Digital Photo Storage Strategy

A while back something happened to my primary hard drive that nearly gave me a heart attack.  Suddenly, with no explanation I could find, my drive was no longer seen by the operating system.  OMFG!  Years worth of raw files, gone.  Panic-stricken I researched data recovery services and found prices ranging from $800 to $1800.  What’s a starving artist to do?

After a bunch of flailing and asking the right questions to the right people, my husband discovered that our old Windows XP machine could still see the drive.  We were able to then transfer the data to another external HDD and I exchanged my primary HDD under warranty.  What caused the problem is still unknown and I can only sacrifice the occasional goat to the Gods of Technology so my new drive doesn’t suffer the same fate.

So what’s the upshot here?  It forced me to rethink my archival and backup strategy.  Coming from the IT consulting world, I know the value of back up and keeping data in physically different locations.   Here’s my current strategy –

1st tier = Primary storage = 2TB external HDD

This is my working drive.  I transfer all raw files from the memory card to this drive and import them directly into my Lightroom catalog.  Occasionally I delete a really bad photo from a batch, but for the most part everything I shoot stays here.  With two terabytes, who needs to delete en mass?  Folder structure is Year > Month > Subject, with the months numbered so they’re in calendar order.

2nd tier = Backup storage = 500GB external HDD

This is the backup or archive drive.  Using flags or picks in Lightroom I determine which are the overall best shots of the session.  Those are renamed at the file name level and the raw files are transferred to the 500GB drive.  Folder structure remains the same.  I’ve permanently changed the drive path letter for this drive so that it won’t randomly assign one every time I connect.  My primary external HDD also has an assigned drive path letter.  I’m in the process of writing a preset in the publishing section of Lightroom to automatically format photos and corral them for publishing to the back up drive.  I plan to archive once a week when Lightroom prompts me to back up the catalog information.  Between back ups I’ll keep the drive in the fireproof safe where we keep other valuables.

3rd tier = Backup storage = flash drive

I’ve been using these drives to store large jpeg files of my very best images.  Usually the ones that get published to my online hosting accounts.  Basically one year of jpegs fits on an 8GB drive, but I’m using a 16GB for 2011.  These little drives are so inexpensive that I can pretty much have one per year and toss them into the fireproof safe when I move onto the next year.

At this point I’m not making use of online storage, but will in the future.  Hard drive life expectancy varies, but generally 5 years is what you should get out of one.  If you use a hard drive often (the kind with platters) it should be ok.  If you don’t the tiny gap between the read/write head and the platter may fuse, rip off and gouge the platter when powered up after a long time; losing your data and destroying your drive.  Over the years I’ve had a few catastrophic drive failures and so I can’t stress the need for back up and data duplication.  Online storage should definitely be a part of any back up strategy.  Due-diligence is key to choosing a provider with the proper safeguards and reputation for reliability.

You may notice I’m not using DVD or CD storage.  I have a burner in my laptop, but in my experience burning DVDs and CDs is a giant PITA.  I’ve never been good at it and end up making a lot of ‘coasters’ out of discs gone bad.  The quality from manufacturer to manufacturer varies and so it can be risky.

In researching this article I looked at a number of sources that talk about the longevity of optical media.  There are specific storage guidelines for DVDs and CDs that you need to pay attention to or else when you load one up in a few years, it might not play.  Dust and dirt are obvious – keep your discs protected and clean. Excessive heat and humidity are also bad and conclusions vary, but it’s safe to say that storing CDs and DVDs above 70 dF and over 50% relative humidity will wreck them.  As will keeping them in the light.  So do what The Traveling Wilburys advise and keep it in a cool, dry place.

I also learned that the automatic error correction coding built into reader software will often mask errors to the point of catastrophic failure; that is you won’t know the disc is corrupted until it’s too late.  That can’t be good for anyone.  Another thing I learned is that disc degeneration depends on the format – DVD/CD ROM v. DVD/CD-R v. DVD/CD-RW.  Basically it comes down to the base layer that holds the 1s and 0s.  To make a disc writable and especially re-writable, the medium must be more malleable and thus more fragile and disposed to degradation.  Here’s the low-down –

  • Recorded CD-R: 50-200 years
  • Recorded CD-RW: 20-100 years
  • Recorded DVD-R: 30-100 years
  • Recorded DVD-RW: up to 30 years

I didn’t include Blu-ray discs because they’re so new there isn’t much reliable data about them yet.  Still, check it out…20 to 200 years depending.  Depending on what??  Ugh.  That’s a huge gap and to me, speaks to the unreliability of CDs and DVDs.  So I’m not using them for the moment.

I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg here.  Data storage is a HUGE component of digital photography and this is just one more article about it.   There’s plenty more info to be found, but I think a concise, non-techy article would be helpful for photographers who might need a leg up.  This is not necessarily an ad for the brand names shown here, they’re just what I use.  At this point pretty much all name-brand hardware performs equally, just find something you can afford and go with it.  Avoid my near-coronary!

Optical Storage Technology Association –
The CD Information Center –
Council on Library and Information Rescources – (section 4 contains the core info)

7 thoughts on “Digital Photo Storage Strategy

Add yours

  1. Excellent post! One thing I’m sorely lacking is a back up strategy. I keep meaning to get an external drive, but the money always finds a way to be spent on other necessities. I’m sure the fact that I have never had a hard drive failure is one of the reasons I’ve been dragging my feet.

  2. Wow…you’ve done the research! Hadn’t realised there was so much to consider! Have bookmarked this post and will come back to it and read at a more leisurely and concentrated pace. Thanks for doing the hard work for us, much appreciated. :< )

  3. Great article.

    I have a remarkably similar strategy — including the year > month > subject folders. One difference is I use an external box with two mirrored 500 Gb drives (aka RAID drives). Everything gets written to both drives simultaneously.

    The theory is when one drive fails, the other drive will still have all the data. I hope I never have to test the theory.

  4. Well written. I DL to HD then sort, then burn to CD, then send to external HD. I will eventually upgrade my external to a Lacie brand one. I was told by a virus protecting/ now microsoft guy that Lacie was the brand to go to. I had a Maxtor before that crapped out on me electronically after a couple years, and now they were bought by Seagate, and WD from what I’ve heard is not a whole lot better..

    Just my thoughts, always lots to think about in relation to all things digital.

    Good Luck

  5. Nicely written. Two quick comments; look up nas with raid storage and redundancy. Also check that the fireproof safe is graded for protecting a HD.

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