Friday, April 26, 2019


One of the endlessly repeating threads of Internet Discussion about Photography is the question of archiving. Photographers, especially the old guard ("back in my day we had to get it right in the camera, ahem") who dominate these discussions are obsessed with archiving, and will ramble on tediously about RAID arrays, and how many terabytes of RAW files they have lying around. You can practically see them stroking their beards, fussing with their pipes, and resting their large, moist, hands on their prodigious bellies as their audience gets some much-needed rest.

I'm going to break it down for you in practical terms, and then offer up an alternative posture that you can think about.

Are just practicing? Do you go shoot a bunch of birds, or models, or whatever, and then put a selected subset up on instagram or flickr or some forum to get feedback, and that's about it?

You can delete everything immediately. Upload it, throw it away, and move on. Admit it, you're never going to do anything with any of your pictures, nobody is ever going to want them, you are never going to look at them again. Upload, delete, and watch the likes roll in.

Do you occasionally finish things? Great. Hang on to your pictures until you've finished the thing. Then throw everything away. Or, if you want, archive the "finals" for the project. You did cull out almost everything you shot, and keep only a small percentage for the finished thing, whatever it was, right? Throw everything else away. Yes, yes, some day maybe you'll... no you won't. Admit it. You're never going to go back through the rejects looking for missed gold. You're too busy taking new pictures (or you're bored with photography.)

Do you have actual clients? HOLY SHIT! A REAL UNICORN! Ok, unicorn, steady now. In the first place you probably know what the hell you're doing already. But I will offer my opinion anyways. Keep the stuff that you have a contractual obligation to keep, and maybe keep the things that a client might reasonably ask for in future. It's the nice thing to do. But be honest, don't keep bullshit that you are not legally obligated to keep, and which nobody will ever want to look at. Throw it out.

Also, try to avoid contracts that obligate you to keep things. That feels like a liability you don't need to carry.

These schmucks with five copies of every RAW file they've ever shot, one on a rotating series of hard disks shipped for security to a vault in Norway? Those guys? They're just throwing their pictures away in a very complex and expensive fashion. You really think they're gonna be able to find that one out of focus shot of a pileated woodpecker they took on their camping trip in Wisconsin, some time in the fall of either 2015 or 2016? Of course they can't. Even if they could, they're not going to spend the hour digging around through 8 possible different hard drives that sit on a shelf. These people aren't even camera enthusiasts, they're storage enthusiasts, and they suck at storage.

When you post something on Facebook or Instagram, it is for all intents and purposes gone in a couple of days. Sure, your audience could laboriously click back in time to it, but they're not going to. Every now and then Facebook will dredge up some of this jetsam under the banner of "8 years ago today" at which point it's visible, but meaningless.

By creating a system of hard disks and RAID arrays and secure offsite storage you are merely recreating this phenomenon at your own expense, and with great effort. The fact that the relevant bits are somewhere, in 5 copies, does not mean they're not gone. D.B. Cooper's mortal remains are somewhere too. Perhaps your pileated woodpecker is somewhere nearby?

Here is the alternative attitude to adopt: this is all ephemera, except for a few select things that I fix into my world in one way or another. There are a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred, photographs that I choose to live with, to have actively present in my life. Prints, books, electronic frames, coffee cups, whatever. Every now and then a small handful of the pictures I take makes it into that select group.

Everything else is trash, or if you prefer, is mayflies. Throw it all away.

You don't have to adopt this attitude, but it might pay you to roll it around your mouth and experiment with the taste, see if there's something there you can use.


  1. While I am the world's worst archivist, after 48 years of photography I have a pile of work. I like to go through old contact sheets and negatives, mostly to see what I missed. You would be amazed at how often I'll smack my head and wonder how I could be so stupid to have missed that really good photo from back in the day. Your eye, perceptions, and taste change. Had I thrown it all away I would miss these discoveries. Damn. I'm not as bad as I thought.

    1. If you're actually going through the stuff, then more power to ya, hang on to it! It's when you spend effort salting it away, but never look at it that things become silly.

      There is, I suspect, a difference of scale. How many contact sheets do you have? 100s? Maybe 1000? That's quite a lot of film, after all. We're talking maybe as many as 35,000 negatives here, which is a pretty hefty archive for a film shooter.

      That is like 1-2 years shooting for many digital shooters.

      We know what happens when an archive starts to edge toward 100,000 negatives -- it's unmanageable large. Winogrand and Maier are both in this territory, and they had given up entirely well before the end. That is a more or less "normal" sized archive for many self-styled "Serious" DSLR shooters.

      While there may be some truly maniacal photographers that can actually make some sort of sense out of that sort of mess, there are many more who treat the problem simply as one of storage without any credible attempt at retrieval,

      Storage without retrieval is indistinguishable from discarding, except for the costs!

  2. "Those guys? They're just throwing their pictures away in a very complex and expensive fashion." Love it: your whole article is right there...

    I had a Great Backup Drive Disaster a couple of years ago, and it was salutary in two ways. First, I felt FREE of a burden I didn't even know I was carrying. But second, and perhaps contradictorily, felt the urge to do exactly what you suggest: assemble a grab-bag of (to me) important backups.

    In looking at the options, I discovered that, to all intents and purposes a high-quality JPEG of a fully-finished file is indistinguishable from a TIFF, for a fraction of the file-size (doh!). Thus, an entire project, including also-rans, could be automatically flattened (if layered images), converted into a good-enough backup by Photoshop Elements "Process Multiple Files", and easily fitted onto a DVD, or even a CD.

    Those guys (but, hey, less beardism, please!) would do well to consider: how many Vermeers, how many Rembrandts, how many Van Goghs are there in the world? (Ignore Picasso).


    1. I have a beard of my own! Also hands and a belly. Neither *exceedingly* large, yet. But I do stroke my beard, and rest my moist hands on my belly from time to time.

  3. I absolutely agree with you, Andrew. Chuck'em out, RAW, tiff, psd and jpeg! I just chucked out a large number of the books I've collected over the years, especially the academic ones, which I couldn't even give away now, as in my field they're at best no more than historical curiosities. One feels so much better for it afterwards, and the sense of loss is momentary.

  4. I've been ruthlessly culling stuff from my rubbish pile. Much dross, little gold. The value of revisiitng is seeing what mistakes I made.

  5. In the past I have asked wedding photographers (not directly but generically on the interweb) why they were reluctant to give negatives or RAW files to their customers as part of the package. The usual answer was because of possible income in the future, which I understand. But I never really got an answer to how much that ended up being. Did they make enough money from those future sales to offset the costs of maintaining the archive? It seems to me that it's pretty slim odds that a married couple still lives in the same city as their wedding photographer 10 years after, or that the photographer is still in business, or even alive.
    That is, are there hard numbers anywhere that the archive pays for itself. I'm sure that there are cases where it does, but is that 2% of commercial photographers, or 20%, or 75%?

  6. Wow, this is timely. My friends and I have been discussing this very topic quite a bit. After we go into "the final wash" as Ansel said, it's likely most of our hard work will end up in the trash, or at Goodwill for $2 per 22x28 "archival" print, less than the original cost of the paper. I'm now much more careful about what I keep but still likely keep too many. Sadly I have a catalog of about 80,000 images, most of which, of course are worthless. In the last few years I've carefully keywords and rated my photos so I know which, very few of course, are worth keeping. I'm not sure how to get rid of the rest of them without risking trashing the 100 or so that might matter to me. We built a home 8 years ago. With great difficulty, as the child of a librarian, I got rid of almost all my books. Of course I had read all three volumes of the Gulag Archipelago, do I want or need them, do I need to impress someone by having them on my shelf? Of course I don't so they and a lot more were donated to the local library thrift shop where they are sold for fifty cents to a dollar. We all have too much stuff. Our kids don't want our furniture, our china, our silver flatware, why would they want our photos?

  7. I get the general sentiment in the post and comments. But storage is cheap and backup is easy. I don't have 100,000 pictures in my Lightroom catalogue; in fact, I barely have 1,500 that I consider "done" and worth saving. I went to a lot of trouble to make these, and I like them. I don't care if nobody else sees them or likes them; I made them for me. Why wouldn't I back them up, especially when it costs so little?

    I also keep the RAW files because it's easy to do so. These I back up less scrupulously. If I lose them, meh, they're gone. But it costs literally nothing to save them and I have gone back a few times when I needed the original.

    I don't think this is something we need to turn into a Kondo-style philosophy. Next thing you know we'll be writing blog posts about keeping only the pictures that "spark joy".

  8. I like this. Off and on I'm working on a project to get my keepers from the digital years all in one place where I can find the stuff I really might want to look at (or print or exhibit) and then ditch the old drives and CDs cluttering up my life.

    One of the earlier comments reminded me of a bit of luck from my past. About 25 years ago I moved all the negs and prints from my commercial business to a "fireproof" storage facility. Well, the building might have been fireproof but the stuff in the stall next to mine was not. After the smoke and water damage about the only thing that survived was a cigar box of snapshots and Polaroids from my college days. And once the shock wore off I realized that was the only thing from the whole mess I really cared about. The fire had relieved me of a small truckload of excess baggage. And I got a few thousand on an insurance settlement.

    I'm trying to do better on my digital files.