Ah, file storage. The perennial problem of having to organize digital photos and making sure that they’re easily located for future reference is a dilemma that a lot of us face – and most especially by those among us who are trigger happy or just plain sentimental (and who isn’t). Then there’s the additional challenge of making sure that your files will retain their integrity well into the future. Here are a few tips for ensuring that your photos get properly archived and your priceless memories protected:

  • Not every photo needs to be saved for posterity, so don’t be afraid to prune. This way your collection will be more manageable. Also, make sure that the photos you’re saving are the ones that have the best image quality.

  • Get into the habit of regularly transferring photos from all your mobile devices into one place on your computer. This will make it easier for you to create backups and to eventually archive them.
  • Pay attention to file formats. Since you’ll want your files to be readable in the future, make sure you’re saving them in the most widely used and accepted formats. The U.S.’ National Archives and Records Administration and other similar organizations use JPG/JFIF and TIFF as do many pro photographers. (I do acknowledge that RAW files are the best to preserve what was original captured however nearly every camera has a slightly different RAW file. It would be my concern that in the future general photo software will not be able to open all of the RAW files correctly. I agree that retaining RAW files is very important and how pro photographers operate, however I would argue that it is critical to also save your photos in one of the above file formats for archival purposes.)
  • It pays to be paranoid. One of the secrets to making sure that your digital files survive the test of time is by making duplicate copies and storing them in different hard drives that should be placed in safe locations. DVDs will degrade, so use external hard drives instead. With digital files being so fragile, backups are your best bet in case your system gets corrupted. Don’t store your files in a single location or on a single medium! Do not leave your photos on your SD memory cards for long term storage.
  • When editing, always keep the original file intact. Edit a copy instead, this way you always have something to go back to in case irreparable mistakes are made. (This is where RAW files come in handy.)
  • Use the cloud. Storage solutions that use cloud technology is also convenient as you can be rest assured that even if your computer crashes, your files are safe and sound. It also gives you easy access to your files across multiple computers and devices. But make sure the cloud isn’t your only copy.
44 Comments
  1. “Not every photo needs to be saved for posterity[…]”

    True. Yet with the low price per gigabyte we are enjoying these days, it might be advisable to have an extra (cheap) hard drive just for the purpose of serving as a buffer of sorts before finally shredding those photos.

    You might find out at a later time some of the very photos in the discarded group might bear some value; this setup allows you to ponder and rectify before it’s too late. It is great to have a “second chance” drive when you need it.

    “It pays to be paranoid”

    It also pays to automate backup tasks!

    We are humans, we forget things. Having automated backup scripts “remembering” to backup our files to the cloud or to an external drive can work as an important part in your best data protection policies.

    Data-related disasters strike when you least expect them; if you automate backup tasks you are better prepared for that inevitable time.

    If you can afford it, use a RAID ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID ). Even with only two drives in RAID-0 you have increased chances of avoiding true fatal disasters. The cloud is your friend when talking about data protection, but a RAID can prove an efficient first line of defense.

  2. Great tips. I have a lot of photos in sitting in my hard drive back when I was still in photography school and I have to say they take a lot of space. I agree with the file formats, some formats are larger than others and needs to be compressed, although you have to be careful with compression specially when you’re planning on editing or enhancing the photos in the future.

  3. I’ve had a few hard drive failures over the years, thankfully they never contained anything important. I try to keep my important data in the cloud, where RAID and backups keep my data safe. I have a lot of traveling and holiday snaps on Picasa, which I recommend for a place to store your photos.

  4. This is some great information to know. I have thousands of pictures of my kiddos. And, I do get paranoid about them and making sure that they are preserved. I will be taking action with these tips.

    • Another good way to do it is also by packing up on certain hardware pieces, like an extra computer and external harddrives and memory sticks. So many ways to lessen the chance of it ever disappearing.

  5. Completely agree with this. And if you have a lot of nonsense photos, like those ones that have very blurry images then just delete them, it just a waste of space.

  6. You’re definitely right about storing on the cloud! I used to use Webshots to store all my photos, then I lost them all when the community albums were taken down! That was devastating! Now with Google Drive, it’s a lot easier.

    • That’s a good point you have there. “Cloud” should refer to actual services devoted to data backup, not picture hosting sites or similar services, some of which may come and go at random.

      Better yet, people should understand “cloud” as an actual paid service where you are in control of how much it costs per month and you know your exact quotas at all times.

      I’m wary of freebie offerings which depend on advertising or other “shaky” models. I always prefer to consider paid cloud backup services from industry old-timers who have proven to have solid models and have a low risk of disappearing overnight.

  7. Well, every picture I have of my daughter needs to be saved. She might not agree but she will be glad when she’s older that I saved them. What looks terrible now will be good for a laugh later on.

  8. “.. Pay attention to file formats ..”
    I use the same formats saved by my digital camera. If they are for records, it is always PNG. JPGs are good for acceptable quality images, but with the space availability in today’s world that has seized to matter.

    “.. backups are your best bet in case your system gets corrupted..”
    Amen to that. After learning the lesson the hard way, now I do 2 primary backups – to my NAS, and to the cloud (paid backup). I hope this protects me during normalcy, but I have recently thought about burying some important documents deep underground, or send it on the next mission to moon 🙂

  9. You reminded me of a huge mistake I make after editing photos — I don’t keep the original. At first, you think that your edited photo is much better than the original therefore there’s no harm done. However, in my particular case I edited some wedding photos and unfortunately they didn’t turn out quite as well as I had hoped when they were actually printed out. Since I didn’t have the original, I was basically out of luck.

    Good food for thought and a friendly warning as well.

  10. Many years ago all of us used to make real photo albums, and if they are well preserved they can last an eternity. I have always wondered what is going to happen to pictures taken now at this time, eventually all information in almost every storage device can get corrupted as time passes, loosing every information that it had. That may be the only advantage of having a physical album, but as technology advances maybe in the near future all of us will have devices that are not prone to corruption. 😛

  11. I’ve been looking for constructive ways to save my photos in bulk for a while now and using the cloud technology that’s available seems like a great idea moving forward. I take photos everyday, I have literally tens of thousands of photos stored around the house on external hard drives and I don’t know what I’d do if one of them failed and I lost some of my photos. Storing online does seem to be an effective and relatively cost-efficient way of managing things, that’s for sure!

  12. I found this out the hard way. I had a few years worth of photos on a harddrive that crashed, and I wasn’t able to recover them. I spent so much time making those photos that the sentimental value is unmeasurable, I’d rather have lost a large sum of money than those photos. I still keep the harddrive around in the hope that one day I’ll be able to recover them.

    Now I sync all my photos and other important files to a Drobox account, which costs a bit each month but it’s worth it knowing that I can recover if something happens to my computer.

  13. Brilliant tips! The problem with me is that when I’m on a quest to cleanse my folders of photos that I think I don’t want, the number of photos drops dramatically. So I guess being a bit too paranoid isn’t good for saving memories. The silly photos that you think you look ’embarrassing’ in are usually the ones that end up making people laugh & happy years later!

    Though organizing photos into a separate folder category can be a pain, it’s well worth it in the long run! You can show your friends & family members years later your photos whenever you want with ease and accessibly.

  14. I really have lots of photos scattered all around my partitions. Really helpful topic in managing all of the mess. I totally agree with saving the images in a widely acceptable format rather than RAW. RAW format also takes up more space on hard disk. And the most useful one is the cloud. I’m using this one since the May and had wonderful experience with it. I have access to all my photos from anywhere. That’s really a great feature.

  15. You can not go wrong with cloud storage. I have a wimpy 12gb iphone that certainly has it’s limits, but with the extra and free storage for my photos I worry less about the video and pictures I take. I use google, microsoft and dropbox services for my needs. My computer also has enough storage to fit all the memories that I would like to preserve.

    • I meant 16 gb, haha.

    • You’re absolutely right. I think you have to choose it carefully and only what you actually need. You probably heard of hoarding, how about technology and photos hoarding, that sounds awful haha. Anyway, I agree with a lot of the points you make. I also think to a certain extent, we need to be careful what we store, and make it most important, not have it wastefully sitting there.

  16. Backing up your photos is definitely very important! I follow most of your tips already so I’m not too worried right now. Having a copy locally on many drives and having a copy on the cloud feels very assuring.

  17. You wrote, “Get into the habit of regularly transferring photos from all your mobile devices into one place on your computer. This will make it easier for you to create backups and to eventually archive them.” That has been part of the problem. My pictures are every where. There are photos from years ago that I still have not scanned.
    Thank you for warning to pay attention to jpg file type vs. fif file type.

  18. These tips are very useful. I don’t usually upload files to the cloud, but it does seem safer than some hardware. I also love the tip about pruning your photos. This is always the hardest thing to do for me because I can never tell which of two images is the better.

  19. I agree with all of these tips. I started archiving all my photos when my kids came along. The thing that worked best for me was to save them based on the month and year I took them. That way it was fairly easy to then go back and find a certain picture when I wanted it. When it comes to pictures I have scanned in, they are all just in the “Archive” folder. I’m sure I’ll have to figure out a better way in the future.

  20. This article gave me an idea to do something over my vacation this week! Organize all holiday and outing photos in some kind of virtual albums. Probably should print some of them to display around the living room too.

  21. Nice tips! I always have a lot to think about whenever I think about photos. Whenever that happens, I need to find a way to effectively merge my iPhone and camera photos together, which is not always easy. These tips will help though!

  22. At one point I had around 50,000 songs on my laptop. It was a collection several years in the making and one that I couldn’t live without. However, because I failed to back up my music on another device or using the Cloud, I lost everything when my laptop crashed. It was a sad day indeed and could have been easily avoided using the storage methods you listed.

  23. Even if you only digitize and back up your photographs for ten minutes a day, the result is totally worth it! It doesn’t seem like that long, but you can actually sort, label and upload many images in that time. This advice comes from personal experience, as I have lost many photos due to various life-type occurrences, when I could have just taken the time to preserve my memories. You can rest assured that I have every single photograph I own scanned and backed up now! Ugh, the follies of youth…

  24. These are good ideas. I have a very bad experience when it comes to storing my photos. I’ve got lots of them saved in my desktop’s hard drive but unfortunately my hard drive crashed and I couldn’t recover all my photos from it. It was such a devastating experience for me as most of the photos are family photos and I didn’t create a backup for those! Anyway, now what I do is I transfer all my files into Dropbox so that I can make sure that I can access it anytime I want without worrying of losing them again.

  25. Oye, I wish I had the mind to do this a few years ago.

    When my son was a newborn, we used my cellphone for photos. Back then, we didn’t have easy cloud backup, and I ended up losing my phone along with all of my photos. Money, cars, houses, all can be bought again, but photos cannot be retaken…

  26. I love doing a purge on my phone every so often. My rule is: if I haven’t used it in a month, it’s gone! Unfortunately, though, it always seems that I end up needing that one app all of a sudden, or have a situation to show a deleted photo. But hey – life usually goes on without it, so it’s not a big deal!

  27. I actually find my photos backing up way to many times. I have accounts with different cloud storage devices and some are set to auto upload my photos. I need to have a bit of a purge to be honest, everytime I get low on storage I tend to do it.

  28. Another tip is make sure you use a good compression algorithm. Find the one that works best for you. Some are better for quality while others are good for saving the most space possible. For photos I recommend the quality-aware ones obviously. This article has some good tips though!

  29. I have just recently started using the cloud for photo storage. I desperately need to collect all my external hard drives and upload the photo files off of them to cloud storage. I typically follow a lot of your suggestions, anyway. However, since having children I often forget to take the time to back up the images, even though pictures of my kids are what I want to have in the future. I would love tips on making backing up images faster and more efficient.

  30. Cool tips thanks. I tend to save a lot of photos on my drive just for archiving purposes which usually leads me to having 5GB’s left on my 500GB hard drive. Most of them are in RAW format for editing that’s why they’re pretty large files.

  31. I save every photo that I take because each one represents some type of memory. I just cant find myself deleting any pictures. I cam a camera freak so I love pictures. All pictures are memories to me.

  32. Thank you for the tips. I take a lot of photos between my dslr and iphone and they all seem to go to different directories. Keeping them in order will help me organize them and print them in the future. I should keep better tabs on all of my files, come to think of it.

  33. With the high resolution pics that you can take nowadays with your Canon or Nikon, image files can be very large in size. And sometimes we do take a lot of imperfect pics that we forget about. If it were film, it is usually discarded. But with digital images we just store them away, without deleting them. Even though there is plenty of storage, it is best to sort them and delete them, you waste time searching through a lot of unnecessary pics. I have already transferred my old collection from DVD’s to an external hard drive. The one thing I have to try is the Cloud. You could essentially have your photo album with you anywhere you go, without actually carrying it with you digitally.

  34. I cannot agree with this article more. If you care about your photos, it is imperative that you back them up as you transfer more to your computer. Hard drives are not really that expensive per gigabyte, but they will save you a lot of trouble. I had a computer hard drive that failed on me, and I lost all of pictures that I did not bother to back up. Storage HDDs are less prone to fail over time because they are not constantly in use; your computer on the other had is.

  35. Top tips! I’ve been trying to get used to using the cloud storage solutions to save my files, but I didn’t make it a priority in my work. Sometimes I forget to backup my files and store them on the cloud. Good thing now we have the option to automatically save our files on a cloud storage. It just takes some getting used to at first.

  36. This is one topic that can save much time and many moments of desperation in the future.
    I have seen many people including myself archiving files from a digital camera in a rush on a device that was close to hand. And that is when you just drag and drop that DCIM folder (in my case because I use a Canon camera) into your storage device and all of a sudden it becomes anonymous. In 1 week, month or year from then, you won’t recall what is hiding in there. Therefore a crucial help is to NAME YOUR FOLDERS with event name date and time.
    Once you have done that and repeated the process for all necessary subfolders, you can think about editing- if you have time that is.

    And, YES to “backing-up your files” by duplicating the copies in multiple devices. I have just lost use of one of my newest hard-drives recently on which I had stored 2 years worth of photography and hundreds of hours worth of scanning and editing thousands of photographs; if it wasn’t for a back up, I would have lost all that irreversibly. As a rule if it is not stored in 3 different places, it’s not backed up digitally.

    Happy shooting and storing to all of you!

  37. This is SO incredibly helpful! This is by far my biggest problem when it comes to photos. I have soo many and never know what to do with them or how to sort them. It is just such a daunting task, even if done right after uploading, that I never even know where to start! I think one of the most important things to take from this article though is that not every photo needs to be kept!

  38. Nice tips. I use RAW files myself and I’m not a photographer, but I do know where you’re coming from when it comes to file compatibilities. I use the cloud a lot myself to store most of my photos but I always keep hard copies just in case.

  39. These are all good ideas. Pictures easily get deleted or lost. I made it a habit to email every picture I take that I know I am going to want in the future. That way if my computer or hard drive gets destroyed or lost it will still be somewhere. I know there is the cloud but I do not trust the cloud. I prefer my email which only I have access to. This has worked well for me because so many people use my computer , including kids, and they can easily delete the pics.

  40. Really good tips 🙂 I always try to keep the original version of my photos, before editing them, because I know I might end up not liking the final result of my edit. I know that from experience, because in the past I didn’t keep the original file… I later regretted it. There are so many originals I wish I had kept 🙁 Specially from that time when I used to edit my pictures a lot.

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