Re-thinking photo archiving

I’ve been a photographer of some type for over 25 years. I started with a little Kodak Instamatic that used 110 film, then onto a Sears-branded SLR with screw mount lenses, a Pentax K1000 I bought from a high school friend for $25 (what a deal!), and eventually ending my first film-shooting phase with a few more “serious” Nikon cameras. By that point, I was shooting for a couple of local newspapers and stringing for the Associated Press.

Eventually life changed and I demoted photography to hobby status. Some time later, I got into digital starting with a Nikon Coolpix 950, and then jumping into DSLRs with a Canon 10D being my first. During that time period, I had a short stint as a wedding and freelance commercial photographer (as side gigs), but then went back to having photography just be a hobby. These days I am as likely to be shooting film on a 4x5 Crown Graphic as a DSLR.

All that is to say that I have a lot of photos, going WAY back. Gobs of my film has been scanned, and I have just about every digital photo I’ve ever taken. Not only do I have a lot of photos, but I have been dealing with the problems of archiving and searching them for a very long time. My earliest systems involved Syquest drives, and later I bought CD-Rs and DVD-Rs in bulk. Prior to the Microsoft acquisition, iView MediaPro was my catalog, and it was pretty great, but those times are long gone.

Right now, I have a system cobbled together with several pieces of software including Lightroom and some custom Python scripts. It “works” but it’s a real hassle. And some recent conversations here and elsewhere have caused me to start thinking about re-evaluating the situation.

In more detail, my current system is:

  1. For photos from dedicated cameras, ingest and rename them using Photo Mechanic.
  2. For photos from my wife’s iPhone, ingest them using Image Capture.
  3. For photos from my iPhone, manually copy them out of the Photos Masters folder (because Image Capture seems to not get along with iCloud Photo Library).
  4. Once all photos are copied/ingested, put them in a drop folder on my NAS.
  5. Run a script on the drop folder that renames them if they haven’t already been renamed, checks for duplicates, and then files them in a yyyy/dd/mm hierarchy.
  6. rsync from the NAS back to an external drive on my iMac, because the internal 1T SSD isn’t big enough to hold it all, and accessing them over the network is too slow.
  7. Load them into a Lightroom catalog, which is really only used for searching and browsing (I almost never use Lightroom’s editing features).
  8. If my wife wants to find something from our photos, she comes and uses the iMac.
  9. I have a nightly cron job that backs up everything from the NAS to S3, and also to an external drive on the NAS. So I effectively have three on-site copies (NAS, iMac, NAS backup) and one offsite copy. And I also sync from my phone to iCloud as well as Google Photos (though that’s very flaky and seems to crap out all the time).

I’ve been doing this for around five years now, and it has done the job, but it has several major shortcomings. The biggest of which is the amount of time it takes me to get photos from the device they’re shot on to their final, backed-up and searchable location. Whenever my wife wants photos from her phone added to the master catalog, it’s a multi-hour affair. So I regularly think that there must be a better way. But either my needs are very unique, or I’m not looking in the right place.

My core requirements are:

  1. Handle photos from dedicated cameras (DSLRs, mirrorless, p&s, etc.), scanned film, and multiple iOS devices seamlessly.
  2. Deal with the various file formats that point 1 entails, including JPG, RAW formats, DNG, TIFF, HEIF, etc.
  3. Absolutely, without a doubt, never ever lose data.
  4. Keep everything in one unified, easy to search and browse place.
  5. Store and give me access to the full resolution, unmodified, original files at any time.
  6. Works well on Mac and iOS (no need for Windows or Android).
  7. Not make me worry that it’s going to go out of business or get discontinued in the next 6 months.

Additional nice-to-haves would be:

  1. Searchable/browsable from multiple computers, so my wife doesn’t have to use my computer to look at our photos.
  2. Automatically sync from multiple iOS devices belonging to multiple Apple IDs.
  3. Provide easy ways to share subsets of the photos with specific people.
  4. Handle video.
  5. Not require any custom code or ongoing maintenance from me.

I am more than happy to pay for this — I know that this kind of photo storage costs real money. But none of the services I’ve looked at meet all of the requirements. Am I way off-base in terms of what I’m looking for? Is there some great solution I’m just overlooking? What are you using to store your photos?

Sean Harding @sharding