You’ve just returned from a stunning photo shoot and the images are safely captured on memory card. The most common next step in the life of digital image files is transfer to computer hard disk. This is where most images remain, and also where they are most vulnerable…


LaCie Porsche Design series desktop hard disk drive.

Most desktop computers still use hard disk drives (HDDs) for data storage, while laptops are moving over to more compact SSDs (Solid State Drives ““ another form of flash storage technology). SSDs are a close relative of the USB drive or thumb drive, which in turn are part of the flash memory family that SD and CompactFlash cards belong to.

The  hard drive  contains a platter with a thin magnetic coating, spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute. To transfer your digital image file, a ‘head’ moves over the platter, writing 0’s and 1’s as tiny areas of magnetic north or south on the platter.

Solid-state drives use integrated circuit assemblies as memory to store data. Unlike traditional hard drives  they have no mechanical parts, are more durable and generally read and write faster than hard drives.

There are portable (external) versions of both HDDs and SSDs.

If you haven’t already had a hard disk fail or become corrupted with the associated loss of valuable data, chances are you will at some stage in the future. Research by Bianca Schroeder and Garth Gibson, Carnegie Mellon University, examining failure rates of hard disk drives in real world systems found that the annual replacement rate ranged from 0.5 percent to 13.5 percent – around 15 times larger than stated in the drive manufacturers’ data sheets.  

‘We also find evidence, based on records of disk replacements in the field, that failure rate is not constant with age, and that, rather than a significant infant mortality effect, we see a significant early onset of wear-out degradation. That is, replacement rates in our data grew constantly with age, an effect often assumed not to set in until after a nominal lifetime of 5 years.’


Interior of a Seagate Barracuda 500GB hard disk drive showing the magnetic storage platters and the moving arm which reads and writes data to them.

The chance of disk failure increases significantly as a HDD gets older. Online backup service BackBlaze monitors its stable of over 60,000 hard disk drives and estimates that one in five will fail within four years. After three years, failure rates shoot to 11.8% per year. They extrapolated the data out to predict a median life of six years for HDDs. These are not great odds if you have your entire family or personal picture collection on your computer.

SSDs have been heralded as a more stable storage medium, and they are faster to read and write data, but they are not without their own issues. While SSDs have significantly lower replacement rates than hard drives, when they fail they tend to fail big time, with less chance of recovering lost images.

The major factor, once again, is age rather than usage.

SSDs are still more expensive than HDDs. And while it’s probably not of massive relevance in relation to a household photo collection, SSDs are currently limited to maximum 4TB in capacity whereas HDDs are available up to 10TB in capacity.

First steps

Regardless of whether your computer is running a HDD or an SSD, at the very least it’s essential to regularly backup your digital image files to another drive or other medium altogether. We will tackle the broader question of implementing a reliable storage strategy later. In this chapter we are simply describing the storage options – the raw materials you will use to build your image storage system.

External HDDs can have a longer life because they are not worked as hard. On the other hand, being small and portable, they have more chance of coming to a sticky end; being dropped, lost or stolen, for instance. With 2TB of storage for around $100, external HDDs represent great value in terms of megabytes per cents. At those kind of prices, it’s worth considering having one external drive for everyday backup for your PC, and a separate drive on which you build your image file collection. There will be an extra copy of your image collection by default on the drive used for regular computer backups. Or perhaps use a fast SSD for backing up your image collection and a less expensive, higher capacity HDD for general backup.

With no moving parts, if you drop an SSD, it’s still likely to work; HDDs not so much. And because SSDs also don’t have spinning disks, they don’t draw as much power when reading and writing data.


Photographers who spend a lot of time in the field and need to download on the fly could consider a purpose-built backup drive like those in the extensive LaCie Rugged range.

There are ‘ruggedised’ portable drives which will better handle being of being dropped, etc, and if you are a regular traveller/photographer, one of these is well worth considering. LaCie has a Rugged range with a distinctive rubberised orange protective casing. They are water and dust resistant, and will survive a drop or even being run over by a car. There are both SSD and HDD versions.  

SSD Pros
– Faster copy/write speed; use less power; faster start up; file access; no moving parts; no noise; no vibration; more robust.

HDD Pros
– Considerably less expensive (especially external models); higher capacity; proven technology.


Don’t be put off by horror stories of CDs deteriorating after two years or so. If you purchase good quality, premium branded media and take some reasonable precautions, CDs and DVDs should last for a decade or more. Once again, this is not something you can afford to skimp on.

Verbatim, for example, claims that, stored properly, its Ultralife Archival Gold CDs and DVDs will last for 100 years.

While optical discs have a reasonable lifespan, there are two other issues which are combining to reduce their usefulness: At under 1GB and 4.7GB respectively, CDs and DVDs lack the capacity for the larger and larger files being generated by high resolution cameras. But if you plan to ‘slice and dice’ your photo collection into highly compartmentalised ‘chapters’, or for burning a special purpose disc, DVDs might suit your purposes. More of a problem is that disc drives and burners are gradually disappearing from PCs.


While it won’t appeal to everyone, M-Disc technology is by far the longest-lived of what’s available. But in 50 years, will there be any devices that can read these discs?

Beyond archival quality DVDs, there’s another interesting technology called M-Disc, developed by Millenniata, for which a 1000 year life is claimed. The data is etched into a stone-like surface.  These are available in 4.7GB DVD and 25GB Blu-ray versions.

Verbatim sells DVD and Blu-ray M-Discs. The M-Disc media must be burned with an ‘M-Ready’ drive (of which there is a limited range) but can be read by any DVD or Blu ray drive. Nothing else goes anywhere near that sort of lifespan, but with optical disc drives being phased out, M-Discs have the same looming obsolescence issue as DVDs.

Here are some estimated lifespans for various optical media from independent website
““ Unrecorded CD-R and CD-RW: 5-10 years
““ Recorded CD-R: 50-200 years
““ Recorded CD-RW: 20-100 years
““ Recorded DVD-R: 30-100 years
““ Recorded DVD-RW: up to 30 years
““ Recorded BD-R and BD-RE (Blu-ray): 30-200 years

Having purchased premium discs with archival properties, here are some tips for extending optical disc storage lives:
““ For maximum CD longevity, look for media with a gold reflective layer;
““ Treat CDs and DVDs with care: hold them by the outer edges or the hole in the centre, don’t touch the surface, avoid scratches, and keep dirt from the disc;
““ Keep them in a dry, dark and cool place since humidity, sunlight, high temperatures and pollutants can damage the different layers;
““ Store them in jewel cases rather than paper slips;
““ Use non-solvent-based felt-tip permanent markers, suitable for writing on CD or DVD labels;
““ Rewrite your rewritable discs as little as possible;
““ Choose slow writing speeds to reduce errors and increase quality.

The Cloud

Dropbox, Flickr, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Smugmug and Amazon are among the plethora of businesses who want your image files stored on their servers. Cloud storage fulfils one of the requirements of a sound image storage strategy (of which more later). Online storage also makes sharing images easier, and they are accessible from anywhere with an online connection.

If your smartphone images are important to you, automatic storage on one of these services is a pretty good idea, whatever other storage strategies you might have. Mobile phones lead hazardous lives, subject to theft, loss and any number of mishaps which could see your entire image collection literally down the gurgler. If you have an iPhone, Cupertino is here to help you! All photos are automatically stored at full resolution in Apple’s iCloud. You actually have to opt out of the service if you don’t want it.


Google server farm in Hamina, Finland. Rack upon rack, and row upon row of hard disk drives. (Source: Google)

But the Cloud is not fail-safe. Another player in this field, Bitcasa, launched in 2013, declaring it would ‘destroy the hard drive’. By 2016 it was giving customers 30 days notice to move their image collections elsewhere. The ironically named EverPix also collapsed. Kodak shut its Gallery image storage service and sold its customers and their images to Shutterfly. PictureLife closed down in 2016 and its customers’ 200 million images found their way to the SmugMug servers.

It reminds us that, at the end of the day, the Cloud is simply a fancy name for storage on someone else’s computer network, albeit a far more robust and secure setup than your home computer!

With the entry of Google Photos, Amazon and Microsoft to the Cloud storage scene with low cost packages, the business has become a lot more challenging for smaller players. However, it’s hard to work out whether you are a customer or a product with the big guys. The terms and conditions open you up to unsolicited email marketing; you tend to give the supplier full access and a licence to use your images in any way they see fit; and if something goes wrong, the warranty will at best get you a refund on your last month’s subscription fee – even in the unlikely event that all your files go missing.

Photographers who aren’t troubled by these privacy and security issues will be able to store a copy of their image collection with one of the internet behemoths for a few dollars a month. Others who aren’t so relaxed about these things may be willing to shop around and spend a bit more.

At the security-conscious end of the spectrum is NZ-based Mega. It provides encryption in every part of the process, so anything you send to the Cloud is encrypted locally, en route, and on the destination server. What’s more, Mega itself doesn’t have any way of accessing your information, as you hold the encryption key so that anything stored on Mega is only able to be opened by you. SmugMug, which as the name might imply, is all about photo storage, is well established and has a good reputation with professional and amateur photographers alike. It has a no-frills plan which allows unlimited uploads at full resolution for a relatively low annual fee, with a smartphone app for auto uploads a la iCloud. You can actually create your own website within SmugMug. But like many storage services, it doesn’t accept RAW or even TIFF files.  

So is the Cloud the Holy Grail for long term image storage? This is what Mike Ashenfelder, a digital archiving expert from the US Library of Congress had to say: ‘Cloud services relieve you of the responsibility of tending to storage hardware, but your collection becomes inaccessible if the network connection is disrupted.

‘No online backup service is as reliable as a storage device that you can see and touch. Cloud storage should only be a secondary backup option.’ We’re going with The Library of Congress on this one.


Failed hard drives are destroyed on site at the Google server farm. (Source: Google)

It’s a RAID

More sophisticated storage technology is now affordable even for a household computer system. The critical acronyms here are NAS (‘Network Attached Storage’), and RAID (‘Redundant Array of Independent Disks’).

A NAS is actually a separate computer entirely dedicated to managing files and making them available to other devices on the network, even remotely – hence the associated term ‘personal Cloud’. The NAS device will have multiple bays for housing individual hard drives.


LaCie 2Big Thunderbolt 2 is a two-HDD desktop unit that can be configured as a RAID system. RAID combines multiple disks for fault tolerance, improved performance and increased storage capacity.

RAID is a system for storing the same data in different places (redundantly) on multiple hard disks.

There are six separate permutations of RAID, but RAID 1 is the system with most appeal for image file backup with redundancy built-in. If a NAS is set up with two RAID HDDs in RAID 1, one of the drives mirrors the other, so if one fails, there is an automatic backup.

It’s also possible to back up from the NAS to another external drive, which can be stored away from the home. If we look beyond basic image storage requirements, and accept that there’s a lot of other vital content stored on our home computers, investment in a NAS may be a solution to that broader archiving/storage problem.

Solid state storage specialist Micron has a proprietary Professional Workflow line of products which is effectively a flash memory-based external storage system. It includes a compact four-bay reader and storage drive hub which accepts a selection of card readers and drives. It can be used to speedily offload multiple memory cards to a PC, or you can back up externally to a 256 or 512GB USB 3 storage drive. It will even accommodate SSDs.


Professional photographer Matt Granger organises images via a multi-bay flash memory based desktop ‘hub’ after returning from an assignment in Bhutan.

If you are buying an external drive it’s well worth ensuring that it has an up-to-date interface. USB 2.0 connections are becoming obsolete. Look for a drive which has a faster USB3.0 (5/Gbit/sec) or USB3.1 (10/Gbit/sec) connection. Thunderbolt, more common in the Apple world, is faster again, with Thunderbolt 3 achieving 40 Gbit/sec.

USB-C is yet another option. It’s a smaller USB plug and is intended to be future-proof. Devices that support USB 3.1 almost all use the USB-C port, while devices with USB 3.0 interfaces can work with USB-C via an adapter. Thunderbolt 3 uses USB Type-C connections as well. The plan seems to be to fix on this USB-C/Thunderbolt plug shape to arrive at a universal standard.

By Keith Shipton

Excerpt from Photo Backup pocket guide