The Best Ways to Store Digital Photographs

Keep your digital memories safe

Whether you use a DSLR or point-and-shoot camera, or your smartphone, these devices offer limited storage and are vulnerable to damage, loss, and theft. Here are a few methods to store the files elsewhere to free up space and preserve your photos. These methods fall into five categories: magnetic, solid state, secure digital, optical, and cloud.

No method of storing files is infallible, so redundancy is key to preserving your images. Always store backup copies of digital images on a second device or location, in addition to your primary method.

External Hard Drives

An external hard drive.

adventtr / Getty Images

What We Like
  • Tons of storage capacity.

  • Relatively inexpensive.

  • Mostly stable.

What We Don't Like
  • Can fail.

  • Can be lost in a disaster.

  • Moving physical parts make these more vulnerable than SSDs.

Magnetic storage refers to any storage that involves a hard disk. Although most computer manufacturers are moving toward solid-state drives (SSDs), the conventional hard disk is still in use, both in computers and in external and portable storage units.

Magnetic storage is stable and holds a huge amount of data. Capacities are measured in units as great as terabytes. Among the drawbacks to external hard drives is their vulnerability to physical damage, such as from a fire or some other disaster. Also, magnetic drives rely on physical moving parts, making them more vulnerable to mechanical failure than SSDs. Many photographers who use hard drives store second drives at additional secure locations.

If you're considering an external hard drive, one that comes with a cooling fan is worth the extra cost; the disks are in enclosed spaces that can get hot.

Solid-State Drives (SSDs)

Intel X25-M SATA SSD
CC BY 2.0
What We Like
  • Quiet, fast operation.

  • Lack of moving parts means greater reliability and longer life.

  • Small size makes these very portable.

What We Don't Like
  • Cost more than magnetic hard drives.

  • More physically vulnerable than cloud storage.

SSDs use circuits and, sometimes, flash memory to store data. They lack moving parts and, therefore, are quieter, faster, and more reliable than conventional hard drives. These benefits come at a premium, but you might find them worth the extra cost when you consider longevity, security, and portability.

Secure Digital (SD) Cards

Kingston 2GB MicroSD Card Kit


What We Like
  • Tiny and portable.

  • Hold vast amounts of data in small footprint.

  • Can be swapped among compatible devices, such as cameras and computers.

What We Don't Like
  • Limited lifespans.

  • Easy to misplace.

  • Easily damaged.

SD cards are tiny, rectangular disks that fit inside electronic devices and card readers. Available in various sizes, they can store enormous amounts of data. Their tiny size makes them portable, but this also makes them easy to lose or misplace. They have limited lifespans, specified as power-on/off cycles.

Quality matters: Cheap SD cards are more prone to failure than those from well-known and well-regarded brand names.

Optical Storage: DVDs and CDs

What We Like
  • Easy to make and store.

  • Inexpensive.

  • Shareable.

What We Don't Like
  • Easily lost or damaged.

  • Limited capacity.

  • Number of compatible devices is diminishing.

CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs are optical storage technologies. All are available in various R (read-only) and RW (rewriteable) formats:

  • RW discs are rewritable.
  • R discs can be burned only once, but this also means they can't be accidentally overwritten. On average, R discs are more stable over the long term than RW discs.

Here are a few capacities to keep in mind:

  • Standard CDs hold 700 MB of information, which translates to around 125 12-megapixel JPEG images, or 40 12-megapixel RAW images.
  • Single-layer DVDs hold 4.7 GB of information, which is about six times more than a CD. Double-layer DVDs hold 8.5 GB of data.
  • Blu-ray disks hold 25 GB of data on single-layer disks and around 50 GB on dual-layer disks.

Most disc-burning programs come with a verification option that is essential to follow, although it lengthens the process of burning a disc. During verification, the program checks that the information burned on the CD or DVD is the same as that data found on the computer's hard drive.

Errors are not unheard of when burning CDs or DVDs, especially while using other programs. When burning a CD or DVD, close all other programs, and use verification.

The major drawback here is that many computers (particularly laptops) no longer ship with CD/DVD drives. You might need to buy an external DVD drive to continue using DVDs and CDs after your next computer upgrade.

Cloud Storage

Cloud backup


What We Like
  • Accessible anywhere.

  • Varying size options.

  • Can't be physically lost or destroyed.

What We Don't Like
  • No physical control of files.

  • Requires an internet connection.

Uploading computer files to the cloud is a convenient and increasingly popular way to create backups. You can set these services to upload your photos to the internet automatically.

Popular cloud services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Apple iCloud integrate into almost any device and computer. Many include a certain amount of free storage space, and you can pay for more storage if needed. Amazon Photos offers unlimited free photo storage with a Prime membership.

Google Photos used to allow unlimited free storage of photos, but the service is now limited to 15 GB, shared among Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Photos. You can buy additional storage for a monthly or yearly fee.

Paid online backup services such as Carbonite continually back up your computer files to online storage. These services charge a monthly or annual fee, but they're convenient in the long term. They also update the files that you change, and most store files even after you delete (accidentally or on purpose) them from your computer.

Keep your cloud subscriptions current, and keep track of the company that stores your files. Use a reputable, established company so you don't entrust your valuable photographs to a business that goes under in a year or two.

One factor most people forget to consider regarding cloud storage (and other online accounts) is what happens should you die or become incapacitated. Share the details of all your cloud accounts—URLs, usernames, and passwords—with trusted family members, or record these details in some way that they can access if necessary.

USB Flash Drives

USB drive


What We Like
  • Inexpensive.

  • Easy to share.

  • Portable.

What We Don't Like
  • Easily lost or damaged.

  • Limited capacity.

Flash drives are extremely convenient, and they hold more files than ever before. Their small size makes them attractive for storing and sharing many images at once. As a long-term storage solution, however, they're not the best option because they can be damaged or lost easily, and the information they hold is too easy to erase.

Know How Much Storage Capacity You Need

For the newest devices and services, storage capacities are typically measured in terabytes (TB), surpassing the gigabytes (GB) and megabytes (MB) of older technologies. 1 TB is slightly more than 1000 GB; put another way, a 1 TB storage solution holds 1000 times more data than a 1 GB.

The number of photos you can store depends on their resolution and format. JPGs are compressed and consume less space, whereas photos shot in RAW format are uncompressed and larger. For example, assume you're shooting at a 16-megapixel resolution. One TB of storage space holds about 183,000 JPG photos or about 18,300 RAW photos. If you don't need that much space, consider solutions with capacities in the GB ranges.

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