The Digital Pipeline: How to Safely Manage Images and Video from Capture to Archive

A DAM workflow manages your assets from the moment you click your shutter through to archiving your finished work. Use this six stage workflow to minimize the opportunity for errors and loss, and maximize your data safety.
Health care and aviation professionals know more than a thing or two about preventing errors. Mistakes in their professions can, and do, cost lives. While managing digital assets isn’t nearly so risky, we can minimize the opportunities for mistakes and losses by adopting error reduction processes developed in health care and aviation.
One of the key principles of error reduction is to use an organized, repeatable workflow. A good workflow minimizes the opportunity for errors and loss, and maximizes data safety. A good workflow also allows you to be efficient, processing your work and delivering the results profitably. And, although it may seem counterintuitive, a standardized workflow allows you to be flexible and creative. At the personal level, routinizing repetitive tasks liberates your brain for other, more creative thinking. At the systemic level, if you know where your assets are and how they are organized, you can regroup them in new and creative ways.
Digital asset management (DAM) can seem overwhelming, especially if you’ve already got thousands of images or hours of video languishing in your digital landfill. Make the process easier and more successful for yourself by developing your system and your workflow in stages. Read through the article and decide where you’d like to start. It’s better to do the  DAM work you can manage than be overwhelmed and do none at all.
There’s no question that DAM software will make your work easier. DAM software also offers you organization and tracking features that would require extensive record keeping if you were to mimic these features yourself. That said, your basic DAM workflow and structure should work well enough that you can find an image even without software.
To learn more about data management software, have a look at Andrew Childress’s articles “How to Choose Asset Management Software for Your Digital Picture Archive” and “Free DAM! 5 No-Cost Programs to Manage Your Digital Image Collection.” Those articles will provide you with the background information you need to make your selection.

Compact flash and SD cards
Image source: iStock

A DAM workflow manages your assets from the moment you click your shutter through to the end when you decide to dissolve your collection, if you ever decide to dissolve your collection. The workflow involves six basic stages. Understanding the different stages will help you determine where you want to start building your DAM system, analyze how you can customize the system to provide you with the workflow that suits you best, and identify where opportunities exist to maximize your resources.
Capture involves everything you do to create the image or video. This stage involves deciding what file format (JPG or RAW) and colour space (sRGB or Adobe RGB) you’re going to use, what storage cards and size you want to purchase, how you’re going to name or number your files in-camera, and how you’re going to handle your image files until they are safely uploaded into a secure data medium and copied.
Ingestion is the process of getting your image files from your camera to secure data storage media. This stage involves naming your files, storing them in a folder structure, and placing a copy of your original files into an archive. Depending on your workflow, ingestion might also mean converting files from one format to another; for example, converting camera-native RAW images to DNGs or converting AVCHD video to DNxHD.
Depending upon how you elect to manage your image files on site and in transit, ingestion may involve more than one stage of uploading files. For example, if you are working in a remote location over a period of days or are on vacation, you may need to upload your images off of your card onto an external drive or cloud service daily to protect the images you’ve already taken and to liberate your cards for more images.
Editing and processing are often talked about as two parts of one working phase. However, it's useful to think about them separately because the stages can be handled differently depending upon your workflow, whether you use cataloguing software, and if so, what software you use. 
Editing is the process of looking at your pictures after the shoot, forming opinions about them, and deciding what you will do with them. Photo editing does not involve any changes to the pixels in your image. You may modify the metadata with file names or labels, but “pixel pushing” happens in the processing stage. 
Editing includes sorting, ranking, and organizing your image files. Sorting means arranging your images by time of capture, file name, subject matter, or any other method that works for you. I use this opportunity to also eliminate the really obvious duds from my shoot: misfires, blown exposures, failed flash, and similarly completely useless images. Ranking images helps you to identify which images you will work on and in what order, and organizing your images allows you to cluster your images into collections or albums based on subject, processing needs, priorities, or whatever else helps you with your workflow.
Editing also involves tagging your images with keywords. This task may seem a bit tedious, and you may be tempted to put it off until later. Don’t give in to temptation! It’s highly likely that you’ll never get back to tagging your images. More importantly, tagging your images with keywords is a step that will pay off handsomely in returns. Learn more about using keywords in our articles “Using a Controlled Vocabulary to Organize Digital Photographs” and “Implementing a Controlled Vocabulary in Adobe Lightroom.”
This is the stage that involves manipulating pixels. The files could be in TIFFs, PSDs, or your chosen flavour of video codec. All files in this stage, regardless of format, need some work done to them. It could be further adjustments to the image, client review, or publishing, but in all cases, the files are not ready to be stored away. It’s also common to have more than one version of a file at this stage. The final characteristic is critical: none of these files are original images. Anything that involves manipulating pixels should be done on a copy of the original file.
“Data is sacred, holy, not to be touched, raw. … If you start moving pixels, it goes in live-work, whether it's photo or video." —Chase Jarvis
To publish means to send the image or video out to be seen by someone else. This could involve, for example, uploading images to the internet, sending image files to your client, making prints or photo books, or sending images to a magazine or newspaper. What’s relevant at this stage is that a copy of your image is moving outside of your system and out of your control. It’s usually important at this stage to save and document your work. You’ll want to retain a copy of whatever you published for copyright and business reasons, and you’ll want to document who received your work.
An archive is a long-term storage structure that houses image and video files that no longer have an everyday use but are being kept for preservation, business reasons, or later access. This is the final and important stop for two sets of images: 
  1. original images
  2. the final version of processed images
To learn more about archives, their features, and the difference between an archive and a working library, see my article on “The Anatomy of a Digital Asset Management System.”

Unsorted slide photographs
Image source: iStock

The best workflow is the one that suits you and gets your images safely from capture to archive. I’m going to describe a basic process that I’ve developed to meet all the requirements of safe and efficient digital asset management. I encourage you to tinker with the process and fine-tune it for you. The best system in the world is not useful if you can’t or won’t use it!
Prepare to export image or video files from the flash cards to your computer. If you exported the files from flash cards to an external hard drive while on location, prepare to export the files from the external hard drive to your computer.

Diagram of capture phase of digital asset management

  • Import image or video files to your computer. During the import process, apply standardized filenames and write copyright information into the metadata. Import files into a folder structure that organizes the files independent of cataloguing software.
  • Copy the original image or video files into your archive. Keep the archive backed up to an external hard drive, which you store offsite, or back it up to a cloud storage service.

Diagram of ingest phase of digital asset management

  • Sort and rank original images or video on your computer. Eliminate files that are clearly useless. Group files in albums or catalogues as needed.
  • Apply keywords from a controlled vocabulary to files.
  • Carry out any non-destructive editing such as RAW processing in Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, or another RAW converter.

Diagram of edit phase of digital asset management

  • Do not make any pixel changes to the original file. Make a copy of the original file and carry out pixel changes to the copy.
  • Keep your working files organized and regularly back up your working library and files to an external hard drive or cloud storage service.

Diagram of process phase of digital asset management

Protect the working version of your image or video file. Make TIFF, JPG, or PNG copies of your files to distribute from your library as needed. Be sure to track which images or videos you sent where and on what date.

Diagram of publish phase of digital asset management

  • When you’ve finished working on an image or video file, place the final, completed file in your archive. There should only be one version of the completed file, which will join with the archived copy of the original file. For most people, the completed file will be the final working version of a file. This creates the opportunity to return to the file in the future to make new copies to publish or to carry out new or further processing.
  • Regularly back up your archive to an external hard drive or USB flash drives, which you store off site. Alternatively, back up your archive to a secure cloud storage service. If using a cloud storage service, be certain that you haven’t shared your folders with others, who might accidentally edit or delete your files. Also be certain that you are not using a cloud backup service and not simply a file syncing tool, such as Dropbox or Google Drive.

Diagram of archive phase of digital asset management

In this article, you’ve been introduced to one basic workflow for managing your digital images and videos. Having a clear, safe workflow that you diligently follow is an essential component of a digital asset management system. To help you organize your workflow, print the one page document included with this article and pin it up near your computer.
Building a workflow that works for you is a great place to start. It is not, however, the only consideration. Explore our series on Digital Asset Management for Everyone for more information and tips, and watch for more articles to come. If there’s a topic you’d like us to consider for an article in the series, please make your suggestion in a comment below. We’d love to know what you are struggling with.


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