Photo storage, backups, and workflow

The next thing you want to think about when you contemplate a lifetime of photos that you might want to edit, fix, or improve is how you are going to set up your workflow. Since storage is relatively cheap on computers these days (I consider a 3TB hard drive the smallest I will bother to install today) it makes sense to establish a careful workflow that uses this storage. The way I do it is to have two separate directory trees, one for original photos and one for the edited versions. Within each directory tree I have sub-directories for each year, and then within each year sub-directories for specific events if I have multiple photos. For instance, in 1979 we took a trip to San Francisco, and it was on that trip that we officially became engaged. So that is one folder. Then we had a joint “bachelor party”, and that is another folder. Cheryl’s bridal shower was a third, the wedding was a fourth, and the honeymoon was a fifth. Now this was a busy year with a lot of photos and a lot of events. Some years all I might have are some miscellaneous photos in the directory for that year. So first I put all of my originals into the right folders, then I set up a duplicate structure for my edited versions. If a photo doesn’t need editing, or I have not gotten around to it yet, a copy still goes in the duplicate tree for final copies. The idea is that one tree is my archive, and the other is my “in use”. And then I copy all of this to my NAS drive, which in my case is a Drobo 5N, which of course has a kind of RAID redundancy built-in. This gives me some added backup, which is important. After all, there are only two kinds of hard drive in the world: those that have failed, and those that are going to fail eventually.

I then copy the entire tree (or updates, as the case might be) onto an SD card, which is inserted into an electronic photo frame which sits beside my monitor and runs continuously, changing the photo every 15 minutes. Mine is a 10.1 inch frame from Sungale, which Amazon has listed for $79 as I write this. You can spend more than this or less than this, but I have been satisfied with the one I have. The point is that I don’t just want photos stored away, I want to enjoy them and relive those memories. So I get to revisit the trip we took to Ireland with my brother and his wife, or the Rhine River cruise we did for our 40th wedding anniversary.

Now, this is good, but it isn’t enough to be safe. If my house caught fire, as an example, I expect I would lose my computer, my NAS drive, and my photo frame. And there is the example of the famous director Francis Ford Coppola:

Francis Ford Coppola, five-time Oscar-winning director of The Godfather trilogy and other films, knows how that feels. Yesterday he lamented the fact that he had lost computer data including his writings and family photographs going back 15 years in a robbery on his Argentine studios.

He had backed up all the material, but the robbers also stole the small reserve memory that was lying on the floor of the studio.

“If someone could bring me back my back-up, I’d be very happy,” Mr Coppola said. Speaking to the Argentine news agency Todo Noticias he said the lost material held “all of the photographs of my life, all of my writing”. The return of the back-up, which he described as “just a little thing” would “save me years”.

This is the hardest way to learn a lesson, but the fact is that every day someone loses a lifetime’s worth of photos when a computer crashed and died. You need to have offsite backups as well, and I have done this with triple redundancy. Now the thing you need to keep in mind is that offsite is not free, you will need to spend something. It could be as simple as a spare hard drive that you leave with a friend, but then you have be sure your friend will be as careful with it as you would like, and let’s face it, your photos don’t mean as much to your friend as they do to you. I have chosen to go with cloud backup in three different ways.

  • Facebook – There is no monetary cost to putting your photos on Facebook. You pay in other ways, of course, such as giving them information and seeing advertising. I wouldn’t join Facebook for the sole purpose of storing photos, but I have an account there because everyone else in my family is there and it is how we keep in touch. And they are the people I would be most interested in sharing my photos with. Of course, one wrinkle with this is that you can’t just store the photos, you have to post them, or at least I have not found a way to store them without posting them. But since I have no compromising nude photos, this isn’t a big deal for me.
  • Google Photos – This used to be a better deal when Google gave you unlimited storage, but those days are gone now. As of June 1, 2021, any new photos you upload will count towards your Google Storage limit, which is 15GB if you have a free Google account. But they did grandfather in (for now) any photos previously uploaded so that they will not count towards the limit. If you need more storage, you have to purchase it from Google. Now, photos are not the only things that count here. I also use Google Docs and Google Drive, and that counts as well. right now, I am paying $30/year and I get 204GB of storage. Of that, I have already used 86.11GB as follows:
    • Google Drive – 25.9GB
    • Gmail – 0.58GB
    • Google Photos – 59.62GB
      Of course, some of this was old stuff, but in any case $30/year gets you 200GB at current prices
  • Flickr – I have a Flickr Pro account which costs about $50/year, and at this time it gets me unlimited storage. The future of Flickr is uncertain right now since it was acquired by SmugMug, and at latest report is losing money. But SmugMug itself is not bad, with a Basic plan offering unlimited storage for $55/year.

These are the three cloud backup solutions I have now, and I have had them for a few years. There are other alternatives like Shutterfly, and you can also peruse this list from Beebom. My general rule here is that there is no free lunch, and you have to pay for storage. If a site offers “free, unlimited storage”, well, you know they have to make money somehow, and you might not like how they do it. I much prefer a straight commercial transaction.

In all three of the above services you do things pretty much the same way. You upload photos, then collect them in groups called “albums”, and then you can share them. You can add descriptions for each photo, and for each album you can create accompanying text. For instance, on our Rhine River cruise I brought my Chromebook along, and each day wrote down a diary (using a Google Doc) of what we did, the things we saw, and the people we met. When I got home, I collected each day’s photos into an album, and then pasted in my diary entry for that day as the album text. In Facebook, that becomes the text of the post. So I have a good record of what we did. Note also that all three of these will store videos as well as still photos. I often will record short videos using my phone or my waterproof action camera. These are generally up to three minutes in length


So my workflow looks like this:

  1. Take some photos
  2. Record information about those photos. It might be a daily diary, or maybe at a festival it is a program where I just number the photos as I go in the program for later use.
  3. Get home, and move the photos to my computer in the Originals directory tree. Use the information I recorded to name the photos appropriately.
  4. Make any edits needed (crop, color correction, etc.), discard any duds. Store the results in the Edited directory tree.
  5. Copy updates to both trees to Drobo NAS device. This step could easily be automated using backup software, but as part of standard workflow it doesn’t take long to do it manually
  6. Go to Flickr, upload the edited photos, caption them with the information I recorded, collect them in an album, and add explanatory text to the album, which could be anything from a few sentences to a page.
  7. Upload to Google Photos in a similar manner.
  8. Upload to Facebook in a similar manner, and post it to Facebook.
  9. Enjoy the comments from friends and family on Facebook.
  10. Copy to SD card in electronic picture frame. But this step I tend to do about once a year, or anytime I have a lot of photos, such as a vacation trip.

Software backup

The other thing you don’t want to overlook is backing up your software. For example, in GIMP we have looked at the idea that there are plugins available, and that you can download and add things like Fonts, Brushes, Patterns, and so on. If you get used to having them available, you might want to back them up as well. If you already have an offsite or cloud backup solution, you could easily add a few directories. In GIMP, go to the Edit menu, select Preferences, and go all the way down to Folders. Click the plus sign to expand it, and you should see something like this:

My GIMP Preferences-->Folders screen
My GIMP Preferences–>Folders screen

Now note that this is on my Kubuntu 20.04 box running GIMP 2.10.24. On your system it may look slightly different. Note that the one in my /home directory is marked as writable, and the one in the /usr directory is not writable. GIMP sets up its own folders on installation and they are not intended to be user writable. The folders marked writable are where you are supposed to store any neat things you downloaded. If you want to see how this works on other systems (e.g. Windows, OSX), the GIMP site has the information. In this case, if I am backing up my entire /home directory (and I would consider that best practice), it is already covered. But copying this stuff to a cloud storage place like Google Drive or Dropbox would not a bad thing to do.


Before I retired, I was a Project Manager for about 15 years, and one of things I had to do on my projects was Risk Management. The idea was to look at different scenarios, see what the outcomes would be, and how the project would recover from a bad outcome. That doesn’t mean you protect against everything at all costs, but it does mean you consider everything that might happen, how likely it is, what it would cost to protect against it, and so on. Then you would make a deliberate decision to mitigate the risk, insure it, or accept it. I suggest you approach this in a similar spirit.Some risks you may decide to simply accept. There isn’t a whole lot I can do to protect my assets in the event of a nuclear war. But a tornado could wreck my house because I live in a place where they happen with some regularity (Middle United States), and if I live through the event (likely if there is warning), would I like to get my photos back? Can I do it at an acceptable cost? If the answer to those two questions is “Yes”, I need to take some steps. So look at the scenarios that might cause you to lose your photos, and think about how much they are worth to you, and then act on that.

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