I've been an avid digital photographer for just a few years now, and as my collection of images has grown, I've outstripped, in number and quality, my film 'production'. The marginal cost of taking another image is zero... its only bits, right? Well, thats nonsense, of course. It is true that you can capture lots more images without incurring additional costs immediately, but managing them is far more difficult than the shoebox methodology that serves pretty well with prints. Time is the real cost (well, that, and all the machinery you need to buy and rebuy over the life of the images).
It is easy enough to put off the hard part... organizing and cataloging. In fact, most people won't ever do it, and the likely result is predictable. Bit rot writ large. It can be argued that the world is no worse off for this, and perhaps the opposite, but if you're worried about the persistence of the digital images of your life and family... well, paranoia is just a heightened sense of reality. Disks are flakey and WILL fail. Home-burned CD's are unreliable, and DVD's are probably worse. New media formats are always on the horizon. Shoeboxing prints is still probably the best way to get images into your children's hands. But print technology is in flux, as well, and you need to understand the technology underlying the prints. Certainly your home photo printer is a dicey bet, unless it happens to be a high-end Epson or equivalent, with archival pigment inks. Its enough to drive you back to slide film. Well, not really.
Instead, buy The DAM Book: Digital Asset Management for Photographers. Peter Krogh's addition to the O'Reilly library is a must-read if you're serious about keeping your digital images. A professional photographer who claims to have captured 135,000 images in a three year period (about 1 for every 12 minutes in every hour of every day... hmmm), Krogh has laid out a readable, convincing text on strategies and choices for managing images. The book talks about file management, naming strategies, software environments, and hardware platforms suitable for assuring the longevity of your images. If configuring Photoshop's Bridge application seems daunting, Krogh walks you through each step and explains why. If you knew you should be creating metadata, but were intimidated by the task, he will give you methods and confidence. And scare you into it perhaps.
The book is up-to-date on the latest metadata standards (IPTC, which was only recently approved, is the heart of image description in the world of journalism and commercial imaging). It is, I am pleased to say, a partial derivative of the Dublin Core. Need less? Probably, though following his guidelines and recommendations will impart the confidence you need to make good decisions.
I've been a metadata maven for more than a decade. Peter Krogh is about to make me (finally) a cataloger as well.
Image: Ducklings, photographed in Kubota Gardens, one of two wonderful public Japanese gardens in Seattle.