With today’s ever-growing file sizes, it is more important than ever to know how to store your photos and videos cheaply, without sacrificing performance or reliability. There’s also a bigger gap between fast and slow storage than there has been in the past. In this guide, I’ll take a look at the best storage options for photographers looking to upgrade from their current setup.
Unlike some creative professionals, who either need a small amount of fast storage, or a big pool of slow, but inexpensive storage, many photographers need a bit of both. Even modest photography libraries and catalogs can be impractical to store on just an internal drive (not to mention this is a risky practice!). However, unlike bigger businesses, dedicated servers and complex storage solutions are overkill for all but the busiest studios and wedding photography operations.
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“Hot” vs “Cold” Storage
Realistically, if you have a large library of photos and videos, a good way to think about things is “hot” versus “cold” storage.
Hot storage involves data that you access frequently. Cold storage is the opposite – data that you rarely access. In photographic terms, maybe you have a large number of old photos taken before you were a dedicated photographer. You won’t need to access those photos very often, so they’re considered cold.
To be clear, hot and cold storage are relative terms. But in the world of photography, “hot” storage could be, for example, photos that you frequently access which are stored on a fast SSD. Meanwhile, “cold” storage would be the slower tier of storage you’re using, and could cover things like HDDs instead of SSDs.
The reason for making this division is to get you more value for your money. Yes, cold storage options are slower, but they’re also significantly less expensive. For a new, quality HDD, you’re looking at $15-20 per terabyte, based on the sales you find (and the size of hard drive that you buy). By comparison, even value NVME SSDs are around $50 per terabyte, with higher-performance SSDs correspondingly more expensive.
If you can separate out the files that you don’t access very often, then keep them on cold storage, you can make some huge upgrades as a photographer without spending very much money.
How Much Storage Do You Need?
The first step in deciding how to upgrade your storage is to analyze your photo and video needs. Ask yourself three questions: How many gigabytes are you creating a year, how much does performance matter to you, and how much of your work can go into cold storage?
Let me give you an example. Personally, taking my video requirements into account, I’m creating well over a terabyte per year, and I need some very fast storage to be able to edit 4K video (or higher) without any buffering issues. However, once I’m done with a particular project, I rarely need to access it again – so, I can easily dump it onto cold storage. This means I can divide my needs into a relatively small amount of hot storage (a few terabytes or so) that are extremely fast, while keeping a large amount of cold storage (20+ terabytes) that’s cheap and slow.
It’s easy to figure out your own storage needs:
- Check your folders from the past few years to see how much data you generated. Average that to find your rate per year.
- Not counting backups (I’ll get to that in a minute), you’ll want enough additional storage to last you five years, with ten years being preferable. Multiply your rate by 5 or 10 to get this figure.
- Then, figure out percentage that needs to be hot versus cold storage. For me, it’s about 15% hot, 85% cold, but every photographer’s situation is different. If you exclusively shoot personal work that you revisit constantly, and you don’t have mountains of work from old gigs, you may require 100% hot storage.
- Now you know how much storage you need, and what “temperature” – so it’s easy to figure out an upgrade path!
Step one in upgrading your storage is simply to meet these basic needs, if you aren’t already. After that, some possible upgrade paths are to add more backups, boost the speed of your hot storage, boost the size of either type of storage, or add some dedicated travel drives. I’ll go through those options below.
Storage Upgrade Options
1. Adding to Your Backups
Probably the first area that I would upgrade my storage for photography is to get a better backup system. Hopefully you’re already doing the bare minimum, which is to have two copies of every file, stored on different drives, at all times. But at the end of the day, you really ought to have three copies – with one of them being off-site, to avoid things like fires, floods, or other damage.
A basic option for this third copy is to get a large external drive and leave it at a friend or family member’s house. Bring it home occasionally to update with your latest work. While this does leave a gap between backups, it’s cheap and is much better than nothing.
You can go further by switching to a cloud-based backup system. This is usually more expensive and comes with a monthly fee, but it’s the most assured way to keep your photos safe. Treat cloud storage as extra-cold storage – you’re not trying to access it except in emergencies. If you need hot storage that is cloud-based, you’ll be paying exorbitant prices, which is only worthwhile for some businesses.
2. Speeding Up Your Hot Storage
One of the most noticeable ways to improve your experience as a photographer (or at least, as a post-processor) is to get faster storage! A lot of times, when people complain to me that their computer is slow, it’s their hard drive at fault.
In particular, if you are still using traditional HDD storage for editing your frequently-accessed photos, you are giving up a lot of speed. Step one is to switch your hot storage to an NVME SSD. Then, store your operating system, program files, frequently-accessed files, and (if applicable) Lightroom catalog on this NVME SSD. Most of all, if your boot drive is not currently on an NVME SSD, put it there as soon as possible! It’s one of the most impactful upgrades you can make to any computer.
It’s important to mention that I’m referring to NVME SSDs, in contrast to the broader category of SSDs. I’m specifically excluding SATA SSDs because I just don’t feel they’re a meaningful upgrade over a regular hard drive, and their prices aren’t cheap enough compared to faster NVME products. The NVME standard can easily support 10x the throughput.
For product recommendations, I’ve had great experiences with SKHynix’s line. The P31, a slightly older Gen 3 model, is a great choice for the budget minded, or those with laptops, as the high efficiency helps extend battery life and keep things cool. If your computer supports Gen 4 drives, you can get more performance by going with the P41. Gen 5 drives are just now hitting the shelves, but between high prices and a lack of broad compatibility, they’re not worth it (as of mid-2023 when I’m publishing this article).
There are no mysteries here – the faster the SSD, the more expensive it will be. But even if you pick a slightly older generation model like the P31, it will be a huge improvement over using an HDD for your hot storage. If you still feel that your computer is too slow after getting a fast SSD, you may want to check out my full guide to assembling a computer for photography.
As a final note, for photographers whose PC doesn’t support NVME drives, you may want to look into a new computer. NVME drives have now been available for almost 10 years, and computers without support are generally nearing the end of their lifespan anyways.
3. Boosting the Size of Your Storage (Hot or Cold)
A lot of photographers will wait to upgrade the size of their drive until it’s almost too late – when the data is pushing up against the drive’s limits. But this can slow down your drive, and more importantly, cause you to make bad organization decisions with your files. You never want to ration hard drive space!
If you’re mainly trying to boost the size of your hot storage, the answer is straightforward (though potentially expensive). You’ll need to get a larger version of whatever SSD you decide upon – maybe 2 TB instead of 1 TB.
On the other hand, if you’re already working off a fast SSD, and just need more space for the older files, I would look into the world of HDDs. They’re far, far cheaper per gigabyte stored, and this advantage is only magnified when you consider needing double or triple your “actual” needs, to accommodate backups.
For drive recommendations, most models from Western Digital and Seagate are viable. I’d avoid the lines that may have SMR, versus CMR tech, however. SMR, or shingled magnetic recording, squeezes more data onto each platter, but can cause slowdowns. For Seagate, the good models are Exos, Ironwolf, and BarraCuda Pro, while WD’s line includes Red Plus, Red Pro, Blue, and Black. Drives around the $15/TB mark are a good value, although this may require buying larger capacity drives.
If your computer supports adding internal drives, I prefer that over adding externals. Cooling is typically better, pricing can be better, and there’s less risk from things like knocking a drive off the table. But depending upon how “cold” your cold storage is, you could also just store these drives in a closet or somewhere safe.
4. Improving Your Storage for Travel
As a final storage upgrade route, you should consider your storage situation while traveling. Working from a laptop, you’ll need something small and durable. My preferred solution is to use a pair of USB-C SSDs. They’re small, light, durable, and fast – though unfortunately, they’re also the most expensive storage option I’ve listed here yet. Depending on your type of travel, you can probably get away with 1 TB drives or even smaller, so long as you offload them each time you get back home.
Some photographers simplify things by using memory cards instead of a laptop-based backup system when traveling. Modern cards are less expensive than ever, and CFExpress cards in particular are extremely reliable. If your camera has dual memory card slots, you can write live backups during your trip, then simply load all your cards when you get home.
I still prefer the laptop-based system, personally. It seems less prone to losing your camera or having your things stolen, especially if you keep the two SSDs in different locations during your travels (say, one in your suitcase and one on your person). It’s also the case that modern, high frame rate cameras tend to need extremely fast and expensive memory cards; the Nikon Z9, for instance, had a depth of over 1,000 photos in our testing.
Durability and portability are more important than speed when you’re looking for a travel backup system. In terms of specific recommendations, I’ve had good experiences with this Crucial drive and this Samsung drive. I think it’s best to get drives from two different companies, since drives from the same batch sometimes fail at a very similar time.
Do You Need a NAS?
As a final note, if your storage needs are growing beyond what your computer supports, it may be time to look towards a NAS. A NAS is essentially a little server for your files, and it can also run apps to support things like a personal cloud. However, for the purpose of this guide, the main purpose of a NAS is to act as a box for hard drives!
I would consider moving to a NAS if your photo/video catalog of hot storage is bigger than you can fit on an SSD. Granted, a NAS is not the only answer here; if your computer can fit more drives, you can pool them using tools like the creatively-named DrivePool. But with modern case designs, this is less common.
Purely from a storage perspective, I’m not a huge fan of NAS appliances for the average user. Most computers and/or NAS units only support the Gigabit ethernet standard, so they may not be able to serve your files as quickly as you’d want (definitely not as fast as an internal or USB-C SSD). So, if you need high speed for photo editing, I would only go with a NAS if your computer and NAS both support beyond-Gigabit ethernet. You would probably have better luck with something like a USB-C DAS (direct attached storage) if you need large, fast, external storage.
It’s impressive just how fast storage mediums have gotten, as well as how affordable bulk storage has become. It’s a good time to be a photographer or videographer!
I hope this guide gave you a good sense of the upgrade paths available if you need better storage for your photography. Every photographer’s needs are different, but in general, it’s best to upgrade your backup system first, then hot storage speed, then cold storage size. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, and I’ll be happy to answer!