How To Archive Photos On DVD

DISCLAMER: This post has to do with working with files on your computer. I’m not assuming responsibility for anything that may happen if you choose to follow this. So, if you’re unsure how to work with files and computer equipment, hire a qualified computer person to help you with this process.

The best part about being a photographer whether it be a on a professional basis or a weekend warrior is pressing the shutter. Even if the photo doesn’t always come out the way we had hoped, it’s the idea that we are out there trying and we know that perfect photo is out there waiting to be discovered. Not to mention all of the toys tools that are needed along the way that we must have to help us achieve this.

Then the next process is usually copying the photos to the computer and seeing what really came out. I’m sure everyone out there has experienced how everything looks wonderful on the LCD, only to be soft or worse yet, out of focus when you get it on the actual computer. I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve had many instances where I look at what I shot after a shoot and ask myself exactly how many stamps did I lick, because these are worse than I thought. After going through the shoot and separating the “keepers” from the trash, it’s time to visit your favorite photo editing program to give it that award winning photographer polish. One might even email a couple out or make a couple of prints to hang up or to give away to a friend.

Then comes the illusive part to photography….what to do with all the photos now that I’m done with them? This is the part that seems to get overlooked at many seminars and classes. This is in fact one of the biggest questions that I get in my classes and I make sure to address it. When I have gone to many photo classes that were taught by “professionals” after the class I asked the instructor how to archive the photos for long term storage. All of the sudden this multi-million dollar producing person glazes over like a donut in Krispy Kreme and it starts, “Well, ugh”, “Hummm”, “LET ME GET BACK TO YOU.” Right. As you can see this apparently has been an issue that either no one has a good answer for or they don’t want to tackle it. That is what I’m going to attempt to do here, explain how I set my photos up for long term storage and archive them so I can find them in an instant.

I used to work in corporate America in the commercial printing industry. I had a chance to work on all kinds of projects from simple business cards to real estate magazines. Anyone knows who has worked with print material that it’s hungry for hard drive space, almost as bad a video. Since I was a Pre-Press manager during most of my printing life, part of my job was to some how organize all this data. Over the years, working with another co-worker, we came up with a pretty good system and it still works for me today.

One of the answers I get when I ask this question is, “I have a HUGE hard drive. I have plenty of space.” or “When my external hard drive gets full, I’m just going to go out and buy another one and add to my collection.” and the list goes on. Here is the problem with that great laid plan, hard drives crash. Anything that is mechanical will eventually wear out. I can’t tell you how many phone calls I have received from folks who tell me they are faced with some weird alien language where their desktop should be or better yet, the computer refuses to boot at all. Flash drives are now becoming popular inside computers as hard drives. These are fast and have no lag time, but the down side of these types of drives is that there isn’t any physical disc that the data is being written to. If the memory fails, the whole thing is gone. By the way, this is the same type of memory that is in your smart phone and camera cards.

At the end of the day, what do I use and recommend, DVDs. I have taken some flack over this as DVDs and CDs are in the process of going away. Apple was the first one to stick their foot out and not include DVD drives with any of their products (you can still buy external ones). Everyone is pushing their products to the “cloud” to save money. Oh another thought, if you are thinking about an online backup solution, good luck with that one as well. It’s not uncommon for me to shoot 8-12 gigs worth of photos, and I only have a 12mp camera at the moment. Those of you who have the newer 24mp sensors, you are really feeling it. Could you imaging pushing 12gig up the Internet pipe for a back up every time you went on a shoot?

Personally I go to Wally World and buy a 100 pack of Memorex DVD-R discs. Note that these are the “R” and not the “RW”. The RW version means that you can rewrite information over them. In this case I want my info laid in concrete, meaning read only so it doesn’t accidentally disappear. My computer is about 10 years old and my computer uses the “-“ version of discs. Some computers use the “+” version and some can use either. Most of the time it will be labeled on the outside of the drive. If your not sure, call your manufacturer of the computer and ask them. While I’m at the store I also buy a package of the thin plastic jewel cases to put them in when they are finished so they don’t ever get scratched.

I personally separate my shoots by location and date. For example, if I were shooting macro flowers at the history park in Punta Gorda, Florida, my project folder name would look something like: punta gorda history park_macro flowers_091713. This shows where I was, what I was doing there and the date was September (09) 17, 20(13). This also becomes keywords for the computer later on. I check my folder size and make sure that it won’t exceed the disc size, which is 4.73GB. Also, I don’t fill my discs up to the max; I prefer to leave a little space on the end. I have found that since the disc is spinning faster at the edges that things can get a little hairy. So I keep my sizes around 4.3GB. But what if your project is more than 4.3GB? Easy, create a second folder and put a 2 after it, for example: punta gorda history park_macro flowers_091713_2. There are some projects that I have had to split across 10 DVDs!

Now that everything is going to fit on to discs, it’s time to start burning. Here again we have to think ahead. How am I going to be able to find this disc when it’s on a bookshelf with 500 other discs? I label the discs with a numeral. For example, I started with my first disc called “0001”. I put my project folder, the Punta Gorda project in this example on the disc to be burned.

 This is how to change a disc's burn speed. Capture by Spencer Pullen.The Disc Burning Assistant on Apple Mac Systems – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

Where it says “Disc Name:” this is where I put in 0001. The next option is “Burn Speed:”. Like I said my poor machine is about 10 years old so I’m sure that most of your computers out there will go much faster, but the principal is still the same. Here’s the thing, one of the big selling points when you buy a computer is they want to impress you with big fancy numbers. Such as, “This computer will burn DVDs at 56X.” Well that must be good, right? Not exactly. It’s possible to burn a skip or dead spot into the disc if the laser is going too fast. This happens when the hard drive can’t feed the laser information fast enough so the laser just burns blank space, which is usually in the middle of one of your photo files. You won’t know this until you want to access that file and you get the lovely message of “Sorry, there was a temporary error reading this file.” What it’s really saying in caring terms is that you’re screwed. This is why I always slow the burner down to make sure I don’t burn a coaster. (Coaster is when the disc is no good and you flip it over and put your drink on it.) In the diagram above you can see I have a max burn speed of 8X, however I have chosen the 2X option. This ensures that the hard drive can keep up with the laser.

At this point you click BURN and let er’ rip. Go get a refreshment of some sort and listen to the slight humming of the elves in your computer with hammers and chisels writing your information on the disc. When the disc is finished, eject the disc and put back in. Open the disc and open a couple of the files. They should open just fine. Eject the disc and on the non glossy side, with a Sharpie marker write the disc number, 0001 in this example and put it in the plastic case.

Congratulations! You have successfully burned your project to a disc. At this point you may want to burn a second copy to have a back up. Now it’s time to trash your project folder off the hard drive. This is how you keep your hard drive from getting full and clutter free.

At this point, I would have a stack of discs and now they need to be archived so I can find what is where for later use. One suggestion that I have for Windows folks is WinCatalog and for the Mac folks I would check out Disk Catalog Maker. Basically you launch the catalog program and drag and drop the DVD into the program. It makes a note of every file that is on the disc as well as the folder name, remember I said earlier that the folder name would act as keywords? The catalog program creates a very small text file that resides on your computer hard drive. I’m coming up on 700 discs and my catalog file is like 5mb total, pretty impressive.

Now you want that award-winning photo that you shot two years ago at the history park so you can make a print. On your bookshelf you have 500 DVDs, which one is on? Easy as store bought pie, on Windows use the “Search” function under the Start menu or on Mac, choose the “Spotlight” function in the upper right. Type in the project that you are looking for, in this case, “punta gorda macro flowers” Since the catalog database is on your local hard drive it will search this as well. Within seconds, it will tell you what disc it’s on. Just a note, as these programs evolve, they may have their own search function built right into the program.

This may sound really confusing and like a lot of work. It’s not once you have a workflow in place. The main thing is to back up your stuff to a reliable source that you can work with and that allows you to be able to find your projects at any time. This isn’t necessary the Holy Grail way of doing things, but has work well for me over the years.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Great Job, Spencer. Thanks for that info. I remember a lot of that from one of your classes but it’s the getting off my lazy butt and actually burning some DVD’s on a continuing basis.
    Thanks again.

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