The Best Photo Backup Strategy for Everyone
Choosing where to backup your photos isn't easy because there are so many options to choose from. I’ll teach you how to select the best workflow for backing up your photos.
Choosing where to back up your photos isn’t easy because there are so many options to choose from. Google Photos and iCloud are the two easiest methods if most of your photos are stored on your phone, but what do you do when you fill those drives up? What if you have photos from your camera? Here, I compare and explain a few photo backup sources and how each strategy can work for you!
Let’s get started.
Why photo backups are a good idea in the first place
Photos are memories. You’ll want to look back on those memories, years from now, to remember all of the good times that you’ve had. Maybe you’ll find a special occasion or an experience that you forgot about. Whichever the case, these photos are a way to look into the past and relive something special. Without those photos, your memories aren’t gone, but instead, they are only memories.
Finding a good photo backup system allows you to focus more on taking photos, and less on determining where to put them.
Photo backup tips for beginners
If you take all your photos on your phone, then you have the easiest backup solution to figure out. Sometimes, I wish that I had fewer photos, because backing up phone photos is much easier than finding a way to store tens of thousands of photos, like the amount that I have (more on this below).
If you are only using an iPhone or an Android phone to take your photos, I recommend Google Photos for an easy backup method. Google Photos will give you an unlimited amount of photo storage. The photos that almost every phone takes will fall under the limit of “unlimited.” The photos from most recent digital cameras will get automatically resized by Google. Whatever the case, all of your photos will still be backed up. It’s that some of the photos might get resized.
How to back up your photos with Google Photos
Settings: Back Up & Sync
Make sure that back up and sync is enabled! This is important. From here, you can choose the Google account to which you’d like to save your photos. You can also choose the photo quality. I recommend keeping the “high quality” upload size selected. If you upload full-resolution photos, you’ll need to upgrade your Google Drive account, which can start to get expensive. More on this below!
You can also choose your preference for whether or not you want to upload your photos via cellular data. I don’t enable this option because data costs can get expensive, especially when uploading large photos!
Settings: Manage device storage
One of my favorite features about Google Photos is that you can offload your photos from your phone, while still being able to access them via Google Photos. If you have a phone that doesn’t have a lot of storage, this is a great way to save space while keeping all of your photos.
If you’re really running low on space, you can clear your photo cache or even limit the cache size. The cache will allow you to access your photos even when you’re not connected to the internet. That’s an important note, actually, because all of your photos will now be on Google Photos. This means that they won’t be on your phone storage. When you want to access them, you’ll be accessing them from Google, not from your phone. With that said, your Photos app won’t always have all of your photos if you’ve chosen to “Free up space.”
Other settings within Google Photos
I won’t go through the rest of the settings in this guide, but please, feel free to explore! You can choose to group similar faces, update Siri shortcuts and customize the Google Photos app to your liking.
What else you can do with Google Photos
Now that your photos are backed up (this may take a while if you’re doing this for the first time), Google will start to recommend you things, like animation, custom memories and enhanced photos. All of these things are customizable, of course.
My favorite feature with Google Photos is that you can search for simple terms, like “Pizza,” “Dog,” “New York City,” and other useful things you may want to look up among all your photos. Google will recognize your photos and will help identify them while you search. The location will be geotagged in most cases, so you can search for locations easily, as well.
By default, Google will identify people from your contacts and will let you search by people, as well. I often use this feature when I need to find photos of myself. Becca and I use this when we need to pull photos of ourselves for this website!
Google will show you events in a “this time 3 years ago” format. So, if you took a lot of photos a few years ago, you’ll be able to relive those memories.
How to backup photos using iCloud
If you use an iPhone, you can use iCloud for all of your photo backups. This comes at a cost, as the storage isn’t free. There isn’t much customization, as this is part of the Apple setup process when you get your iPhone new for the first time.
To adjust those settings, go to Settings > Photos.
First, make sure that iCloud photos are enabled if you want to be backing up your photos to iCloud. You can alternatively choose to back up your photos on your Mac and not send your photos to iCloud in the first place. I see most people doing this if they have a lot of photos and don’t pay for additional iCloud storage. If you choose to do this, make sure that you have an additional backup of your computer in case there are any issues there. You can look into time machine to get that additional backup.
Explore the rest of those settings and customize what works for you.
Extending your iCloud storage
I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you backup everything with Apple and you ran out of storage because of your photo library, you can add storage. You can use this guide from Apple to figure out how to upgrade.
The prices and space may change, but this is what they are, as of May 2020.
The prices are affordable considering the cost and complexity of other storage options.
Photo backup tips for photographers
I wrote an article outlining how to use Backblaze and why you should use Amazon Photos for backing up photos. If you’re interested in learning more about those services, check out those links for sure.
As a photographer, you can use the same techniques above. Instead of interfacing with those apps through your phone, you can also access Google Photos and iCloud photos from a browser. This is a great way to keep all of your photos backed up. I personally don’t use this method because I like to keep my photos organized in a particular way.
I keep everything organized by year. Within each year, I name a folder with the date, and then with a short description of the event.
My workflow has been working for a few years. I’ll create a simplification of it, below. Feel free to pick parts and apply them to your workflow as needed.
- I keep the most recent photos that I take stored locally on my laptop. All of these photos are automatically uploaded to Dropbox Affiliate link.
- When my hard drive fills up, I’ll selectively sync my Dropbox settings to remove a few older albums.
- When I do this, I have to also update Lightroom with the new path to the hard drive.
- All of my photos are stored on a 10TB hard drive Affiliate link.
- I back up the contents of that drive with Backblaze.
- I back up all of the RAW files with Amazon Prime Photos.
Should you keep your RAW files?
If I didn’t keep my RAW files, I probably wouldn’t need such a detailed backup system. I can see how someone could take photos, edit them, export a high quality JPG of the photo and then delete the RAW files. If you compress the JPGs, you can reduce the total file size by ~1/5! What if you want to edit those files again? What if it’s a client shoot and they client requested different edits? What if your JPGs got damaged?
I personally back up all of my RAW files because I like the peace of mind of knowing that I can always re-edit specific photos. In fact, I re-edited a bunch of photos from 2016 recently when I changed my editing style. Also, I used to crop my photos to 16:9. If I didn’t have the RAW files, I wouldn’t be able to re-crop to my new ratio of 3:2.
Still, the overhead of having 4TB of photos probably wasn’t worth that effort. Or was it?
Ultimately, the choice is yours. If you can afford the file storage costs, and you don’t mind the workflow considerations of maintaining all of the RAW files, go for it. If you truly shoot in volume, like weddings, events or timelapses, I’d consider only saving a certain percentage of your RAW files. If you shoot a lot of client work, you can incorporate storage costs and RAW recovery into your contracts.
Lightroom workflow for photographers
I use Lightroom Classic Affiliate link to catalog and edit all of my photos. The classic catalog maintains all of my RAW files. I have one master catalog that has two drives (hard drive and external drive). Usually, the recent year is stored on my internal hard drive and everything else is on my external hard drive. This generally works for me, as when I need to edit an old photo, I’m usually at home, where I have access to my hard drive.
When I have a new photo set to import, I’ll export my photos from my memory card into the folder (where the files are backing up to Dropbox). Then, I import the folder into Lightroom. I make my edits, and then export a set of JPGs that are around 2000px.
I like having exports of all of my photos because I use a lot of them for this website.
If you’re exporting a lot of photos at once and you want to maintain the same directory structure, you can use jF Folder Publisher to help with that. It’s what I use, and it has been very helpful, especially when doing a first import.
I keep the exported JPGs in a folder on Dropbox, called something like Photo Exports. This directory is in parody with my RAW file structure.
Next, I have a Lightroom catalog called ‘Exported Photos,’ where I keep all of these exported photos. I choose to upload these files to Adobe Cloud. I do this because these photos will now be accessible through Lightroom CC.
I use Lightroom CC to be able to search through photos (similar to how I do it with Google Photos) for simple terms, like “car,” “mountain” and “bear.” This is helpful for finding certain photos without digging through a ton of folders. If you want to dig through folders, they are accessible through Lightroom CC.
The only downside to this approach is knowing which Lightroom catalog you’re in. I’ve totally imported RAW files to the ‘Exported Photos’ catalog a few times, by mistake.
Adobe provides 20GB of space for free. This has been more than enough for my JPG exports. To save even more space, I’ll sometimes run my exported JPGs through JPEGmini and ImageOptim. I don’t mind the compression, because I still have my RAW files if I want to do a fresh export.
Additional backup methods
To recap, I’ve mentioned using Google Photos, iCloud photos, Dropbox, Adobe Cloud, Backblaze and Amazon Prime Photos. Most of these services have various levels of upgrades for more space.
I’d like to quickly loop back to upgrading your Google Drive to increase your photo storage. If you use Google Drive for other things, like document storage and emails, upgrading your Google Drive can be a good idea. You can easily store your exported photos on Google Drive instead of Dropbox or Lightroom, depending on the level of searchability and accessibility that you want.
Picking a photo storage option that works for you
I know that this was a lot of information. If you made it down this far into the guide, congrats! You’re on your way to making your photos a bit more secure.
Like I’ve said before, everyone has a different situation and a different amount of photos to back up. At every skill level, it’s important to start thinking about multiple places and storage platforms to keep your photos and memories safe and free of damage.
I think the one takeaway from this guide is to back up your photos, in at least one place. After your photos are backed up, you can explore options for a better system of retrieving those photos. For the advanced user, you can consider more technical backup options, like a RAID array using a NAS drive Affiliate link.
Cost for cloud storage is still relatively expensive for storing a large library. My photography backup system works for me, because it integrates with services that I’m already using:
- Dropbox: Aside from photo storage, I use this for document storage and sharing files with friends and family.
- Adobe Cloud Storage: This comes free with my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription.
- Google Photos: This is free!
- iCloud Storage: I have the upgraded storage option to preserve some of my message history and some important photos.
- Amazon Prime Photos: This is included with your Amazon Prime membership.
- Backblaze: I also use this to back up my computer hard drive, in case that fails.
Once you get into cold storage, you’ll be paying a certain percentage of money per GB. If you have a lot of files to store, this can add up rather quickly. The math I did was that the Amazon Prime Membership, which costs $119, is cheaper than paying for services like Backblaze B2 or Amazon Glacier. With costs at around $0.004/month for those cold storage services, a 4TB library would cost about $192/yr.