My Photo Library Rules

30 Jan 2021

This is sculpture, not painting

A photo that you don’t want to look at again has negative value, because it increases the friction of the album as a whole.

A photo that you don’t want to look at now is likely to be a photo that you don’t want to look at again ever.

A photo that you don’t understand now - one that you can’t place in context, can’t use as a key into your memories, or that has no emotional resonance with you - is one that will never do those things. It’s a sunk cost, now. You missed the window.

If photos are the indexes into a mental memories database, then there’s no need for duplicates. More is not better, and adds to the noise. I cull nearly-identical photos. In fact, the vast majority of my curation time is in deleting photos.

I’m hoping to internalise this to the point where, instead of shooting 20 bad photos and having to delete 19 of them later (which loss aversion makes difficult), I shoot one good one.

This is art, not a murder investigation

I used to spend a lot of time thinking “why did I take this? what’s going on in it? is it important?”. Deleting photos, even ones I didn’t understand, felt like possibly deleting clues to something important, clues that would somehow make everything else make sense one day.

But they don’t make sense now, and I’m never going to spend more time trying to figure this out than I am now, and it’s not important now.

If deleting them means that some memory gets lost, well, it was already lost.

Do The Work (or admit you’re not going to)

I used to shoot in RAW. With prime lenses on a dSLR, even. That combination means that, if I put in the work in Aperture later, I could get some amazing photos.

I made a point of storing the RAWs forever, too. My photo library is important to me; why wouldn’t I keep all these bits in case one day I, I don’t know, want to tweak the white balance a bit?

But I never did put in the work. I’ve got other things to do. And RAW photos that haven’t been manually adjusted look much worse than camera-adjusted JPGs, as well as being a pain to handle.

My rule now is: I can shoot RAW, but I must commit to doing the adjustments when I import the photos, not later. RAW is the film that I “develop” into the finished photo (which is still faster than driving to the pharmacy used to be). My photo library stores jpgs; I throw the raws away.

Mostly I shoot on the phone, now, for the same reason that I drive an automatic car. I might be able to do a better job than the software, but would it really be worth it?

All software sucks. Suck it up.

I’ve used Google Photos, Lightroom, New Lightroom, Aperture, Apple Photos, and many others. They are all terrible, with shallow bugs (including severe, data-loss ones), slow performance, bad UX, missing basic features, and lack of APIs or extensibility.

I am baffled, and angry, at this hole in the market. I have a budget for this, and it’s not like this is a rare use-case.

But ultimately you have to write one, or pick one and commit. The former is more time than I have. Constantly switching between bad alternatives is worse than any one of those alternatives. I think I’ve spent more time migrating between photo systems than looking at photos.

Right now, I’m using Apple Photos. This is not a recommendation. It’s terrible.

A picture without a thousand words isn’t worth anything.

It only takes a fraction of a second to press the shutter button and it’d be nice to think that that’s enough to “capture the memory”.

It’s really not. Automatic date- and GPS- stamping help a lot - photos without datestamps in particular are basically junk - but even these, without a caption, aren’t enough for me to remember the what, the why, the totality of the event and the feelings around it.

This is another case where I have to do the work. I am moving towards a rule where writing a substantial caption - several sentences - is part of “developing” a photo, and if I’m unwilling or unable to do that, I must delete it.

I am baffled, and annoyed, that all existing photo-management software has terrible support for captions.

All for one

I share my full library with my partner. No software that I’ve seen supports this in a way that allows us to share the curation work (which is weird - surely that’s not a rare use-case), so we achieve it by sharing an icloud account.

One unexpected effect of this is that our merged library includes many photos from before we met. When sorted by date, we can trace our parallel paths.

We don’t go to Ravenholm. But should we?

An awful lot of my photos are painful to look at.

They document times that were very bad (and happened), or very good (and will never happen again).

The worst of them record moments when I was not at my best… but nevertheless took the shot, because I didn’t know that at the time.

Or I did, and I wanted to remember.

If the ultimate purpose of the library is to make me happy, should I delete them?

In very limited cases, I have. But mostly I don’t, partly because I can’t bear to, and partly out of a feeling that these are important, and that one day, I’ll wish I had them.

It’s an open question. I’m not a historian and this is not history, but it seems hard to remove future options.

For now, I have a Keyword called BASILISK, and a Smart Album that filters them out. We do go to Ravenholm, but never by accident.

Outcomes above all.

The best camera photo is the one you have with you.

To some extent the library is insurance. There will come a day when it becomes harder for me to have new experiences, and I’ll have to settle for re-living my old ones. This photo database, plus my text journal, becomes my index into the memories that I (hopefully) still have.

I suspect, though, that that period of my life will be surprisingly short, and that 80% of the value of this system needs to be delivered starting now.

If I never look at these they deliver no value. If the only time I look at them is to curate them, they deliver negative value.

So far my strategy here is:

  • Homescreen photo widgets on my phone (surprisingly effective)
  • A permanent tablet-based ‘photo frame’ in my lounge room

Both of these are designed to address ‘banner blindness’ - I used to print out photos and stick them up, but very quickly I stopped seeing them.

This is all an enormous amount of work. I hope that it’s worth it.