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Photo storage and backups

Whether you are a photography enthusiast or a professional, at some point you're going to take enough photos that you will need to give serious thought to file storage beyond simply storing photos on your computer. And, no matter the size of your photo collection, we all want peace of mind that comes from knowing that our precious images will be preserved in the event of a computer crash, theft, or damage. So, whether you need special file storage or not, file backup should always be a priority.

Your computer's hard drive probably has enough space to store a lot of photos, but if your photo collection gets too large for your internal storage, then you need to supplement your computer's capacity with external storage. Also, even if you only store photo files on your computer, you will want to back up those files to an external storage drive on a regular basis.

As a working professional photographer for 15 years, my entire photo collection (currently 8.5 terabytes and counting) is far larger than my computer's internal storage capabilities. I keep all of my raw files on a pair of 10 terabyte RAID drives. RAID stands for "redundant array of independent disks" (or "redundant array of inexpensive disks"), and a RAID drive stores data in different places on multiple hard disks to protect data in the case of a drive failure. Although technically each RAID drive is designed to minimize the chance of data loss, when it comes to one's photo collection, I believe a healthy degree of paranoia is in order. Accordingly, I back up all of my raw files on a second RAID device, so in the rare event of one device completely failing, the second contains a complete backup of everything.

An external RAID drive is the most reliable way to store photo files. A redundant disk array minimizes the risk of data loss. Featured: Promise Technology Pegasus 2 R6 10-terabyte RAID drive.

Of course, you don't need to buy an expensive RAID drive. There are plenty of high capacity, low cost external drives available on the market, and they will be perfectly fine for most users. Just keep in mind, however, that these drives are less reliable than RAID drives, so regularly backup your photo files onto a second mass storage device, just in case.

Although it is always a good idea to have a physical backup of all of your photo files, you should also consider a cloud-based backup system. Remember, as I mentioned above, paranoia is a good thing when it comes to protecting your photo files. So, I also backup my images using a cloud-based service called Backblaze (there are many other backup options available). Backblaze and other similar services can be set up to automatically backup any new files (or newly modified files), so you never need to think about it. Backblaze is always running on my computer, quietly backing up files in the background. As long as I have an internet connection, I know that I'll never lose my photos.

With my cloud-based backup service, I always know my photo files are safe and sound . . . somewhere out there!

Okay, I might have mentioned before how I embrace paranoia when it comes to my photos. Not only do I have a physical backup of my files, and then a second backup in the cloud, I have a third backup using another cloud backup service. That's because I just discovered that, as part of my Amazon Prime membership, I get unlimited photo file backup at no extra cost. So, what the heck, why not? Because you can never be too paranoid when it comes to your digital photo files!

Of course, if you have a photo collection that is terabytes instead of gigabytes, internet-based backup can be problematic, clogging up your bandwidth and interfering with your latest Netflix-binge. I actually don't backup all of my raw files to the cloud. Instead, I only backup those photo files that I have edited; for every raw file that I process, I probably have another 30-50 files that go unprocessed, and I finalize all of my processing in Adobe Photoshop and save my edited photos as tiff files on my computer hard drive. Since I take so many photos, I simply don't have time to delete unused raw files, so I just dump all of my raw files from a photo shoot onto my RAID drives (I'm not saying this is a good way to do things, I'm a packrat when it comes to my photos and I keep everything, but I'd be lying if I said it's for a logical reason). So, I am only backing up my finally processed tiff files to the cloud. These are the working files that are most important to my day-to-day photography business that I absolutely cannot afford to lose. This means I'm only backing up 250 gigabytes worth of image files (along with other important computer files), rather than my entire 8.5 terabyte raw file collection.

These days, however, most people are using editing/cataloging software such as Adobe Lightroom to manage and process their raw files. All of your finally edited files are stored in your Lightroom catalog along with any unedited files, and there's probably no easy way to segregate only your edited files for cloud backup. If your file catalog gets too large for effective internet backup, you probably need to spend some time deleting unused photos—or, simply resign yourself to a physical backup strategy.

So, the key takeaway here is simple: backup, backup, and backup some more. Having reliable, effective backups will ensure that you never lose a photo file—or worse, your entire photo collection. The last thing you want to have happen is to find out too late that your chosen backup system doesn't work. As I have clearly demonstrated in this article, backing up your backup is the only logical solution!

About the author

Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.

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