Photo storage and backup might be one of the scariest and most daunting topics for photographers to tackle. This topic is important to anyone who takes photos: hobbyists, professionals, momtogs, and people who fall somewhere in between.

I’ve written about photo storage and backup several times on this blog. But it’s been a while, my methods have changed, and one of my external hard drive recently died. Seemed like a good time to audit my storage and backup system, and to share it with you guys too.

The Most Important Thing to Know About Photo Storage and Backup

Repeat after me: My photo backup system is important for WHEN my hard drive crashes. Not IF my hard drive crashes.

I’ve had multiple hard drive failures in the past 15-20 years. There is nothing like losing important photos to teach the importance of backup routines. I only lost photos in the first crash, and I’ve been lucky that my backup systems worked for the other crashes.

So, if once wasn’t enough, let’s say it again: your hard drive WILL crash. Are your photos safe?

Ok. I can turn off my stern teacher voice now. 🙂

What Makes a Solid Photo Storage and Backup System?

For me, the most important factor when designing my photo backup and storage routine is ease-of-use. Practicality. It needs to be automatic, not require additional thought or action on my part, and it needs to be dependable.

Photo Storage and Backup - storage set up

If I am responsible for clicking a backup button, that’s an opportunity for me to forget or get lazy and put it off to the next opportunity.

After ease-of-use, the most important factor is capacity. Is your system big enough to hold all your photos? Not just the photos you have today, but those that you are going to take over the next year or two.

Finally, redundancy is important. This means you need backups of your backups. What good is backing up your images to an external hard drive if your house burns down or your computer and its hard drives are stolen?

So, as I tell you about the system I use, keep an eye out for factors that will or won’t work for your workflow and the size of your photo collection.

My Photo Storage and Backup System

My primary computer for photo editing and storage is my iMac. I have three external hard drives attached to it. The links below are affiliate links to the closest recent equivalent of my external hard drives – not the old version that I bought several years ago.

  1. 1 TB La Cie – this is my oldest external hard drive. It holds 42,528 photos and is full. Note that the link is to a 2 TB model.
  2. 6 TB La Cie – this one holds 64,565 photos, plus home videos, movies we’ve ripped to the computer, and our music. I still have 2.7 TB free on this hard drive.
  3. 8 TB Seagate – this is my most recent hard drive purchase. It holds a Time Machine backup of my iMac’s internal hard drive and the two external hard drives. (Time Machine is the built-in Mac utility for backing up files.) This hard drive is nearly full; however, Time Machine deletes old backups to free up space when necessary.

Both my La Cies have Thunderbolt connections to my iMac. This means that they are fast connections that don’t slow down my editing process. The Seagate has a USB 3, which is fast enough for backing up and much more affordable. Honestly, while it’s not as fast as the Thunderbolts, it would work for editing too if I wanted to save money.

My process:

  1. I currently import all new photos to my 6 TB La Cie using Lightroom. I do not use the Lightroom option to “Make a Second Copy.” Why not? This second copy would not be my edited photo. I’ll back up the edited photo in Step 2.
  2. Time Machine backs up everything to the 8 TB Seagate. This backup includes all documents, files, photos, movies – everything. It includes all my Raw edits too.
  3. Finally, I use Amazon Photos for offsite backup. This is my backup to the backup plan and covers me in case of fire, theft, lightening strike, or multiple hard drive failures.

Photo Storage and Backup - external hard drives

Why Amazon Photos

Amazon Photos is included in the cost of Amazon Prime. You can backup full resolution versions of an unlimited amount of photos of all file types, Raw included.


Benefits of Amazon Prime Photos

  • It’s hard to find unlimited online photo backup that includes Raw photos at a manageable price.
  • I subscribe to Amazon Prime anyway, so the photo backup is not an incremental cost.
  • Other “unlimited” online photo storage plans compress or reduce the size of your photos when uploading. This means that your backup copy won’t be as large as your original photo. Amazon prime does not compress images.
  • Other photo storage options are quite affordable up to 500 GB or maybe 1 TB, but they get really expensive after that. Raw shooters, we need way more than 1TB, right?

Drawbacks of Amazon Prime

  • Raw photo edits are not stored on Amazon Photos.
  • PSDs (Photoshop and Photoshop Elements files) are not backed up on Amazon Prime. I save most of my PSDs in Dropbox for this reason.

When I uploaded all my photos to Amazon, the upload process took just under a week. While this might seem like a long time, considering that I uploaded about 3 TB of photos, it really is not bad at all. There are many backup providers that would take weeks or months to upload this amount of images.

(I used to use an online backup solution that provided an external hard drive to copy your photos to. This made the upload process much quicker. Sadly, I know of no companies that offer this option anymore.)

To use Amazon Photos, you’ll download an app onto your computer from Amazon.

Photo Storage and Backup - Amazon Photos

You’ll configure this app to “watch” specific folders. Whenever I add a photo to these watched folders, Amazon uploads the photo and saves it. I told Amazon to watch the Photos folders on my 1 TB and 6 TB external hard drives. When I edit a photo and save it as a JPG, I export it to one of these folders, so that I have a backup of my edits also.

After downloading the app, go to Backup to configure your backups. Click on Add Backup and then Schedule to configure an automatic backup.

To further refine your options, click the 3 horizontal dots next to the folder you scheduled for backup. Select “Edit.” You can choose to back up movies, photos, or both. Note that there is a limit of 5GB for movies, unless you want to pay more. 5GB is nothing when it comes to movies! I also select the Upload Changes Immediately and the Avoid Duplicates options.

Photo Storage and Backup - Amazon Photos Settings

To make your photos upload more quickly, click the Settings gear icon near the top right of the app and go to Bandwidth. When I did this, I turned the speed up as high as possible and avoided using my desktop until the backup finished.

After uploading, you can see your backups through the desktop app and in the mobile Amazon Photos app. I use the mobile app to also upload and back up my phone photos. I like the app because it sends you those “on this day 5 years ago” messages. I LOVE looking at those old photos. 🙂

Now, here’s the deal: I haven’t had to restore images that I’ve backed up to Amazon. (I restored my last hard drive crash from Time Machine.) I don’t know how long it would take – potentially, it might take much longer than a week.

Also, my Raw edits would not be available with my data dump. That’s why you need to know the next tidbit about Lightroom.

A Special Note About Lightroom Backups

Let’s talk about how Lightroom works. Lightroom sees your photos wherever they live on your hard drive. When you edit those photos, Lightroom saves the edits in its catalog. The catalog “sits on top of” your photo to show you the edits. However, the edits do not live in your photo file itself. They live in the catalog. That means that, if you back up your Raw Photos to Amazon photos, your edits will not be backed up. (Nor will any of your keywords, star ratings, or pick flags.)

So, this catalog is a really important file. You need to back it up just like your photos. You also need to make sure your backup is going to a different hard drive than your original lives on. If your catalog lives on your internal hard drive, make sure the backup is on an external hard drive. Read about how to set up that backup here.

My catalog backup lives in Dropbox. (I can’t back it up to Prime Photos because it’s not a photo file.) That way, Time Machine backs it up to my one of my external drives, plus I have an offline copy on Dropbox.

(Want more info about using Lightroom and Dropbox together? Click here.)

Mobile Photos

My mobile photos are synced to my computer automatically using this method. They are stored on my 6 TB La Cie and backed up to Time Machine and Amazon Photos.

In addition, I upload all my mobile photos to Google Photos. The benefit of using Google Photos is that it will “free up space” on your phone. Whenever I start running low on phone memory, I open Google Photos and select “Free up space” to delete the photos on my phone that have already been backed up to Google.

Photo Storage and Backup: Design Your Own Plan

As you design your own photo storage and backup plan, think about:

  • how many gigabytes or terabytes of photos you have
  • how much hard drive space is on your internal hard drive
  • whether you should use one or more external hard drives
  • what type of offsite backup you have access to (Some people have a series of external hard drives that they backup on a monthly basis and then leave at a friend’s house, while backing up on a separate EHD the next month. This could be a workable alternative to using Prime Photos or something similar.)
  • whether you have high speed or low speed internet

If you have a large internal hard drive and not many photos to store, you might not need an external hard drive for photo storage. However, I suggest that you get one for backing up purposes. Keep in mind that you can’t back up to the same hard drive that your data lives on – if your hard drive crashes, you’ll lose your original files and the backup.

Ok. Who has a better system for online storage and backup? I’d love to hear about it! Share it below. Feel free to ask any questions too!

Photo Storage and Backup for Photographers