What's Wrong With Digital Photography?

A while ago I posted this on the Adobe Lightroom beta forums. I recently re-read it and thought I'd post it here verbatim, since it describes a gaping hole in digital photography workflow. Everyone who has a digital camera is either struggling in solitude with this issue, or will be soon.

Hello, my name is Stu Maschwitz. I'm an active PS and AE user, and the Adobites on those teams know me well, but here I am just another photographer with needs that straddle both professional and personal realms.

As a filmmaker, I shoot and maintain a library of stills that I use as reference for my motion picture work. I currently use iView Media Pro for this task, and am not 100% satisfied with it. But one thing it does well is allow me to keep a catalog file on my PowerBook that I can use to search my library (using keywords, dates, locations, metadata, etc.—the list of search terms is truly staggering). I can browse the thumbnails, and then iView will tell me what hard drive or backup CD I need to dig up to find the originals.

This is cool, but the process is very manual. If I want to de-archive stills from several sources, iView does nothing to help me with this. It also didn't do anything to help me take the media offline in the first place.

I should pause here and mention that Lightroom is simply phenomenal, and with the workflow, UI, and ACR technology, you guys had me at "Hello." But you knew that already. It's the less sexy stuff, the archiving and organizational stuff, that will make it my new best friend.

Did I mention that this library of mine has something like 60,000 photos in it? From about six different cameras?

So, with that introduction, here are some workflows that I'd like LR to support. I prefer to tell you guys what I want to do, rather than request specific features.

I take a bunch of photos. I pop in my card and ingest them. Lightroom handles this for me and asks me at the time of ingest if there's any keywords or other additional metadata that I'd like to associate with all of these images. Place, project, Copyright, author, subject, etc.

Now I have, let's just say, 2 gigs of new media on my PowerBook. Let me just get an important aspect of a photographer's workflow out of the way right off the bat: this is not a tenable situation. Because I'll shoot 2 gigs tomorrow, and the next day, and the next and the next, and at some point I need to move it, and then things get scary. Because I want to both "nearline" my media and also back it up in some way. I want it safe and nearby, and yet I want to browse thumbnails of it remotely.

Not a single product that I know of deals well with this simple and universal fact of digital photography!

So back to my workflow. I have 2 gigs of images, a few of which I want to work with right away. I'll work with them and output them. Lightroom already has that stuff well handled and is only getting better. Now I want two things. I want the 2 gigs freed up on my hard drive, and I want to know that my images are available to me quickly if I need them again.

What I'd like to do is define for LR my primary and secondary archiving devices. Let's just say that my primary is a big old firewire drive and my secondary is a DVD burner. I tell LR that it's time to "nearline" this project. Oh, did I mention that this whole workflow I describe is encompassed by the idea of a "project"? No? Well, I meant to.

So I tell LR that it's time to nearline project "Footprints." LR asks for my primary device, and I plug in my FW drive. Progress bar. LR asks for my secondary device. I pop in a DVD. Progress bar, and now LR asks if it can go ahead and delete the originals, and I say "OK."

One of the reasons that I say "OK" is that I know that I've told LR how paranoid I am about my archives. I've actually told it that I fear that my hard drive could go bad once every year, and that my DVDs could rot once every four years. If LR hasn't seen my FW drive in a while, it will ask me to plug it in, just to confirm the sanctity of my archive. Four years from now, LR will ask me to dig up those DVDs and re-burn them. Or maybe at that time I've decided that I want my secondary device to be another hard drive, in which case LR will suggest that I should move that secondary archive to the new device.

The thrust here is that LR is helping me confirm that I always have redundant backups of my stuff.

So a couple of years later I'm working on a new project that involves footprints. I am in Istanbul. I pop open my laptop, still unwilling to call it anything other than a PowerBook even though it's a MacBook Pro or whatever, and I open LR. I type in "footprints" and up come the thumbnails of my good old Footprints project. I ask LR to online Footprints, along with a few other images from other projects that had the keyword "footprints." LR asks for my FW drive, and I say "Dude, I'm in Istanbul, remind me again in two days." Two days layer, LR chimes in with a reminder, and this time I'm at home. I plug in my FW drive and guess what. it's hosed. LR says "Dude, don't panic. I foresaw this. Get thyself to Fry's and buyest thou a cheap new drive and in the meantime feed me the following DVDs. Not just the footprints ones, but all the DVDs for all the stuff that was on the FW drive that died." LR won't leave me alone until it has seen to it that I once again have redundant backups. I come back with a new drive and LR asks if that should be my new primary archive device and I say "Hell, yeah." LR asks for DVDs and I keep handing them to it until I can't find one. Then me and LR have a problem. Both archives failed. Nobody could have prevented this. We weep. LR asks me: seriously, like, in all seriousness, do you have some other copy of these files? I say, "Dude, seriously, no." LR then asks if it should remove the entries from the catalog, or keep them but flag them as unavailable.

Years later I find that DVD behind the stove. I run in slow motion across the wheat field towards LR, waving the disk. LR restores the files and immediately demands that I help it help me to get my redundant archives current.

Am I crazy? I mean, aside from my slow decent into annoying colloquialisms? Does no one else have a ton of photos, processed and originals, that are in various states of backup, mostly "not?"

Lightroom is obviously the dope dizzles when it comes to creative image manipulation, but feel strongly that its emphasis on workflow needs to extend into the unsexy, but critical issues that every photographer faces.