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How to Build a Photo Library That Works With Any Application


Five years ago, I'll bet that you were managing your digital images differently than you are today. Maybe you were using Aperture and now use Adobe Lightroom. You might have been on a Windows computer and now use a Mac. Back then, your main camera was a DSLR and now you use an iPhone to capture most of your images.

The point is that our apps and tools of choice are constantly evolving. Whether it's a new OS or simply a new piece of software for managing your images, technology is an ever-shifting paradigm. One constant is the need to preserve and catalog our digital images. In this article, I'll discuss how to build an image collection that will work across multiple applications and prepare for the future.

We'll look at four key aspects to consider:

  1. How your image files are organized
  2. What file formats your images, and the work you do with them, are saved in
  3. Whether your corrections and adjustments are "locked in" to a program or not
  4. Metadata standards and compliance
Lightroom 2
My photo editing journey began way back in 2008 with Adobe Lightroom 2. We're now on Version 6 of the application, and while much of the interface hasn't changed, the core of the app continues to evolve. My new images certainly won't work in Lightroom 2, and future-proofing your image library is what this article is all about.

1. Organize Your Files

One key part of avoiding platform lock-in is to organize your photos in a way that works with any app that you use. The problem is that some applications like to "own" our images, and not make them easy to move.

In Apple Photos, importing images into your Library moves them into the depths of a Library file that can't be explored. Adobe Lightroom allows us to organize images with a catalog system that stores organization data, but it doesn't necessarily organize our images. Google's Picasa has a file browser to search your computer. Our goal is to organize images in a way that works with any platform.

Recently, I took the time to organize my own photo library. My images had become a wasteland of accumulated photos, strewn about in haphazardly named folders. In truth, I could never find the images that I was looking for. To get organized, I had to develop a consistent, repeatable way of sorting images.

The best way to do this is with a naming scheme that encompasses the capture date and a short keyword describing the images. My suggested naming scheme is:

YYYY-MM-DD Keyword (example: 2015-11-04 Boston Trip)

When I capture images, I download all of them into a new folder based on the capture date, and add a short keyword to the end. Then, I'll drop them into a year folder to keep things nice and tidy.

Image Organization
Now that I've completed my organization project, my images are sorted in a way that makes sense. I have a "year" folder, and then each day of shooting gets its own folder. I can easily determine what's inside a folder just by browsing my Mac.

This is an organization structure that works with virtually any application. Whether I'm working in a Lightroom catalog with over 10,000 images or simply browsing my Mac in Finder, I know exactly what's inside the folder. I can test out new applications without having to turn over my images to a new catalog system or database.

2. Choose the Right File Format

When I was first starting photography, I bought a brand new DSLR, the Nikon D60. This wasn't long after the camera first went on sale in early 2008. I received it, took a few images with it, and excitedly went back to my computer to view my work.

Much to my horror, I received an error message in Adobe Photoshop that my images weren't even compatible. I had to wait for the corresponding Adobe Camera RAW update to open my files! 

If you've had this experience before, you know how frustrating it is to try and work around. More importantly, it illustrates an important pillar of platform agnosticism: how can we make sure our images will still open in the future?

Unsupported file
This is our worst nightmare in a digital workflow: "The files appear to be unsupported or damaged." In this case, the file is unsupported—my version of Lightroom didn't work with a newer camera. When we are attempting to future-proof our image libraries, we have to consider that formats aren't forever.

Many of us are firmly committed to shooting in RAW due to the power that it enables in the digital darkroom. Unfortunately RAW is proprietary and varies from one camera manufacturer to the next—hence the need to update applications that handle RAW files each time a new camera is released. Software developers depend on cooperation from the camera maker to keep their applications working with the latest files.

This is not a recipe for long-term success. It's alarming to consider that someday, your software may not support your RAW files. It seems hard to imagine, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.

What can we do to ensure that we'll always be able to open our images? One idea is to embrace open formats when possible. For digital images, one option is to convert your images to the Digital Negative (DNG) format, an open format developed by Adobe. Using Adobe's free DNG converter (Windows, Mac), you can take your RAW images and convert them to this open format. Because this is an open format, it will theoretically transcend generations, as many software developers can create software that opens DNGs.

Adobe DNG Converter
The Adobe DNG Converter is a free application that takes your RAW images and converts them to Adobe's open digital image format, DNG. 

Digital Negative is not without its critics, however. Some photographers note that the image is still undergoing a conversion, and in that conversion process the software is applying its interpretation of the file much in the same way that Adobe Camera Raw does. The success of DNG also relies on Adobe's continued support of the format, which is never certain.

Outside of DNG, it can be difficult to determine a bulletproof file format. You could give up the gains of the RAW format and shoot in JPEG, which certainly will be around for the foreseeable future. You could also maintain original images and save JPEG copies of the finished image, which we'll talk more about in the next section.

3. Preserve Corrections & Adjustments

A key part of the digital workflow is correcting our images to create a finished product. There's a real joy to be found in taking an image and bringing it to its full potential. For good asset management, we'll want to be able to tweak those adjustments in the future.

I do the majority of my work in Adobe Lightroom. If you aren't familiar with Lightroom, it uses a catalog system to store the edits we apply to our images. But the edits aren't applied to the original image file; instead, they're stored inside the Lightroom catalog. Until we press "export", that edit lives only inside the catalog.

Lightroom Edit
Editors like Lightroom store our correction data in a proprietary catalog or database that can only be used with that application. We apply our edits in the application, but it doesn't leave the application until we export a finished image. The problem is that our edits are locked into a single format that doesn't work with every application.

The problem here is really easy to spot: our edits belong to the Lightroom catalog, a file that doesn't work with any other application. What happens if we no longer want to use an editor like Lightroom that "owns" our edits? The reality is that many photo tools use this type of setup; the edits are only visible inside the application until we export.

There are really two ways to attempt to preserve an edit:

  1. Export every finished image, separate from the original file. This saves our image in a finished JPEG or TIFF file, and removes the lock-in of the editing application we used.
  2. Turn on XMP sidecar files, which save edit data as a standalone file.

XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) is yet another Adobe file format that seeks to make images portable and work in many different applications. However, unlike DNG, XMP does not replace the original file. Instead, it sits side by side; it's often called a "sidecar" file. Peeking inside an XMP file, it's simply a text file with editing instructions that can be used in many applications. This wiki has a great list of applications that work with XMP.

Lightroom XMP
Although I frequently use Lightroom, I also build XMP sidecar files so that my edits are usable in other applications. Turn on the option in the Catalog Settings > Metadata panel so that you'll always have the edits stored two ways: in the catalog, as well as in the XMP sidecar file.

If you want to build XMP files in Lightroom, for example, you simply need to turn it on. In the Catalog Settings options, access Metadata and tick the box that is labeled Automatically Write Changes to Metadata. Once you do this, you can open your images with Photoshop, for example, and see the same look applied to your image. 

XMP SIdecar
When we're talking about XMP files, they're often called "sidecar" files. This is because one is created for each image in your collection, and it sits alongside those images with the same filename (and XMP extension at the end). When you open one of these images in an application like Photoshop, the app will check for an XMP file and automatically load the adjustments with it.

4. Keep and Build the Metadata

Metadata is the text hidden away inside our files that stores information about our images. Some metadata is added by the camera and includes fields like the capture time and shutter speed used to capture the image. Other metadata is added later on in the editing process, like our star ratings or keywords.

The good news is that with camera-added metadata, the useful data is already built directly into the file. Any application should be able to read from or write to those standard fields, so you never have to worry about the dangers of lock-in.

Other metadata, like the keywords you've applied to your image, aren't stored inside the image file. Instead, they're typically stored inside an application database (like the Adobe Lightroom catalog or Apple Photos Library). However, that doesn't mean that we can't use them elsewhere.

This is another situation where XMP files are fantastic. If our application supports saving metadata in XMP files, we can turn this option on and save keywords inside these helpful sidecar files. This means that we can add keywords in one application, have the app save them in sidecar files, and make them available in other applications.

However, those sidecar files aren't a complete solution. Unfortunately, some applications offer metadata features like color labels that just aren't compatible with the XMP standard. Any application will create some level of lock-in; we can only seek to reduce that effect.

Keep Your Images Safe and Your Library Flexible

It's totally okay to have preferred editing platforms—I definitely do! Being platform agnostic means being mindful that software is always changing, and we want to remove the barriers to switching apps.

The strategies in this article are designed to help you remove the friction from using lots of different pieces of software, and from easily switching when you want to. Consider the four pillars of avoiding lock-in—organization, format, corrections, and metadata—and you'll always be able to take your images to any platform you want.

To keep learning, I highly recommend further reading on the idea of The Digital Pipeline, the idea of managing images from import to archive very carefully. Also, the Envato Tuts+ section on Digital Asset Management is a complete education on how to care for your digital images. Finally, you might want to check out my article, How to Choose Asset Management Software, to survey some of the software for managing your images.

What does your workflow look like? Do you depend on a single application for all of your needs, or split up your workflow between several? Finally, what do you do to ensure that all of your eggs aren't in one basket? I'd love to know more about how Envato Tuts+ readers manage their images, so please let me know in the comments.

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