Posted in Information Management, Records management, SharePoint Online

Managing digital photos as records in SharePoint Online

Photographs (or, for that matter, any visual work) can be more powerful as a record of something than a written record. Some of the iconic events in history are only known from the visual record.

Photos (and videos) are ubiquitous in the digital age. They are captured in multiple ways and stored on a range of media including computers, portable drives, mobile devices and the cloud (including online storage and social media).

Digital photos can be easily changed or ‘photoshopped’, to use the more common term.

But records management requires us to ensure the authenticity, reliability and integrity of records. How can we ensure this for photographic records?

This post examines how SharePoint can be used to manage (some) photos as records.

What is a digital photo?

For the purpose of this post, a digital photo is any image that is captured and stored electronically as bits in a recognised image format. It excludes digital photos (including scanned or digitised paper records) that are embedded in PDF files.

To quote from the Wikipedia article titled ‘Digital Image‘, a digital photo is:

‘… an image composed of picture elements, also known as pixels, each with finite, discrete quantities of numeric representation for its intensity or gray level that is an output from its two-dimensional functions fed as input by its spatial coordinates denoted with x, y on the x-axis and y-axis, respectively. Depending on whether the image resolution is fixed, it may be of vector or raster type. By itself, the term ‘digital image’ usually refers to raster images or bitmapped images (as opposed to vector images).’

According to the definition, a digital photo is a collection of bits set out in a map that a computer interprets to display it on a screen. For more detail on bitmaps, see this Microsoft page ‘Bitmaps‘.

When to use SharePoint to store digital photos

Almost any digital object that can be stored electronically can be captured in SharePoint. But, just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

It is important to keep in mind that SharePoint may be not be the most suitable option for storing digital photographs in general. The volume, size and intended usage of the photos are all likely to influence the decision to use SharePoint. Organisations may need to consider other ways to store and manage digital photos (and other digital media) such as dedicated digital asset management systems.

However, SharePoint may be a good option to store digital photos as records if those photos:

  • Need to be kept as a record of something.
  • Support or relate to other content in the same document library. For example, photos that relate to or support building plans (which themselves may be scanned images in PDF form) or construction.
  • Are about a specific subject. For example, photos of damage to a physical object.
  • Are relatively low in volume and file size.

Factors to consider before storing digital photos in SharePoint

The following points should be considered before storing any digital photo (or digital media) in SharePoint.

File names

Digital photos are usually stored on devices that capture them with meaningless, device-generated names such as ‘20210423_123192321’, ‘DSC_0330’, or ‘n594015825_1706121_4959’. These types of names provide no clue to the content when the image is saved to SharePoint, as shown below.

Ideally, the device-generated name should be replaced with a more meaningful name as shown below.

We can see from the unique Document ID that it is the same record. The version history also tells us that something was changed but the file size hasn’t changed.

Keep in mind that every change to the file name or any other metadata added to the library will create a new copy (‘version’) of the image. In the version history above, there are now four versions each 3 MB in size.

The Activity section of the information panel to the right (which also provides a preview of the image) also provides some key information to support the version history information:

Does changing the name potentially compromise a key element of metadata? Who should change the name, and when?

Organisations should consider establishing naming conventions for photographs to help with findability and context.

Format

Almost any type of digital object can be stored in SharePoint. SharePoint also supports the ability to view almost every type of contemporary digital photo format (as described in this Microsoft page) so format should not be a problem when it comes to viewing the file.

However, if the organisation plans to store digital photos in older or less common formats, it will need to ensure that these can be accessed for as long as required. This will generally mean ensuring that the appropriate software application is available to anyone who needs to access (open/view) the photos.

Alternatively, consideration should be given to saving the photos in different, more common formats.

Size/Resolution

The size of a digital photograph may affect its usability as a record. The two photos below are of the same scene but the first photo is very low resolution (= small size, 63 KB), while the second is a section of a much large photo (= large size, 3.7 MB). The second version is clearly a more accurate record.

Digital photos used as records should provide sufficient detail to be useful as records. Accordingly, in most instances, the original photo, not a re-sized version, should be saved.

Reliability as a record

As noted above, photos can be easily modified, sometimes making it difficult to know if it accurately reflects the image it purports to capture. This is also an issue for any form of visual record, including drawings.

Metadata created when the photo was taken and stored in the photo’s properties (including EXIF metadata) can provide evidence of the reliability of the photo as a record, even when the record was stored in SharePoint. The following are the key metadata properties that are usually created and stored with a digital photo:

  • Size.
  • (Date) Created. The date and time when the photograph was created as a photo.
  • Date taken. This is, for most digital photos, the same date and time as the ‘created’ date.
  • (Date) Modified. This should be very close to the original date and time created on the original photograph, but may be several seconds different. If the photograph has been modified (including simple photo adjustments or ‘photoshopped’), it will show a different date and time which might give a clue to its reliability as a record.
  • Image dimensions, width, height, horizontal and vertical resolution, bit depth
  • Camera details including F-stop, exposure time, ISO speed, flash mode

Storing digital photos in SharePoint Online

Note that SharePoint previously had the option to create a dedicated ‘Picture Library’. This is no longer necessary as any document library can be used to store any digital object, and SharePoint Online document libraries now have additional options to view the photos.

Any digital photo can now be saved to a standard SharePoint document library, including via the ‘Files’ tab in MS Teams.

Metadata

Unlike some EDRM systems, SharePoint does not ‘capture’ or extract the details of digital objects when they are saved to a document library. Instead, these remain with the original digital object.

If digital photos are to be saved to a SharePoint Online document library, consideration should be given to using existing or additional metadata columns to describe the image, for example, the ‘Image’ column (small version preview that is stored separately in the Site Assets library >’Lists’ folder > GUID-named folder).

The following screenshot shows a preview image of the main photo.

Viewing options

SharePoint includes three options to view the content in a document library list view: List, Compact List, or Tiles.

The following is an example of a single digital photo stored in a document library (same as the one in the other options earlier) set to the ‘Tiles’ view:

Reliability as a record

Once saved to SharePoint, the photo’s reliability as a record can be determined from version history.

Additional protections may include access/permission controls, retention and/or information security labels.

Summary

SharePoint can be used to store (some) digital photos as records, but it should not generally be used as a general storage location for digital photos. Other dedicated digital asset management systems may be more suitable for that purpose.

Before storing digital photos in SharePoint, organisations should establish procedural rules or principles including (re-) naming conventions, format and file size requirements.

SharePoint does not extract and store the metadata from digital objects, which means that digital photos should retain metadata that shows when they were created or modified, and other details about the photograph which will provide evidence to support the authenticity of the photo as a record. Some consideration should be given to adding additional metadata to help describe digital photos as records.

A combination of version history, access controls, information protection and retention labels should provide sufficient controls to ensure the reliability, integrity and authenticity of records – or at the very least provide the evidence of changes that may be made.

There are two sides to the question of authenticity, reliability and integrity:

  • Knowing if the photo that has been uploaded is a correct record of what it purports to be.
  • Preventing the photo from modification or deletion or tracking any modifications that may occur.

It might seem impossible to know if a photograph is what is purports to be, but its metadata payload may provide the detail required.

Possibly photoshopped photo

Feature Image: Source not known.

Author:

I am an experienced information management professional based in Melbourne, Australia. I have had close to 40 years of practical working knowledge across the full spectrum of information, records and content management issues, and direct and practical experience with contemporary and emerging business and information and enterprise content management systems. My product knowledge includes SharePoint 2010/2013/Online and OneDrive (SharePoint Administrator), Office 365 (including as a Global Administrator), Yammer, Sway, TRIM Context (R6.2 & 7.1), ECM Documentum, Alfresco Share; and other online systems. www.andrewwarland.com.au

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