The Digital Shoebox: Minimum Viable Digital Asset Management

In our series on digital asset management, we’ve focused on building the best DAM system that works for you. We have offered solutions at various cost points and kept our proposed systems as simple as possible. However, for the average family record keeper or hobbyist photographer, many DAM solutions are more of an investment, more complicated to set up and run, and more expensive to maintain than many people can or want to manage.
I am convinced that DAM must become a normal way of doing things, not an exception, for every person who touches a camera or video cam. Without even basic digital asset management, we will lose track of what we have and, more worrisome, lose what we have altogether. Instead of building and preserving memories, we’ll drown in a meaningless visual sea.
In this article, instead of proposing the best DAM solution, I am proposing the minimum viable DAM system any and every person can use to organize and safeguard their pictures. “The Digital Shoebox” is meant to be the most accessible, least boring, and most minimal system our team could imagine. Whether you only take quick pics with your smartphone or shoot hundreds of hours of video with a sophisticated video cam, this system will work for you.
Our digital shoebox is meant to be a minimal, viable DAM system. “Viable” means that our digital shoebox must be consistently repeatable, reliable, and usable.
We believe that our digital shoebox is a pretty good DAM system, if for no other reason, because it is, first and foremost, a system. As with everything we want to keep and find again, we must have a methodical process that we can and will use. Digital asset management, no matter how simple, must still be systematic and repeatable. The digital shoebox is a simple system based on what we believe is arepeatable DAM workflow.
It’s fine to have a system, but the system is useless if the end result puts what we want to keep at risk of being lost or destroyed. The purpose of DAM, after all, is to get your images into a safe digital space. While there is no such thing as an absolutely secure system, our digital shoebox complies with what we believe are the basic golden rules of digital asset management.
If we want people to use a system, the system has to be user-friendly and practical. That means that the system has to be widely available, free or low cost, and easily understood. Given our mobile, global society, we also wanted a system that could be accessed from almost anywhere on almost any computing device. We also designed our system to be software-agnostic. Our digital shoebox does not require any software beyond your computer’s operating system or services available to you with cloud storage.
Before working your way through the following steps, download and print the one page document included with this article. The document contains the following diagram, which will help you see the flow as you go along.
Flowchart for maintaining a digital shoebox
To get started with your digital shoebox, you need the following equipment:
  • A camera, videocam, or smartphone
  • A computer, or mobile device and storage cloud
  • USB flash drives or external hard drive
  • Key tags, labelling machine, or another labelling system
  • A cooperative friend or family member
  • A shoebox (or any small box)
Take the pictures
Smartphones and compact cameras have made photography easy and as automatic as we want it to be. Still, if you want to keep your images, you need to get into the process and start your digital shoebox when you press the shutter release.
Typically, this means shooting RAW files when possible, and when not possible or practical, shooting the largest size JPEG your camera will allow. Read your camera manual or look online for information about the quality of image your camera can produce. Set your camera to take and save the highest resolution image possible.
There may be times when you have reason to take something less than the best quality image. If this is the case, make your compromises deliberately, fully informed about the choices you are making.
Check the storage space on your camera or smartphone and monitor how much space you have available for new images. There’s nothing worse than getting to a once-in-a-lifetime event only to discover that your smartphone or memory card is full.
If you’re using a camera with a memory card, consider always carrying a spare memory card. Cards can fail. And keep your memory cards in good shape. Avoid deleting images with your camera, which leads to card failure. Instead, for good memory card health, after uploading images from your memory card, format the card in your camera.
Name and save the pictures
Your original image file is digital gold and needs to be treated as such. If you have a computer, the simplest option is to upload your original images to your computer’s hard drive. If you do not have a computer or don’t want to use your computer, you could save your images directly to a cloud storage service.
If you do use cloud storage, ensure you are using storage and not a syncing service. Google Drive, Google Photos, Apple Photos, Dropbox, and Microsoft OneDrive are all examples of cloud syncing services. With a syncing service, if you remove an image, deliberately or accidentally, from any single access point, the image will be removed from the syncing service and will no longer be available on any device. That’s not safe storage for original images.
A syncing service is not a safe storage place, but it does have its merits. If you are using a syncing service to automatically upload images from your smartphone, think of the syncing service as a massive, virtual memory card for your smartphone. Just as you need to upload images from a camera to a safe storage place, so do you need to upload images from a photo syncing service to a safe storage space.
Naming your images with essential information in a consistent format is the simplest and one of the most important things you can do for safe storage of your images. Image files that are systematically named can be located and identified in the most basic file management system without any special software.
You have a few options for renaming your files.
If you are using a computer, once you’ve uploaded your images, you can rename them by using batch renaming options in your computer’s operating system. The option may not be immediately obvious, but searching the Internet will quickly lead you to directions for your version of operating system.
You may also want to look at some of the downloadable bulk renaming utilities. Most are small stand-alone utilities that are specific to operating systems, but not dependant on any other software. Some utilities offer more options than others. A valuable feature, if you’re looking at options, is the ability to use information from the image’s metadata for renaming.
If you are using a syncing service right from capture, explore options for renaming your image files before you store a set of original images. This will ensure that your image files—original, synced or working copy, and any published versions—all have the same name.
How you name your files depends upon your needs, but here’s a commonly recommended template that keeps your images in good order in just about any circumstance: YYYYMMDD-Photographer-Shoot-HHMMSS.
YYYYMMDD” is the date the image was taken; for example, 20150901. By using the year-month-day order, your photos will line up in sequential order in any file management system. It’s web-friendly to use four digits instead of two for the year.
Photographer” is the name of the photographer. By including your name in the file name, you are identifying the image as yours—a valuable piece of information should you and your images become separated or should you need to identify the image as yours. By placing your name after the date, images from two or more sources (for example, if you and your partner both share an archive) will still flow in chronological order.
Shoot” is the name of the event, place, or, if doing portraits, the person photographed. Adding shoot information to the image name is not essential but it does help you to identify photos that belong together.
HHMMSS” is the time the image was taken, using a 24-hour clock; for example, 130923. Using time to identify individual images within a shoot is a simple option that ensures no two images are confused or one image over-written by another as a result of accidental or irregular numbering. Some renaming options draw this information from the image’s metadata. If you do not have this option with your renaming system, you could number your images sequentially starting with 0001. If using sequential numbers, be sure to keep the zeroes so your files will line up in sequential order.
Depending upon the size of your image collection, you may not need a folder structure beyond grouping images by year. If you’re a prolific shooter, you may want to break down your annual folders into folders by month or shoot. Your goal is only to make your images manageable. Creating a folder structure of more than two levels deep often complicates rather than simplifies navigating images.
Edit the pictures
The key to successful DAM at this stage is to work on a copy of your image files. Never, ever manipulate your original image file. This is especially true if you’re working with JPEG files: every time you open and re-save a JPEG—even if you didn’t do any image editing—you compromise the quality of the image.
If you are using a syncing service from capture, you may already have a set of working images if you copied, rather than moved, your images into your safe storage place. If you aren’t using a syncing service from capture, this is the time you may want to use one. You can edit, move, and share your images without having to make numerous copies or lose track of where you stored your files. Many cloud syncing services for photos even have image editing software in the service.
If you are not using a syncing service, you can carry out everything you need to do on your computer using your operating system. Simply place the copies of your original images in a directory that is fully separate from the originals. Your duplicate files are your working files.
You do not need any special software or cloud service at the editing stage, especially if you are a “shoot and go with it as it is” kind of photographer. If, however, you’d like to use a management and editing service or use editing software, take the time to read two articles written by Andrew Childress for the DAM series:
Both articles consider combined online services and stand-alone combined and single-purpose software.
If you use JPEGs for shooting and final images, the odds are very high that you will, at some point, overwrite your original image with the final version. To avoid this disaster, I strongly recommend that at some point while you are working with an image, add a code to the filename of the working copy. Use a code that means something to you; for example, “FV” for final version or “Ed” for edited. The image filename would then become: YYYYMMDD-Photographer-Shoot-HHMMSS-FV.jpg
If you are looking for a super simple DAM system or you don’t edit your images (or edit them only very little), you probably don’t need a backup of your working image files. Remember that you’ve got your original files tucked away safely so if the worst happens and you lose an image in the editing stage, you only need to go back to your original image, make a new copy, and start again.
If, however, you do significant work on your images, consider maintaining a backup of your working files. This backup need not be anything complicated or permanent. Keeping a current copy of your files on a USB flash drive or external hard drive may be sufficient. If you think you might need something more automatic or comprehensive, then re-consider your plan of using a digital shoebox and have a look at the other articles in the Digital Asset Management for Everyone series.
Before leaving the editing stage, consider how you will tell your story. Sometimes, a single photo or video will suffice. Often, a story requires a few or more images. Think about organizing your images into albums or catalogues either using an online or software option, by making copies of your photos and grouping the copies in a folder, or by organizing collections to be printed in photo books.
Share the pictures
We take photographs and make videos so we can share them with others and look at them again. Share them on social media or in an online photo service. If you’ve included your name in your image file name, you have taken at least one step to mark the image as yours. Print your photos to frame or organize them and print them in a photo book. Share your memories in whatever way makes most sense to you, except never, ever pass on your original image file. Those original image files stay tucked in your digital shoebox.
Archive and backup the pictures
Your picture archive is the final, safe, storage place for your original images and the final version of any edited images. You will keep at least two copies of your archive. The golden rule for backups is to have three copies of image files, but I’m assuming you have an active copy of your images somewhere—in an online photo album or syncing service, or printed in a collection.
You placed your original images in your archive when you uploaded and saved your original image files in a safe place. If you don’t make any changes to your photos or videos, you won’t need to add anything more to your archive. But if you do make changes, add one (only one) copy of your final working version of your images to your archive. (If you’d like to learn more about archives—and why you would only save one copy of your final working version—have a look at The Anatomy of a Digital Asset Management System.)
If you use JPEGs for shooting and final images, remember to add a code to the filename of the working copy of your image. You may want to also store the final versions of your images in a folder that is clearly distinct from the folder you’ve used for your original images.
If you do only one thing to manage your digital images and videos, this is the most important thing to do: make a copy of your image files and store that copy somewhere other than where you keep your primary set of images. I don’t mean just use a separate folder structure. I mean make your back up onto a separate storage device, even if you’re using cloud storage and the storage service makes their own backups. You want a second physical copy tucked away in a safe place.
USB flash drives are ideal for physical backups. They’re small, stable, and relatively inexpensive. Because there are no moving parts in a flash drive, the risk of mechanical failure is small. And because you are using the flash drive for long-term storage in a safe place, you don’t need USB 3.0 or encryption, which reduces the cost by about half. Do not, however, sacrifice quality for cost. This is long-term storage we’re talking about, so stick with the tried and true brand names. A warranty won’t rescue lost image files, but a warranty is a sign that the manufacturer stands behind their product.
If you are a prolific photographer, shooting RAW and generating a large file size, flash drives may be impractical. In that case, consider using external hard drives, but shop for a reputable brand made for travel. These hard drives typically withstand bumps and knocks better.
Do not use CDs, DVDs, or Blu-ray discs for long-term storage. For an explanation and alternatives, have a look at the quick article “Choosing Data Storage Media for Photos and Video: When Not to Use Optical Media.”
Whatever storage media you choose to use, once you’ve made your backup, label it. You can get a lot of USB flash drives and even a few external hard drives in a shoebox, making your shoebox a potential chaos of digital data. Adding tags or labels to your storage media will make it easy for you—and for whoever follows you—to find the right images.
Now get your copied archive off site. Make a swap with a friend or family member: you store their backup and they store yours. Once a year, make a point of checking your backups. Plug the storage media into your computer and check that the files are there and readable.
Box with external hard drives USB flash drives and tags
The very best digital asset management system is the one you use. It may seem labour intensive or tedious to build your digital shoebox, but really, a rainy weekend worth of work should get you well on your way, if not finished. Once you’ve got your DAM process in place, maintaining your digital shoebox is a matter of a few extra steps that takes no more than a few minutes after each shoot. The reward is years of being able to review memories and a legacy that you will leave for those who follow you.


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