The Numbers Game

I stopped using film in the spring of 2007. In the 35 years prior to that I shot many thousands of slides. Mostly slides, anyway. Early on I shot some black and white negative film, perhaps thinking anyone serious about photography should make black and white pictures. I love black and white, and greatly admire people who do it well. But most of what I enjoy in nature has at least some color, and often a lot; most of what I enjoy about photographing it is bringing to the print the color that inspired me to make the photo in the first place. I could go on about this at length, and perhaps I will in another article one day.

Getting back to my subject: Over the years I've shot many thousands of film frames. What to do with all those slides has been a problem since I filled my first shoebox with little 36-slide boxes. There are lots of ways to store slides, some good, some not. But storing them, and having them organized so one can find a particular slide, are very different things. Better is having slides organized such that one can quickly lay hands on a specific image, or any number of slides of a particular subject or type of subject. Before we had computers on our desks (or laps) this was a challenge. Now that we have fast computers, big cheap hard drives, and appropriate software, it borders on impossible.

Snow on rose hip

The problem, of course, is shear numbers. Generally speaking, and ignoring issues of computer memory and software limitations, having a catalog or database of tens of thousands of images is hardly a technical challenge. But who among us has the time, energy, and tolerance for boredom to enter information into a dozen or so database fields for each of 20,000 slides? This assumes the tribulations and shear mind-numbery of scanning 20,000 slides doesn't kill you before you need to worry about cataloging them.

With digital capture there's little monetary cost to shooting lots of frames, and there's no scanning to do. On a recent snowy morning, conditions seemed right for a picture I've had in mind for months. I knew I'd find the subject I wanted on my own property, possibly just feet from my door. I had only to dress appropriately for the weather, grab the gear, find my subject, set up and start shooting. All that came together pretty quickly, as often happens when I've previsualized a photo. Once set up I shot over 90 frames in about 40 minutes, and the cost was mainly just getting really cold hands. In my film days I'd never have made so many exposures of the same subject. I'd have done a little bracketing, but I'd have missed experimenting with compositions, exposure, focus, lighting direction, and more. You know, the fun part.

As you may well know from your own experience, shooting digital has not solved the storage or cataloging issues of film. OK, it solved some, but replaced those with others. Sure, there's some automation available, in the form of software which can collect the shooting data (EXIF) from each digital image's file. But beyond the date and time stamp, most of the information needed to help find a given image still requires a fair amount of manual data entry, and it's multiplied by the large increase in the number of frames captured. A few thousand images pretty much equals infinity. Our shelves and hard drives groan under the weight of all these pictures.

Thinning the Herd

There's no perfect solution to this. There are software products that make promises more ridiculous than (and after a moment's consideration, nearly as transparent as) a politician's. There are home-grown schemes and systems, some built on database software, some using little more than the computer operating system's own filing method, some using a combination of approaches.

You can't have too much storage

Big, fast, and cheap hard drives can store thousands of images. You CAN keep every photo. But should you?

There's also the "do nothing at all" approach, which certainly saves a lot of culling and cataloging time. Assuming digital capture, you have no physical media (film), and high-capacity, fast hard drives are cheap and endlessly getting bigger, faster and cheaper. Why throw out anything? The obvious reason is you'll never find a given file if you have millions of them. Windows' search feature, and the Mac's Spotlight search engine aren't bad, but come at a cost — the indexes they build take time to create (granted it's machine time, but can slow down the system so it becomes your time, too) and these too consume hard drive space. Also, at least with today's technology, these tools can only find the words you used in your file names. There's also the matter of making backups. Each backup of a million files consists of a million files and must be stored on something.

You could simply shoot fewer frames, but where's the fun in that? That's not to say I blindly let the shutter fly without regard to what I'm getting. I'm deliberate, careful, and sometimes even exacting in what I shoot and how I do it. But one thing leads to another, and it's the norm when shooting to be led in directions I'd not anticipated. I don't let concern about the number of captures being made get in the way of creativity.

Whether shooting digital or film, at some point it becomes obvious you can't keep every frame you've captured. If you think you're one of the people who gets a great shot with every release of the shutter, you can stop reading now and go make some more perfect captures. Please send a link to your Web site. The rest of us have to cull the images from any given day's shooting. If you travel and photograph as I often do, and if those trips are several days to weeks long, you'll have a lot of culling to do. If you're a wedding photographer you might shoot 5,000 frames on any summer weekend. The mind boggles.

The Art of Wastebasketry

There are endless articles, essays, book chapters, and blog postings suggesting how you should cull your pictures; what software, or method, or organizational scheme works (or doesn't); how to be ruthless (or not) in your selection process. Even an endless list can be made longer, so here's my contribution.

Here in November 2009, I use Photoshop CS3 on a Macintosh. I create a series of folders, the naming of which, and the hierarchy in which they are arranged, facilitate finding things later. My file naming scheme builds into the name the shooting location and date, and includes some key words about the subject. That's it. There's enough information in the file names and the file locations (folder naming) to make finding a given file relatively easy.

After my RAW files are copied from the memory cards, or from the laptop I carry in the field, to an appropriate parent folder on the Mac, I use Photoshop's Bridge to display thumbnails of the images. My camera names RAW files with some camera-specific nonsense and appends a unique image ID number. I use Bridge's Batch Rename to replace the camera's nonsense prefix with the location and shooting date, and do this to the names of all files at once. I retain the unique ID number the camera has created. This is fast, even for hundreds of files, and very easy.

With the secretarial work out of the way, the culling begins. Still in Bridge I use the arrow keys to move down through the thumbnails, displaying each at a larger size as it is selected. I delete the obvious junk on this pass, but nothing else. I'll make a second pass, deleting anything I don't find appealing or potentially useful. These are quick passes through the set of files, and usually reduce the number of pictures considerably. I try to make these two passes in one sitting, but for those great shooting days when many hundreds of exposures are made, the number of files in the day's folder and the number of hours I'm willing to sit in front of the computer can be inversely proportional.

Wastebasket of the film era

The difference between a pro and an amateur is the size of his or her wastebasket.

Eventually, often days later, I'll come back to the folder and make a pass in which I'll select the best images and tag them with a "1". This sometimes requires use of Bridge's magnifier tool (which can zoom at multiple levels) for vetting fine detail. Bridge allows placing multiple images on-screen side-by-side which can be a big help when selecting among similar exposures. I sort such that files marked with a 1 are automatically moved to the bottom of the column of thumbnails. If there are many files I'll make a second pass and possibly tag a few files I didn't on the first pass. When done, the remaining files are tossed.

This all takes time, and I think it's a fairly ruthless approach. But it can get a day's shoot whittled from 500 frames to 40 or fewer, and I know those pictures are worth additional work later.

Sometimes much later. I think there's value in putting some time between the shooting day and the final culling. While I'll surely remember the conditions and what I was feeling when I made the exposures, much of the emotion of shooting, that which drew me to make the picture, will have dimmed. I'm then able to see the picture more as would a casual visitor to a gallery or my Web site. This becomes the final culling. Whatever is left after this will be optimized in Photoshop with the goal of making a print.

I should mention this is exactly the process I used with film, except a light box, a 5X loupe, and a pencil replaced bridge, and the discarded slides went into a real, rather than virtual, wastebasket. When slides are scanned the file name is written on the slide mount. These files are then handled like any other. The physical slides are stored by shooting location and date, but are rarely needed again after the scan is made.

All this effort whittles down the mountains of raw captures into piles of good pictures, something approaching manageable. It leaves me with only the best images. The pictures are already organized for easy searching. And with digital capture, the dross doesn't even clog the landfills.

Other Considerations

I barely touched on scanning film. This is a time-consuming, mostly manual operation. You're then left with both the slide or negative, and the digital file, which can be quite large for high-res scans. But the assumption is you've culled the slides. You won't scan the junk, only the keepers, and only those for which you have a purpose (printing or publishing, posting on the Web, stock and other sales, etc.).

Because it's slightly off-topic, I also didn't discuss obsolescence, which can (will) rear its head in both software and hardware. How long will the file format(s) you use be supported? How long will your camera's RAW format be supported? How long will your computer's file system be supported? You've got a growing collection of hard drives full of your work. How long will that hardware format be supported? Will you have to keep an old PC or Mac around to guarantee you'll be able to read your files in 10 years?

Backing up or archiving all these files is critical to their long-term survival. You DO have multiple backups, and you've avoided notoriously unreliable media (CD-RW, for example). Your backups are not in some proprietary format, one which requires a specific application to read. It's likely the best file format is one natively supported by your operating system of choice, typically (today, in 2009) NTFS for Windows and HFS+ for OS X, since these have the greatest likelihood of being around, or at least supported, for a while. You DO keep a recent backup stored somewhere off-site, perhaps at the office of a friend or spouse, or some other location physically removed from your work environment. You rotate these off-site backups regularly.

It sounds like you're in good shape, then.

As always, this article should not be taken as a tutorial. It is simply an account of my own experience, with my own images and equipment. Your own numbers game may take you in a different direction.

November 2009