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The (sometimes very painful) Achille’s heel of digital photo storage is that unlike maintaining files of slides or negatives in archival sleeves, your digital images become an issue of computer file management. Things can go wrong, terribly wrong in fact, if you don’t have a backup strategy and haphazardly copy files to various cloud services. So this blog is about your digital photo storage options, in terms of what considerations need to be pondered to properly conserve all the hard work you have put into your digital portfolio.
Once your images are captured in your camera they are typically stored on a memory card inside the camera. Depending on the model of camera you own you may need to tether the camera (or alternatively remove the memory card) to transfer image files (RAW, jpeg, or tiff) to another device – your laptop or desktop computer.
These days hard drives have a capacity in terabytes (1TB, 2TB, etc.) where 1 terabyte is equal to 1,000 gigabytes, or one million megabytes. So capacity in terms of hard drive space is not necessarily a huge concern, but what do you do if the hard drive fails? Oh yes, they do last a long time but sometimes they fail. It has happened to me – and I did not have my images properly archived. Please don’t let this happen to you. Read on …
Of course it’s fine to catalog your images on your hard drive, but what’s the best way to back them up? Copy them to DVD’s and lock the DVD’s in a safe somewhere? Bad idea. By 2035 or 2040 there may be no compatible devices to read them. Worse, the material that DVD’s are made of may have lost data integrity over the span of 15 or 20 years. Anybody still watch movies on a VCR?
You could invest in a hardware solution of your own – another high-capacity hard drive or even a solid state drive. That may be, depending upon your own needs and circumstances, a good enough solution. You would probably want to automate the backup process in some way to make your file management and backup/archiving process labor free. A long term commitment to this solution would necessarily involve hardware upgrades at various points in time.
The long term commitment I am referring to is measured in decades, not just a few years time. I have slides and negatives from 40 years ago that I can scan and print at will. Unfortunately I cannot say the same thing about hundreds (perhaps a few thousand) digital images I have captured in the past 20 years. They have become scattered across multiple computers, external hard drives, and uploaded to several different cloud storage services – or at least I thought.
The “unlimited” cloud
In the past, and still today to some extent, I have used cloud services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Google Photos, and Apple’s photo cloud service. They all have some pros and cons.
When I first started using Dropbox I thought it was great. But their business model creates a class system that treats users quite differently. Here’s an example, quoting from their website:
Dropbox Basic, Plus, and Family accounts can recover any file edits or deletions made within the last 30 days.
Dropbox Professional and Business accounts can recover any file edits or deletions made within the last 180 days.
With Dropbox if you snooze, you lose!
Google Drive/Google Photos
I also use Google – a lot. Now this service I use(d) sort of in parallel with Dropbox, especially with any photos I capture on my cell phone – family snapshots and such. Once an image is captured it gets uploaded to Google photos automatically. For my DSLR images, not so automatic but I could automate this on upload to my computer from the cameras. However, Google doesn’t necessarily keep your 12, 24, or 36 megapixel images for you. They downsize, or compress them automatically, to minimize space utilization and in return allow you to upload for unlimited files with … “Great visual quality at reduced file size.”
To be fair, both Dropbox and Google give everybody some free storage space. Dropbox gives Basic users 2 GB of space to start out. Google starts you out with 15 GB of storage space with Google Drive. You can upload any of your files there, and if you upload photos to photos.google.com you have the option to upload full-resolution files that will count against your storage quota. So beyond the free 15 GB you have to pay for additional storage of full-resolution files, otherwise they are automatically compressed.
Other digital photo storage options
There are a number of other online or “cloud” storage options you can consider. A Consumer Reports article published in 2018 compares ten cloud services with regard to price, storage needs, and what you want to store. That article is a good starting place to see what value you can get beyond the basic free service that all of them offer to start.
When comparing different services consider what you get:
- do they offer unlimited photo storage?
- are photos stored in high resolution?
- are you charged more depending on how much storage space you require?
- is compression used?
- are RAW file formats supported?
- does the provider offer an app to allow connected devices to directly upload images? (i.e. not necessary to handle memory cards in file transfer)
- is the image retrieval easy, just as you save/retrieve via folders on your computer?
- Is the service secure?
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There’s also another alternative to consider that was not included in the Consumer Reports article I highlighted above. That service is SmugMug. I am a SmugMug affiliate and if you are interested: Save 15% off any new SmugMug account when you click this link.
But before you do, allow me to address the bullet points above with regard to Smugmug. They offer unlimited photo storage with no compression of your image resolution. Unlimited storage is just that – you are not charged more fees as you upload more images like upgrading a storage package.
SmugMug offers apps for Android, iOS, AppleTV, Mac, and Windows to directly upload to folders and galleries you create. There are also third party apps such as Lightroom, Aftershot Pro 3, and Luminar that integrate uploading to Smugmug.
Smugmug allows you to create and organize folders of images just as you do on your computer. The Smugmug website is also secure – AND if you want to sell your photographs you can do that from Smugmug as well.
Another nice feature
One other little feature that I personally discovered just this morning. If you upload (by mistake, as I did) a lower resolution file rather than your highest quality image, you can replace the inferior image with the high quality one without losing any associated data (like a title and description, etc,). I took great joy in finding that option easily when I discovered my own upload error. It saved me from having to retype what I had already entered for that particular image (shown below).
Yes I am biased about Smugmug. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Take advantage of the 14-day trial and see for yourself if it is a good solution to your backup and digital storage needs. Actually Smugmug is becoming my primary work area for my digital images after processing, and the “backup” is my computer hard drive. The display of your images on Smugmug is really stunning.
What’s more, you have a variety of photo site themes to choose from to make the presentation of your photographic work as you want it. You can customize the look and feel of any of the themes to make your site really unique.
No matter what you choose to do for your digital photo storage going forward, do something to replicate whatever you have on your computer. Hardware fails. It happened to me, and it can happen to you too. I sure hope it doesn’t!