years earlier, started using it at version 1.

My process for the better part of the first seven years of the last ten has been pretty simple: shoot with my DSLR or mirrorless camera, transfer the files to my Mac, import them into Aperture, apply metadata, process, and upload my favorites to Flickr. I’d store them on a local hard drive and then use any of a number of tools to regularly back them up onto a separate drive in case of disk failure (which did happen and no data were lost). My goal was it have a single source of image “truth.”

Over the last three years, however, things began to change and the “truth” started to erode:

  1. Starting with the Apple iPhone 4S, I began to use my phone as a creative tool as much as my larger digital cameras. Today, I dabble in Instagram, Facebook, VSCO, and other sites as outlets for my photos, and use an array of camera and image processing apps. As a result, I’m bypassing the Aperture workflow and creating collections of images on devices that, like a roll of film trapped in a long-lost camera, may take months to hit my master collection (if ever).
  2. I’ve incorporated my iPad into my image processing workflow, which has turned to into another darkroom that goes beyond basic photo processing and in a vastly different direction from the arcane world of Photoshop. The use of it, like my iPhone, has created yet another stream of images that is sporadically synchronized with Aperture, if ever, and is an essential part of my photographic process.
  3. I’ve started actively using my photos in personal as well as professional projects that come together far from Aperture on my personal laptop. I find that I am 2,500 miles away from the hard drive that has the perfect image for a presentation that I need to give the next day. Not good.
  4. My library is large and has exceeded any realistic sense of portability. At last check, I have close to 100,000 images. Fortunately only 25,000 or so represent my active collection as the rest are time-lapse sequences that can be squirrel away on a couple of disks. That said, those 25,000 take up 120GB of space that continues to expand with more and more megapixels.

The last point, however, has made me a bit nervous. When I moved cross-country in 2013, I knew that if my hard drives failed in transit, I’d lose everything. So I carried the drives with me through the airports and filled my laptop to the gills with data, and despite my best efforts and treating the disks with care, only one copy out of three fully survived the trip. Call it altitude, X-ray machines, or simply moving the disks around, but my data was not in good shape when it arrived in California.

In a nutshell, my current photographic process involves multiple cameras, multiple image processing methodologies, and multiple distribution channels, but fundamentally one storage approach with a single point of failure and an eroding source of “truth.” My situation today is a bit different from what it was when I started with Aperture.

To help me think through this, I reached out to a friend of mine, Quinn Dombrowski, who has lived her photographic life entirely online from the first time she picked up a DSLR. With over 65,000 images in the cloud countless images used across the Internet, she seemed like a perfect person to get some tips, which I’ve summarized here:

  1. Pick a cloud platform and stick with it for collection management and primary distribution.
  2. Make sure you understand and then apply appropriate privacy settings for the images in your collection. Remember, not every image in your collection is destined for public distribution.
  3. Tag all of your images, so you can search and easily find what you need when you need it.
  4. Avoid over thinking albums and such for managing your collection (using albums within a portfolio for distribution is a different matter). Tags and metadata are far more effective for collection management.
  5. Make a backup somewhere — a different cloud service, local disk, etc. Even though all of your images are stored in the cloud, services can and do disappear. And don’t forget to archive the tags and metadata, too.

So my plan is to follow Quinn’s advice and move to the cloud, which will enable me to manage my collection from anywhere, process with anything, and use images at any time. Right now I’m cleaning up my collection, applying metadata where appropriate, and preparing it for the next stage of its digital life. One thing is certain, however — I will be keeping a local backup. I still am a bit old school when it comes to my data.

My photographic process isn’t what it was in 2005, but that’s okay. Change is good.