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7 Golden Rules of Digital Asset Management

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This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management Fundamentals.
The Anatomy of a Digital Asset Management System
Using a Controlled Vocabulary to Organize Digital Photographs

We’ve said it before in this series on digital asset management: the best digital asset management system is the one you use. The very best, most carefully considered recommendations will not make any difference at all if they don’t work for you.

Our objective is to provide you with a basic DAM framework and the information you need to customize that framework for the way you work. This article contributes to our approach by outlining the basic principles that inform all of our recommendations for digital asset management. Knowing the basic principles will help you decide where and how to customize your digital asset management system for success.

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. —Pablo Picasso

1. Do No Harm

Original data is precious. Guard it, shield it, and never manipulate it. Think about negative film that gets scratched: any resulting photographic prints will always bear the scratches or the manipulation needed to cover the scratches. Manipulation may be easier with digital images, but once manipulated, there is no going back. Keep your original data separate from your working files and always work on a copy of the original image.

This rule carries extra weight if you shoot in JPEG rather than RAW. Image files in JPEG format lose information every time the file is opened, edited, or re-saved. You can open a RAW image and save it under even a new file name and the data will be intact. If you do the same to a JPEG image, the data will be compromised. The data loss may be minimal the first time, but the effect accumulates with successive file handling. Protect that precious original JPEG. Tag it in some way to mark it as the original JPEG and tuck it safely in your archive. Always work on a copy of the original.

To learn more about RAW versus JPEG, have a look at these two short articles:

padlock
Photography by Dawn Oosterhoff

2. Be Safe With Your Data

Earlier this year, a thief broke into the home of noted Canadian photojournalist Jacques Nadeau and stole five hard drives and a television. The television can be replaced but the five hard drives contained Nadeau’s only set of between 30,000 and 50,000 photographs, many covering key political moments in Canadian history. Thirty-five years of work, gone.

For best protection, use the 3-2-1 rule of backing up your data.

3—Keep three copies of your data: your primary copy and two backups.

2—Keep your copies on two different, physically separate media. One set of files will likely be on your computer hard drive. Keep your two copies separated, each backed up to different media (external hard drives, USB flash drives, or cloud storage services).

1—Keep one copy of your images offsite. Some people use a system of rotating two external hard drives, swapping out one hard drive each week or each month, depending upon how frequently you add data. I use USB flash drives and store them in a small safe in someone else’s home. A cloud storage service also works well. Just be certain that you are using a cloud backup service and not a file-syncing tool.

Data safety also includes protecting your data between your shoot and ingestion. Also earlier this year, a portrait photographer lost irreplaceable photos when her camera bag was stolen from her car. A memory card inside the camera bag contained photos from the last moments of an infant’s life. I once left a compact flash card in my pocket, then ran the pants—and the flash card—through the washing machine. On another occasion, I managed to damage a pin as I inserted a flash card into my card reader, shorting the connection and erasing all of the data on the card. It all happens so easily.

There are no hard and fast rules for how to handle data during that highly vulnerable phase of having just one copy. Think about your workflow and adopt one or more of the following ideas:

  • Split a shoot over two or more flash cards. I shoot RAW with my camera, resulting in a file size of just under 30 megabytes per image. I choose a storage card that’s big enough to allow me to shoot without having to frequently change cards but small enough that I’m forced to use more than one card for a shoot. For me, that size is 8GB or just over 250 images. If I recorded video, I would use a larger card, probably enough for about an hour of footage.

  • Number or colour code your flash cards. You can use permanent marker, a label maker, or bits of coloured electrical tape. This helps keep the cards organized when you are swapping them in and out of the camera in the heat of the moment.

  • Keep your completed flash cards separate from your empty flash cards, and always carry the flash cards in the same place. There are many systems out there for carrying flash cards. I like any system that attaches to your body but remains physically separate from your clothing. My favourite is Spider Pro’s memory card organizer. Empty cards go in face up, ready for action. Complted cards go in face down. Another option, which is also less expensive, is to use a dry bag, waterproof case, or large pill case attached to your belt.

  • If away from your computer for more than the day, upload your data to an external hard drive. Keep that drive separate from your camera equipment and not in your checked baggage. One of my colleagues backs up her external hard drive while on the road by copying her image files onto a DVD. Every few days, she mails the filled DVDs to her home address. I don’t advocate using DVDs for long-term storage, but they’re inexpensive, ubiquitous and ideal in this circumstance.

stack of folders
Photograph by Isaac Bowen, CC BY-SA 2.0

3. Back Up Supporting Documents Too

If disaster can strike your digital images and video, you can bet that disaster can also ruin any other digital file. Losing a contract template may not be as disastrous as losing a couple’s wedding photos, but it would still be a nuisance and would undermine your credibility as a professional. Losing financial data could be very costly if you’re among a random pick of taxpayers to be audited. Protect your business documents by making them part of your backup routine.

If you use cataloguing software, you’ll want to also back up your software catalogue. If you name your image files correctly, you will still be able to locate images even without your catalogue; however, without your catalogue you will have lost all of your ratings, labels, and albums or collections.

Backing up your catalogue is especially important if you use Parametric Image Editors (PIE) such as Adobe Lightroom, which separate the edits from the image. In this case, you can protect your production data in two ways: be sure to save your editing changes to the metadata and include your catalogue in your backup system. For more information about using and saving non-destructive image edits, read Andrew Childress’s article “How to Use Lightroom Edits Outside of Lightroom.”

Also think about your images as a part of your business backup. You may need an image to prove copyright, document a sale, or fulfil a compliance or business need. Any of your images could also have historical value. I’m not suggesting that you add an additional copy of images to your archive—you should only have one copy of a file in an archive—but you may want to cross-reference your images or image collections in a spreadsheet or other business document in which you record transactions related to the image or collection.

4. Never Use Your Archive for a Backup.

Wait. What? Isn’t my archive a backup? Well, no, it isn’t. You back up your archive but your archive is not a backup. Your archive is the final resting place of one copy of each non-reproducible version of an image or video. This usually means that your archive contains the original, untouched image file and the final working version of the edited image file. These are your precious originals I mentioned in Golden Rule #1. Consider these image files the gold bricks in your safe from which you can make any number of pieces of jewellery. You want a backup of this collection tucked away safely offsite.

And here’s another consideration: If you can avoid it at all, do not back up any data to the same medium that holds your archive. Remember Golden Rule #2? Resprect the 3-2-1 principle.

It is so tempting to use a little corner of the drive holding your archive to back up working files. It would be so easy. I knew the advice not to use an archive for a backup, but I did it anyway. Just once. And I forgot to protect the root structure in the destination drive. I had a great backup of all of my working files, which had nicely overwritten my archived files. I was lucky and was able to restore my archive from my archive backup, but I can tell you that it took hours for my heart to settle back down into a normal rhythm. Save yourself the potential for disaster and keep the medium you use for your archive just for your archive.

5. Regularly Check and Update Your Archive

Looking in your file directory and seeing an organized list of all of your image files is such a reassuring vision, but don’t be fooled. Just because the image file shows up in your file directory does not mean that the file is usable. The file could be corrupted or it could be in an out-dated format. The storage medium could also be corrupt, damaged, or out-dated.

It’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll be able to open your files without proprietary software in years to come if you save your RAW files as .DNGs and your finished working files as .TIFFs (with layers where necessary), but that doesn’t preclude other problems with the files or storage media. Establish a process for validating your files and verifying the integrity of your storage media. (There’s much to learn about data validation; we’ll be publishing an article dealing with that in this series.)

process and publish

6. Build a Routine and Stick to It

Atul Gawande is an American physician who studies health care systems and processes. In 1998, he reported his analysis of routines, concluding that routinization and repetition are keys to perfection. Managing your digital assets may not be the same as performing hernia surgery, but the principles of routinization and repetition apply in both cases.

Establish standards to manage your collection and use them consistently and unfailingly. Develop guidelines that are relevant and applicable to your collection and have someone else review the guidelines to ensure that your process is clear, understandable, and easily reusable.

If you haven’t already read it, have a look at my article “The Digital Pipeline: How to Safely Manage Images and Video from Capture to Archive.” That article gives you a six stage workflow that you can customize for your needs. Download the one-page flowchart and use it as a template for noting the steps in your process.

Test your process on a copy of a small set of images. Move the copied set of images to a flash card and use those copies to work your way through your process starting right at the beginning, making note of any problems you need to address.

Those of us working on the digital asset management series have a saying:

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in under a minute, your collection is broken.

A minute may be a tad optimistic, but the principle can help you refine your routine. Ask someone to identify one of your images or videos and set out to locate it. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in under a minute (or so), note the first obstacle you met and refine your routine to correct the problem. Then run the test again and again to identify and fix any other problems.

two young women whispering
Photography by Dawn Oosterhoff

7. Tell Someone Else

Your collection—your legacy—will be lost if only you understand how your data is managed. Should you become incapable of managing your collection and when you die, the knowledge about your image files goes with you. Tell someone else how your system is structured. Make notes, including passwords, and review your notes and structure with someone you trust to manage your assets in your place.

Go Forth and Build

Digital asset management may seem laborious and tedious. I’ll admit that few people get as excited as my colleagues and I do about such things as controlled keyword vocabularies and archiving practices. But I promise you that the effort is worth the rewards. There’s something very satisfying about being able to find the picture you want when you want it, and there’s a lot to be said for avoiding the pain of loss suffered by photographer Jacques Nadeau.

Build your digital asset management system in stages and just keep chipping away at the process. And don’t wait to have all of your existing images in order before you start applying your DAM process to new images. Establish a process and start with your next shoot.

For more information and suggestions, follow our complete series on Digital Asset Management for Everyone. Share with us in the comments what’s working for you and tell us what’s not.

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