Backing Up Your Digital Photos: Is Cloud Storage Right for You?

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In today’s digital era, it’s so simple to copy your photos onto your laptop hard drive and forget about them, thinking they’ll be there whenever you need them. But if your laptop crashes or gets stolen, and you haven’t backed up your photos in another place, then they’re gone forever. Most forms of digital storage are unreliable in the long term. Hard drives crash, computers die, and CDs and DVDs get scratched up and become unusable.

If you want to preserve your digital photographs then it is important to develop a strategy to back them up. Many people have started looking to the cloud as a place to store their photos. Could cloud storage be right for you?

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Here are a few questions you should ask yourself if you’re considering cloud storage:

  • Do you want to use a free storage service, such as Google Photos or Apple Photos? Or are you willing to pay for a service with more features? If so, how much are you willing to pay?
  • Do you want to use cloud storage as a backup solution for all of your photos or just some key ones? How much data do you have? How often will you need to access your photos?
  • What types of files do you have? Camera raw files? Tiff files? JPEGs? All of the above?
  • How fast is your internet connection? Uploading files to the cloud can be very slow.

There are a few free applications, such as Google Photos and Flickr. These services could be a good option to back up your digital photo library if you don’t want to spend any money. The problem with a lot of them is that they either compress your photos, which means a loss in resolution and quality, or dditionally they don’t support RAW or TIFF files. So if you’re a raw shooter then this isn’t a great solution for archiving your photo library.

Luckily there are a number of services which will store your digital photographs for a small fee. There are many different companies that provide cloud storage, so I’ve decided to focus on only a few in the rest of this article. Be sure to do your research and find a service that fits your backup needs.

A Few Options for Cloud Storage

Google Drive

Google Drive is a relatively cheap and reliable cloud storage service. All Google accounts are given 15GB of free storage. From there you can pay as little as $1.99/month for 100GB, $9.99/month for 1TB, and up to $299.99/month for 30TB. Google Drive allows you to organize your own folders and supports all photo file types.

Amazon Cloud Drive

Amazon Cloud Drive touts an impressive unlimited photo storage plus 5GB for video and other file types for only $11.99/year. Additionally, if you have an Amazon Prime account, then this service is already included as part of your subscription. The one catch is that file uploads are limited to 2GB per individual file, so if you have files that are larger than that then you may not be able to upload them.

Microsoft One Drive

Microsoft One Drive has plans that offer 15GB for free, 100GB for $1.99/month, and 200GB for $3.99/month. Additionally, Microsoft is currently running a deal where you can get the Office 365 application package and 1TB of storage for $6.99/month. A big disadvantage to this service is that you cannot store more than 200GB without purchasing additional apps from Microsoft. But if you have less than 200GB, then One Drive is a really cheap option for back up.

Dropbox

The Basic plan gives you 2GB of storage for free. Upgrading to a Pro account will give you 1TB of storage for $9.99/month. The highest level plan is a Business account which will give you unlimited storage for $15/month per user. Dropbox doesn’t offer the most competitive prices among cloud providers but it’s a popular option that you may find reliable. However, if you have more than a terabyte of data, and files that break the size limits of some of the other unlimited providers, then Dropbox may be the best option for you.

Mediafire

Mediafire is one of the cheapest cloud storage options among the major players in the market. They offer 10GB of storage for free and up to a terabyte for only $2.49/month. Most impressively, their Business accounts offer up to 100 terabytes of storage for $24.99/month. If you’re looking to get into cloud storage for relatively cheap, then Mediafire is definitely a good bet.

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Alternatives to Cloud Storage

Cloud services are not the only option you should investigate as a place to store your digital photos. Like any other digital backup, cloud storage isn’t full-proof. A quick internet search will show you numerous horror stories of peoples’ data being lost in cloud storage glitches and failures. This section of the article will explore a few other possibilities for saving your digital photos.

External Hard Drives

External hard drives are a good option if you need a lot of readily accessible storage for an affordable price. I use one terabyte Toshiba drives that only cost about $60. There are many other brands that offer similarly priced drives. One advantage external hard drives have over cloud storage is speed of access. You can store these files and keep them in your home or office, meaning they are readily accessible. Trying to download files you have stored on the cloud can be extremely time consuming.

Another advantage is cost; hard drives are relatively cheap when compared to continuously paying for monthly fees for cloud storage over the longterm. The drawback of hard drives is that they will eventually fail. Many are only reliable for 2-5 years, so it is important to back up your files to multiple places. But if you can’t afford a RAID hard drive system and you have a lot of data to backup, external hard drives are a good place to start.

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Flash Drives

USB flash drives are another option for backing up data in your home or office. Prices are continually dropping on flash drive storage. Flash drives don’t have a lot of storage capacity, but 16GB flash drives are as cheap as $6. This makes them one of the most inexpensive options to back up your most prized images. I use them to back up my portfolio and store the memory sticks at a relative’s house. It’s not a solution for all of my data, but it gives me an added layer of backup that could save some of my best photos in the event of a disaster.

CDs/DVDs

You can also back up your data on CDs or DVDs, but at this point I wouldn’t recommend it. This kind of media is quickly becoming obsolete, and while it’s cheap, CDs and DVDs are easily damaged or corrupted. Additionally, you can’t store that much data on discs. Most CDs have a capacity of 700MB and DVDs cap out at less than 5GB. On top of this, many computer manufacturers, such as Apple, aren’t including disc drives in a number of their products. This means you’ll have to purchase an external drive just to read your discs in the future. You’re better off storing files on a hard drive or flash drive with a USB connection.

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Conclusion

Ultimately, there is no holy grail, one-size-fits-all solution for backing up your digital photos. The main theme is that you should not rely on a single source of backup because it can easily become a point of failure. If you haven’t stored your photos in more than one place and that one backup fails, you’re likely going to be out of luck.

Backing up your photos doesn’t need to be expensive; it just requires that you be strategic. I believe that cloud storage is best utilized as part of an overall storage strategy for your digital photographs, rather than the only point of backup.

Is cloud storage right for your backup needs? That is for you to decide. I hope this article gives you a starting point to get you on the path to reliably backing up your digital photos.

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Dan Bullman

is a photographer and Youtuber based in Boston. Photographing people is his passion: Portraits Over Everything. He helps photographers take their portrait game to the next level with educational Youtube videos. Interested in taking your portrait photography to the next level? Get the FREE Portrait Photographer’s Ultimate Resource Guide when you join Dan’s email list.

  • Sébastien VASSEUR

    the cheapest for me is Hubic.com 30go free, 100Go 1€/month and 10To for 5€/month
    a french solution !!
    https://hubic.com/home/new/?referral=QHAOIN

  • Dan Bullman

    Thanks for the suggestion! Yeah, there are A LOT of different cloud storage options out there. It’s important to do your research to find out which solution is best for you.

  • joetinervia

    Another option is creating your own cloud storage with a NAS drive. The return on investment takes a year or two versus paying for cloud storage.

  • Carlus

    Good post! and Yes! I alsi use a NAS solution based on Synology with two 4TB disks configured in RAID. I can easily share material with agencies, friends and family. A great solution that, combined with external disks for addicional backUp, I think is enought and cheaper in medium term. http://about.me/carlesramos

  • One thing that would have been useful to include in this article is HOW to achieve a structured approach to cloud backups (or indeed any backup medium). For example, a useful backup strategy may include automating the backups meaning you don’t need to remember to do it.
    Along these lines, I use CloudBerry Backup to automatically backup all my raw images to BOTH an external HDD and to Amazon’s Glacier cloud service, but it could easily be used to backup to any of the cloud services you reference in your article.
    [I have no affiliation with CloudBerry other than as a satisfied customer]

  • Dan Bullman

    Thanks! A RAID system is definitely a good option, especially if you have a lot of data you want to back up on-site. I think this warrants a post in itself, so perhaps I will write one on RAID backups in the future!

  • Dan Bullman

    Yes indeed! This is definitely a great option as well and warrants an entire post in itself.

  • Dan Bullman

    Thanks for the comment! I definitely think it is important to consider workflow as well, but I didn’t want to tackle everything in one post – just give an overview about options for selecting cloud storage (or considering if it is even worth it). I like your suggestion for finding an automatic backup solution for your RAW files.

    I personally only use cloud services to backup my best work in case my in-home systems fail or are subject to theft, fire, etc. My ISP is simply too slow to upload all my data to the cloud and I don’t think I want to put all my data there in any case. I think the main thing to take away is that it is important not to put all your eggs in one basket when you are backing up your photos. Thanks for reading and commenting! I appreciate the feedback.

  • Rafiqua

    mediafire is 4.99 $ a month

  • Thanks for the article! I have around 100gb of photos and really need to get round to backing them up to the cloud! They are already backed up to 2 hard-drives but I am ever worried that they will fail/be stolen!!

    NVeal
    http://www.solihullphotography.com

  • Owen milks

    I have used a service called Backblaze with great sucess. For $50.00 a year you have unlimited photo cloud storage. The support all formats including raw. And also alow video however i am not sure on the limit for video. Great service. Unlimited external drives can also be connected to the computer and they can be backed up as well. An easy app interface as well as web access to your data. Highly recommended!!

  • Paddy

    I use Crash Plan by Code 42, it’s reasonably priced and I just had a crash and had to download all of my pics. It takes a lot of time but they return intact. I use only jpeg though. the backups occur when the user is using the computer not during shut downs or sleep mode.

  • Paul Lehman

    Backblaze is hands down winning option for me.

  • Richard Passavant

    None of the options you list are /really/ backup – they are all storage solutions and come with the caveat that a catastrophic or accidental deletion will propagate to the cloud too. Yes, Dropbox is a little better since they added versioning, but solutions like CrashPlan, BackBlaze, Mozy, etc… are really backup and allow you to restore and recover from accidental local deletions.

    You mention that your ISP is expensive so doing a full backup is too costly, but most backup services have the option of sending in a “seed” drive to get the backup populated with your current data almost instantly. Then only the incremental changes will be uploaded and that’s probably even going to be less data than your sync to Dropbox, etc… since it removes duplicates and most only copy changed bits and not the whole file.

    And ask yourself – what is the cost of replacing lost work? Probably more expensive than your ISP costs…

  • Backblaze and CrashPlan are two great solutions. I personally use CrashPlan and backup all of my photos and other misc. data. I use the software to create a local backup as well as a cloud backup. This way, a hard drive failure doesn’t cost me significant time to get my files back (I just use my local backup). Also, a catastrophic loss (fire/theft) of my home doesn’t cost me my RAW files either. I simply download my files once I’m up and running again, or I can contact CrashPlan and have them send me a hard drive with all of my files already loaded (nominal fee for the drive).

    I have ~600GB of data backed up through CrashPlan. While the initial upload took nearly 2 weeks to complete (during idle time on my computer), subsequent backups happen automatically in the background and only last a few hours at most (large dump of new files). CrashPlan also keeps a historical log of my data. I can backup to a particular point in time if I would like.

    It is probably worth noting that my only affiliation with CrashPlan is as a paying customer. While I’ve yet to have a loss requiring any of these things, I have the peace of mind to know that if I do, I’ll be able to recover years of memories. The $115 cost for a two year unlimited data plan is certainly worth the investment.

  • Dan Bullman

    Thanks for pointing this out. Mediafire raised their prices very recently

  • Dan Bullman

    Yes, I hear a lot of great things about Backblaze! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Agreed on the eggs in one basket comment.
    My approach has my main backup remaining locally on the external HDDs with Glacier being the Cloud backup option (and very cheap too at around 1c/GB/mo); the expectation being that it’s only in the event of a catastrophic external HDD failure that I would actually ever have to retrieve from the Cloud.
    The important thing for me is that both HDD and Cloud backups are completely automated.

  • Wanderson Rosa

    I’ve been using Backblaze around 2 years and it met my needs perfectly. I work primary on Macbook Pro over a network accessing files on a PC server.

    I also have on this server an external usb drive 1TB, so when I need to meet a client, an urgent trip or need to work out of my studio I have all my files with me.

    My local local backups runs incremental each 1 hour and for this task I use the free and amazing Cobian Backup.

    The Backblaze is instaled on the PC server too, so each time I save a file, the Backblaze automaticaly saves the file on the cloud.

    So this is my backup system. Simple, cheap, fast and flexible.

  • Pavol Sojak

    I can suggest you to modify the beginning of this article with following considerations:
    (1) look at your business needs. For non-pro try to replace word ‘business’ with word ‘life’.
    Ask yourself: how is my business/life impacted in case I will loose my photo archive? Account for monetary values (possible loss of future/whole business, cost of rebuilding you archive, legal issues with current clients, etc..) and emotional ones (client trust, personal or family pain over lost pictures. And wrote those down line by line.

    (2) review the list created previously and try to monetary evaluate how much are you willing to invest(spend) to be protected against individual ‘impacts’.
    Be realistic on how much money per month/year you can spend to protect your monthly/yearly income. Use “insurance analogy”, you will pay on regular bases and most probably never be in situations where you will need to recover from cloud backup, so the amount must make business sense for you. Its ok to put ‘0’ for some impacts if that’s how you see it.

    For non-pros where your photos does generate very small, random, or no income at all use your cost of living (rents, regular payments, food, etc…).

    (3) now take the total number and this is how much your ‘recovery budget’ is.
    Your total (for non-pro) should be bellow 0.5-1% of your total cost of living, otherwise various life situations could push you to challenge these numbers in future.

    (4) don’t bet on one horse. Your data recovery strategy should be always build on ‘multiple copies at multiple separated places’.
    Degree of separation must be both geographical and legal.

    Most common strategy is to have 1 production/life data + 2 copies (where at least one copy is stored at different location than where your production data is).

    Consider setup and maintenance costs.
    – Setup is the initial HW/SW purchase and labour to configure everything.
    – Maintenance is the cost of keeping the copies up to date.

    Sometimes it could be very simple such us having notebook with life/production data + 2 external USB drives: 1st at your home; 2nd at your parents house (or office).
    And on regular bases refresh those copies (drive to parents/office, connect external drive to your notebook make new copy).

    Based on your total budget, you can choose for various ‘upgrades’:
    (a) replace USB with NAS
    (b) upgrade from parents houses (office) to cloud solution
    (c) automating the ‘refresh if copies’ on regular bases. (or NAS connected to internet aka your own cloud). In this case dont forget to consider bandwidth limitations)

    Note: considering yours and the parents house (office) are at least xx miles/km appart. So in case of natural disaster or plane/tornado hitting your house or war started in region (especially if you’re close to Middle East) not both locations are destroyed/impacted.

  • other than the obvious problems like sheer amt of data to backup to the cloud and the potential cost, the biggest problem I had when researching cloud solutions is the way they format and store the data.

    Almost all of them required you to use some interface that only worked in a specific way, and was reasonably limited ie the no or type of of folders you could access.

    I do not want my files to be formatted to suit the cloud storage solution, I just want it essentially to be a JBOD and just upload my RAW files, and store copies of my presets and catalogs and stuff and retrieve them ad hoc should I need to.

    Its been 2-3 years since I had a good look at it, and there are really limited options in NZ if you need to seed it like I do – Crashplan has a datacentre in Sydney and thats the nearest point and they wanted to charge around $200 for the seeding service too.

    In the mean time I have 2 x RAID 1 arrays in my PC and a NAS setup the same and an option for secure offsite external hard drives as well.. Over the years I have had 3 individual HD die on me and never lost a file.

  • Blake Lewis

    You haven’t even mentioned a basic NAS or RAID setup.

  • Dan Bullman

    Thanks to everyone who read and commented on the article! This has been a great discussion so far. I hope this has got you thinking about your own workflow and needs for preserving your digital photographs. Cloud storage is not a solution that will work for everyone and isn’t one I necessarily advocate. I think the main thing to consider is that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Ideally, you should have your digital photos backed up in 3 places, in at least 2 geographically dispersed locations. For example, you can have one copy on your hard drive (granted you have enough space to store all your files there), one copy on an additional system like a NAS or RAID, and an additional copy stored off-site either in the cloud or another storage system. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as I and many of you have pointed out. But it’s important to do some research and come up with a strategy that does work for you, if you want to preserve your digital photographs in the long term.

  • Lori Haynes

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  • lbrilliant

    Perhaps you could comment on ownership and security of photos on various cloud sites. I’ve heard stories about loss of photo ownership.

  • lbrilliant

    Personally, I have a NAS server which is RAID 0 with two mirrored drives so if one goes bad, the other is still OK. I use it to back up all our home PCs as well. I also bought a bunch of USB drives and copied my whole photo/video collection (over 300gb) on each one then gave them to my kids. 7 copies throughout the world is probably enough. I just update them periodically via Dropbox.

  • Dan Bullman

    Seems like you have quite a thorough backup! That’s really the most important piece, regardless of the specific type or format of your backup. Having your data in as many places as you can helps give you some piece of mind.

  • Dan Bullman

    Yeah, this is certainly an important thing to consider. From what I understand, the terms of service for most cloud agreements DO NOT grant them ownership or copyright over your photos or data. There is a good article that was published on Petapixel that breaks down the terms of service for many of the major cloud storage providers:
    http://petapixel.com/2015/05/22/a-look-at-what-top-cloud-storage-services-say-about-your-photo-rights/

    But still, if you’re putting your data in the cloud you can’t really know what they’re going to do with it. I think it’s unlikely that Amazon, Google, etc would steal your photos and try to claim ownership over them. But if you’re uncomfortable with that possibility then maybe it’s best to avoid these services. (My bigger concern would be one of these services doing something like turning over a mass of data to the NSA, upon request. I’m not doing anything nefarious but I still wouldn’t feel comfortable having all my data turned over without my consent or knowledge.)

    At this point, I’ve only really dipped my feet in the water, so to speak. I haven’t committed to storing all my data with a particular cloud service. I have a pretty good system of redundant backup in my home, but I’m still looking into the best option for me when it comes to off-site storage (which is part of the reason I researched and wrote this article).

  • Dude II

    RAID 0 is concatenation which means that all of your data will be corrupted if one of your two drives fails. RAID 1 is mirroring which means that the data are identical copies, if one drive fails the data are still there.
    Note RAID is NOT BACKUP. It is fault tolerance and performance. If you delete information off of a RAID system it is just as gone as if you delete it off of your local drive, Remember, there is no “trash” folder on NAS devices. You delete it – it is GONE.
    My experience – 20 years in System Administration (data center servers) with storage arrays up to 5 PentaBytes.

  • Dude II

    RAID is not backup. RAID is a technology to provide for hardware failure/fault tolerance. There are two types of Backup.

    Disaster Recovery – meaning you get back to a known previous state when your system dies.

    Archive – Long term data storage without immediate recovery.

    Most cloud based systems are Disaster Recovery. Archive backup systems are long term contracts with those associated costs.

    Throwing a RAIDed storage solution on your local device is not a “backup” it is a method of protecting your data against hardware failure. Backups are not stored on your local device, they are stored independently from your target device. What you are proposing is copying the data to a cloud service. While this is a good idea, you must take into account the clock time it will take to accomplish. On my system when I copy my folder structure from my primary device (running RAID1 5.5TB volume) it takes about 10 minutes to copy 23.8GB of data (2100 RAW and JPEG) over a 1Gbs pipe running at 50% network utilization (This is 500 Mbps) . This is just one folder of a month long vacation. So, you have to calculate how much time/money (on metered connections) it would take to transfer 285GB (my current RAW data tree) to “the cloud”. Also, how much would it cost to store 285GB in any “cloud”?
    Real backups are not cheap.

    My experience – 20 years in System Administration (data center servers) with storage arrays up to 5 PentaBytes. This included planning for both Disaster Recover and Archive backups for two Fortune 50 global corporations.

  • lbrilliant

    Yes, you are right about the RAID levels. But mirror backup ensures that one drive will still contain all the data if the other fails so I will always have a working backup. When used in conjunction with a storage server It is very useful for storing as well as backup. I use it in the backup sense so files are on both my desktop and the storage server. I have it set so that even if I remove the file from my desktop, it is not removed from the NAS. Yes there is duplication so periodically I erase the backup and create a new one. Or not. Since both hard drives are in the same house, the real safe backup is in the multiple copies sent around the world with children.

  • Dude II

    You don’t get it. RAID is not backup. What you are doing is copying from device A to device B. RAID is a technology that allows for creating large data volumes and fault tolerance (hardware failure). Having copies of data is technically not backup either. Professional Enterprise backup solutions encrypt and manage data sets for reliable recovery. Backup is more than duplication across devices.
    In reading your response it appears that your NAS is running RAID 01. Four drives. Two sets concatenated drives using RAID 0 that are mirrored using RAID 1. That is a good solution for a four drive however, if you have more than four drives a RAID 10 would provide a better solution in terms of hardware failure. So what will you do if your RAID enclosure fails or its disk controller fails, does your NAS have dual power supplies plugged into separate backed up power sources? Sorry to go off on a tangent but RAID is simply not backup, it is a component of a backup system.

  • lbrilliant

    Of course RAID is not a backup. It is merely the structure of the drive arrays and there are many modes of RAID. But put any drive in a NAS or server box and it becomes a backup. Since hard drives are so cheap these days, a simple PC or NAS box with two drives in RAID 1 is adequate for most folks and two 4GB drives are $300. To go to the expense of a massive RAID 5 array in a dual power supply server box that costs $5-10K should be left only to the very few true professionals that need that kind of redundancy and is beyond the scope of most readers. And yet even these servers can throw a controller or motherboard and die. Nothing is truly permanent. Therefore the more backups you have, not the kind, the safer your files. A simple NAS is great for any small pro or amateur and is better than nothing. Raid 1 with 2 drives can give you up to 4 TB of storage for under $500. Each of the mirrored drives is a stand-alone storage and is readily readable by any computer you put it in. In major RAID5 servers, each drive only contains a portion of the data so all drives must be read at once and can only be read by the server device. So RAID 1 recovery is simple even if the host computer dies or the controller fails. I stand by what I have said before.

  • Please be cautious using Backblaze! I use it too and it’s great for recovery of ACTIVE files. But once you archive a drive and it is not connected to Backblaze for over 30 days – they delete it! It is a backup system NOT archiving – be careful not to mix the two up.

  • See my comment above on it. It is not a long term archiving solution.

  • See my comment above about this. I use it and had an issue with a drive I archived. It died and I went to recover from BB only to discover they deleted it because it wasn’t active for over 30 days.

  • Paul Lehman

    Interesting to hear about the 30 day archive cutoff on Backblaze service. Thanks for the info!

  • Dan Bullman

    Great point Darlene!

  • Yeah I found out the hard way

  • Mark

    Crashplan allow you to send in a seed device to initiate the big data upload so you only need worry about the size of the change sets. With regards RAID, the author does state using it as an additional copy in which case it is most definitely a backup.

  • KC

    Google, Microsoft and Dropbox are designed for sharing, not necessarily long term storage. They’re “live” all the time. Delete an image on a desktop and the image is deleted everywhere. Yes, there’s ways around that, but that’s not “backup” unless you implement that work flow.

    Online backup is something like Backblaze. It runs constantly and transparently, and archives. Delete on the desktop and the file is still archived on Backblaze.

    RAID is a complex topic. Yes, RAID setup are excellent. The redundancy can be very good depending on the RAID level – but drives can fail in a RAID. How well you can rebuild/recover a RAID is a guess until it happens. (It does happen.) The problem with a RAID is once it gets full – then you need to have a Plan B. Add one more RAID?

    I’m going to drift a little here: An old, slow, tower PC with a lot of bays, can make for a great Server/RAID, and you have the benefits of it having Ethernet and USB ports, as well as full OS.

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