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I was talking with my buddy Terry White earlier this week about my photo storage problems. It seems that no matter how much extra drive space I add, before long I’m out of space again. He’s got the same problem. Maybe worse.

Part of the problem is our files are just too darn big; now even entry-level DSLRs are 12 megapixels, and a Canon 50D is up to 15 megapixels. If you shoot in raw, after five or six clicks you’ve eaten up nearly 100MB, and if you’re shooting a wedding or event, you can eat up 10 or 12GB fairly easily. If you have a 500GB hard drive for backing up your photos, and you only shoot one wedding a week, it’ll start getting kinda full in around 8 or so months.

What got me to thinkin’
In a moment, I’m going to go over my backup strategy, but before we even get there, I honestly think I might be backing up too much. Here’s what made me start thinking like that. Terry recently did a portrait shoot where he took 710 photos during the shoot. His subject reviewed the images in Lightroom, and choose the shots she liked (around 70 initially, then she narrowed it down to her favorite 5 or 6). Then Terry picked his favorites, and he chose 5 or 6.

So, what do we all do next? That’s right, we back up all 710 photos, even though the subject has already said, “I only like these 70.” She looked at them all, told the photographer straight up, “I don’t want any of the other 640 images” but we back them all up anyway. Now, Terry asked me, “What are the chances that she is going to come back some time in the future and ask for one of the ones she didn’t like? Right. Slim to none. Yet, we still store ‘em, and watch them eat up our drive space, and add more complexity to our file management. Like Terry says, “Those 640 images are never going to see the light of day. I don’t have any use for them. She doesn’t have any use for them, but I’m backing ‘em up anyway. Why?”

Client Work Backups
Now, Terry can make a good case for not backing up all 710 shots, but if you’re doing work for a client, there will be cases where you’ll need to back up every single shot. Same thing with Weddings. You never know when two years later the couple might back to you and ask for another album for a relative, but this time it has to include photos of Uncle Ralph, who wasn’t in their original album.

In cases like these, I would build in the cost of archiving those photos, and pass it on to the client. Just buy a small portable hard drive, put all the files on it, put a label on the drive, wrap it in bubble wrap and put it on the shelf. A 20GB portable LaCie hard drive runs about $49.

But then Terry brought up a good point—how often do you really need 20GB for one client (or for one wedding)? He pointed me to an 8GB USB Flash drive, for only $29. If you only need 4GB of storage, you can get one for just $13.95. Heck, you might as well get two, and have two back-ups that hardly take any space at all. You could put them in a tiny zip-lock bag and staple them to your copy of the contract for the shoot. This changes the whole situation pretty dramatically; now its not eating up your main storage; you’re off-loading the finished job to USB drive (or external hard drive) dedicated to that shoot (and paid for by the client).

Family Photos
This is one area where I always back-up every single photo, because years later the perfect shot won’t matter, because since it’s family, I’ll want to see even the bad ones, but that’s really what this post is all about; choosing what we really need to back up for our type of work, and making smart decisions about managing our storage space and our image library.

My Backup Strategy
This is going to freak some photographers out, especially those who used to shoot film (like me), and who are used to saving every single shot, no matter what. Here’s what I do:

  1. I import one set of photos from my camera’s memory card, onto my computer
  2. I automatically back-up the same set (during import into Lightroom), onto my Drobo backup system
  3. I edit the photos on my computer in Lightroom, deleting all the really bad shots (out of focus, totally unusable, misfires, accidental shots, etc.), and I add keywords, metadata, etc. and then edit and finish the files in Lightroom and Photoshop.
  4. So far, so good, but after I’m done editing, deleting, keywording, etc. I then drag that folder from computer over to the Drobo, and replace the original back-up with this final edited set. (Yikes!).

Now, why that last controversial move? It’s because if I don’t do this, and one day I need to go back and use the backed up images on my Drobo, all the bad shots will still be there; none of the keywords will be there, none of the metadata I added will be in those files, and all my edits and finishing will be gone. All that work is gone forever, so although I have the original files back, I have to start all over from scratch. I know this flies in the face of what we’ve all done since the film days, but like I said; it’s my backup strategy; it doesn’t have to be yours.

The Bottomline
What I hope will come from this post is one thing; that you’ll give some thought to how much we’re all backing up, and ask yourself if you’re backing up too much, or if you’re just backing up too much to your main backup drive. Could you be off-loading some of these shoots to small portable drives, or better (and more stable) yet, to inexpensive USB Flash drives. There will still be plenty of instances where we do need to back up each and every file, but just give some thought to the idea of just keeping “the keepers.”