If you’re like many of us, you have images and videos saved on multiple devices. Some are in our phones, while others were dutifully stored in computers. Then we bought a new computer. But did we copy all those image files to it?
No, and therein begins our storage and backup problems. When we want to find photos from that special vacation or the funny doggie videos we’re telling a friend about, we spend a lot of time searching, sometimes unsuccessfully. Where are those files?
We’re busy people. We need storage solutions that don’t require extra effort to use on our part. How do we find the best online and offline storage solutions for our image and video digital files?
Top 8 Online and Offline Image Storage Solutions
|Ranking||Storage Solution||Online or offline||Technology||Automatic or on demand||Best for||Review||Price|
|#1||Carbonite||Online||Cloud storage service provider||Automatic, real time||90 days of new or changed files||Read Review|
|#2||Backblaze||Online||Cloud storage service provider||Automatic, real time||30 days of new or changed file backup||Read Review|
|#3||IDrive||Online||Cloud storage service provider||Automatic, real time||Unlimited storage of new or changed files, price tiers||Read Review|
|#4||Seagate Backup Plus Slim 2TB||Offline||Solid-state external drive||Real time or on demand backup - any file||Highly portable||Read Review|
|#5||Western Digital My Passport SSD||Offline||Solid-state external drive||Real time or on demand backup - any file||Highly portable||Read Review|
|#6||Samsung T5 Portable SSD||Offline||Solid-state external drive||Real time or on demand backup - any file||Highly portable||Read Review|
|#7||CalDigit Tuff SSD||Offline||Solid-state external drive||Real time or on demand backup - any file||Rugged field work - water/dustproof||Read Review|
|#8||Western Digital My Book||Offline||Desktop hard drive||Automatic, real time or on demand backup - any file||Desktop, requires external power||Read Review|
Why Finding a Storage Solution is Important
Redundancy is what you want to achieve. I’ll harp on this a lot in this article.
Here’s a modern horror story. It is one I’m sure you won’t want to experience. Imagine losing hundreds of irreplaceable photo files, permanently.
My family was camera crazy. My dad probably shot tens of thousands of photos. He also took hundreds of reels of movies. Back in the 1950’s through 1980, the stills ended up as slides. We had boxes of slide carousels.
By boxes, I mean a hundred of them. These were the keepers. They were recordings of our family from my parents’ first dates to our major life events and family vacations. The reject pile, thankfully, was tossed long before this storage project landed on my desk.
How can you save non-digital images?
In today’s digital age, we have the ability to scan and save slides and 8mm movies as digital files. The slides can be a fun home project. You can scan them on your 4-in-1 printer with the use of a special slide holder and a simple program that converts it into a JPG file in the same format that today’s digital cameras use.
That was the easy part. I knew I had precious cargo here, so as I scanned the most important slides, I also saved them to an external hard drive. Two copies, so I should be covered, right?
Unfortunately, no. We had one external hard drive and my husband needed to move it to his computer. Normally nimble fingers slipped, and the hard drive crashed to the floor.
How many storage copies do you need?
You need to keep as many copies as you have the time, budget and patience to maintain. Even with redundancy, systems fail, and when they do, the results can be catastrophic.
The hard drive skipped, scratching the internal platter disk. The files were damaged and inaccessible.
Coupled with this, my computer suffered a virus attack (despite having virus-fighting software installed). It had to be rebuilt from a wiped disk.
Decades of family photos were gone. The slides had long since been tossed in the trash. No originals, no primary digital copies and no backup – all destroyed.
Don’t suffer my fate, emphasize redundancy, and keep as many backups as you can maintain. I now have four different locations for backups, each saved in a different method and on a rotating schedule. It brings me peace of mind to know my files will live on somewhere, no matter what happens in my house, my office, or my virtual life.
How do electronic backups work?
Let’s cover the basics. We will begin with the format most of us think of as the simplest. That is the traditional hard drive.
We use these external, portable devices to move files between home and office. We carry them to share with friends, and back up files from our computers. They contain platter disks and the electronic version of a needle inside. That is much like the vinyl records most of us are familiar with.
However, rather than having a full file in one place, contiguously, the bits and bytes of electronic memory are scattered all over the disk. An indexing file maintains the location of each byte.
When you call up that file, the magic of technology stitches them all together. It brings up your file as a photo image or video file.
Why Backup Redundancy Should Be Your Goal
Backup redundancy equals data redundancy. Your images and videos represent moments in time. You’ll never ever be able to capture them in exactly the same way again. Your one shot gets one shot, and you never want to lose it.
In my case, a forensic computer specialist might be able to recreate my photo files. They could do this by painstakingly locating each undamaged byte of the image file.
Then, they would need to put them together much like a 5,000 piece puzzle. The cost would be around $20,000. I don’t know about your bank account, but mine doesn’t have an extra $20K sitting in it. Frankly, I’d rather buy more cameras and Nikon lenses first.
How many backup copies are enough redundancy?
You want backup to come in a variety of methods and versions to maximize redundancy. The quickest way is anything automatic, something you can set for your computer or other image storage device to do without your command. After that, you want to cycle backups, so you can always access an older version if not the most recent.
Let’s play another scenario. In the case of a flood, tornado, earthquake, hurricane or fire, you might not be around to grab the computer and backups and carry them to safety. If all of your backups live in the same place as your primary image storage device, you’ve lost it all.
Is using a file sharing system enough backup protection?
While they are not backup systems per se, cloud based file sharing services providers like OneNote and DropBox can function as backup systems in a pinch. You copy (or save) your image files to these services just as you would to any computer or external drive. An example of when this offers good protection is when you’re in the field and have access to no other backup systems.
The reason these are not ideal regular backup solutions is because they require you to do something, namely, save the file to their location. They are not automatic, unless your software settings tell the computer to save to their location first. You don’t also have a copy on your computer – unless you save again to your computer.
What are cloud storage systems?
Cloud-based storage systems reside in huge data farms across the world. Most reputable providers save your information not only in one farm, but as multiple copies at more than one farm. You might have driven by one and never even known it, because the companies providing this service understandably don’t advertise where these data farms are located.
People transfer the files to the cloud storage via the internet. You want this data transfer to go across secure links, which rules out coffee shops and public networks.
Security experts will tell you to turn off automatic backups when you’re traveling with a laptop, because unless you provide the human intervention, you could be unwittingly opening your computer to external hackers by hanging it on a public, unsecure network.
Are cloud storage systems safe?
No system is completely cyber-terror proof. Cloud based systems can be hacked, but then, your computer can suffer from malware or a virus and be attacked too. Frankly, I’d bet on the cloud systems and their redundant systems and security before I’d trust anything I can buy for my computers in home and office.
Cloud systems will only work as well as your practices, though. We can inadvertently turn them off or defeat their effectiveness by putting our systems to sleep at night. Just as our external hard drives need to be cycled, our cloud systems do too.
Does backing up images cost money?
Yes, all methods cost something. The external drive you tuck in a drawer or elsewhere costs something to buy.
Cloud storage systems base their costs on either total size of your files or a base rate for a period of time. This is why you want to make sure you only save what you really want and delete what you will never ever care about again.
How do you save images in the field?
If you are invested in the images you’ve shot and can afford to carry a laptop or other device with a connection to your camera in the field, back up your images and videos at the end of each day at a minimum. This can occur via a cable, Bluetooth (if your camera is capable) or internet (if capable). You want a secure network if you’re using the internet, since you probably have other kinds of files on your computer too.
I carry a cable at all times because I’m never sure what conditions I’ll find for other connections. Then, I know my connection is secure and my images are transferred.
I do not delete the images from my camera when I do this, so I know I have two copies, in my camera and in my computer. Redundancy.
It’s also a good idea to carry an extra storage card or two for your camera. If you shoot with the RAW setting turned on in your camera or with the highest quality pixels, your files are larger. You might run out of camera file space before you run out of shooting options.
What happens when I don’t want to use a certain cloud provide anymore?
Just like an old computer, you need to transfer files. Download your files to another location before you discontinue your service, or make sure you have all files you want to keep on your computer. Then execute backups to other locations to create your file redundancy.
Can you store your images on thumb drives?
I do not recommend using thumb drives for offline storage. They are notorious for wearing out quickly and failing, even when relatively new. (What do you expect from something that costs less than a latte?)
How To Implement a Good Backup Plan
You’ll find plenty of advice out there about how to save your digital files, and this will be one more process. The point is that you need to do SOMETHING. Doing nothing is a guarantee that someday, you’ll lose something that will cause you pain.
Here’s a simple process:
- Real time – images reside on your computer
- Daily or real time – automatic backup to the cloud
- Weekly – automatic or manual to an external drive
- Monthly – automatic or manual to a second external drive
- On demand – to all three backup locations when you upload a lot of new shots or videos, or invest a lot of time in your creative post-production work
- Keep the monthly external drive offsite, in a secure location like a bank safe deposit box, or in a fireproof, waterproof safe
Want even better protection when you’re doing lots of photo editing on an important project? Cycle those external drives on a daily basis to avoid losing time invested in your post-production work.
Don’t know where to begin? Consider the following process something you can use for any file you’ve created, including images, videos, documents, and databases. I don’t include programs in this list because you own the software, and their manufacturers will usually replace them as long as you own a license.
Step 1 – Decide on a file naming system
There is no one best way to file your photos and videos, other than a way that makes sense in the way your brain works. I recommend using the folders capability in the file management area of your computer, either under Photos or in a blended area of documents and all other files.
Vacations can be easy, since you use a simple label like “YEAR Place”. For example, you could label the folder “2016 Disney World” and download all images and videos from that trip into that folder. Events are similarly easy, such as “Tim HS Graduation 2018”.
For the daily images of life, I use a folder with the name and year of my home city. My camera keeps the date of the images, and they automatically download in a subfolder labeled with that date.
Step 2 – Put your image and video files in one place
This is perhaps the most painful part of the process in the beginning. If you have photos on your smartphone, more on an old computer, and still more on your current one, you need to get them together in one place. Bite the bullet and do it once, and if you keep your system maintained, you’ll never have to do it again.
BEFORE you pull old files or phone files into your main system, do a little clean-up. Delete multiple copies if you can clearly tell some are out of focus. Delete the ones that don’t matter, too, because storage comes with a cost.
Most phone system providers offer automatic cloud backup. What can be uploaded can also be downloaded, often via a web application. You can download any photos and videos you’ve saved to your phone into your current computer.
It’s important to note that you’ll have all images there, even after you’ve deleted them from your smartphone. Your cloud storage doesn’t recognize that they aren’t on your phone any longer, so you’ll want to be selective about what you download. You can also delete what’s in the cloud if you, like me, take multiple shots of the same thing to make sure one of them turns out.
You can transfer images and videos from your old computer to your new one via a cloud system, an external hard drive, or a cable. After you’ve reviewed the old files and deleted what you don’t need to save, make sure you’ve named the folders according to the method you’ve selected.
Dumping disorganized files into your main computer is like dumping unsorted paper files into a cabinet without putting them in some kind of order.
For cloud systems, download the cleaned folders into your current computer. (Only do this if you’re not over-writing the same files that are already there, but which you might have changed.) For external drives, the same applies.
Cable transfers are computer system dependent and involve functions of software within both systems. Refer to your computer operating system software manufacturer’s instructions on how to transfer via cable. But clean up those old files first.
Old Storage Mechanisms
We’ve saved images across any number of means over the years, including floppy disks (remember those?) and thumb drives. Before you upload any of these files, check the source (disk or drive) for viruses. Technology has advanced over the past years and what might not have been identified as a problem before could infect your current system if you don’t check it first.
Recognize as well that older storage mechanisms are not as reliable as our current methods. Magnetic sectors fail, and the way we’ve handled the disk or drive over time also can cause problems. I advise people to scan the files one by one before uploading them, to make sure they are still viable, usable files (plus, don’t move something you don’t care about).
Step 3 – Write a backup plan
Your backup plan has three components – the files you’re backing up, the method you’re backing up to, and the frequency of those backups. Any new or changed file needs to be backed up, which means if you edit a file, you should give it a new name. (Most of us do this in image post-production, labeling the changes to the file and the new date in a new file name.)
As to method, use at least two, but the more, the better. Cycle them, so you’re not backing up to the same drive again and again. An external drive wears out a re-used byte like the spot on your sock that rubs your shoe all the time and turns into a hole.
As for frequency, think about how much time it would take to re-do any work you’ve done on the file. If you’re editing images in post-production, it would be wise to back up those files as soon as you finish with them for the day. If you’re religious about renaming them, you can identify them as new files with ease.
Step 4 – Develop tactics for field storage
Include in your backup strategy what you do with image files when you’re in the field, and as soon as you return to your office or home. The plan at a minimum is to find a way to keep a second copy someplace, not long after you take the shot. Consider emailing them to yourself or sharing them privately to yourself on social media if you can’t come up with a better choice.
Carrying an external drive, whether a hard drive or a solid state, is not always possible or practical. If your volume of work requires that you do so, plan to have a drive rated highly for its ruggedness and durability. In a pinch, you can use a thumb drive, as long as you understand they could fail.
Whenever you back up the photos and videos in your digital camera or device, do not erase them from their original storage. If something fails in that back up, you’ve lost your work. That’s why carrying additional storage cards makes sense, giving you something closer to infinite capacity.
Step 5 – Implement your backup plan
Honestly, this is where most of us get off track. We create a great plan, and we might stick with it for a while, but then we get busy and set it as a lower priority. Remember my horror story – be religious about backups.
Your Options for Online & Offline Image Storage
The best backup systems are the ones YOU WILL USE. This is a case where brand matters less than features, and it’s sometimes hard to differentiate the best of the best, because they’re all good. I’m listing options in each category, along with what you should ask yourself before you buy.
ONLINE CLOUD-BASED STORAGE
Online (through the internet or web) cloud-based storage system can be programmed to run at a set time, so your internet bandwidth isn’t busy when you need it for other things. If you set that time for overnight, make sure you keep your computer turned on and not asleep, because a sleeping computer does not back up. Don’t let your account payment lapse, because your files will disappear with no way to get them back.
The following online cloud based backup services are designed for home based or small businesses, those with a small number of computers without file servers. They work equally well for the photo enthusiast and prosumer; larger companies should consult their computing services expert.
Here are some of the best online cloud based storage options available, along with the reasons why reviewers like them.
Carbonite could be considered the granddaddy of cloud based backup services, having been around for over a dozen years and in use by businesses and individuals. Reviewers like the unlimited size of your total use, the ability to select what types of files you back up, and the flexibility to add more computers, external drives and features to your coverage.
If you save your older images that you probably aren’t accessing often to external drives but don’t have them on your computers, this company allows you to back up those older remote files too.
Other features users favor include a courier recovery service if you suffer a major loss (like a flood or earthquake wiping out your systems altogether). Your files are cycled every 90 days, so anything older than 90 days will be deleted. Most of us either touch a file that frequently or archive it elsewhere.
The downsides relate to the same flexibility that makes this a good choice for many. You have 15 days to use the service for free and decide which of its many features make sense for your needs. You will need an upgrade from the basic plan if you want to automatically transfer files larger than 4 MG, which includes most photo and video files.
Since backup happens over the internet, your connection speed determines how long things will take. The first time you back up, be prepared to tie up your bandwidth. Once you have your first backup completed, only new or changed files are automatically sent across, limiting your disturbance.
Backblaze offers a simple, single plan – back up one computer with unlimited storage available. You play month to month (underscoring that importance to never let your account payment method lapse) or buy a longer commitment plan. There are no limits on file sizes or types, meaning your byte-loaded video files won’t need a special command or upgraded plan to be saved.
The system is simple to use, too, with files backing up automatically on the schedule you set. In the case of catastrophic loss, you can pay a refundable fee and have a hard drive sent to you with your replacement files from the last 30 days. In case you forget to pay, files from inactive accounts are kept for six months, though you will need to pay for recovery.
File versions are limited to those that were new or changed within the last 30 days, so you’ll need to archive files older than this to another backup method more frequently. It mirrors your hard drive and does not keep versions of the same file, so if you accidentally delete an image from your computer, it will be deleted from your Backblaze account too. To some reviewers, this defeats the purpose of having a backup service in the first place.
This service does not allow you to organize your saved files into folders or retrieve based on specific files. It’s an all or nothing system. If you have multiple computers, you’ll need a subscription for each one, but its greatest advantage is that it is simple to use for the techno-phobe photogs among us.
The first feature reviewers mention loving is that you can back up an unlimited number of devices with IDrive. Another unique element is the ability to back up files from OneDrive through your Office 365 account. If you purchase a business account, you can also create subaccounts which are useful is you have multiple users/computers on the service.
You can set up a private encryption key to protect your files from random hacking. Files can be mirrored, or they can be stored using a folder organization system, making retrieval of older versions easier to achieve. IDrive offers a free 5GB test account for you to try; use that time to explore its many features to see if it is more complicated than what you want.
The biggest drawback users find is the lack of unlimited storage space, which can defeat its availability to unlimited computers on one account. Burning through 1TB can happen quickly if you don’t practice good file version deletion and management practices. There is then a jump in price up to 10TB.
This service only maintains the previous 10 versions of any file. This makes changing the name with each post-production editing session that much more important, since you may get to a point where the original of your image or video is no longer available via backup. Some users have also noted backup and recovery are slow processes and not as automatic as information might lead you to believe.
Like cloud systems, external or offline storage can often be programmed to save your files on a particular schedule. And likewise, you have to make sure your computer is not asleep, plus you must have the drive plugged in. External offline storage comes in two formats – solid-state, and the kind of record or platter styled hard drive on which I lost my photos.
Solid-state technology maintains your image file in a series of bursts of memory and has fewer moving parts. Because of this, it can record or retrieve your file faster, often twice as fast as the older technology of platter hard drives. Some people who have been around storage technology for a long time will tell you solid-state is not as reliable as hard drives, but time has not borne out that assumption.
If you move your drive around a lot, such as taking it with you to transfer image files between offices, there have been reports that they fail as a result of abrupt or frequent agitated movements. But as we’ve seen, the same could be said for hard drives.
If you want to maximize redundancy and minimize potentials for failures, when you buy your multiple external storage for cycling your backups (you were planning to do that, right?) mix up the brands and the types.
Best For Highly Portable External Storage
At 2TB of memory, this external drive is known to be as reliable as it is portable. It’s great for transferring photo and video files between systems as well as serving your regular backup needs. It even comes with software to help you schedule those backups.
While not the fastest in speed, this drive has proven to be faster than others with the same speed rate (5400 rpm) for photo files. It is very easy to carry, making it a good candidate for your offsite version use, tucked into a briefcase or backpack. The latest models are solid-state, giving it a slight advantage as a to-go drive.
A few users report that the port where the USB cable connects to the drive can break off, requiring a new casing for the drive. Customer service seems to have been an issue in some cases. Other than this, however, the drive seems to be generally bullet-proof.
The Seagate is formatted for use with Windows and Mac machines out of the box. It also offers a 4TB version, but it is not as slim or easy to tote. If you are looking for a drive that is purely transportable, stick to the 2TB version.
This solid-state drive external storage device comes in 1TB and 4TB capacities. The lower capacity drive is significantly smaller in size. Unless you’re saving many high-volume photo shoots and longer videos plus post-production of both, is probably adequate for most photography enthusiasts to save the results of their habits.
Reviewers have tested this WD against its fault and harm claims for common users. In particular, they tested the claim that you can drop it from six feet without damage. It can withstand significant jolts and bangs.
It comes with the highest security encryption available. All you have to do is turn it on and a password protects your contents. It works on both Windows and Mac systems right out of the box.
The smaller capacity drive is so compact in size, it might be too easy for some of us to lose. Cabling comes with the drive to hook up to almost any generation of USB port, along with Thunderbolt interface ports. There is also a wireless version available if you’re willing to spring for the much higher price.
Do you rely on your smartphone alone for photos and videos? This system may be your best bet for backing up other than to your phone provider’s cloud because of that Thunderbolt capability.
If you want something stylish, this won’t be the choice for you. However, if you demand rugged and durable external storage, the My Passport offers you the chance to save those vital files without a lot of cost or effort.
This drive is a favorite of reviewers because it is solid-state in a very compact package. Offered in capacities of 250GB to 2TB, it can hold tens of thousands of photos and videos with ease. It is compatible with Windows, Mac and Android devices.
Reviewers note the drop distance on this drive is over six feet. Its cabling allows it to connect to almost all laptops and computers that are still functioning today. Its transfer speeds are lightning-fast, faster than other tested drives according to multiple users.
The upfront cost of this solid-state drive is perhaps the biggest investment of any on our list. Its software is spare, coming with only encryption capability but nothing else. If you like doing it yourself when it comes to backups, this might be fine, but if you want something automatic, it will disappoint you.
If the T5’s price tag dissuades you, consider its larger-sized but also great siblings as a desktop external storage system. Those offer many of the same quality and speed benefits but for less cost in less portable sizes. Reviewers like to call this the drive for the pros, so if that label fits your photog uses, consider spending the cash to save your image files for posterity.
Best For Rugged Field Work
If surviving water submersion, dust storms, or falls and drops are on the agenda, the CalDigit Tuff will be your go-to external backup system for field work. Its solid-state construction means it won’t be a packing hog, while remaining durable under the same circumstances you’re likely to expose your camera gear to. It is also super-fast for saving and retrieving files, so you won’t waste your field time.
At 1TB in capacity, it will handle thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of videos. Plan a long shooting trip if you’d like to fill it. It comes with cabling for different styles of USB ports.
This is not a cheap per-byte alternative to carrying a less hearty drive. It is also not encrypted. It is not user-ready right out of the box and does require formatting before use.
If you aren’t wedded to solid-state, you can get the same device as a standard hard drive with 2TB of capacity and a lower cost. It’s just as rugged, making it a good choice for photojournalists, wildlife photogs, or those aspiring to be. If you scuff it up, you can even buy a replacement jacket to make it appear all shiny and new.
Best For On-The-Desk External Storage
If transporting your offline storage is not central to your strategy and you want even more capacity, consider the Western Digital My Book. Offered in a variety of higher volumes like 8TB, you can save millions of photos and thousands of hours of videos and multiple post-production versions too. Auto-backup software resident on the drive makes saving your new files effortless, as long as everything remains plugged in.
Backup software and drive hardware are compatible with both current and older versions of Windows and Mac computers. The technology inside is more like a computer hard drive than an external one, adding to its reliability. Its durability is on par with its more portable My Passport sibling.
The My Book requires an external power supply. That makes it a less likely choice for photo field work. It is also not portable, though you could put it in a vault or home safe for security purposes as part of your backup cycle. This WD is not quite as fast as other, more expensive drives in this class.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this drive from the perspective of good backup procedures is considering where it fits in your backup cycle. To make it effective, it will need to remain plugged in to both power and your primary storage device. That may be its effective role, as your desktop version mirroring your cloud based system in real time.
What I Learned While Writing This Article
I couldn’t end this article without an aside about what I learned while writing it. I thought I had things figured out and good procedures in place, until I dug into what I own for backup. It turns out I wasn’t as set as I’d like to believe.
Don’t assume what you already own is the best you can afford.
For one thing, the external hard drive I use as my weekly backup, the one I rely on second to my cloud based system, is no longer supported by its manufacturer. It’s not that old, but it’s already a dinosaur.
It has not yet shown any signs of failure, but if it does, it defeats the redundancy purpose I own it for. I’m now using that as my vault copy until I decide to replace it. It’s third in the backup cycle. My computer and the other two methods ahead of it (cloud and primary desktop) would have to fail first – not probable, but if we ever get the Big One in the Pacific Northwest…
Temporary backup solutions have their place.
I often do a preliminary post-production edit of photos in the field while I’m writing my articles. However, using a public network for cloud backups can be chancy, not to mention bandwidth hogs and costly.
I could carry one of the highly durable external drive choices on our list. As a stopgap, though, I email the text and photo files to myself. They therefore live in the email cloud until I delete that message. I have a quick backup without a formal backup.
Reviewing your backup process should be an annual task.
I should say that for some of us who generate a lot of original creative content, maybe once a quarter is even better. We get busy and backing up things falls on the priority list. Or, like me, you learn that what you use is no longer supported even if it still seems reliable.
Put a repeating task on your to-do list to check your backups, both your hardware and your procedure, on a regular basis. It could save you from the fate of nimble fingers, natural or other disasters, and accidentally deletions of important work when it counts the most.Back to Top