Your first 100,000 photographs are your worst

At the turn of every year, I try to do a bit of digital housecleaning. It’s nice to do this every once in a while: get all your files, your backups and other security details in order across all your devices and services.

While going through this most recent sweep, I started wondering how best to organize my photos. I’ve taken about 25,000 photos (and only about 900 videos) on my iPhone since 2012. The ones I took from 2007 to 2012 are all in an iPhoto Library file somewhere in a backup drive. So that’s probably another 20,000 photos, conservatively, taken over those years. Then, I easily have another 25,000+ photos in high-resolution form from the various cameras I have owned over the years.

Reviewing this history, I’m reminded of Cartier-Bresson: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” In the digital age, I think to myself, should this be 100,000 photographs? I think this not only because I don’t believe I’m a very good photographer yet – but also because it might take me another 25,000 photos before we figure out how to safely and effectively store them forever.

For the photos coming from my cameras, I’ve been using Lightroom to organize and store into my backup drive.

Until now, though, the photos taken on iPhone I’ve just been leaving on my phone. However, I started running out of space on the phone. I was backing them up into Dropbox, but I’m out of space there too (really Dropbox, a 1TB limit for personal use? Why?). So I moved them all into Amazon Drive. If you have Prime, you get free unlimited storage of all photo files in hi-res format. It’s definitely the best deal going. The Amazon Photos user interface needs quite a lot of work, but the syncing is so much faster than the other services. (At least, it feels that way to me; maybe it’s just because I have the upload/download bandwidth and concurrent limits set to max.)

It feels like this is a process once every couple of years: pick a service, move everything over to that service, hope that you don’t lose anything, hope that there are no proprietary file formats or file names or strange organization structures. As a part of this review, though, I realized I prefer to organize them in a certain way “on disk”. Because the file sizes are so big, it makes sense not to have them all in one big “Camera Uploads” folder. I group photos into folders by source, and then by year. For instance, each camera gets its own top-level source folder, underneath which photos from each year are grouped. The individual photo files are named according to the date they were taken. This allows me to manually find photos much more quickly, and it allows me to sync only the subset that I want to across devices. A source isn’t just my camera though, because photos friends send me can get their own top-level grouping. I try to make sure whichever editing or backup tool I choose respects this hierarchy. They can hold whatever other metadata they each want, as long as the basic structure is one and the same across applications.

One side effect of this whole reorg is that it basically means that my workflow for my digital camera is now the same as for my iPhone. The phone has truly turned into one of my cameras. As a photographer, no matter how big the memory card, I take all the photos off after a shoot and then I use the best tool possible to organize them in the way I want to organize them and another tool to post-process them the way I want them to look. Why should the latest camera, iPhone X, be any different?

Another side effect is that my Fuji digital camera and the iPhone X are just two cameras, two devices. In fact, the way I see it now is that they are two sets of lenses: just as in the past, I might have carried a wide and a portrait, I’m carrying two lenses now: whatever is on the Fuji and the wide-angle ƒ/1.8 on the iPhone. They both have great lenses, they both have WiFi, they both take great shots I love (and other people do too, I hope) and they both make me creative.

So, in addition to the storage, why shouldn’t the workflow for both be the same? Onto the next 25,000 photos we go.

How do you keep your ever-increasing set of photos organized?