Choosing Data Storage Media for Backing up Personal Photo Archives

Fri, Mar 21, 2014   05:26 PM

Any digital-era photographer meet up many times a situation when all the standard media in photographer’s computer units are full and can receive no more precious graphic files. This is awful. And much more awful things emerge when you just spent two or three hours flushing your photos to CDs or DVDs and sometimes later you discover that all the backup session was lost due to technical problems. Into a photographer’s point-of-view (and the art of photography itself) any shoot is unique; when it lost, the moment of life can be lost, too, and for the photographer, these moments can be very long, as any shoot must be firstly taken and then processed… It is not to be mentioned material and financial losses in case of once-in-life travel or, especially, of the commercial photography!

Rational organization of data keeping is a crucial matter for home studio or small photographic enterprise. Archiving and backing up the photo collection are vital parts of overall data security. And to divide archiving from backing up, let me explain: the archive will be kept almost forever, as data from archive can be extracted any time the need emerges. Alternatively, the backup is the keeping of processed or fresh files for a relatively short time, just to restore data in case of some accident with originals.

Any single photographer with home or small business study must be aware of keeping his or her photos accurately. Backing up and cataloguing of all the shots are the two principal elements of organizing your photo collection. The differences between these functions may be explained so:

  • Cataloguing and keeping is a long-time operation which goal is to keep the selected, processed and evaluated photos by as much long time as possible, with options of extracting, re-mastering and showing any piece of collection without an effort.
  • Backing up is the safekeeping of workflow photo data, designed for quick and simple restoration of any photo lost due technical or human errors, as well as by other disaster.

Compared to cataloguing, the backup process do not aimed at long time; instead, it must give an user as low latency (or, just the same thing, as much data availability and speed) as possible.

Taking these criteria in account let we overview technical and operational solution if data storage organizing for the two types of keeping your photo collection.

Cataloguing and keeping the photo collection:

  • Long-time stability (data must be stable and available for as much time as possible).
  • Cataloguing functionality (data must be sorted on media storages by any criteria you find actual).
  • Cheap price tag (placing data for long must not be too costly, so you may almost always be sure that you can afford the keeping of it).


  • Speed of data transfer.
  • Data must be readily available for restoration anytime and, if it is possible, anywhere.
  • Stability for short or middle times of keeping (up to year or so), compared with the long-time stability of photo collection keeping.
  • Reasonable price tag for backup purposes.

As the proud owner of a little photo business, I was take some experience on these matters, and now let me share this experience with you.

Picture 1. The basic principle of backing up the photo collection. Blue arrows mean the normal flow of data (keeping or planned selection). Orange arrows are for emergency situations (restoration after any failure), requiring an extra attention to avoid problems.

Cataloguing and Keeping the Photo Collection

Collecting photos to archives is a part of photographer’s life taking roots long before digital era. I believe any single shot taken must be kept! No technical problem like blur or underexposure discards the fact the shot containing a unique moment. The technically handicapped photo can be a background for collage or simulated multi-exposure in future, for instance. And I repeat my opinion again: these are no photos decided to be flushed away, if you do not remove it from your card instantly!

It is regretful, however, that in our era of 20-40 MPix DSLR sensors the size of photo file grows no proportional to the quality of it. My Nikon D800 takes JPEGs about of 16 Mb each, with a size of single RAW file of tremendous 76 megabyte! The DVD, an earlier standard media for photo cataloguing and keeping, can support now no more than 100-200 RAWs. And, well, a single shooting day may easily bring you a few thousands of files! (I feel it is a shame! As a rule, if you shoot more than 200-300 photos per day, and you are not a wedding photographer or a reporter accredited for some global event, then you are shooting pointlessly, in a vain hope for some statistically interesting shots.)

Taking the file size considerations into account, the catalogue and archive media must have as much data-storage capacity as possible. I use Western Digital MyBook Thunderbolt Edition direct-attached storages  as external drives, with disk units configured as RAID 1. A few years ago, I was writing all my photos on DVDs. Now I believe I’m so lucky that I have lost no more than 4% of my files! Optical disks are almost unreliable, especially because of drives capable to destroy or spoil these disks mechanically.

Solid-state drives (SSD or flash-memory cadrs and sticks) are very good alternatives to hard drives. These devices have more speed than HDDs and much more stable mechanically, due to lack of any mobile parts. However, SSD memory is too expensive for now.

A good but costly method of archiving is a keeping of all the memory cards filled with shots, as these cards were rolls of film. It seems irrational at first glance, but compared with the cost of modern film shooting it is a relatively cheap method, especially for old-school photographer who take any single shot after a serious planning.

Nowadays, photographer do not doomed to keep all the data locally, as some offsite keeping media (cloud services) are available in our times. One of these services, with reasonable keeping price and high latency (low speed of data downloading) is Amazon Glacier. But for individual users the current price tag is too heavy, and it is not much cataloguing software working with these services, but this situation changes gradually. A short time after, cloud services can be a viable alternative or sidekick for keeping the photo collection at home or in the office.

Table 1. Advantages and flaws of different file-storage media.

I feel somewhat skeptical about long-time keeping of photo collection on network media (NAS or FTP). The archive connected to the network 24/7 has constantly exposed for all the network hazards, like viruses, hackers, Trojans, exploits, human errors and hardware mishaps. Any of these perils can destroy many, many years of photographer’s creative working! As a rule, network archive can be a copy of your offline collection, but not a main site where this collection takes place.

As archives can grow quickly, I strictly recommend you to have some dedicated software for cataloguing, organizing and keeping your archive data. It seems reasonable to backup archives before any significant change of the archive parameters (e.g. moving an entire archive to new media). The software may be a simple batch or script, the freeware utility or the commercial package with a lot of features! The total cost of fully-functional utility pack for backup and cataloguing is just a bit of the price tag for this your precious L-series lens or that good old Leica. Do not take an economy on it, or you will regret of it!

It is not a good idea to keep all your works in paper prints. This approach will significantly reduce your possibilities and options for working with photos. If you have your shot in the print only, can’t use it, or re-print it, or take a different processing on it, without a serious effort of reproducing it before (with guaranteed quality degradation).

The last method of keeping your photo collection is to download it on specialized photo sites. The main advantage of this method is the keeping of photos as photos, not as abstract binaries. Many dedicated resources today provide a lot of space for downloading your collections. These are some restrictions, however: for commercial photos uploading, keeping RAWs, automatic updating etc. So for photo amateurs services like Flickr or Picasa can be a helpful addition, and more business-oriented pros must rely for now to more traditional methods of keeping the photos.

Writing a copy of selected photos to an optical disk or on some SSD media to give photos to customer is not a part of organizing your photo collection. None of said before mentions this process!

Backup Photo Workflow (and Archives)

A strong need of backup the digital photos emerge from the moment of shooting and presents up to the time of exposing the final picture on the public show. Digital cameras manufacturers recognize the meaning of backup. Many modern top digital cameras have two memory card slots, which can be configured so one card can back up the contents of another. These are many gadgets for easy backup the memory card just filled with shots, line mini-drives and digital photo albums, readily available on the market.

Safekeeping data is also meaningful at the time of digital processing, especially for JPEGs. As known well, JPEG files have a tendency to degrade with any next saving, and the continuous processing of JPEGs is unlikely. If the JPEG file goes to garbage, it seems you need a fresh copy of original file to try again.

Backing files up is a principal part of photo archive organization! The main consideration is choosing the right media for backup. I use two data storages: direct-attached storage (DAS – a pair of two HDDs) and online storage (NAS or cloud service). The first media has advantages of speed and reliability, as the second provides availability and allows me to keep some data offsite.

I always perform full backup when connect a DAS to my comp. Backup tasks runs manually in this case. And if your local storage media is connected for all time (which is comfortable but not too safe), then you can schedule backup (weekly full backup and daily differential backup, as I think).

Backing up to the network media (FTP, NAS backup or online cloud storage) is scheduled. Once a week, it is the full backup of workflow directory, and daily the software performs the differential backup. I find reasonable to keep no more than 3 weekly backups. It is a very non-standard situation when data does not being processed for more than two or three weeks after uploading.

As the workflow data is often significantly smaller by size than the entire archive, it is possible to backup these data using a commercial cloud service, such as Amazon S3 or Dropbox. It is not so cheap, but you (or any other authorized person) can take these data from any computer and from point on the globe where Internet comes. It seems a viable option for travel photographers, reporters or just for taking a vacation or off-site job.

The contemporary alternative for commercial cloud services is the raising of private clouds on owner’s NASes. Some backup software, as well as a majority of NAS manufacturers, provides this option with corresponding products.

Compared to cataloguing and keeping the photo collection, backing up manually is just a pain in the neck! Chances are high that you does not copy all the data, or forget about some directories, or take another human error in the most unsuitable case. So rely to dedicated backup software, free, built-in or commercial, to organize the safekeeping of your photos (I use the Handy Backup solution).


Keeping the photo collection and backing up the current workflow has slightly different demands in the case of media types. A main common point is a reasonable price tag; all other criteria may change significantly.

Today, the relatively low cost for the space on HDDs converts hard drives to the main type of data storage for both backup and long-time keeping. However, the falling price and the increasing technological capacity of cloud services, both private and commercial, can turn this type of data storage to the most modern and advanced technology of backup photos in the near future.

Let me say again the short list of my main considerations and lemmas when a matter touches backup.

  • Optical disks, both CD and DVD, are obsolete nowadays.
  • Local HDDs are good and cheap, but can be damaged or erased due to circumstances.
  • NASes are good, too, but all the perils of network life haunt these devices.
  • Cloud services are so good, but as twice so expensive.
  • Not mean the thesis before, cloud services are the future of data keeping.
  • At present, it is reasonable to back up and keeping the collection locally on HDDs, when backups must be doubled online, on cloud services or private NASes.
  • Any dedicated backup software capable to work with any storage media mentioned before is worth of its money!
  • You must always back up the content of memory cards you just remove from your camera. No exceptions!

By now, that’s all. I wish you to enter the history of photo art and illustrate your personal history with a lot of excellent and well-preserved photos!

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