Leaving the Mothership

Last year around this time, I put out a piece on storage options, both online and local, for the vast collection of photographs that we are all accumulating.

low disk spaceAlthough I use cloud storage as my primary storage option, most of these services “sync” at least some of that content to a local hard drive.  Until today, that hard drive was my computer hard drive.  But I’ve now run out of room on the local drive, and had to make a choice about where to put the local copies.  Here’s what I came up with.

It’s no revelation that the final solution involves a high capacity external hard drive, attached to but separate from the mothership.  What surprised me, once I went searching, were the options for hardware and how to configure the drive for optimal performance.

I’ve long resisted having something attached to my computer.  I like the option of picking up the machine, plopping it into a bag and heading out.  Now cables and another object have to go too.  I’ve already made the mistake once of leaving the drive behind, creating a situation where my photo editing software couldn’t reference it and wasn’t happy.  Neither were my cloud services.  But I digress…

solid state driveOne of the more popular options today for external hard drive space is a solid state drive.  Fast, with no moving parts, these units don’t compromise performance at all when linked externally.  The main issue is price.  I quickly filled up my 1TB onboard hard drive with software and files.  A minimum 2TB external drive would be required to make the external storage option workable for me.  The lowest cost I have found for a 2TB solid state external hard drive is around $700CDN.  While solid state drives are gaining in availability and popularity, pricing isn’t there yet for me in terms of a larger capacity bulk storage option.

483051-microsoft-onedriveCloud storage providers have also made some adjustments to help.  They have realized that offering cloud storage while still requiring files to be stored locally for inventory defeats one of the main purposes of cloud storage – less demand on the computer.

Since cloud storage was first offered, you’ve always had the ability to selectively sync files so that those not needed right now are not stored on the computer.  But that meant you had no indication locally of what was stored in the cloud (you had to rely on your memory), and selective sync generally applied to whole folders, not individual files.

smart syncNow many providers, including Microsoft, Google and Dropbox, also provide a user selectable “smart sync” option to essentially place thumbnails of individuals documents on the hard drive as pointers to the actual documents stored in the cloud.  Only when you need them and click on them will they download and open on the computer.  Apple has used this approach for a long time, offering automatic conversion to thumbnails for photos stored on their iPhone and iPad products, once internal storage capacity is reached.  Again, the limiting factor is how much cloud storage you have purchased.

I liked this idea until I realized that I had to be connected to the Internet to work.  And most photo editing software can’t reference these thumbnails in their catalogues.  Adobe Lightroom does have the ability to be disconnected from an external hard drive while still allowing work to be done on photographs.  Changes are applied to a stored “preview” version of the image and then sync’d with the drive once it is connected.  I’m not aware of whether this capability now extends to files stored in the cloud (since I no longer use Lightroom) but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

The Future of PhotographyAdobe also offers Adobe-based cloud storage for images and a new cloud-based version of Lightroom.  I guess this is the future.  But cost is a consideration – $9.99USD a month provides access to both 1TB of cloud storage and the cloud-based version of Lightroom.  Additional storage can be purchased, at what to me is a relatively high cost of around $100USD per year per TB.  I am able to purchase cloud storage with another provider for half that cost.

There is an old saying:  you can have it good, have it fast, or have it cheap, but you can’t have all three.  While all of the above options had something appealing, none were perfect.

So for now, I’ve decided to go with good and cheap, opting for a 4TB traditional spinning disk hard drive linked with a high speed connection to my computer.  Total cost:  about $150CDN.  The tradeoff is speed, and I do “pay for it” when working on complex photo edits.  The software may at times lag or stutter, requiring patience and more than a few walk-away breaks to let things finish.  There will be a better solution in my future eventually, but for now, 75% of my work is handled well with this arrangement.

I’d love to hear your ideas and solutions.  What works for you?  How are you handling your growing collection of photographs?  Leave me a comment, or send me a note.

4 thoughts on “Leaving the Mothership

  1. actually correction to my last comment, the LR program Im running from my main C: drive on my iMac, the LR catalog, previews, backups etc (totaling 23GB) I am actually running off my external Drobo. I did have to upgrade my Drobo to one that works with high speed USB C connector. In any case, my set up is a bit expensive but I’ve got 15 years worth of images running through it. I got much of my idea for this setup from George Lepp who is a wildlife and landscape photographer and columnist in Outdoor Photography. He does some extreme stuff like cycling hard drives of his images to a bank vault on a schedule but he’s a pro shooter with 30+ years of images.


  2. Great topic. I personally use a combination of direct attached storage (Drobo) and I also use Carbonite cloud to stream backups of my PC including my Lightroom catalog. What I like about Carbonite is it’s unlimited cloud storage for a flat fee of about $100/year so I don’t have to make compromises about what I do an don’t stream to the cloud. I view this as my “the house burned down storage”. So my workflow is copy from SD/CF card to local drive, quick review of images to delete throw aways, then import to LR with a simultaneous backup of unedited images to my Drobos (imports are dated). After I edit in LR I put keepers in a LR Collection, which automatically syncs to LR CC and in turn Adobe cloud. Since my keepers are a very small fraction of my entire catalog, the small Adobe storage I get with my $10/month Adobe package works fine. Also make it very easy to share images. So the net effect of all of this is multiple tiers of backup both of raw images and my edited collection to both local and multiple clouds. At last count my LR Catalog was about 60,000 images but I need to do some pruning 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Wade. I like your solution, but there’s still a dependency on the hard drive in your computer, if I have this right, to house the keepers and sync to Lightroom CC. While most photoshoots (unless you’re all about weddings!) produce only a small proportion of keepers, even that builds up over time. I think my realistic next move will be away from a laptop to a large capacity desktop where I can implement a setup like yours. And thanks for the info about Carbonite. I’ll look into that.


    2. Yes I use an iMac with 2tb drive. When I travel I use a Surface 4 device with a copy of LR for editing. I then sync edits back to my main catalogue on the iMac when I return. I did try running my LR catalog off an external drive with high speed connection but it wasn’t optimal so opted to expand the main drive. At some point I may prune my catalog to save space as I wasn’t diligent in deleting throw away images years ago. I’m a more critical editor now than I used to be.


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