Digital Asset Management and the Professional Photographer

by Peter Krogh

Digital Asset Management (DAM) is a term that refers to everything one does with image files from the point of capture onward.  This includes transferring, renaming, attaching metadata, rating, adjusting, proofing, backing up, archiving and more. Understanding the principles of sound DAM practices will help you design a workflow that is secure and efficient, and can help you increase profitability in the world of digital photography. These principles apply to both you and any organizations that receive, manage and share your photo assets.

As professional photographers, there are a couple of functions of your DAM practice that are going to be most important. The prime directive, to borrow from Star Trek, is to make sure you don’t lose the files. If the images can’t be delivered, you can’t be paid.  So the first thing a professional photographer needs to do is to evaluate the risk points in file handling, and develop an adequate system to protect against these hazards.

The second most important function of the DAM system for the pro is to create an efficient workflow, so that jobs can be delivered profitably.  If you are spending twice the time (or more) that your competitors do to get jobs out the door, you will be at a significant competitive disadvantage.  In a business environment that is becoming more challenging by the month, every advantage you can leverage is important.  Understanding the principles of digital asset management will help you to increase your efficiency.

A good understanding of DAM can also help the pro photographer to find images in the collection, and to combine them in new and valuable ways.  Because a photographer’s collection can be brought together as a large body of work, the photographer can find and group images efficiently.  As both the technological and business landscape change, it becomes even more important to mine your collection for new sources of revenue.

Developing a DAM system will be an ongoing process.  As your understanding the tools improves (and as the tools themselves improve), you’ll be able to do more.  Start with the prime directive (don’t lose the photos) and move out from there.  Don’t try to do everything at once, as it can make the process overwhelming, and lead to paralysis.  Let’s take a look at some of the tools and principles, and see how to come up with a plan of action.

Use DAM Software
Implementing good asset management will be best done by making use of DAM software.  While you can do lots of the necessary functions by looking through folders of images and keeping a pencil and paper handy, that’s going to be frustrating and inefficient.  DAM software is designed to help you with these tasks.

As this article is being written, there are a number of packages of DAM software on the market.  Many of them provide similar functionality, with main differences mostly in the form of user interface.I strongly suggest that you download trial versions of the software so that you see which has the features you like, with acceptable performance, and a user interface you can understand.  Here are a few guides as to how to compare software.

Cataloging Software is the kind of program you’ll be looking for.  This type of software keeps a database record of all your images, and can show them to you even if you are not currently connected to the storage device.  Catalog software helps preserve the images because it knows what photos are supposed to be in the collection.  This is essential information to have in the event of some kind of problem with the storage hardware.

A comprehensive catalog system can help you streamline the work you do to your images from card to delivery.  And because the catalog can help you bring widely scattered images together, it can assist you as you work to extract new value from your existing collection.
Browsers are a type of software that lets you look through folders of images.  While they can be helpful in finding images, and may include the capacity to do lots of work to the pictures, they don’t provide the kind of total information about a collection that catalog software does.  And if the images are gone for some reason (you’re away from the studio, say, or the hard drive crashed), a browser will be of no help at all.

Adobe Bridge

Cataloging software and browsing software may also have the ability to adjust your images, in addition to helping to organize them. In most cases, these adjustments will be done by reinterpreting the image as it gets opened, rather than by actually changing the image as Photoshop does.  This non-destructive adjustment is called Parametric Image Editing (PIE), since it changes the photo by changing the rendering parameters.

The most interesting area of growth in collection management is occurring where cataloging software is combined with a Parametric Image Editor.  We can call this Cataloging PIEware.  In these programs, you can sort and manage your images in the same program that lets you adjust them.  At the time of this writing, there are two Cataloging PIEware programs on the market, Apple’s Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.  Although neither can claim to be the best catalog software on the market, they both do a reasonable job with these functions.  Look for this to be an area of rapid growth.  Listed below are some current software offerings, by type:


Photo Mechanic

Catalog Software

  • iView MediaPro
  • Microsoft Expression Media
  • idImager iMatch
  • ACDSee

Apple Aperture

Cataloging PIEware

Protecting the Images
While digital imaging can offer the ability to protect your photographs in ways unimaginable in the film world, it can also lead to the loss of images in brand new ways.  Theft of a laptop, hard drive crash, virus, or user error can all wipe out large number of images in a fraction of a second.  As part of your image handling, you need to anticipate problems and make allowance for these hazards.

While we photographers don’t think of ourselves as IT professionals, in the digital world that’s exactly what we are.  We can take some of the accepted IT rules and apply them to our DAM system.  Perhaps the most useful concept in image preservation is the 3-2-1 rule.  To be fully protected, you should have three copies of any file (that’s three different devices, not three copies on the same device), two different media types (like hard drive and DVD, for instance), and one should be stored off-site. If you can adhere to this rule, your images will be extremely well-protected.

While it’s pretty feasible for most people to implement the 3-2-1 rule for images that have been worked and archived, it’s a little more difficult if you are working on location.  I strongly suggest that you work with a program that allows you to download multiple copies of the file, so that the backups are made the first time you mount the card on your computer.  For very valuable shoots, it makes sense to create a write-once copy of the files (like a DVD or Blu-ray disk), but that may not always be possible.  If you can’t get the files on to a second media-type right away, at least make sure you have the images in three places right away.

Once the images have been archived, you will still need to do periodic checks of the files to make sure that everything is still there, and that the files themselves are fine.  Most catalog software can help you check to see that all images are sitting in the archive where you expect them to be (at this writing, the Cataloging PIEware applications seem to be less capable in this regard). You should also use disk utilities to check on the general health of your storage media.  You should do periodic checks of both the volume structure (kind of like the table of contents of the disk) as well as media checks (the capability of the media itself to be read correctly).

In addition to disk utilities, we will be seeing a growth in programs that will be able to comb through an entire drive looking for files that have problems.  Keep an eye out for this functionality as you evaluate how you store your image files.

Once we can be reasonably sure that the images won’t be lost due to some catastrophic failure, we need to think about how to make sure they are not lost to confusion. Perhaps the most important principle here is to always know which is the primary version of your image, and which is a backup.  Using good DAM practice for wrangling your image files can help you from becoming confused between the primary and the backup version of the files.

Good DAM Practice Aids Workflow
Designing a good workflow is a challenge for all photographers as they go digital.  We experiment with different software, devices, and work order.  By understanding the principles of DAM, a photographer can standardize work order for maximum efficiency, security and repeatability.

Once the photographer understands the ecosystem for collection management, it becomes easier to get a handle on all the tools and how to put them together most efficiently.  While there may be no “right” way to do things, there certainly are some methods that are more efficient than others.

Listed below are the steps I use in my own workflow, in the order I generally do them.

  • Renaming Image Files
  • Backing Up Applying Bulk Metadata (creator information and subject information)
  • Rating for Quality
  • Custom Adjustment of Images
  • Cataloging
  • Archiving
  • Creating Proof
  • Creating Master Files
  • Cataloging and Archiving Master Files
  • Data Validation

Taking steps out of order can result in the loss or duplication of work.  Once you understand why a particular work order is more efficient, it becomes a natural and obvious workflow for the photographer.  By settling on a standardized work order, you speed your jobs through the workflow, and are less likely to make mistakes.

There’s another benefit to understanding DAM and standardization of workflow – it lets you hire people to help with the work.  If you can’t say with certainty how you want the work done, it’s pretty difficult to trust someone else to do it for you. Once the production routine is standardized, you can offload some of the production to an assistant, and you can get back to shooting, or building your business, or spending time doing something that is not work.

Making Images Discoverable
The preceding sections have dealt with the medicine part of DAM – protecting from loss, and protecting your time.  Now lets talk about the candy.  Creating a comprehensive DAM system lets you get the most out of your images, both personally and professionally.  By using comprehensive DAM techniques, you can have access to your images in ways that are unimaginable in the film world, and you can do some interesting things with those pictures.

You can use some simple techniques to make it easy to find images when you want them, and to group them with other images in interesting and valuable ways.  There are a couple of different kinds of metadata that can be used in a comprehensive manner across your entire collection. You can cross-reference this metadata to make finding images easy.  Lets take a look at some of the tools we have available.

There are several kinds off automatically created metadata that can be collected by cataloging software. These include the date the image was created, the file format, and the camera used.  This makes it easy to find images with any of these attributes without having to group the images by folder.

Of course, you can also assign Keywords to the files – descriptions of the subject matter that is in the photographs.  By assigning the keyword “Landscape” to appropriate images, you can collect and view all landscape images easily, despite the fact that they may be scattered among many folders across several different hard drives.


The IPTC file information standard also has several fields where you can make note of the location of the photograph. This includes the Country, City, State and Location where the photo was taken.  Most DAM software will collect this information in a hierarchical form, so that the Location is a subset of the City (if appropriate) which in turn is a subset of the State, which is a subset of the Country.  By organizing this information in this manner, it becomes relatively easy to find images taken in a particular location, even if they were shot at different times for different projects.

Any cataloging software worth using will also have the ability to create some kind of user-defined collections. You can think of these as little piles of slides that have been grouped together for some reason.  This could be a broad grouping like “all my architectural photos” or a narrow one like “images to send for stock request of kids eating ice cream.”  These collections are where the real power of cataloging software lies, since they enable the photographer to group images in valuable ways that are appropriate to the body of work.

Once you get used to using the collection tools, you can start to mine your collection for valuable groups of images, and to bring them together for output.  If you’re putting a portfolio together, you can group and refine your photos to help create the most compelling presentation of your work.  If you’ve been shooting a particular subject matter on an ongoing basis, you can collect those images for a custom website, book proposal, or for a stock sales effort.

Using catalog software enables the photographer to think of and see their photographs as a body of work, rather than simply as a collection of individual pictures.  As you think about how you can bring value to the marketplace, having your image collection easily available can give you new ideas on how to use the photographs, and make those new uses economical.

Beyond the important economic value, having access to your images can also provide you with a richer artistic relationship with your photos.  Most of us became photographers because we love the photographic image.  The demands of professional photography often force the personal use and enjoyment of photography to take a back seat to day-to-day production concerns.  By using proper DAM techniques, you can unlock the personal artistic value of your images, and get to spend more time with them.

A Word on Liability
While DAM practices can offer a lot of protection for the images, I advise most photographers to avoid charging a specific DAM or archiving fee in their production charges.  Once you charge a client for anything related to long-term storage of images, you open yourself to some liability in a number of ways.

Most obviously, if you have charged a client for archiving, you may be financially responsible if the images are lost through some kind of unexpected event.  In the case where the images would be costly to reproduce, this could be a significant financial risk for the photographer.

Additionally, a client that is charged for archiving may feel as though the images should be available at a moment’s notice.  This may include, for instance, the expectation that the photographer would be able to provide the images at any time, with little or no prior warning.

In my photography business, I charge for capture and processing, but only charge for retrieval of older images – never for archiving them.  I make clear in my paperwork that the client is responsible for archiving the photos once they have been delivered.  I do archive them, and expect to keep them forever, but I do not offer any sort of claim that I will do so – the liability is just too great. (I do charge for retrieval of previously delivered images, and find that I do this several times a year.  Clients who need this service are generally only too happy to pay a modest charge for re-delivery of legacy images.)

Collection management is a fast-moving part of the digital photography puzzle.  The software and the hardware is changing at a pretty fast clip, as companies work to provide the best solutions.  While there’s not one-size-fits-all solution, nor a single program that does it all, it’s getting easier all the time.

Managing a collection of digital images is like managing a film archive in some ways, and is very different in others.  It’s up to the individual photographer to understand the pitfalls and the opportunities, and to create an affordable solution that works for his or her business. At the moment, that means understanding the components of a digital archive, and how to use them to create a secure and efficient system.  Of course this is not so different from what professional photographers have always had to do – to understand the technical needs to bring their creative works to market.

As you are putting your system together, it will be necessary to do some study, and some testing.  And while it may be a bit frustrating at first, be aware that good DAM practice can unlock the power of your photography, and give you access to your photographs in ways that could only be dreamed of a few short years ago.

The DAM Book, by Peter Krogh (O’Reilly)
The DAM Forum
White paper of Non-Destructive Imaging

Peter Krogh is the godfather and undisputed heavyweight champ of digital asset management (DAM). He is a frequent lecturer and consultant on the topic, and he graciously contributed to this overview. For the past year, Peter has also worked as the product architect of Libris, which brings PhotoShelter’s best-in-class photographer web services to the doorstep of companies and institutions managing media libraries.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 7 comments for this article
  1. Angela Montgomery at 11:23 am

    Thank you for the info! I have looked all across the web for this and found this to be easy to read, useful, concise and doable! Great info! Angela

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