The tale of a digital hoarder: Photos

By Matt Cornock

In this post, I look at the way our attitude to storing photos has changed as a result of the ease and low-cost of digital storage which encourages the digital photo hoarder.

Two questions

My Photos Properties Panel - 49.5GBHow many photos did you use to take with your 35mm film camera? 24 or 36 exposure? A film reel or two a month? Maybe just for holidays or special occasions (or when you wanted to use the film up, perhaps your pet climbing up the curtain?).

How many photos have you taken so far with your digital camera?

For me, my answers are approx 500, and approx 50,000, as very crude estimates.

The screenshot (right) of my current My Pictures folder shows I’m using up about 50GB just for temporary storage of photos taken over a period of about a year. These aren’t the final edited versions that I post on the web, or use for other projects. The photos in this folder are the unedited, straight of the camera image files (JPEG compressed too, not even the disk-consuming RAW files).

Why keep everything? Laziness?

Why do I (and many others) keep all the photos they’ve ever taken? Purely incase I ever need to use them again. As I have so much ‘free’ space on my drive, what’s the point in spending time weeding out the ones that I don’t want to keep? I went through some photos once and categorised them into a selection of other folders. The process was long, tedious and even then some photos remained in a holding pen as I was unable to decide either its worthiness or category. Compare sorting physical, printed photos with those on your hard drive:

  • The time it takes you to view a physical photo is the time it takes for light to reach your eyes after bouncing off the photograph. The time it takes you to view a digital photo is the time it takes the computer (crudely) to a) locate the file, b) load the preview program, c) cache the file, d) send it to the monitor. In order for that to happen, you also need to wiggle a mouse and think.
  • The printed photo can be thrown away instantly. The digital photo requires a mouse click, and if you’ve got a nannying operating system, several further clicks on the ‘OK’ button.
  • Sorting physical photos requires the ability to pile things on a desk. Sorting digital photos often requires folders to be created, or tags to be typed, or multiple windows to be shown.

There have been advances in the user interface of photo management systems, including drag-tap touchscreen devices, some audio control, etc. However, there is an undeniable ease in viewing and handling printed media that you can’t get from a digital counterpart.

Ironically enough, whilst printed (and hence more costly) photos can be sorted and binned very quickly and easily, we are less inclined to bin the cheaper, environmentally friendly, digital option.

Preventing loss – needles in a haystack

If you have infinite space to save an infinite number of photos, you will still be limited by the finite time to browse them and finite uses you’ll have for these photos. OK, that’s no mathematical proof, but you get my jist. However, why run the risk of deleting any photos which one day may just become useful for that unknown future purpose? Just save everything and be done with it.

The major problem then, is how to locate that essential photo in your ‘infinitely’ large collection?

I often spend tens of minutes trying to find a photo I never got round to categorising, or meta-data-ing, or even filenaming properly. For most photos, there’s no point to doing such a thing, except for when that unknown future occasion arises (which we saved the photo for) and we wished we had properly categorised the image in the first place.

If we save photos and keep them all, not categorising out of laziness, then at the end of the day we shouldn’t have bothered saving them at all.

Ah… so don’t hoard then

Hell no. Hoard away. Just make sure you sort when you save. You’ll save some space, be able to locate the photo you need and the world will be a better place.

How to sort

Now, I admit I’ve not used any proper photo management systems. However, writing this post has actually motivated me to go looking for some. I’m hoping that there are some bin-sorting, metadata-writing and auto-identifying programs out there which will help me to quickly categorise and later find my images. If not, well I should think about creating something!

Here’s what I’d want to do:

  1. Sort photos quickly into categories, either using some nice program, tagging, or on a simplistic level have a myriad of folders.
  2. Name photos quickly and consistently.
  3. Search for photos by tags/names.
  4. Search for photos using some form of auto-classifying tool (like Google’s and Bing’s image classifer, e.g. photo, illustration, face, head and shoulders, dimensions, colours).

Conclusion

I’m going to keep hoarding, and yes I will end up getting more hard drives. In the mean time, I’ll try and hunt down some exceptional (and it would have to be exceptional) software to help search and categorise images.

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