There’s nothing like space limitations to impose a little discipline. Your camera’s memory card, your computer’s hard drive, and even an external hard drive are each capable of storing quite a number of photos, but in each case, the amount of storage available to you is finite. What that means, of course, is that sooner or later, you’re going to reach the upper limits of your device’s capacity.
There’s an initial temptation to find workarounds. If your memory card only holds 275 photos in JPG Fine, for instance, you may be tempted to shoot in a high-compression/high-loss format for the sake of saving space. Yes, you might be able to fit 1,000 photos on the card by shooting in JPG Low, but try going back to edit, or God forbid crop, some of those images later; the quality suffers considerably. So you spring for a larger memory card or three… your shot discipline suffers a bit, plus you’ve lost a lot more images if a 16GB card fails than if a 4GB card fails. Backing up your images means going through a lot of DVD’s (if you’re using 4GB cards, each time you fill one, you’re also filling a DVD) or ending up with a choke of images on your computer’s hard drive that slows your system (and can vanish in the blink of an eye if something goes wrong with your system). Even a decent-sized external drive can fill up faster than you’d think.
There’s an easy solution to this. Stop saving so much. Be honest about your work, and develop some kind of workflow around sorting and storing your images. It helps your sanity, but also makes it a lot easier to manage the tremendous pile of photos you’re going to accumulate before you even realize how many you’ve got.
This can be done in a few stages. You can even start in the camera. If you’re photographing a subject that isn’t going to change too much or too quickly, check your images at regular intervals. The purpose of this is twofold. On one hand, if there’s something you’re doing wrong with your settings (you’ve set your exposure compensation without realizing it, you’re shooting at ISO 3200 on a sunny day), you’ve a much better chance of catching it. On the other, it’s a good chance to cull some of the shots that don’t work. While I’ll be the first to admit that viewing your photos on a 3″ LCD isn’t the same as viewing them on a 17″ monitor, think of it this way: if you can tell it doesn’t work by seeing something on that tiny screen, it probably isn’t going to work on a larger one, either.
Next, you can further winnow down your images before doing editing. Some programs, like Lightroom and even Google’s Picasa, offer a number of options for rating and tagging photos. Come up with a system that works for you (five stars for your best work, four for stuff that might need small tweaks, three for something that might work with serious intervention, and two for everything else, for instance) and stick to it. If it doesn’t fall into one of the first three categories, you could probably get rid of it; if you’re unsure, get another pair of eyes on your work, or set them aside to be viewed another time. Sometimes, taking some time away from something is a great chance to see it a bit more objectively when you come back to it again after a time.
Finally, back up your images. This is a best practice for two big reasons. First, storage systems fail. It doesn’t happen often, but it only takes once. Second, this can be another good time to further narrow your files. If you’re backing up on DVD’s, that might mean having 5GB of images when only 4GB will fit on the disc. See if you can cull a gigabyte’s worth before backing up.
It’s been said that the difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional won’t let you see their mistakes. Our mistakes are numerous no matter what our level of experience is, but as long as you’re learning from those mistakes, there’s no need to hang onto them, and to keep reminding yourself of them. Unless you have a really compelling reason for hanging onto something, consider lightening your — and your computer’s — load.