Jack Nichols Photography
Night sky and landscape photographer in Seattle, Washington
Whatcom, Artist Point - Top of mountain peeking through clouds at sunset-20190629.jpg

Cloud Storage for Photographers

Full disclosure: In my day job, I work for Microsoft on OneDrive, which is one of the products mentioned in this article. The views and opinions expressed here are my own, not my employer’s. I don’t receive a commission or any other compensation for this article or the links within it.

One of the things I love about photography is that it forces you to learn about a diverse range of subjects. From equipment to technique to post-processing, there’s always something new to learn and improve on. There’s one aspect of photography though that is sometimes overlooked, but is just as important as the rest. That area is storage management, which is just a fancy way of coming up with a plan for storing and managing all of the beautiful pictures you’ve taken!

I think storage management is tough for a lot of photographers because it requires a level of understanding about how computers work that many find intimidating. Most of us start with a folder on our hard drive named “Photos” or something, and just start storing our finished work there. But then the problems start: we run out of disk space, our hard drive crashes, our computer is stolen, we accidentally delete or overwrite something, and so on. Any one of these problems can quickly ramp up the complexity of how we store our work, not to mention our stress.

The reality is that sooner or later these problems will happen to you. There are lots of ways to deal with them, and the smart move is coming up with a plan that doesn’t require a bunch of time to set up or maintain. You want something that keeps your photos safe and secure, yet easy to find and work with, and of course reduces your stress and time requirements. Today I’m going to talk about something that fits that bill nicely: cloud storage and backup.

Benefits of cloud storage

Think of cloud storage as an extension of your hard drive, that is stored safely and securely in a data center, commonly referred to as “the cloud”. Every change you make to one of your photos is automatically synced to the data center, and any other computer or phone you might have set up to sync the same content. If your computer is lost or your hard drive crashes, no worries – you can sync the content back from the cloud to your computer and voila, all your stuff is there.

What storing your stuff in the cloud looks like. OK, not really, but it’s still a pretty picture.

What storing your stuff in the cloud looks like. OK, not really, but it’s still a pretty picture.

Cloud storage also provides a means to back up your files so they are protected from deletion or corruption. Most cloud storage systems offer tools like file version history, which lets you look at the version history of a specific file over time, so if you end up corrupting a file, you can simply restore it. If you wind up corrupting all of your files (such as through a ransomware attack), some cloud storage systems offer a point-in-time restore that lets you restore your entire file system back to a specific point in time before the corruption occurred. Other data safety features of cloud storage systems include protection from accidental deletes, encryption, and more.

But what about the problem of running out of disk space? Cloud storage to the rescue again. Modern cloud storage systems automatically manage the files that are synced to your hard drive in a smart way. Instead of downloading the entire file, only a tiny “placeholder” representation of the file is placed on disk. The placeholder looks and acts like the real file, and even includes a preview. When you open it in any application, the file is downloaded from the cloud just-in-time, just as if the file was already on disk. If you don’t use a file for some period of time, it will be safely synced back to the cloud and then put back as a placeholder, so it doesn’t occupy disk space. This is an amazing feature that allows you to have a huge amount of data in the cloud, but see and manage it on your computer with a tiny hard drive.

Cloud storage offers lots of other great features and benefits too. Some of those include being able to access your files anywhere from your phone or a web browser, tools for searching text in pictures, sharing content with other users, and more. Best of all, it’s cheap and very easy to use – you pay a small monthly or yearly fee for the storage and features you use.

Choosing a cloud storage provider

The ecosystem of cloud storage providers has a lot of players, and it might seem overwhelming to choose one. Even though there are many choices, there are four major products that are popular with photographers. They are:

  • OneDrive

  • iCloud Drive

  • Dropbox

  • Google Drive

All of these providers offer great features for photographers. They all offer generous cloud storage plans (including free plans), and software that runs on your computer, phone, and tablet to sync and access your files. They all work on Windows, macOS, iPhone, Android, and of course in a web browser.

As I noted in the disclosure above, my day job is building OneDrive for Microsoft, and despite the obvious bias I really do recommend it. It’s what I use for my own work. There are a few things that make it a strong choice for photographers in my opinion. OneDrive offers all of the data safety and protection features I talked about above, including file version history, point in time restore, and accidental delete protection, plus many others. These features allow you to use OneDrive as a backup solution for your work too, with the confidence that you can restore your stuff at any time. If you use Microsoft Office, it’s also a great deal: you get Office and 1TB of OneDrive storage for up to 6 users (a total of 6TB) for less than $10 a month.

Everyone to the cloud!

Everyone to the cloud!

iCloud Drive, Dropbox, and Google Drive are also strong choices with differing feature sets, and all are popular with photographers. They have some of the same features I described for OneDrive, and have their own strengths. iCloud Drive works great for people that are primarily Mac, iPhone, and iPad users. Dropbox does a good job at ease of use, but also tends to have cutting-edge, experimental features for power users. Google Drive has the largest storage plans available in the industry at the moment.

No one provider is perfect, and indeed many people use more than one. My suggestion is to try several and see which one you like the best. They all offer some type of free trial which you can cancel easily, and it is easy to move data between them.

I’ll note here that there are also other cloud storage providers out there, but they are either focused on the needs of large companies, or are run by companies that are too small to be reliable long-term. When it comes to something as important as your files, you want to choose a provider that is going to last. The four providers described above are big companies with lots of resources dedicated to this problem, and probably aren’t going anywhere soon, which means your data is safe.

One other note on cloud storage – if you use it, pay for it. Yes, there are free plans, but in many cases you don’t get important features with a free plan. Also, paying for it allows the provider to continue developing features, providing support, and generally just making your experience better.

Cloud backup

Cloud storage is great, but what about backup?

The key thing that makes cloud storage different from cloud backup is sync behavior. Cloud storage products sync all changes to your files, including deletes and accidental overwrites. This means that if you suffer a ransomware attack and accidentally overwrite all of your photos with encrypted gibberish, those changes will sync to the cloud and every other device in your cloud storage system. By contrast, a cloud backup system will keep a full copy of every file on every device you are backing up, allowing you to restore from any point in time. Changes on one computer don’t sync to another computer, which can help isolate problems to just the computer that had the issue.

The good news is that most of the major cloud storage providers offer a backup solution along with their main product. Backup systems are meant to recover your data no matter what happens to it. In order to fulfill that mission, they have to meet a couple of requirements:

  • Automatic. Backups don’t matter unless they happen automatically. If you are relying on some type of manual process to back up your data, you will eventually lose some of it.

  • Complete. Backups should cover all of the files that matter to you that you can’t easily recreate. You definitely need to back up the pictures of your kids, but you don’t need to back up your copy of Photoshop that you can just download again.

  • Life-proof. If you accidentally delete a file or it gets corrupted, you need to be able to restore it from a backup. Whatever mistakes you might make, your system needs to be able to let you recover them.

  • Redundant. Keeping multiple copies of your data is the only way to ensure it is safe, and prevents a failure in one place from being catastrophic.

  • Offsite. Although on-site backups like Time Machine are convenient, they are no good if your office burns down in a fire or you are robbed. You need a backup that is not in your physical location to guard against that.

Storm clouds are coming… hope you have a backup!

Storm clouds are coming… hope you have a backup!

At the time of this writing, three of the four cloud storage providers mentioned earlier meet all of these requirements. That means you can have one solution that does both storage and backup, as long as all of your important stuff is stored in them. Only iCloud Drive is missing the “life-proof” requirement, as it doesn’t support file version history or point-in-time restore.

Even if you are using your cloud storage provider for backup, you may still want a dedicated cloud backup provider. There are lots of reasons for this. The most obvious is that you want to back up content not backed up by your cloud storage provider, or maybe your files don’t fit into your cloud storage plan. Or maybe you are paranoid and want to guard against a catastrophic failure with your cloud storage provider by having a second copy.  

There are two dedicated backup solutions that are popular amongst Photographers: Backblaze and Carbonite. Both offer unlimited data storage, but in my opinion, Backblaze is by far the better option and is what I use. It is $5 per computer per month for unlimited backup, and is completely idiot proof. No configuration is required. Just sign in and you’re done, and the app runs silently in the background. They also offer version history for individual files, and a really cool restore-by-mail option where they will mail you a hard drive with your stuff if you lose your computer.

My suggestion

If this seems complex and confusing, relax – you don’t need to know much about this stuff to get started. In fact, you can get started today with just a few steps. I’ll describe how my system works and why I like it, and how to replicate it.

As I mentioned above, I use a combination of OneDrive and Backblaze. All of my important photo stuff lives in OneDrive. Backblaze backs up the rest of my stuff that isn’t in OneDrive. I like this because I get complete coverage and easy access to my most important stuff. Access anywhere is important to me – I can always get to my OneDrive content from any of my devices, so I can always show someone a photo, make prints, or send stock imagery no matter where I am.

Deciding what files to put where is important because it affects how they are stored in the cloud. My default is that all photo-related content, including finished pictures, drafts of blog posts, business receipts, and everything else goes into OneDrive. Raw files are the exception. I store those outside of OneDrive because they are enormous, but also because they are rarely needed once the photos are done. They are backed up to Backblaze though, so in a pinch I can always get them from there, but I seldom need them once a shoot is done. On the other hand, I do frequently need to pull finished pictures on the go, which is perfect for OneDrive.  

This system has worked quite well for me, and I almost never think about it. My content is just there, safe and secure, but ready for me to use anytime.

Pick a provider and start protecting your stuff right now.

Pick a provider and start protecting your stuff right now.

Here’s how to get started and set up the same way I am:

  1. Go to OneDrive.com and sign up for a free account.

  2. Once you’ve done that, download and install OneDrive for your PC or Mac and sign in.

    1. If you are running a recent version of Windows, chances are you already have it. Look for “OneDrive” in your start menu.

    2. If you are using a Mac, you can get OneDrive from the Mac App Store.

  3. After you’ve signed in, you’ll have a OneDrive folder. Move your photos and other important files here. You’re now using cloud storage!

    1. It might take a little while to upload all of your content at first, but after that, all of your stuff will stay in sync pretty quickly.

    2. Your upload might stop if you exceed your free storage limit. In that case, you’ll need to purchase a plan to keep uploading. With OneDrive and all cloud storage providers, you can purchase a month at a time to see how it goes instead of making a large commitment.

  4. Now set up Backblaze. Go to Backblaze.com, create an account, and download the Backblaze program.

  5. Sign in to Backblaze.

  6. That’s it! You’re now using cloud backup!

    1. There’s no configuration required, unless you are using an external disk. If that’s the case, open Backblaze preferences and make sure it is set to back that up too.

    2. Backup might take a little while to complete, but once the initial backup happens, subsequent backups are very quick.

Of course, if you are using a different cloud storage or backup program, substitute “OneDrive” or “Backblaze” above with your provider of choice. The setup steps are exactly the same.

Hopefully this was helpful. The last thing I’ll leave you with is this: if you aren’t already doing this, start today. Don’t overanalyze. Pick a cloud storage and cloud backup provider and start getting your content protected. You can always change your mind later and move to a different provider.