Confessions of a Digital Hoarder

I have a confession to make. It won't probably surprise anybody who knows me, but let's get it out there anyway. I am a digital hoarder. And over the past few years, my hoarding tendencies have gotten out of control. My iPhoto library is more than 1.3 TB in size. Last week it crashed, and I was - as they say - hoist by my own petard. In this posting, I admit my failings, strategize around the issues, and resolve to do better.

On Thursday afternoon last week, I was typing an email at work, and I had my iPhoto library open. The library is on its own separate external hard drive, but it was connected at the time. The computer crashed, and when it came back up, I received a message that there were "inconsistencies" in the iPhoto database, and did I want to try to repair it? Well, you betcha, I clicked yes, with trembling fingers.

It was still repairing when I left work that day, so I had to leave the computer and hard drive there. I couldn't upload any new photos. When I came in to work the next day, it was still doing its thing. Or it was, until it hung up at 76% restored, when it crashed again.

I took the computer and hard drive home that night and tried to repair it again, at least 2 or 3 more times. Each time, it would get to some percentage, and then stop. Just before bedtime, I started it again. (Needless to say, I woke up in the night both Thursday night and Friday night in a state of panic. Would the library ever finish repairing? How many photos would I lose?) When I got up on Saturday morning, the program had hung up again - at 96% restored. ARGH!

So I decided to take a different approach. I was able to get into my current iPhoto library, tell it to ignore the inconsistencies, and export the records from the time since my last back-up. I then went to my most recent back-up of the library, which was maybe a week and a half ago.

Into that library copy, I imported the missing records to bring it up to date. It worked! So the back-up has now become my new master library. The library has not crashed since then, but to be honest, I've also been scared to death to take and upload photos! I hate to tell you that that is taking some of the enjoyment out of photography.

Over the weekend, I decided that I need to address the problem head-on, and so here is what I did. I sat down with my photo project notebook (that's it in the center of the picture - the quadrille ruled graph paper is my favorite) and tried to answer these three questions:

What are my storage assets?
What is currently kept on each device?
What do I need to do differently to make things better?

I have not been a slacker when it comes to external hard drives. I currently own five external hard drives: the three you see in this photo (two are 2 TB, one is 3 TB; their names are IBHD1, IBHD2, and IBHD3 - IBHD stands for Itty Bitty Hard Drive), plus a 1.5 TB desk drive at home and a 4 TB desk drive at work. All are Western Digital. Knock on wood, I have never had one fail. I got out all of the ones I had access to, listed what was on each, and found that I could easily move some things around if I needed to.

For one of the very FIRST things I wanted to do before messing around with that sucker even one lick more was to make a clean COPY of the new master photo library, as I have now assigned it a status of "kind of twitchy/likely to misbehave/possibly a source of major heartache." (And NObody wants that!) As a consequence, I no longer leave the external drive containing the photo library connected to the computer unless I am ACTIVELY working with my photos.

I then began a list of things I might consider doing to make my situation better. Quite clearly, the computer I've been using is having difficulty working with the size of photo library I have. The application iPhoto itself may not be robust enough to manage it well.

The photo library needs to be slimmed down. I am the one who needs to do this. After six years of taking digital photos, I need to adapt, and change my strategy to something more sustainable. So here are my most recent failings. Let us list them clearly:

1) I am a passionate and devoted photographer who loves to take lots of pictures, but I take far too many pictures. I began reviewing my photo library as a forensic anthropologist. In the years before Blip, my typical photo shoots were just a few photos here and there; not every day. Maybe 40 or 50 photos tops, for a shoot. More recently, my photo shoots are 150 or 200 photos. Yes, I take pictures now every day; I have for four and a half years, since starting Blip. The increase in volume is clearly resulting in photo storage stresses.

2) While I zip through my photos each day and try to select the top half-dozen or so to share (sometimes more), I do not regularly set aside time to review my photos with a critical eye, tag the good ones, give them all key words, and delete the ones I don't intend to keep long-term. (Oh, sure, I TELL people to do this, but I don't always follow my own advice!) I do delete any shots that are blurry or clearly bad, but that's less than 1% of the shots I take.

3) I do back up my photo library, but not often enough. I'd say I average every two weeks. A complication is that my photo library is so big now that it takes a long time - as much as 12 hours - to back up. This means that when I start the photo library on a back-up, I can NOT work with my photos at all. When you are as obsessed as I am with photography, that is a long time to wait.

Let me stop for a minute, and wax philosophical about how photography has changed in the years since I got involved. Before the current digital age, I owned a Pentax K-1000, a pre-digital 35 mm SLR, which I bought in 1986. (I owned other cameras before that, but I consider the K-1000 to be my first really significant camera.)

I took pictures with it, but mostly on vacations, big trips, and special occasions. My husband and I went on vacation to Florida each year just after Christmas; let me go ahead and use that situation to make some comparisons between then and now.

Two things were very different then about photography: 1) You had to PAY FOR film to take pictures on, and 2) You had to PAY FOR film development before you even got to see your photos! So before I would go to Florida, I'd buy a couple of three-packs of Kodacolor Gold 100 film (very good for outdoor lighting conditions) and take them with me. A pack of three included two rolls of 24 and a single roll of 36. It cost around $9 or so for the pack of three. When I was done taking pictures, I'd have to pay for development. Let's be kind and assume $5 per roll (more for the roll of 36).

So for each roll of film (mostly around 24 pictures), you might expect to spend $8 on the initial outlay just to buy the film and get it developed (and getting it developed might take a week or more). Having to pay for film and development made me much more MINDFUL about the photos I took!

And oh the horror, when you got to that last roll of film, and were still going to be in Florida for another day or so. Oh my! I counted my shots! It gave me great pause when I realized that I often take - in a single morning now - more photos than I ever took on any of my Florida trips.

Clearly, it's easier and cheaper now in the digital age to take lots and lots of photos, perhaps without thinking of the long-term storage implications. And so now for the wrap-up. What are the things that I plan to do differently? Here is a list of my initial thoughts.

1) I need to take fewer pictures, but take them more mindfully. Instead of taking 200 photos (of which some percentage are pretty good) during a morning photo shoot, can I learn to take 20 or 40 good to pretty good photos? In other words, be more like Ansel Adams; take fewer, better shots. (Ansel Adams only took TWO of the same scene.)

2) I need to become more disciplined about setting aside a time each week (even if only an hour a week) to do photo reviews, and tagging, and deletion. This will help me gently start winnowing down my photo library. I don't want to make any BIG changes to the photo library right away, as I think that may put it at risk again for crashing. But I need to take OUT of it each week at least as much as I'm putting INTO it.

3) I need to back up more regularly, and possibly diversify my storage options. I think I can do this by using a combination of smaller storage (SD cards, flash drives) and larger storage (external hard drives) to make sure I have copies (and redundant copies) of all of my most important stuff. So far, I have not gotten into cloud storage, but I plan to look into that.

4) I may need to look into purchasing software that can manage multiple photo libraries as well as do some basic photo manipulation and editing. All that I'm currently using is iPhoto. I may need to look into some others.

I had the opportunity this morning before writing this post to chat with two of my favorite experts at work about my photo library troubles. Both are really cool dudes with lots of experience and way more technical know-how than I have. One is a head IT guy at Penn State, where I work. The other is a graphic artist who worked at National Geographic before he came to Penn State.

Both are passionate photographers in their own right. Both commiserated about my woes. Each had suggestions about what I might try. (And I thank you both! You know who you are.) And yes, the issue of the security of and redundancies for photo libraries is a problem common to ALL photographers; even more so for those who actually get PAID for their photography.

A National Geographic photographer may shoot 40,000 to 100,000 photos for a story; in the end, as few as 8 shots may accompany the final printed article. What is (or should be) done with the rest? Now you've got my attention: here is someone who truly has bigger photo troubles than me! Yes, I'm impressed.

So now I - the digital hoarder - have a strategy. Take fewer, more mindful pictures. Review and winnow the collection religiously. (Translation: learn to DELETE!) Back up more regularly. Diversify by looking into additional software and storage options. Eventually, once it's slimmer and more manageable, consider splitting the photo library. And do I really need to carry with me each day an external drive containing all of the digital photos I've ever taken? Perhaps not; if not, what does my process look like?

I am not sure I have solved all of my problems, but I have a new attitude that includes a semblance of a plan and a sense of hope. Mindfulness and discipline are things I think I can work on.

Throwing things away, on the other hand, comes hard to me (and as you may have already guessed, photos are not the ONLY things in my life that I am reluctant to toss). I have some kind of innate worry deep in my soul, no doubt common to all hoarders, that is afraid of WHAT IF I THROW AWAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT AND CAN NEVER GET IT BACK!???

The struggle is real, folks. I am who I am, and who I am (and I came by this naturally - go talk to my mother!) is a hoarder! But I swear I'll try to do better. And yes, I'd welcome any other thoughts, suggestions, or personal experiences in the comments.

The song to accompany this posting where I examine my personal flaws and poor processes and resolve to do better is Patti LaBelle, with New Attitude.

P.S. When was the last time YOU backed up your photo library? Could you at a moment's notice pull up your top, best shots? Do you have a long-term storage strategy? Have you printed any of your best shots such that they might exist in physical format somewhere besides just your photo library? Hmmm?

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