How to Properly Store Your Digital Files

photography tips

Moving into the digital age, film isn’t the dominate photography medium anymore. We don’t have physical negatives that can be kept in a filing cabinet for when we need to make copies. Instead, we have thousands of digital files that don’t even exist outside of pixels and file extensions. Just like in life, it’s good to have a back up plan. And with photography, it’s not just a good idea, it’s entirely necessary.

Think of all the money invested in your gear, your time, and your photo shoots. But more than that, think about the images that are simply irreplaceable. The big production beach shoot with six models that cost a fortune. The bride and groom’s first kiss right as the sun was setting. You can never recreate those moments. And you can’t take the risk of losing them, either.

Backing up and storing your digital files is definitely not the fun, flashy part of photography. But it will save you if anything were to happen. You know that horrific moment when you realize that you just formatted your SD card without checking to see if all of those files were backed up? When you are searching for that one edit and you can’t find it anywhere? What do you do when your memory card becomes corrupt, as they occasionally do? Your Mac crashes, your laptop gets stolen? This is to protect you from all of that.

My philosophy is that it’s way better to be safe than sorry. So, here’s my photo file storage workflow. To start, every year, I get two matching 2 Terabyte hard drives and label them with my name and the year. Then I make a folder for every month. Then, after each shoot, I make a folder with the name of the shoot and the date and copy the files over. No matter if they still have a lot of space left or not, come December, a final copy gets made onto a separate (third) drive. Then, one copy stays with me, and the other drives get archived into storage in the safest place in my house: a fire proof room.

So let’s start right after the photoshoot. You have memory cards full of huge files, all waiting to be sorted, processed, and adjusted in post. First, before going through any images, I copy all the raw files onto both of the external drives. They are identical back ups. If I dropped one on accident, the other one would have my back.

Then, I edit. Lightroom, Photoshop, Bridge, whatever your workflow is. After the white balance is correct and the curves layers are adjusted to perfection, it’s time to back up the final shots. I upload those to my website, which functions as an online backup, as well. The client gets the files, too, depending on the contract we have agreed on. And then, the final images are copied within the folder of the raw images on each external drive. That’s a minimum of four places that the files are stored.

I also make sure to do a Time Machine backup of my laptop every week, because I’m constantly keeping my current projects on my desktop. Last year, my Macbook Pro died after living a long(ish) six years of life with me. But when the screen went black for the final time, my contents were backed up and everything was saved once I restored the new computer as a Time Machine back up. This will be a lifesaver one day, I promise.

The external drives work best for me as a backup system because they are small and portable, and don’t need to be plugged in, so I can take them on set or throw them in my backpack when I’m editing. Lots of people do more online backup, or a second computer drive, or flash drives, or CD’s, or memory cards. It doesn’t matter how you back up your files, as long as you aren’t leaving them in just once place (you’re making me nervous). Because technology will inevitably fail, or crash, or die, and along with it will go your files.

Some people keep their images randomly, one on a drive, some on Dropbox, others online, just the final edits here, the raw images there, etc. Don’t do that. It’s crucial to your workflow to be organized and dedicated to backing up files. No matter if it’s a bride you photographed five years ago that’s calling to ask for a canvas print of one of their wedding photos, or a magazine that wants to include one of your old shots in high res for their new issue, you have to have the files stored and you have to know precisely where they are. No exceptions.

In this digital age of photography, having a backup AND a backup of the backup is essential. Technology is amazing, but it can also delete all your years of hard work in a matter of seconds. It might sound like I’m being a bit meticulous with all the backups, but I promise you that you will exhale with relief when just one of these backups saves you just one time. It’s worth it, for the peace of mind when you are formatting your memory cards. For when you power down your laptop at the end of the day and know that the images you care about, that you are working so hard to make, are safe and secure.

PS: It takes time to keep everything organized and backed up, and it’s part of the job. So don’t feel bad about including an archival fee when sending an estimate to your clients.