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What is the best software to manage photos? I know this is a question which has been asked in the past, but I want to add two constraints:

  • Open format. If in 50 years someone wants to look at the photos I have taken, I want them to be able to extract the metadata from my photo no matter if the software I used to tag the photos exists or not.
  • Free. I cannot imagine paying a monthly fee to Adobe for the rest of my life. The day I stop paying, I lose the metadata.
  • Works on Windows.

I really like using Lightroom 5, but I am worried that Adobe will tell us in a few years that we cannot use it anymore (https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/a3xk3p/adobe-tells-users-they-can-get-sued-for-using-old-versions-of-photoshop).

Over the years I have taken 30,000+ pictures and I would really like to be able to tag them all with confidence that the tags won't be lost because of a software license.

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    50 years is a loooong time in the software world.... – twalberg Jun 18 at 15:52
  • As @twalberg says.. if 15 years ago you'd put your photos on floppy disk, you'd already be struggling to find something to read them. Long-term archiving is too big a topic really to be discussed in a simple QA like this. – Tetsujin Jun 18 at 16:13
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    @Tetsujin, twalberg: Let's not get bogged down in the meta-discussion about longevity of storage media. For the purposes of this question, treat "50 years" as "stored on redundant geographically separated perpetually refreshed storage arrays". That is, I don't think the OP is asking about how to physically store images for 50 years to ensure they're available. He's asking that, assuming physical medium isn't a problem, what free (both as in beer and as in speech) data formats can guarantee readability of the image data and its metadata. – scottbb Jun 18 at 17:13
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    @scottbb - hence my first point of this being far too big to answer in here. My 30 years of conversations with a professional archivist has given me all the questions, but not all of the answers yet. – Tetsujin Jun 18 at 18:16
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    @Tetsujin But when restricted to just data format issues, and not getting into storage medium, I don't think it's too big. If the answer is, "no software exists that satisfies your requirements", that's a legitimate answer. Now, the degree to which "survivable open data formats" is too big a subject for just Photo-SE is certainly a possible problem, but as written, and not getting into storage medium issues, I don't think this is too broad, or an entirely unanswerable question. – scottbb Jun 18 at 18:39
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Ok, this may not be the answer you're looking for, but my advice would be to use standard tools that come with the operating system. For example, MS-DOS was released about 40 years ago and supported the concept of a file. Today, its successor, Microsoft Windows supports too the concept of a file. I bet whatever operating system you're using in 50 years time will too support the concept of a file.

So, shoot in JPG+RAW and store the files that your camera gives you. If you want to store custom metadata, don't modify the JPG+RAW files but instead create a TXT file with the same name and put your custom metadata there. Text files stored in US-ASCII format have been supported since 1969. If you're very adventurous, you may use UTF-8 which is a superset of US-ASCII and unlikely to vanish. Avoid ISO-8859-1; it will be replaced by UTF-8. Avoid any "rich text" formats; they will become outdated (except perhaps HTML, but it too is a fast-moving target).

JPG is a format that will surely be supported in 50 years. There are some improvements like JPEG2000 but they have not gained major acceptance because JPG is good enough and compatibility is more important than squeezing the last 10-20% of compression / image quality.

Camera RAW formats aren't strictly speaking open source, but however, open source utilities exist to read files in these formats. If the RAW becomes unreadable after 50 years due to nonexistent software, at least you have the JPG.

The main concern I have is how to store the bits in a way that lasts for 50 years. I would choose Amazon AWS S3 (approximately $0.0125 per gigabyte per month for infrequently accessed data) and store an offline backup copy on a hard disk or SSD. You may occasionally need to switch to a newer hard disk / SSD, and if Amazon S3 is shut down, switch to another cloud provider. Amazon S3 has a 13 year history so the chances of it lasting for 50 years are somewhat better than some random free cloud provider.

  • I think it very unlikely that XML (or for that matter, Markdown) will be outdated to the point of being unreadable. These formats don't really have the same problems as obsolete binary formats from the 1980s. – mattdm Jun 18 at 22:28
  • If you're going to assume that JPG will be supported in 50 years, why would you not assume that EXIF stored in the JPG would not be supported as well? This would eliminate the need for a custom sidecar file that no management software would understand. – Robin Jun 19 at 17:40
  • @Robin XMP is reasonably well standardized, and there are good reasons to not to touch the original file, even for metadata. – chrylis -on strike- Jun 20 at 3:40
  • @Robin EXIF may be replaced by some newer container format for metadata. Also, I would not touch the original files as chrylis said. – juhist Jun 20 at 16:44
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I think the best answer is to print all of your photos, good prints stored correctly will last hundreds of years.

For your digital files I don't think there is an answer that will completely satisfy your question.

My answer is that formats and storage methods will continue to change, you will need to update and move your photographs from format to format and storage solution to storage solution as times change.

Following this strategy you would continue to use Lightroom ensuring that you save the metadata to the original or sidecar files regularly (and I recommend exporting to 8-bit JPG) and then storing those files in both local and remote locations. When things change, the workflow would change with them, using different software, exporting different formats, and changing storage locations as needed.

For example: I began shooting on film, I used shoe boxes, then acid-free archival boxes to store the photos and negatives. Later I scanned the negatives in, used ACDSee and Photoshop to add EXIF and IPTC metadata, and output high quality JPG which were stored on CDs then DVDs. Later still, I used Lightroom to tweak my photo collection, add even more metadata, output high quality JPGs, and saved them locally and to 2 locations in the cloud.

It takes a lot of work, the software is not free, and neither is local storage or in the cloud. But it is the only way to guarantee your digital files will survive.

  • Thank you @Dave. Thank I understand that 15-50 years is a long time from a software perspective. I think you are correct, the best way to archive some of those pictures is to print them. I am surprised that Lightroom doesn't seem to use IPTC/EXIF to store the picture metadata. That's another big concern that I have, how to keep that metadata long term. – Martin Jun 18 at 17:23
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    Doesn't printing them negate the OP of preserving metadata? Unless you're going to write all that on the back in indelible ink... – Tetsujin Jun 18 at 17:44
  • Yes, you're correct @Tetsujin. I would lose the metadata with printing. :( – Martin Jun 18 at 18:07
  • You can either print the metadata out on archival labels or do what newspapers have done and hand write your notes on the back of a photo. Many photo editors, including Lightroom, have the ability to print metadata. – Dave Nelson Jun 19 at 11:36
  • @Martin That is why I emphasize exporting your images as high quality JPG files, these will include all of the EXIF and IPTC metadata that you have added in Lightroom. You could also convert all of your images into DNG files which can also contain all of the metadata. – Dave Nelson Jun 19 at 11:43

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