Friday, October 08, 2004

Make the archive useful

I've been asked to describe the common workflow at a large newspaper. I will in time, but it won't apply to most PJs. Consider the Olympics as an example. In two weeks, two photographers and a photo editor shot and transmitted about 120,000 images. This isn't going to happen at a standard newspaper. It certainly won't happen to any single PJ.

The sheer volume of images moving through any system dictates the workflow. Huge companies move a large volume of images and have a different workflow than an individual freelance PJ. However one issue is common to both: specific images must be located quickly.

Organizing digitally
Organizing an image archive doesn't complete the puzzle. PJs must know where to find specific images quickly for clients. Otherwise PJs will lose sales or waste hours flipping through pages of negatives (or sorting through digital images).

Consumer database software is relatively inexpensive, easy to use and can be customized to handle individual PJ needs. The tutorials on most of these packages are good enough to get PJs started within a day.

Creating databases is a daunting task for seasoned PJs. There may be thousands of rolls to file. It may take weeks or even months to simply add standard information to a database. For new PJs, it'’s good to start a process and build upon it. A 15-minute daily time investment toward a useful database will more than pay for itself within five years.

PJs need to set up initial databases and save them to computer hard drives. Because databases change as images are added, it's impractical to keep them on CDs other than as a backup. However, backup CDs are strongly encouraged.

The advantages of consumer databases over pro databases are the start-up costs and learning time. A new PJ with limited funds can afford a personal computer (PC) with a simple database and word processor. It's enough to get a business started. With time, the PJ can build up to a powerful Mac system with serious random access memory (RAM) and storage.

But before we dream too big, let's crunch some information.

What's a database
A database is an electronic storehouse of information. Its design is flexible enough to handle many business needs. Individual databases can be designed to store and find client information, images, sales or pricing information.

Newer databases have incorporated mathematical functions and can operate as a spreadsheet. As computers have become more powerful, they can now store images and other large files electronically within databases. Again, each higher level of software includes a higher price, longer educational period and more computing muscle.

A standard database is arranged in rows (horizontally) and columns (vertically). The columns are fixed and labeled across the top of the screen. PJs can label and arrange the columns with categories to be as simple or comprehensive as they wish.

Each new entry becomes a row. Each row (entry) will contain the same number of columns (categories) as all other rows. The entry can be seen by itself in "form view" or as a grid with all entries in "list view."

Individual packets of information contained within the intersections of columns and rows are called cells. The cells contain the actual information within the database. Frequently, this information can't be completely seen in list view. However, the search will still bring these files and the PJ can select the individual entry to see more information. In all searches, the PJ typically looks for a specific image or selection of a few images.

As an analogy, consider an office file cabinet (database). Within the cabinet are file folders (files / rows). In each folder are separate pieces of information (cells). In this example, the goal is for the PJ to walk up to the cabinet and get a specific sheet of information without wasting time or looking through 250,000 folders.

Customizing the database
To start, the columns should be labeled with date, subject and location (binder number or other locator). Once the initial phase is complete for the PJ's backlog, additional columns can be added to make searches more meaningful.

It's best to list the year, month and then date to sort the images in a logical order. Otherwise all images shot during the month of September for the last 20 years will be grouped together. Unlike standard American date notation (9/5/2004), computer notation (20040905) automatically sorts the files. The sorting software requires a "0" as a place marker for single-digit numerical information.

After the database is prepared, additional categories can be added or refined. Common additions include keywords, client(s), releases on file, cutline information, sales, markets, recording medium (film type or digital), awards won, etc.

Only add truly useful information to a database. If it becomes too complicated, it becomes less useful. For example, there's no need to add a "film type" column to every file if all files are shot on color negative film or digitally.

Each entry must be made manually on a personal database. However, the PJ can select cells in a column and "fill down" (add the exact same data to all selected cells). This is helpful while setting up the initial database where lots of repetition is required. Although it's good to have complete information in each file, be careful not to water down specific information.

When PJs need a specific image of a specific football player, they don't need to look at every football game ever played. Instead, include team names and locations to help narrow the search at a later date.

On big digital systems, each image is embedded (infused) with all assignment information as well as generic cutlines. The completed (press-ready) images have specific cutlines. This allows anyone to recover any image from the take and use it at a later date.

This requires humongous storage capacity and the computer power to search for multiple keywords quickly. Since a staff PJ might be in an African jungle at the time an image is needed, this is important.

It may also be important for PJs to explain their personal coding system to a spouse or other relatives. The images may be the best legacy a PJ leaves behind. If the family doesn't understand the archive's value or how to access images, the images become useless and may end up in the local landfill.

Electronic stock images
When stock photography involved prints, it was too expensive for PJs to have every good image printed and ready to ship to multiple clients. Digital imaging has changed the cost involved as well as the turnaround time.

PJs can prepare images for publication (color corrections and cutlines) between assignments and during other "down time." Once an image is ready digitally, it's forever ready. It can be sent as an unsolicited image to several image buyers, or it can wait as ready stock (the client calls, and 10 minutes later they have the image they need).

For single or small-group PJ activities, create a separate database for completed images. The point of this database is to locate and sell specific marketable images. The PJ has already edited and invested preparation time in these images. They should be the best images and should be published and profitable.

As these images are completed, store them in one folder on the hard drive. When the folder size nears the storage capacity of a CD, burn the CD and label it with the burn date. This date becomes the de facto file number in the archive. The images on the CD will always be the same and the date (file number) will not change. File these CDs separate from the general archive for easy retrieval.

Unlike the master database, this database only addresses completed images. The entries should be comprehensive and include specific cutlines. It should also contain terms from previous sale agreements (the exact date it's available for resale in a market), where it was sent as an unsolicited image and other exact information pertaining to each specific image.

Enough for now,

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