Negative filing to Digital Asset Management

My name is Rob Little, I have been a professional photographer since 1975, I have worked all over the world, and have had a very interesting career. One of the services supplied by Rob Little Digital Images is photography, programming and metadata to Digital Asset management systems for galleries and institutions, both in Australia and internationally. This is my experience and brief history of creating a negative storage system that evolved into a massive digital archive and visual database. All photographers face this issue of asset management and this worked for me.


When I started to take photographs many years ago, naturally it was the era of film. The process of taking pictures was of endless excitement. My father was a great supporter in my early years and we spent many hours together sorting slides, editing film and looking at photographs. In the early days it became apparent that photographs needed sorting and filing. The nature of the film era was the accumulation of negatives, slides and prints large and small by the thousands.


With the onset of affordable computers in the early 1980’s it became obvious to me that this could supply the answer for a negative cataloguing system. 


At the time I was working as a technical officer (photography) at the Australian National University with several other colleges. The work was typical to any studio and we produced thousands of negatives monthly. Each photographer was responsible for their own material and storage. There was no central storage system. In previous experience I was the understudy to a a fabulous photographer Attila Kiraly FIAP, he was a prolific photographer and produced outstanding landscape, wedding, industrial and architectural images, his storage system was basic, negatives and film would go into a knife and folk paper envelope the type you would get at a roadside dinner. Crude as they were they provided a cheap and affordable storage system for the day. Each envelope was given a number and the contents of the envelope was recorded in a book.

Let me say this worked. A similar system was used at my time at CSIRO but they added a proof book of the negatives, this changed the game.


These simple systems were in response to negative and film collections that were growing at a logarithmic rate. They were very analogue indeed but without them it was chaos.


Later at the ANU with the influx of the first computer I began research into database management. My supervisors gave little to no support but allowed me to use some of the computers in the section. Crude as it was disc operated database software sort of worked, but when the first applications started to evolve things improved greatly. 


Frustrated with the computer access I purchased my own in 1983 and immediately sought assistance from a programmer to build me my application “negfile”.

Negfile was just a simple field based interface which created a unique number, the fields covered date, content, film type, film size, frame selection, and more. I designed a packet that was a perfect size for film up to 4x5, a simple archival envelope 28 x 280mm. The printed face had the number horizontal to allow fast physical location and retrieve. This was 1984 and by then I had over a thousand envelopes. My next problem was physical storage, so draws were built to perfectly house the growing archive.


My DOS computer was retired for a Apple Mackintosh SE in 1988. Well the world changed the day I fired up this little beast. The Apple Macintosh SE features an 8 MHz 68000 processor, 2 MB of RAM, one 800k disk drive and a 20 MB hard drive. What a little beast, I purchased applications, such as Filemaker, Quark Express and later was given a beta test disk, for Photoshop to test.

So I re-wrote Negfile onto a Filemaker platform, the negative storage system was now solved. 


Since my first Mac, I have had many, Quadra, Powerbook, Performa, 9500, G3s, G4, Mac Pro, and now MacBook Pro. So the Negfile was there all the way. 


At the start 1992 it was becoming obvious that digital desktop design was soon to replace conventional paste-up layout and design. The computer was now a mainstream tool in all studios. Professional photographers and their studios would predominantly shoot transparent film for colour reproduction and use black and white film for paper printing. My photographic career was closely linked to illustrative photography, ie advertising, magazine and publishing. I worked closely with drum scanning firms and pre-Photoshop applications creating digital files on massive mainframes. I was now faced with a new problem, computer generated data. Further to this my studio in Sydney Australia was moving toward more inclusion in graphic design and the final product to the client. 


The computer was generating massive files, digital storage was now an issue, not just for me but all of my designer friends. I needed to create a new approach. In Australia we were not Silicon Valley, and there were few app developers. The internet did not exist and the only information that was available came from computer stores and trade magazines. It was here that I discovered Cumulus software by CANTO. This software was an excellent concept, It was the beginning of digital asset management for me. After purchase I found my computer of the day was capable of running it but it had issues like how the date was shown and other minor things but the development team were happy to make changes to the app through upgrades. 


Cumulus was quite unstable though. Probably due to architecture of the computers of the day and the complex code that would take years to refine. I persevered with the app and it provided an amazing feature it was a visual database. The old proof sheet was back and now fully capable to handle metadata. 


I moved away from Cumulus and started using Extensis Portfolio which I still use today. This site was created using Portfolio. Now I use bot Portfolio and my favourite cataloguing application for CD&DVDs created by Norbert M Doerner Neofinder. Neofinder is the best software that I have ever used in cataloguing. It is easy, reliable, stable and great value. I use both Portfolio and Neofinder in my archive, Negfile 2.0 is still used for the historic negatives but today I shoot only digital because it is simply better.


Back to 1996 our business at RLDI purchased its first drum scanner, massive expense, infrastructure and dedicated facilities. The drum scanner produced the best digital images available at that time and we were at the forefront of digital quality. The downside was that  every working day the machines generated hundreds of images and thousands of megabytes of data. This data would leave the studio on CD Rom and eventually DVD. The need for asset management archives was never greater. With the eventual digital camera domination in 2004 the problem of data archiving became so large that if a photographer was not actively been cataloguing and had some digital method in place it would be impossible to implement the past into a catalogue.


It is easy for large organisations to incorporate massive DAM systems, They have millions invested in server networks and contracted cloud services. They are willing to pay thousands for software licenses to deliver their assets. The companies that supply these services are large and their clients are large. Software licenses range from $1500 - extraordinary amounts of money. But for the small studio these numbers are beyond reality. We at RLDI have well over 3 million images and artefacts, these are stored physically on disk and live on redundant stand alone devices called DROBO storage. With both Portfolio and Neofinder I can locate anything from images to designs, fonts, and print files.


The last thing that should be understood about digital archives is metadata. When a master image is created of a subject or object, it should be processed from Raw and made to a suitable resolution and saved as TIF. At RLDI TIF files are gold, they are the premium product. Once we process the master image the collection is managed in Adobe Bridge. Bridge allows the insertion of many levels of metadata directly into the image. It should be understood that DAM software creates a record of the asset as well as the embedded metadata in that asset then adds to it in the assets record in that software. This means if an image is extracted from a database it may not include the management system metadata. To overcome this the best solution that RLDI has adopted is supply the asset or image with as much metadata it can about that image, this is done in BRIDGE. Metadata fields such as IPTC are perfect for this, all digital asset management software ingests IPTC, EXIF, medical imagery metadata, audio,GPS and more. To have this data applied to the master file before ingestion into the clients DAM system is time saving and more accurate. This would allow any output or recovery from the DAM system to carry this metadata embedded in the image.


My goal in this blog is to let those in the profession I love deal with a common problem, and its filing. It does not matter if you are a graphic designer or architect, if you are generating data it needs to be filed away for the future. I personally do not like the cloud so we at RLDI in-house store data, we also archive all images to DVD, this is a labour of love but I value the work we do so we show it the respect it deserves. It should be understood and respected that great imagery, documents  and photography gets more valuable as time goes on. 


This is an insight to how I solved my negative and data storage.


I hope you have enjoyed my blog.



Typical display screen for Extensis Portfolio that enables search, and scratchpad creation for data collection. Example shown is a sample from the Bundanon Collection NSW Australia, it contains 40,000 plus assets of paintings, drawings, letters, photographs, films, ceramics, and artifacts.