One of the biggest issues many of us photographers face is the gigantic size of our photo libraries, which creates a lot of issues for backing up and restoring images. While we have written a number of articles on properly backing up images, with a recent article on a backup workflow, we have not spent much time on managing the backup size and reducing it. After-all, if the backup size itself is significantly reduced, the time it takes to back up those images improves drastically as well! Let’s talk about some of the tips, techniques and potential changes to your workflow you can administer today in order to reduce your backup needs in the future.
There are two primary strategies for reducing the size of your photo library: one involves potential changes to your current workflow process before images are transferred to your computer (which will address the growth of your photo library in the future), and the other one consists of steps you can take to reduce what you have today.
Table of Contents
1) Changes to Current Workflow
It would be pointless to discuss strategies to reduce your backup needs, if your photo library is needlessly growing at an exponential rate. Thanks to all the nice options we have today in cameras and in software, it is extremely easy to waste space. Yes, storage is extremely cheap today and you can easily stock up on a lot of hard drives. However, why go through all the hassle with additional storage and add the unnecessary wait time to our backup processes, if there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your storage needs in the future? Let’s go through your workflow and see if what you have set up today is in line with our best practices. We will start with your camera.
1.1) Camera RAW Options
First, let’s go through your camera settings. Since you are a Photography Life reader, we are already making an assumption that you shoot RAW (if you don’t know what I am talking about, please see our RAW vs JPEG article that explains why you should be shooting RAW). But what kind of RAW do you shoot? sRAW/mRAW? 12-bit? 14-bit? Uncompressed? Compressed? Losslessly Compressed? With all kinds of options available, even shooting RAW can get confusing! So which RAW format is the best and why? Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple, because it all varies depending on what camera you shoot with. Some cameras give you the option to choose from different RAW formats, while others don’t. If you have the ability to choose from different RAW format options, our general recommendation is to pick Losslessly Compressed RAW in the highest bit depth available (typically 14-bit) for best results. Losslessly Compressed RAW images preserve all the data, making Uncompressed RAW a complete waste of space on your hard drive. As for bit depth, while most people won’t be able to tell the difference between 14-bit and 12-bit RAW images, when you need to recover maximum information from a file, you do have quite a bit more data to work with when shooting at higher bit depth. If you nail exposure every single time and you never have to recover much data in post, shooting 12-bit is the way to go. But for everyone else who wants to have the maximum data to work with in post-processing in order to reduce banding and other artifacts in both highlights and shadows, my recommendation would still be to stick with 14-bit or higher.
Now if you shoot Canon, you have a limited number of options to choose from, such as RAW, mRAW and sRAW, along with a number of options to shoot in JPEG, as shown below:
By default, Canon shoots in highest bit depth available, so you don’t have to worry about that. Just choose “RAW”, which will give you the best image quality. Don’t pick mRAW (medium RAW) or sRAW (small RAW), even though those two options might sound appealing for reducing image size – that’s because those two options will result in a file that is really not a true RAW file, as explained in my article on the sRAW format. You will also see another option to shoot JPEG – skip that, unless you know what you are doing (more on RAW + JPEG below).
If you shoot Nikon, you have a lot more options to choose from. First, make sure that you have RAW selected from the Shooting Menu option, as shown below:
Next, you will find another setting in the same menu called “NEF (RAW) recording”. Choose the options as shown below:
Don’t worry if you don’t have the first option (it is only available on some of the newer cameras) – that’s for choosing between sRAW and full size RAW, which as stated above, you should always keep at full size. The next two options are NEF (RAW) compression and bit depth. Make sure to select “Lossless compressed” for the compression algorithm, because it gives you the best quality, while keeping the file size relatively small. You don’t lose any data with this option. The “Compressed” option is basically “Lossy Compression”, which is not what you want (unless you really know what you are doing), as it results in loss of data. As for “Uncompressed”, don’t ever choose that option, as you will end up with enormous files every single time, even if you photograph a plain blue sky!
Most other brand cameras don’t give you so many different options. On the Sony A7R II and A7 II, you have a new option to shoot Compressed and Uncompressed RAW. Unless you need to keep the shooting speed fast, I would stick with Uncompressed RAW, as it preserves all the data from the sensor. Since Sony has not provided the option for Lossless Compressed RAW, you have the option to convert RAW images to DNG format, since DNG automatically applies Lossless Compression to Uncompressed RAW images. Personally, I avoid the DNG format as stated in this article, but in the case of Sony, I really don’t see another option until Sony adds the Losslessly Compressed RAW option. See this article for more details.
1.2) RAW + JPEG
What about RAW + JPEG? I find a lot of folks out there who end up shooting both RAW and JPEG. Some do it because they really need the JPEG images (sports shooters, news shooters / reporters, etc) and others do it for little to no reason. If you belong to the latter group, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate your menu settings. If you end up importing both RAW and JPEG into Lightroom, I can already tell you that you are most likely doing it wrong. Why? Because Lightroom does not really care for the JPEG image in the first place when there is a RAW image already present. Unless you have a specific menu setting in Lightroom to treat RAW and JPEG images separately, the two images will be combined as a single image and you will only be able to work on the RAW image. Take a look at your Lightroom Preferences and see if the option “Treat JPEG files next to raw files as separate photos” is checked or not:
Most likely it is not, because that’s the default setting. Here is what happens when you load a RAW + JPEG into Lightroom:
Look at that – you have a single image being displayed in Lightroom, when in reality, there are two images residing within your file system:
This means that you are essentially storing a total of two JPEG images in your file system. That’s right, not one, but two! How? Well, a full-size JPEG image that your camera created is already sitting within a RAW image. By preserving another JPEG image, you are storing a separate copy of that JPEG file on its own. So what’s the point of keeping that camera-rendered JPEG image? Those files are just wasting a lot of space for no good reason! And if you really ever want to be able to go back to your original JPEG image as it was spat out by your camera, you can always extract it out of your RAW file using free tools such as Phil Harvey’s excellent ExifTool. It is as simple as running the following command “exiftool -b -JpgFromRaw DSC0001.NEF > DSC0001.JPG”.
So if you have been storing all those JPEG images, what do you do? How do you get rid of them now? Unfortunately, Lightroom has no way of simply deleting those JPEG images, but there are a couple of tricks you can employ to get rid of them – keep on reading this article to find out how!