Guest Post: Parent-Archivist (Thoughts and Tips from a Shutterbug)

Shooting Monkeys

The Dude photographs monkeys of all kinds.

One Sunday morning at the beginning of last year, I read this piece in the New York Times Magazine, which postulates that parenting today is defined by the process of archiving digital media of our children.  More morosely, it explains that

American children in 2010 have a bright, clear reason for being. They exist to furnish subjects for digital photographs that can be corrected, cropped, captioned, organized, categorized, albumized, broadcast, turned into screen savers and brandished on online social networks.

Tongue even more firmly in cheek, the article describes the initiation process into digital parenthood:

The marching orders come immediately, with the newborn photo, which must be e-mailed to friends before a baby has left the maternity ward. A conscientious father . . . must snap dozens of shots of the modestly wrapped newborn. . . . Back at a laptop, he uploads the haul, scrutinizing pixels. . . . He selects a becoming one. The mother signs off, often via e-mail, from her hospital bed. . . . Thus a parent is minted.

Indeed.  And it doesn’t stop at the hospital. We all take virtual piles of pictures now that digital cameras have become nearly disposable in price and cameraphones ubiquitious.  But for all of the advantages of digital media — immediacy, bottomless storage, etc. — there is one serious disadvantage: It takes but a small computer problem to lose it all.  Anyone who’s experienced a hard drive crash can attest to just how many precious memories can be lost in an instant.  And, disaster aside, I think we’ve all grown a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of files and sources of our digital media.

So, given my role as Archivist-in-Chief in our household, Aimee thought I might be able to give AYMB readers some helpful advice by describing what we do in terms of documenting the Monkey, how we archive/curate it all, and how we secure and back it up.  But first, some background.

The Dude, Digital Archivist
If digital archiving is the hallmark of 21st century parenting, then I had been minted as Dad long before biologically becoming one.  For reasons only a psychiatrist could explain, I’ve always been a bit of a digital archivist.  By the time I graduated law school, I had stored on my computer not only every paper I had written since high school, but also, freakishly, every email I had ever written and every digital picture I had ever taken.  Then, I undertook the project of digitizing my collection of thousands of CDs.  Throw in, over the next few years, a concert photography hobby, a side-gig as live-show archivist for a band, and another pile of music, and I was juggling a few terrabytes of data before the Monkey was even a proverbial glimmer.

In short, I was well prepared for tackling the project of documenting, archiving, and curating all things Monkey.  I packed for the Monkey’s birth as I did for any other adventure: neatly stuffing into my camera bag 2 digital SLR bodies, 4 lenses, an external flash, gig after gig of memory cards, more chargers and batteries than you could imagine, and a digital HD video camera.  My bag weighed more than the Monkey at birth — and the replacement value eclipsed the hospital bill.  But it was worth it in every way. Aimee did indeed sign off on a picture, and we used it to announce the Monkey to the world before even leaving the hospital.

Parenting by 1s and 0s
I’d bet dollars to donuts that this long walk down a short digital pier resonates with many AYMB readers — if not in scale, then at least in theme.  If it does, consider following advice for managing your digital memories:

1. Take lots of pictures and video (and voice memos). Memory and storage is cheap these days.  A 4GB SD card can be had for $25 bucks.  4GB!?!  That’ll hold thousands of pics.  Snap away.  Don’t be shy.  You can delete later, but you can’t recapture lost moments.

2. Dont forget about your smart phone. With smart phones getting much cheaper, we have access to a lot more ways to record life.  That iPhone (or equivalent) in your pocket takes pretty darn good pictures, records pretty good sound files, and (the newest generation, at least) shoots some pretty incredible video.  Your phone is the one electronic device you almost always have with you.  Don’t forget it’s there.

3. Find a workflow that works . . . and stick to it. As with anything in life, you will be more likely to stick to it if you can find a routine that works for you.  On a computer, we call that “workflow.”  It’s what you do, start to finish, to get your media off your devices, onto your computer, onto the web, and backed up safely.  Everyone’s workflow will be different, and you need to find the one that works for you.  Here’s mine:

  • I create a topical folder for each photgraphed “event.”  For example, we took The Monkey to play in the snow over the weekend, bringing with our two iPhones, Aimee’s point-and-shoot, and my SLR.  When we got back, I dumped the media from each of those four sources into one folder entitled “2011-01-08 (snow-day).”
  • I generally sift and edit photos in Picasa.  Although I use Lightroom and Aperture for more extensive editing jobs, I find Picasa to be the most intuitive, fastest, and most complete program (especially because I use Picasa for online storage and sharing).  Picasa is free and, for those who care, non-destructive.  iPhoto is great, I’m sure; I’ve never used it.
  • I take a couple “laps” through a set of pictures.  During the first lap I flag (in Picasa, I use the star system) the pics that should be deleted.  Those are the ones that are just plain bad — bad exposure, bad framing, blur, someone eating with their mouth open, etc.  I would guess that I delete almost 2/3 of all pictures in this first lap.  After deleting those, the next lap is dedicated to culling the pics that are passable and worth editing and sharing.  Generally, I’d say about half of the pictures make it out of this lap and into a “final” subfolder (and then online for sharing with family and friends).  This time, I don’t delete the “non-final” ones; I keep them for future re-editing, alternate versions, etc.  Again, storage is pretty cheap.
  • I finish up by dragging that folder onto my external storage device for backing up and safe keeping.

4. Use effective naming conventions and folder structures. This one sounds dorky, but it helps a ton.  As I mentioned, I organize my photos by “events.”  I always use the YYYY-MM-DD (event name) convention because it will sort/alphabetize property, and because it allows quick identification.  I then place those topical/event folders within folders by year.  2008, 2009, 2010, etc.  If you don’t take a lot of pictures, these yearly folders might not be necessary.  It helps me a lot.

5. Backup early and often. I have literally hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars invested into my photos.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Their sentimental and historical value is truly beyond measure.  And it could take as little as a three-year-old spilling water, electrical spike, or hard drive crash to wipe it all out.  Everything.  In a second.  And, yes, hard drives do fail.  Often.  They’re tiny magnetic discs that spin400,000 times per hour.  Even the best ones eventually break.

So, I remain vigilant about backups.  I’ll describe my backup system below, but mine is almost certainly more complicated than yours needs to be.  The casual photographer probably can get away with a simple external hard drive; has several 500GB ones for much less than $100.  You can manually drag your prized data onto it, or could use any number of free or cheap backup programs.  Apple users should consider Time Machine, for example.  For those into idiot-proof solutions, I’ve found the Click-Free auto-backup external drive to be a nice solution.  My mom has used one for a couple years now, with not one complaint.  (And she set it up without me!)

If you’re as paranoid as I am, you might consider a bulkier setup.  I have a 6TB RAID-configured Network Attached Storage device in the closet with our networking and stereo equipment.  That’s a fancy way of saying that I have a very big, very reliable hard drive stored out of harm’s way.  The Monkey can’t spill on it.  I can’t accidentally drop it.  And, because it’s attached to a $40 UPS (uninterruptible power supply), it can shut down safely in the event of a power outage.  As soon as I’m done sifting/editing, my pictures get stored on that drive.  And then, because I’m truly paranoid, I have a second drive that I store at my office and bring home once/month to clone the home drive.  The off-site drive gives me a second backup that should add protection against theft, fire, flood, earthquake etc.

Your Tips?
Do you have any tips you’d like to share with AYMB readers?  We’d love to hear from you.

Happy shutterbugging.