1. Photo & Video
  2. Digital Asset Management

Best of Both Worlds: Use a Fast Working Library and Secure Picture Archive

This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management for Photographers (Learning Resource Guide).
Free DAM! 5 No-Cost Programs to Manage Your Digital Image Collection
How to Set Up a Fast and Flexible Library With Smart Previews in Adobe Lightroom

If you’ve been following Tuts+ series on Digital Asset Management, you know one thing for sure: it’s essential to think about how we store and interact with our images. In this tutorial you’ll learn that where images are stored is important, too, and how to decide where to store them.

We’ll explore two kinds storage spaces: the working library and the picture archive. These two kinds of repository have different hardware, image storage techniques, and costs. When you finish, you’ll understand how images progress through a workflow in terms of storage, accessibility, and affordabilty.

Define it: Picture Archive

The picture archive is the rock-solid home to all the images that you care about. It stores everything you need to keep safe but don’t need access to on a day-to-day basis.

Synology DiskStation desktop RAID driveSynology DiskStation desktop RAID driveSynology DiskStation desktop RAID drive
My picture archive is stored on a Synology DiskStation.

My archive has two hard drives in it. These drives are mirrored: each drive has the exact same data. I can copy a file to the archive and it will instantly automatically duplicate the new files across both drives. If one drive fails (a question of when, not if) it can be replaced with another drive and rebuild the mirror. My archive is connected directly to my router with an ethernet cable, and I can access it from any computer on the network.

The picture archive is stored on a drive that prioritizes safety. A simple and affordable setup like mine is a great first step to help guarantee that images are secure.

The archive uses slow, affordable, reliable media. Depending on your needs, it can be as simple as an external drive on your desk or as complex server-based solution. Whatever you choose, the archive should have enough storage to hold all your files.

In the Deep Freeze

Store your original copies of images in the archive right away. As soon as humanly possible. Don’t wait, and possibly forget, then format a card accidentaly.

File ingestion workflow graphicFile ingestion workflow graphicFile ingestion workflow graphic
Data duplication is a basic workflow step that is essential to data safety.

When you’re ingesting photos from your memory card, immediately copy it to two places: an archive where the originals will reside permanently and safely, and to your local computer to begin the image editing process. Ideally, your file management software will make a copy to the archive as part of the ingestion process.

You’ll keep the originals untouched, forever. When you have a finished version of a photograph that you’ve worked on you’ll add the finished versions to cold storage too.

Define it: Working Library

Storage options are constrained by the good-fast-cheap paradox: drives with large amounts of storage space are expensive or slow. Fast drives are expensive, and usually low-capacity. This means keeping all of our images at hand isn’t practical or economical.

The working library is the place to keep files that you need close at hand. It’s the subset of images that you’re actively managing, the pictures you currently need on a day-to-day basis.

It’s Alive!

When images are in a working library, it’s best to think of them as “live.” You might be taking steps like tagging them with keywords, writing caption, organizing them into albums, and correcting their appearance.

Samsung T1 SSDSamsung T1 SSDSamsung T1 SSD
The Samsung T1 SSD is a great example of the ideal drive for a working library. It’s a solid state drive, so there’s no moving parts, and that makes it super fast! Photo by Martin Rechsteiner, CC BY-SA 2.0

Process-heavy programs like Lightroom and Photoshop need quick read-write times and a fast drive to work on your images, especially if you’re using a camera with a high megapixel count.

Because images in a working library may need to be quickly and frequently accessed, they are likely stored on the same computer that you do your post-processing or on a fast external drive. As I covered in How to Setup a Fast and Flexible Library, that drive is ideally a solid-state drive with USB3 or Thunderbolt.

When to Shift

A working library and picture archive are separate recepticles with different strengths, but you need both for a healthy data-storage workflow.

Take, for example, the needs of a wedding photographer:

  1. After a wedding is captured the original RAW files are downloaded to the archive and copied into a working library for processing.
  2. This begins the post-production process: culling, editing, image correction, and adjustment in the working library.
  3. Eventually, finalized images are exported from the working library and delivered to clients. The transaction is closed.
  4. At this point, it’s time to wrap up the job and copy the finalized TIFF images back to the archive for safe keeping.

When to shift depends on your particular workflow. Keep these tips in mind when determining how to shift an image or collection:

  • If you think you’ll need to modify or work with an image or collection of images again in the next few weeks, keep them in the working library.
  • When the final version of an image is completed, save it to the archive.
  • When a collection of images is no longer needed at a moment’s notice, and it’s unlikely to be so soon, it can be moved out of the working library and into the archive.

Recap: Safe and Fast

The picture archive and working library approach is about getting the best of both worlds: security and space for long-term storage, speed and responsiveness for working on images.

No matter what stage an image collection is at, data integrity is essential. The archive and the working library should both be regularly backed up elsewhere. If you are using a database for processing RAW files, like Lightroom does with catalogs, the database files need to be backed-up too.

Keep Learning

  1. Do You Need A Picture Archive?
  2. The Anatomy of a Digital Asset Management System
  3. How to Choose Asset Management Software for Your Digital Picture Archive


The diagram in “Deep Freeze” contains icons from the Noun Project:

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