Photos Management Server

Photos (and videos!) are something very important in our everyday's life. They collect our memories and can bring back the emotions that we all experiences just by reviewing the pictures and videos taken back in time.

Photography has greatly changed over the years. For example i have thousands of photos in the last 20+ years with many different cameras and technologies: film SLRs, DSLRs, phones, disppsable cameras… Also the digital management tools have changed greatly. I even have 40+ years old family photos that i have scanned and stored.

Today the good old paper albums are just collecting dust in the bookshelves, and tomorrow those will be a faded memory of the past. Today photos are shared over instant messaging apps and given for free to big corps like Google and Apple.

The challenge is to make the family album fun again, keep it private and make it last our grandchildren (maybe).

The concepts

the goal is to have the family photos neatly organized, sorted and easily accessible by family members, even (specially) the non tech-savvy ones.

There are three steps to the process:

  • Collecting pictures and videos from the devices (cameras, phones, scans…)
  • Organizing them into albums and collections, adding tags if/when possible
  • Display them all for easy fruition, possibly with Machine Learning for face detection and such

Long term support & availability

Tehcnology changes, fast. Applications are created new and dies out. The bus factor is vividly true also for Open Source projects. I have stored photos from 40 years ago, and literally thousands of pictures from 20+ years ago. To be usable they must be organized, tagged and properly labelled. Such tagging and organization must survive each single app or tool you choose.

Using a database is not acceptable, since as much as logical it might be organized, you cannot extract and parse the tags&metadata easily after the app that uses it get discontinued, or you die (yes, i am in that time of life where legacy start to be a tought). As an example, i have an extensive database of public photos i did some years ago. The tool itself does not work anymore, but i still retain the photos, whose names have been mangled for “storage reasons” by the tool, and the entire SQL dump of the database. I could digets the db and create all the needed queries to sort out again the photos in albums and associate the tags, but i never did it because it is so much pain. Lesson learnt.

The only viable option (CHANGE MY MIND) is having the photos organized in folders, where each folder is an album, and the folders themselves named in a clear, obvious, album title way. The tags and metadata should be either embedded in the photo files or stored in sidecar files along the photos themselves.

This is non-negotiable for me. If i didn't follow this rule since i started digitalizing my photos, today i would have nothing still readable and organized. and what about in 10 more years?

Tools & software

Let's be clear: there no tool that let you do that all-in-one, and i have tested almost all of them.

First of all, i discarded all local tools, as i want this done on the server and not on my local laptop. Ideally, every family member should be able to to it's part without my intervention. (back in the past i used the great Digikam which still rocks, but it's local-only).

On the web tools the landscape is a little bit better than for the Note Taking category, but not that much. There are quite a few tools indeed, but each one has it's pros and cons, and none fits the bill perfectly.

I have tried (for each one, details in the associated page):

  • Immich is the most promising, but doesn't support folder-albums (without a complex and not intuitive usage pattern with templates), and overall i don't like that it cannot write back the ML generated data to the photos or sidecar files.
  • Damselfly is a Digital Asset Management tool. Very impressive for a single developer, but a bit not user-friendly and limited in what it can do
  • HomeGallery is fantastic gallery with an innovative and intuitive browsing approach. Unfortunately does not support folder-albums.
  • LibrePhotos is nice, but extremely slow in indexing and honestly, it seems a bit abandoned.
  • Photofield has some impressive view tricks, but it's way too simple.
  • PiGallery2 is a great gallery, supports tags and such, but it's not able (by design) to manage/move photos
  • Piwigo in theory is powerful and can do it all, but in relaity feels old, dated and ugly. It's been around 20+ years, and in this case this is a downpoint.

There are many more, which i didn't try because they where either dead, dying or non really open-source (as i stated many times, i try to steer from projects that are open-source only to generate a revenue).

The Architecture & Workflow

All the photos will be stored on the server RAID array (remember: this is not a backup, don't forget to Backup your photos!) on a three levels subfolder main structure located under /data/Photos:

  • /data/Photos/Staging: here your new photos will be uploaded
  • /data/Photods/Gallery: photos here will be visible in the gallery
  • /data/Photos/Public: symlinked public visible photos (not mandatory!)

These folder shall be netowork-shared inside your home network in case you want to manage your photos via a local tool like Digikam, plus they need to be accessible via Filebrowser so that they can be managed via web too.

From a web point of view, you need a few sub-paths. I will assume all this will be accesible via So you need:

Here you can see a practical reason of why supporting sub-paths and not only sub-domains is important for web tools. Imagine having four different subdomains (and requiring separate login for each one every time…).

The Staging folder will need to have one fubfolder for each user, to keep uploaded photos not overlapping. The Gallery folder can be organized in any way you want ot organize your photo collection, and like so the Public one.

The workflow will be:

  • Take photos and upload them to the server (automatically, when possible)
  • Organize the photos on the server, via a web interface, into albums/folders
  • Have the folder published to a gallery app that ease browsing, tagging and such.

Step 0: preparing users and folders

For simple but secure management, you will need a dedicated user called photos, member of the photos group. For added accessiblity, you could want to add all or some of your users to the same group, so that you can mount the photo storage on your computers and use local tools like digikam too:

groupadd photos
useradd -d /data/daemons/photos -m -g photos photos

Now you need to create the storage folders:

mkdir /data/Photos
chown photos:photos /data/Photos
su - photos
echo "umask 0002" >> ~/.bashrc
source  ~/.bashrc
mkdir /data/Photos/Staging
mkdir /data/Photos/Gallery
mkdir /data/Photos/Public

(the umask setting is to ensure photos are accessible by other photos users, YMMV)

Now make all that accessible via NFS by adding to your /etc/exports:


and run:

exportfs -a

Now make all that accessible via SAMBA (for windows machines) by adding to your /etc/samba/smb.conf:

   comment = Family Photos
   path = /data/Photos
   valid users = <your users that can access it>
   public = yes
   guest ok = yes
   writable = yes
   printable = no

and restart the samba service.

You might want to locally share only the Gallery sub-folder or separate the Gallery and the Staging sunfolders exports with different access criterias.

Step 1: configure how to load stuff in the Staging Area

At first i tried to use Immich for this job. The storage templates are somehow mandatory to this end, and it even work just fine for you. But i ended up with a more practical and effective approach since i am already using SyncThing on all our phones. Feel free to use either system, or even another one.

The advantage of Syncthing is that you can use it not only on mobile phones/tablets but also on laptops and different devices.

In order to do so, you need to spin a second copy of Syncthing on a different port just for the photo users, since your main Syncthing copy is running with a different user. There are other ways to do this, but i think they are less secure.

The SyncThing page will tell you how to run Syncthing in general, but here is a quick summary of what you need to do:

  • Copy /etc/conf.d/syncthing to /etc/conf.d/
  • Symlink /etc/init.d/syncthing to /etc/init.d/
  • Edit /etc/conf.d/ (see below)
  • Run once “syncthing” as user photos to initialize configuration files, then stop it
  • Start the service as usual

The configuration file should look something like:

(note the 8385 port that must be different from the default 8384 not to clash with the main syncthing installation)

To add&start the service:

rc-update add default
/etc/init.d/ start

As usual, install Syncthing on your phone too and link them together (see Syncthing documentation) and add one synced folder from your /DCIM/Camera in Android to something like /data/Photos/Staging/Myself-sync. Remeber you want to separate each user in the staging area to avoid mess.

If you want to use Immich instead (or in addition to), check this page on how to install it, just make Immich upload photos inside your /data/Photos/Staging/<username>.

It is not a good idea to directly upload to the gallery because out mobile devices usually take lots of crap photos that you do not want to store. That's why i use a staging folder. After the photos have been uploaded to the staging area, you will need to access it, sort the photos and move to the Gallery area. You don't need to do it often. I mostly do that after an event or an occasion where i take photos and want to organize them to place in the family photo memories.

You can always do so by mounting the photo folders on a local PC and use some photo manangement tools (like Digikam), but the highlight here is that you can as well do that over the web, even while on vacation or from your phone/tablet.

To do so, i use Filebrowser, a neat web-browser that you can install following this page. What you need to do now is to run a dedicated copy of it as the user photos. Create the following script as /data/daemons/photos/
"${FILEBROWSER}" config set --auth.method=noauth -d "${APP_PATH}/filebrowser.db" 2>&1 >> "${APP_PATH}/filebrowser.log"
"${FILEBROWSER}" -r "${DATA_PATH}" -p ${PORT} -b "${BASE_URL}" -d "${APP_PATH}/filebrowser.db" -l "${APP_PATH}/filebrowser.log" 2>&1 >> "${APP_PATH}/filebrowser.log"

check your port, it needs to be unique of course.

As usual, make it start at boot with /etc/local.d/41-photobrowser.start:

start-stop-daemon -b -m -p /var/run/photobrowser/ -n photobrowser -u photos /data/daemons/photos/

Make both executable!

You will wrap it up in the reverse proxy later on.

Now you can access the staging area, organize the photos, and move them to the gallery area.

As i stated at the beginning there are many gallery tools out there. My picks are two at this time, and i cannot really choose between them, so i have installed both:

  • Pigallery2 (install instructions here) is fast and natively show your album folders
  • HomeGallery (install instructions here) is a new concept, blazing fast and has superb tags support, which i am loving. But currently cannot show album folders.

Well, i have installed both so that you can choose which one you prefer each time you want to visit the gallery.

Go ahead, install them, then point them with the Reverse Proxy setup below.

Step 4: backup

Backing up your photos is a must. Nothing so far is a backup, so check Backup and setup the backup of your gallery area. You sohuld probably not backup the staging area as it might change too frequently. YMMV, decide for yourself.

Let's put it all together

For it all to come together you need both a small landing page, like a small dashboard, and a unifiyng Reverse Proxy configuration.

Reverse Proxy

Host all together with a similar config file:

location /photos/ {
        root /data/web/photo-dashoard;
        rewrite ^/photos(.*) $1 break;

location /photos/pigallery2/ {
        proxy_http_version 1.1;
        proxy_set_header Upgrade $http_upgrade;
        proxy_set_header Connection 'upgrade';
        proxy_set_header Host $host;
        proxy_cache_bypass $http_upgrade;

location /photos/homegallery/ {
        proxy_http_version 1.1;
        proxy_set_header Upgrade $http_upgrade;
        proxy_set_header Connection 'upgrade';
        proxy_set_header Host $host;
        proxy_cache_bypass $http_upgrade;

  location /photos/organize/ {
        client_max_body_size 512M;
        proxy_http_version 1.1;
        proxy_set_header Connection $http_connection;
        proxy_set_header Connection 'upgrade';
        proxy_cache_bypass $http_upgrade;
        proxy_set_header Host $host;
        proxy_set_header X-Real-IP $remote_addr;
        proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;
        proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-Proto $scheme;
        #proxy_set_header Authorization $remote_user;
    location /syncthing-photos/ {
        proxy_read_timeout 120s;
        access_log off;

Make sure you match the ports you setup for the various services, and also check the paths and URLs since YMMV.

The /data/web/photo-dashoard is where you will need to place the dashboard described below, the rewrite rule is needed to prevent NGINX tryng to access a sub-folder called photos inside that root folder.


Check Dashboard page for more details, but i have setup a simple sites.json for a dedicated instance of my own simple dashboard. So git-clone it to */data/web/photo-dashoard anbd create the site.json file:

        "title" : "Family Photos",
        "header" : {
                "img" : "",
                "text" : "Our Family Photos"
        "content" :
                [ { 
                "foldable": false,
                "title": "",
                        [ {
                                "img" : "images/photos_wall_1.jpg",
                                "text" : "PiGallery",
                                "link" : "/photos/pigallery2/",
                                "style" : "box",
                                "new_page" : true
                                "img" : "images/photos_wall_2.jpg",
                                "text" : "Home Gallery",
                                "link" : "/photos/homegallery/",
                                "style" : "box",
                                "new_page" : true
                        } ] },{
                "foldable": false,
                "title": "",
                        [ {
                                "img" : "images/filebrowser.png",
                                "text" : "Manage",
                                "link" : "/photos/organize",
                                "style" : "small",
                                "new_page" : true
                                "img" : "images/syncthing.png",
                                "text" : "Sync Photos",
                                "link" : "/syncthing-photos/",
                                "style" : "small",
                                "new_page" : true
                        } ] }

Of course, adapt to your linkngs and download the dashboard pictures you want.