A cat stares at you

Nailing down that workflow and storage issue

Bottom line up front: Since Capture One works perfectly with catalogs stored on external drives, we’re doing that. This is mandatory, because I use multiple computers, and my lightweight tablet has minimal storage. Be sure to copy imported images into the catalog. Then, use a convenient backup method to keep things backed up to The Server, and then make an offsite copy.

The Problem

2003 to 2021
November 2022, December 2022, and January 2023

Whether you’re shooting film or digital, you have to figure out how to store your work, or even ponder the possiblity of throwing some or all of it in the trash. Unless you pay someone else to do the job, or have become famous enough that they create a museum for you, at some point you will have to put in some work just organizing your work. I don’t have many photos to show for it, but somehow my catalog of photos from the new camera is already over 25% of the size of the entire combined collection of photos from all my previous cameras. Something needs to be done.

Despite the fact that 1TB of disk space became the minimum a decade ago, far too many laptops and tablets ship with 256GB of storage or less. My Surface Pro 8 is one such piece of sadness. While it is one of the models with user-replaceable storage, there is an asterisk attached to that which makes it impractical. I guess they assume that those big blobs of water vapor in the sky should be used for bulk storage. Another big problem is that I have not only the Surface Pro 8, but also an Asus something-or-other normal laptop with a couple TB of storage, and my trusty desktop machine. Clearly, external storage for my photo catalogs is the answer, but that creates its own issues.

I live out in the middle of nowhere in an area susceptible to thunderstorms, tornados, and hay barn fires that get a little out of control. I not only need backups, but offsite backups. Unfortunately, the internet is garbage out here in the woods. Not even Space Daddy Elon wants to provide service out here.

My preferred tool for working with photos is Capture One. I really like the way it works, and it works on both Windows and Mac. If you find Light Room to be frustrating, or don’t like Adobe, give it a try. It’s available as both a perpetual license and rental. Now that I’m a bit more famliar with it, creating and using multiple catalogs isn’t a big deal, and it has no problems using external storage for catalogs. In fact, unlike Light Room, it has no problems using a catalog stored on a file server! It’s beginning to look like my problems will be easy to solve.

Active Catalogs

USB-attached drives are pretty snappy. Even a tiny little nubbins will give you 1TB of storage and can bast out at a few undered MB/s. Unfortunately, thumb drives, in general, are pretty easy to lose. I’m of the belief that something about the physical size of a 3.5″ floppy is the ideal portable storage from a portability versus losability standpoint. As long as one dimension isn’t too extreme, I think it’s more of a volume issue than any particular linear dimension. Fortunately, with m.2-sized drives being the norm for SSDs, there is now a perfect size of external drive, and I can buy 2TB for about $150 at any random Office Depot. These drives will become my primary catalog storage. I am calling them active catalog drives, even when they are full and no longer used as they can hold no more photos, or if they have been shelved at the end of the year. The key point is that they are, or were, actively used in day-to-day activity.

Now we’re getting into the policy part of this solution. Years ago I bought a roll of barcoded asset tags from Metalcraft. Every drive gets one of these asset tags. This means the device must be at least as large as one of those labels, which precludes most thumbdrives. The ID off those tags is used as the drive label, which is also used as the primary catalog name, which is kept under the \Photos\ directory on the drive. That label thing wasn’t necessary, but it does give both a common naming scheme, and it shows who owns the drive. Drives are formatted as NTFS. Photos imported into the primary catalog all come from a “real camera”, which means any device that’s a standalone digital camera. It doesn’t matter if it’s the latest mirrorless camera or an ancient Fisher-Price Baby’s First Mirrorless Point-and-Shoot from 1996, or something actually good like a true DSLR, it gets to live under the primary catalog. Photos off my phone go into the <Label> Phone catalog, while any scans, whether its of film or prints, go in the <Label> Scans catalog if I ever start shooting film again. Capture One offers a better photo-centric workflow for producing a finished photograph once scanning has been completed in some other software than Photoshop, unless you are doing something more creative than just finishing a photo. A copy of all the latest relevant software, firmware, and manuals for the camera should be kept on the storage device, as should the installer for the latest version of Capture One, and ViceVersa Pro. I’ll get to that last one in just a moment.

One important policy to note is that an active catalog drives should be limited to just one calendar year, but this is not a hard rule. If there are a couple of straggler photos from new year’s eve that won’t fit on the catalog drive for that year, it’s better to store it on next year’s first active catalog drive than to waste $150 worth of storage on three photos. For this reason, active catalog drives should have a label in a prominent location noting he date of the first and last photo on the drive. Fortunately, I have a roll of the appropriate-sized labels at the house, though I really wish there were a minimally textured flat area on the drives that I chose. Who knows what direction they’ll go with design on this front, but as long as it is somewhat ruggedized, has enough space for the labels, and is of the correct physical size, I’m all good.

When I run out of space, just buy another external disk, and keep going. If I lose a catalog drive, assuming I follow my own policies, it only impacts the most recent trip. It would probably be a wise idea to never delete photos off source media until they are not only on the catalog drive, but also copied to the local archive. In that scenario, losing some photos is probably the least catastropic thing to have happened.

Local Archives

Okay, we have the storage solution that will work with all our computers, but now we need to keep it backed up. How do we do that? There are plenty of open source solutions in this space, but I’m using a paid commercial tool called ViceVersa Pro. I’m a sucker for pretty graphs, so it’s worth the price of admission. More importantly, I can make its sync/backup profiles refer to the disk label rather than a specific drive, which comes in handy. I store the profile in the root directory of the drive, so it’s just a simple double click to get the process started. As a matter of policy, the drive should be backed up before it leaves the house, and should be backed up after every session. The copy on the file server is called the local archive.

Since the local archive isn’t an offline copy, I don’t consider it to be a true backup. Backups should require more than one step to access, preferably offline when not in use, and near impossible to accidentally delete. The actual backup happens with the offsite archive process.

Shelving Active Catalog Drives

When an active catalog drive is retired, it is considered shelved. We will use shelved drive, shelved catalog drive, and shelved active catalog drive interchangeably. What matters is that the drive is now sitting on a shelf. Specifically, it is sitting in a box on a shelf inside the plastic cabinet in the front bedroom. In the future, it may be a good idea to periodicallly validate the shelved drives and the local archives to check for bit rot or other issues.

As mentioned earlier, each active catalog drive should be used for just one calendar year. The .CR2 files created by the 1Dx II are typically around 22MB, but could be larger in some scenarios. For planning purposes, though, I’m going to assume the median value of 31MB, and then round it up to the convenient-for-base-two 32MB. This means that a 2TB device can handle 65,536 photos. At my peak, I made a little over 5,000 shots in one year, so the 2TB drive should be sufficient for a year unless I shoot an appreciable amount of video. Then again, if I’m shooting video, it’s not really something that will be covered by a photo workflow, will it?

Historical Archive

I have digital photos going back to the early 2000s. This will be converted into a Capture One catalog on fresh storage. It will get a proper local archive, and then the active storage will be shelved.

Offsite Archives

This is our actual backup. These drives need not be the fastest available. Size is more important. Currently, this is a pair of 4TB spinning rust USB drives. It’s Good Enough for now. One drive is kept at the house, disconnected from a computer when not in use, while the other is sitting in a media safe far enough away that an errant tornado would be unlikely to take out both at the same time.

If you’ll notice, I make no mention of cloud storage anywhere, other than poking a little fun at it up top. As someone that lives in garbage DSL territory, this means I have a 1Mbps upload. That’s megabits per second, or more specifically, one single megabit per second, not even as fast as a T1 from the 1970s. As it stands, I have to make sure that any images I post from the house aren’t too large. I can barely participate in the internet as it was 15 years ago, much less in 2023. Backing up to The Cloud is not feasible. I may copy the offsite archive to something like Backblaze B2 when I swap offsite drives, but I could just as easily throw another drive or two into the mix and it would be less hassle.

Closing Notes

I think that covers everything. I know that I’ll run into some gotcha along the way, but I think this will end up working out. As it stands, I have a solution to the organizational problem, the multiple computer problem, the low storage on the most portable computer problem, and the backup problems.