NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, September 2003
Organizing the Digital Darkroom
A Personal Perspective

by Bill Moeller
(click to email author)

Four years ago, more or less, I entered the world of digital photography, wondering whether it would ever replace traditional film photography. Today I am still wondering, but no longer care. For me, the important thing is that amateur digital photography can now deliver results that are every bit the equal of traditional film photography without the hassles of the traditional darkroom.

I got started in this area because some of my earlier film images were beginning to fade and otherwise deteriorate, and I wanted to arrest the damage. This meant replacing my old (vintage 1992) PC with one capable of scanning, correcting, and storing these images before it was too late. It also meant deciding how to organize and store these images. That is the subject of this article.

Over the years, a system which has worked well for me just sort of grew and evolved. The basic ideas were very simple:

    (1) get the best original image you can capture, and guard it with your life;
    (2) store with the image the basic information you think you are likely to want fifty years from now;
    (3) store the image in such a way that when you decide later that you want to retrieve it, you will be able to; and
    (4) keep good notes.
With film, these ideas translated:
    (1) use the highest quality film possible under the circumstances, process carefully, and store in archival storage media;
    (2) record names, places, dates, etc., on the media;
    (3) make contacts sheets and store both film and contact sheets organized first by film size and whether mounted or unmounted, then by date of processing; and
    (4) keep a detailed darkroom log, especially for difficult prints.
In my digital darkroom, these ideas translate:
    (1) scan or expose at the highest resolution possible, backup like mad, and never, never, modify the original;
    (2) record all relevant information in the image file or folder depending on what the software permits;
    (3) store in folders and subfolders that mimic the film storage; and
    (4) maintain a digital workfile folder containing interim and final corrected images keyed back to the originals.
Here are some details:

Getting and Guarding the Image. I scan images, regardless of film size, at the maximum resolution my scanners will permit--2400dpi. I use the scanner’s contrast controls to avoid clipping the high and low tonal values on the original, and to do a reasonable job of distributing the mid-range values. Too much adjustment here can introduce noise, so care is required. The idea is to capture the full tonal range the scanner is capable of without messing things up too much. The scanned images are stored in Tiff format (using lzw compression) because it is lossless and file size is not an issue. Files are backed up during a routine monthly backup of the entire My Photos folder, and by interim backups of that folder when there is a lot of activity. Permanent storage of the files is on CDs rather than on the hard drive.

Digital originals are captured at the highest resolution my camera permits (about 5 megapixels), exposed at ISO 100, and stored using fine Jpeg rather that Tiff format. I do not use Tiff because file size is an issue when taking photos, and because several tests have persuaded me that there is no discriminable difference with my equipment and print sizes. Backup and permanent storage of digital originals is the same as for scanned images. Images on the camera’s memory stick are deleted only after downloading to the computer and backing up.

Recording Relevant Information. There are no hard and fast rules here. Normally, I record names of people and places and the date as well as some minimal technical data. The idea is to record only what is likely to be interesting enough in the future to warrant the time and effort required to record it now.

Storage and Retrieval. Permanent storage is on CDs. These are stored in jewel cases, with inserts identifying the contents, on the wall over my desk. Backups and duplicate CDs are stored in a locked file cabinet. The CDs are grouped by original image type (large format film scans, 35mm film scans, 35mm slide scans, digital camera images, etc.), then by date. Organizing first by type is a natural when physically storing different size film and slides, and the KISS principle of system design dictates doing it the same way for my digital images in the absence of a compelling reason to do otherwise. Storing each type sequentially by date follows from the same principle. It is simple to implement and maintain, and simple to use. Even with about ten thousand images taken over sixty years or so, I can quite easily recall roughly when an image was made, whether it was black and white or color, what film size was used, and whether it was slide mounted. At that point it is a simple matter of browsing a few sheets of contact prints to get the image’s ID before going to the appropriate folder to retrieve it.

An important part of being able to do this is the image and folder naming conventions used. One way or another, the date and sequence are embedded into the folder and/or the image file name. For example, one 35mm slide is named 7205-36, which tells me that it was the 36th slide processed during May, 1972. The scanned image is named 7205.36.tif and is stored in numerical sequence on a 35mm Slides CD. Because these CDs are stored sequentially, it is easy to find the correct one--in this case, 35mm Slides 5.

For digital originals I leave unchanged the sequence number assigned by the camera, but store the images in folders named, for example, Dsc030730. The Dsc mimics the alpha part of the sequence number assigned by the camera, and the numbers tell me that this folder contains files downloaded on July 30, 2003. These folders are contained in a folder named Digital Originals--Sony on the hard drive, and stored permanently on CDs named, for example, Sony Photos &Contacts 2. Images are deleted from the hard drive only after both backup and permanent storage on CDs.

Digital Work Files and Procedural Notes. Inevitably, some images need correcting. When this happens, I copy the images into a new folder named, for example, Dwf030815 in the Digital Workfiles folder. (Here, the date is the current date, not that of the original image.) Each saved image in the correction process carries the original filename with an appended suffix tracking the work sequence. For example, if three sequential stages were saved in correcting image 7205.36.tif, the third stage would be named 7205.36.3.tif. If there is good reason, I include a text file in the folder detailing the correction process.

Although there is no direct link from the original images to these workfiles, retrieval has never been a problem for me. Because my objective in correcting images is almost always to produce a print, I simply follow the old darkroom practice of always writing the critical access information on the back of each print. Then if I want to reprint, I know right where to go. In the digital darkroom, I have supplemented this with the use of contact sheets of the image files in the Dwf folders. As with the original image files, recall of approximately when the image was worked on combined with visual search of a small number of contact sheets leads quickly to the right Dwf folder.

Finally, procedural notes have been a part of my darkroom work as far back as I can remember. In the digital darkroom as in the traditional darkroom, these are a powerful tool which can greatly speed processing and improve results. For example, the procedure for resizing an image, adding canvas to the bottom, entering title and reference information to that canvas, printing, mounting, and matting for display in an 11x14 frame involves a whole series of aesthetic and technical judgments. After spending hours on this the first time, I put all the details in a file 11x14Frame030317.wps in the Procedural Notes folder. Now, referring to that file, the process takes all of five minutes on a slow day.

I doubt seriously that anyone reading this article will want to adopt the above system as is. That is not why I wrote this article. If there is one thought somewhere in all of this that makes you think, “Gee, that’s interesting. I never thought of that. Maybe I ought to give it a try someday.”, then my time in writing it and your time in reading it have been well spent. Have a good one.

Click here to return to top