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What is Digital Asset Management and Why Do You Need It?

This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management Fundamentals.
Digital Asset Management Fundamentals for Photo and Video
Do You Need a Picture Archive?

We live in an age of photographic abundance.

A few decades ago, we had less and made do with less than today. We used film and were limited by the number of rolls of film we had, the prints we could afford to make, and, in some cases, by the space we had available to store the negatives and prints.

Today, we use digital capture for photography and are limited by very little. Even space to store our digital files is of less concern with the seemingly bottomless drop in the price of storage.

Typically, when we think about digital asset management, we envision banks and banks of stored data. In photography, a stock image library or something similar is probably what first comes to mind. True, government institutions, large corporations, and busy photography and video companies have sorted out their needs and developed systems for managing their data. But digital asset management is not just for the big and established; it’s for everyone who has created and wants to keep a piece of digital information.

In this article we take a closer look at the increasingly important role digital asset management plays in our photography, lives, culture, and societies. 

Pixel Proliferation: Photography Today

In this age of plenty, we have become the most photographed generation of all time. Based on film industry and digital photography statistics, it’s estimated we take more than 380 billion photographs a year. Of those, 300 million are uploaded to Facebook every day. Yet, despite all these photographs, there are growing concerns that we may have the fewest photos available or accessible in the future. Abundance makes photographic story-telling and archival practices even more important than before—for everyone.

Man taking wedding photograph with an iPhone
StockSnap Stock Photography

An Endless Stream of Images

As with all changes in technology, our priorities have changed. When things become abundant and transmission is easy, as with digital photographs, we tend not to think about preserving what we already have. We’re more focused on the next picture than on reviewing our existing ones.

The way we make and consume photography is changing too. For many people, photography is increasingly about sharing in the moment and shortly after, not at some ill-defined later time. Many of the pictures we make today are to share on social media. These fulfill a powerful human need to tell stories and share experiences. In turn, the pictures we consume today are increasingly cheap (if not free), low-resolution, and transient. In other words, much of photography today is disposable entertainment.

Order to a New Medium

Digital photography is a new medium hiding in the skin of an old one. Superficially, digital photography seems like it's mostly the same as film photography. Fundamentally, though, the new medium presents a completely different set of challenges to overcome. Our working knowledge often lags far behind the changes in technology:

  • We don’t know how to properly offload our digital images from camera to storage.

  • We don’t know how to safely manage our digital images in order to save them.

  • We’re overwhelmed by the options for managing our digital images and haven’t sorted out an approach.

  • Even if we have saved digital images, we don’t know how to find what we want or can’t find what we want.

Technology is not perfect. Those who work in the IT sector estimate that hardware, software, and file formats become obsolete within 5 to 10 years. Without managing evolving formats and software, we often can’t access what we have saved. That is if the digital data hasn't been corrupted and the storage media hasn't decayed.

If we want to access our photographs again, protect them against damage and loss, and preserve them for the future, we need to be deliberate about saving our digital images and using a systematic approach so we can find them again. We need to use digital asset management.

Digital Asset Management is for Today: Photographs Tell Us Who We Are

We document our lives with photographs. Our pictures capture births and birthdays, first days at school and graduations, marriages and anniversaries, holidays, parties, special events, new houses, pets, and the people who matter to us. Our pictures connect in a timeline: they make a visual narrative of our lives.

YYYoung girl reading and same girl older with graduation certificate
Does your mind's eye make up a story when you see these two images together? We naturally fill in the blanks when we look at pictures.

We choose when to take a photograph. We record a moment because it mattered to us and we want to remember it. Likely, we also want to share that experience with others. The photographs may be art as well, but even more so, the photos have personal meaning and are central to how we view ourselves and our lives. By choosing what to photograph and which photos to save and share, we’ve told others and ourselves what we feel is important. Our photographs tell others and ourselves who we are.

“Dogs wag their tails. We take photographs.” —Dan Bricklin, co-creator of the first electronic spreadsheet

Our photographs also link us to others. We share our photos to communicate: to tell our stories, claim our participation in something common to many, and declare what we find interesting and beautiful. Social media is our collective documentation of society and the overwhelming majority of social media includes photos. Uploading and sharing photos is the most common activity on Facebook. Marketing study after marketing study conclude that we prefer to interact with photos more than any other type of content on social media.

As well as documenting our personal lives, photographs provide evidence of social events and phenomena. In addition to photographic journalism, photographs provide us with a record of our communities, geography, politics, cultures, and social milestones.

But our photographs can’t do any of that if we can’t access them or find them. If we’re unable to find our photos, we’re left with only memories that will surely fade and distort over time.

Digital Asset Management is for the Future: Everybody Dies Someday

In the face of disaster, it is said that people worry more about preserving their photographs than they worry about anything except their own lives and that of their loved ones. Our photographs, their connection to our past, and their relevance for our present are irreplaceable.

Once, we would have considered reminiscing to be a sign of feeble old age, but now we understand that reminiscing serves us well both physically and emotionally. By recalling stories, we exercise the parts of our brains involved in creating and storing memories. Reminiscing also helps us to establish continuity between our own pasts and present, and by sharing recalled stories with others, we connect our pasts to others’ futures.

Photographs play a key role in reminiscing and sharing stories. While there are many triggers that can help us recall memories, one of the most effective and easiest triggers to access is photographs. Photographs are not just a visual record of an event; they become the event in our memories. Photographs also share our memories even when we are no longer able to do so ourselves.

Perhaps one of the most important reasons for preserving photographs is to preserve our stories for the future. Photographs freeze and preserve moments of our lives. If the photographs are saved and can be accessed, the moments outlive us. Historians and sociologists of the future will interpret our past through the documents, papers, and records we leave behind. Photographs are powerful documents that transmit information about who we were, the activities we participated in, what we cared about, and the places we lived.

WWI military men in front of barracks
Otago Infantry Regiment, World War 1, 1917 (Public Domain)

In a larger context, photographs also provide us with a glimpse of cities in the past; show the change in geography over time; document victories, failures, atrocities, and successes; and serve as visual evidence of our accomplishments. Photographs complete the larger picture of a life, a community, and a culture.

Our photographs carry our stories forward, but not if they aren’t saved, can’t be found, or, if found, can’t be identified.

Digital Asset Management is for Profit

We take photographs for more than recording the personal moments in our lives. We also take photographs to report news, advertise a product, conduct research, influence politics, and entertain. Photos are at the foundation of our personal and social economies.  

For professional photographers or anyone who uses images in a professional way, a lost image is lost profit. You can’t use or sell photographs you can’t find. You’ve also lost your competitive edge if you can find the photograph but use more of your billable time searching than you can charge for the photograph. And your credibility suffers if you’re slow delivering a photograph or can’t deliver the high quality original.

Saved photographs also help to establish and protect our commercial interests. Photographs are used to document evidence and are, in themselves, evidence of our rights in the images. And, as with our personal lives, photographs serve as professional and organizational legacies.

Digital Asset Management is for Creation: Photographs Shape Our Visual Culture

Taking and shaping photographs are creative ventures. We can use photography to express ourselves through an art form. Moreover, photography has democratized art, expanding the production of visual imagery from the monopoly of a few to the expression of many. The result is an expanded expression of our imaginative and aesthetic selves.

When photographs are also available to other artists, both now and in the future, the photographs inspire and generate artistic evolution. The birth of photography nudged painters into new forms of expression, giving rise to impressionism and abstraction. The history of photography pushes photographers forward to revise and reform what and how they photograph. Yesterday’s photographs are building blocks for tomorrow’s visual culture.

Photograph of Hetch Hetchy Valley early 1900s
John Muir, Hetch Hetchy Valley, early 1900s (Public Domain)
Impressionist painting of the Seine by Monet
Monet, Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil, 1873 (Public Domain)
Impressionist-like photograph of lake and trees
Dawn Oosterhoff, Portrait of Autumn 2

Saved photographs also provide impetus for our own creative growth. Working with photographs to use, reuse, and combine them in new ways extends our creative relationship with both the photographs and with the stories captured in the photographs. Professionals who can find and group images efficiently can extend both the creative and commercial values of images by using them in different ways for new sources of revenue. Reviewing our images collected over time allows us to analyze and assess our own progress and make decisions about future growth.

Digital Asset Management is Essential

If we want to record our memories, know who we are, inspire creative growth, and pass our stories to the future, we need to save our photographs. If we want to improve our financial bottom line, establish our credibility, and prove our rights, we need to save our photographs. We also need to organize our photographs in a way that allows us to access what we need when we need it. And we need a system that protects our photographs against damage, loss, or theft.

In short, we need to manage our digital assets.

Digital Asset Management is for Everyone

Managing digital assets can involve preserving and organizing multiple types of digital information. For our purposes, however, we are looking primarily at preserving and managing digital photographs and video, and digitized, or scanned, pictures. Chances are good you make even just one type of these media assets!

Managing visual digital assets begins when you press the shutter release on your camera, video camera, or smartphone. It ends only when you or someone who takes over for you concludes that the photographs and videos are no longer of value. Digital asset management includes:

  • Thinking about the media you use in your camera to record images, how you want your camera to name those images, and how you are going to protect and preserve those images from the shoot until you have them loaded and copied into a comprehensive digital asset management system

  • Considering what software you’ll use to manage your images, how you’ll name and organize the digital files, and the process you’ll use to manage your images as your edit and process them

  • Identifying the images you want to keep, ranking and tagging them for easy access, and sorting them into a system that facilitates access, maximizes storage space, and protects the assets for immediate use and long-term preservation

  • Instituting a backup and security system that protects your images against loss, theft, and damage and preserves your images through technological innovation

  • Identifying who will take over managing your digital assets if you no longer can and developing a reference so someone else is able to manage your digital assets

  • Protecting your rights in the image and being aware of how to responsibly dispose of archived images if they no longer hold value

There are any number of resources available to anyone interested in learning about and establishing a system of digital asset management. The first challenge is wading through the information to make sense of it and then translate the knowledge for use in a personal or small organizational use. The second challenge is applying the knowledge to build a digital asset management system that you will use and maintain.

We believe that everyone needs a system for managing their photographs and we believe that there is no “one size fits all” option. In fact, we believe it is important and necessary to build digital asset management systems that serve each user’s needs. For those reasons, we have launched a series of articles and tutorials, Digital Asset Management for Everyone, that provides sound advice and instructions for anyone who needs to build and maintain a digital asset management system. Our series identifies key principles, explores options, and provides instructions for a range of software so you can build and maintain a digital asset management system that serves your needs.

Coming Up Next

Our next article, So You Need a Picture Archive, walks through key concepts and how to identify your needs when planning your archive. The Anatomy of a Digital Asset Management System explores the difference between archives and libraries and profiles existing archives in use today.

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