We need to get our images off our camera and over to our computer (or phone/tablet/cloud). I'm going to first describe what I think the ultimate ingest does:
- Previews images to select and transfer. Previewing needs to be convenient and fast. We need better choices for selecting, too, as in select all, select all that are marked protected, select on star rating (recent Nikon cameras can put ratings on images as you review them in shooting sessions), select all NEF (or JPEG or TIFF of MOV/MP4), and a variety of other options. Selection itself needs to be obvious, direct, and support OS standards (e.g. drag-select, or Command Select on macOS). Preview should always warn you of multiple folders on a card/camera in the DCIM folder and allow you to browse them.
- Renames photos from highly limiting and dangerous DSC_#### filenames. We need filenames that are longer than eight characters and don't repeat after 9999 images. Serious users create filenames that tell them when the image was taken and what is in the image (e.g. 2017_1_31-Yosemite Valley.JPG). I go further than that, so I want text I can enter directly, variables that can be pulled from EXIF data (camera, date, lens, etc.), and even variables I can create (e.g. Landscape, Sports, Wildlife, etc.). I want the series number to be resettable by import, or to be consecutive across shoots. For JPEGs, we have an issue: DCF doesn't define Color Space except for the DSC_#### and _DSC#### variations. Wouldn't it be nice to have a standard for longer names, too?
- Maintains the file data intact (image data and EXIF data). This should be obvious, but I think it needs to be explicitly stated: there should be no rewriting of the actual file data (other than additions I'll get to next).
- Allows application of additional data. This would be things like additional EXIF, IPTC, keywording, rating, model release number, and personal identification, etc. The proper ingest program would also allow for stripping of EXIF and additional data, if desired. Great ingest programs can merge external GPS data, too.
- Allows cloning of a card, and duplication of file transfer. These are two often overlooked things that for some reason the video software does better than the still camera software. We should be able to exactly clone a card (e.g. an Apple Image file or an .ISO file). That way if we needed to put things back on a card and look at that card with a camera, it would work. If we needed to re-import (or have someone else import it differently), we could. Likewise, if I've got multiple drive destinations connected to my computer, I would like to be able to import to a second (backup) location simultaneously. Bonus points for being able to duplicate to a cloud service at the same time as ingesting to a local hard drive.
- Works as fast as the physical mechanisms moving the data. Another one that should be obvious, but it isn't always the case. The ingesting software should not be a bottleneck to the hardware. If I've got a USB 3.1 card reader and an internal SSD, the software should never have either one waiting for it to catch up.
- Deals with Wi-Fi connection to camera, physical connection to camera, card reader, clones of cards stored on other media. It shouldn't matter where the source of my images are or how they're being transported physically. Great ingest software just finds the DCIM folders that are available from any source and gives me all the above options for dealing with them.
- Does a complete verification of the copied data, if asked for. Besides the actual copying of data, it would be nice if it was verified to be exactly as was on the camera.
Sad to say, no single currently available ingest program does everything I define above. None. A few do a lot of things I ask for, but none does all. And that's just for macOS and Windows. If you're thinking you're going to ingest to a tablet, things get far, far worse (moreover, many of my cameras can easily outshoot in one card what my tablet can hold).
So here we are nearly 30 years after I first started shooting with digital cameras and we still don't have a single program that nails image ingestation. That's mind boggling, really.
So what are your options for ingesting images? Let's examine the landscape:
- The "simple copy" mechanisms. Besides brute force direct copying—e.g. drag from the card image and drop on the computer drive—I'd tend to include the various Wi-Fi solutions that the camera makers think are wonderful (but aren't). Image was on A (camera, card), after copying, it's on B (computer, tablet, phone). About all the Wi-Fi mechanisms do is give you the option to have a simple copy done automatically.
One problem with "simple copy" is that they don't always rename the file, and when they do, the new name isn't all that useful, either. This is particularly dangerous with the manual drag from card to computer system many still use. Depending upon your computer and where you're dragging things, you can either overwrite existing files or end up with very odd things like DSC_0001 and DSC_0001-1. Not useful, and makes it impossible to manually search for your related shots later.
You're also stuck with your computer/tablet/phone's OS in terms of browsing and selecting which images to transfer, and let's just say that this is far from optimal, and often has performance issues. I've watched people try to do copying to different folders from a single card and end up not copying a few images because they can't keep track of that in their heads.
I do not recommend using brute force simple copy mechanisms (except perhaps to clone a card if your ingest program doesn't support cloning).
- Camera Company ingestors. Canon, Nikon, and others have their own ingest programs. For Canon it's in EOS Utility, for Nikon it's the Transfer 2 part of View NX-i. Generally these programs give you a basic interface for previewing and selecting, and modest abilities to alter file names and sometimes add information.
The problem I have with these products is that they're free. Why is that a problem? Because they generate no revenue for the camera company, the companies don't tend to spend a lot of resources developing and maintaining them. Most of them look like they were designed back in the days of Windows 95 (some were). Plus, every now and then Nikon manages to not keep up with OS changes and Transfer 2.0 breaks. Ugh.
If you're not going to spring for something better, these are your best choice.
- Ingest as a function of a larger software product. Here's where Lightroom, Aperture, Apple Photos, and a few others live. The software product in question wants to be your "everything," so it has to have ingest capabilities, right?
Right. In the case of Aperture and Lightroom, those products were developed with professional photographer input, so they actually do much of what I outline above, and in ways that photographers (might) understand. The (might) in the last sentence is because almost all of these products will eventually confuse you in the difference between virtual and real. Almost every Aperture or Lightroom photographer eventually asks me "where are my files?" Well, they're where you put them ;~). But the notions of collections and other database constructs that these programs use—which is the virtual part—often starts the confusion that results in the question I get asked (as does every other workflow teacher).
In the case of Apple Photos and now the clones from Google and others, things get more muddied. Apple, in particular, seems to want to save you from yourself having to make actual decisions. They keep trying to "just do it for you." It being just about everything under the sun, including where the images actually get put (yes, I know I can control that, but it's buried, and Apple wants to default to everything in iCloud, which has implications of its own).
I'm not a fan of using an all-in-one program to do ingest, and I'd double that aversion if you don't know or understand what the program is doing under the covers. Nevertheless, this is how most of the world is getting their images from camera to computer these days. Worse still, it's how most of the smartphone crowd is getting their images from phone to computer.
- A dedicated ingest program. The program I use is Photo Mechanic (as do most sports shooters for some very particular reasons, including the ability to build player lists and [nearly] auto caption), but there are others: Downloader Pro, and ImageIngester Pro, to name two others that get used a lot. Update: ImageIngester seems to be supplanted by Ingestamatic.
The reason for using these programs is twofold: control and capability. You're in control of what's being done, what things are named, where the images go, etc. And virtually all of these programs do additional useful things, such as the addition of IPTC data, geotagging, and sometimes more (Photo Mechanic is also an image browsing program, so it includes the ability to do image sorting and rating and do that in Lightroom style; Downloader Pro has a companion app called BreezeBrowser Pro to do that).
Mac users who want to use Wi-Fi to transfer images from camera to computer have another option, Cascable, and this includes a Lightroom plug-in that helps it get you a broader set of ingest options than the basics included in the stand-alone product. iOS users can also get a mobile version. Cascable currently supports more than 50 models from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony, with Panasonic being added this later in 2017.
Best Ingest Practices
On your main repository of images—typically a drive on or connected to your computer—you should:
- Create one place that all photos/images live. Typically this is either a dedicated drive or a dedicated folder on a drive. The Apple default is to put photos into a folder at drive/Users/Username/Pictures while for Windows they go into drive\users\username\pictures. Note that other software uses this folder, so there can be multiple things there. I recommend that you have at least a dedicated folder for all your images, but I prefer a dedicated drive given how large your data collection is likely to get.
- Within the main photos folder (drive), create and use logical subfolders. Because you may take thousands of images, you want these subfolders to be able to fit onto an external drive for archival purposes, thus you need some logical organization principal for the subfolders (year, type of photo, place, etc.). I personally am now using type of photo, as in Landscape, Sports, Event, Family, which then have sub-folders of place or year within them. I deal with the subject of folder organization in a separate article.
- Be consistent with naming. Think about it now, and pre-create the folder and file name standards you're going to use. For my location-specific shoots, for instance, I long used the form INT_COUNTRY_PLACE_DATE_sequence for International locations, and US_STATE_PLACE_DATE_sequence for US locations. Guess what? I can search for all my images from Montana and find them without a software program, just using the OS find feature! Random names are not good, nor are random folder locations.
- Back up and archive. If you can create your backup copies directly during ingest, do it. As older images start to clog up space on your drive, if you're not likely to need them much, that's when you take one of older folders you created above and move it to an external drive as an archive (with a backup!). Only when you've verified that the backup and archive are intact do you remove that folder from your daily computer. You can always get your images back to work on by mounting the external drive you created as the archive.
- The more you can do up front, the less you have to do downstream. Entering Copyright, IPTC, geotagging, and even keyword data while ingesting is generally best practice, especially if a subset of those things are the same for every image.
- For portable, in-the-field ingests, follow the same rules. When you get back home all you have to do is then drag from the folder structure on your laptop to your central folder structure on your desktop. Lightroom users have to pay some special attention, though. Again, I'm not a fan of the all-in-one programs as an ingester, so if you ingest into Lightroom in the field with your laptop, you'd darn well be well versed in how to move those items via catalogs to your desktop computer correctly when you get home. That's probably the number one Lightroom question I get, actually. My personal answer is "don't do it." But then, I use Photo Mechanic as my ingest program and browser on my laptop, and send any file that I want to manipulate while traveling directly from Photo Mechanic to Photoshop.