Is there anything more painful for a photographer than losing any of your valuable image files forever? We invest so much time and money in our gear, skills, adventures and professional client work. And for many professional photographers the biggest asset is their image catalogue. As much as the thought of losing, damaging or having any of our camera gear stolen is extremely upsetting for most, it is replaceable. Very expensive to do so, but replaceable.
One thing that is not replaceable is the images we produce. More often than not, our valuable image files are overlooked when it comes to protecting our photography assets. Over the last few years the bandwidth and data limits available to us through either our mobile or land based internet connections have improved substantially. And this makes it possible to integrate a cloud storage backup platform into our photography workflows much easier and more streamlined than it has ever been before.
The “cloud” as we know it has evolved into an internet “utility” service that connects devices to different services and allows for file sharing between different devices and platforms in a way that is designed to make us feel as if we were moving files around on a local storage device. Thats the theory anyway. The reality is that the limitations faced by photographers using a cloud storage services still come down to the the size and number of files we are moving and the bandwidth we do have access to.
I use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop for the majority of my image processing (plus Affinity Photo on the iPad Pro) and have two main Lightroom catalogues in use at any one time (MacBook Pro mostly for when I am travelling + iMac desktop for my main catalogue). My mobile devices then run Lightroom CC on them with synced folders from my main desktop catalogue. I am producing large PSD and TIF files during the editing process and to send away for printing, and JPG or PNG files for general use which I require ongoing access to wherever I am. And the sheer number of RAW files being produced borders on ridiculous sometimes. With RAW file sizes between 40MB and 120MB depending on the camera I am using, storage requirements soon add up quite quickly.
For my own localised backup purposes, within my home network I have multiple Western Digital NAS devices of different capacity all using WD MyCloud to make files available online. And when I am travelling I carry multiple external hard drives for backing up files on the go, with the majority of files eventually being imported into my desktop Lightroom image catalogue. I also use an Apple Time Capsule specifically for backing up the iMac and MacBook Pro on an ongoing basis.
Over the years I have tried most of the major cloud storage providers for different purposes. My biggest need personally is for image files to be available across a number of devices including desktop iMac, MacBook Pro, iPhones and iPads when I am both at home, or away travelling. I want access to completed edits to be able to provide to a printing company on demand, to be able to share images with clients, to access imagery and other content between multiple devices and of course have backups of as much of my image catalogue as I possibly can.
Based on my own usage types and requirements above, and on many conversations I have with others throughout the photography community and during the workshops and events I host here is what I recommend as the best cloud storage backup solutions for
Dropbox – the best cloud file storage backup service for photographers
Dropbox is without a doubt my main cloud storage platform of choice. It has been for many years for various purposes. Out of all of the platforms I have used it has proven itself to be the fastest and most reliable for all sorts of purposes, but especially for photography.
Transferring large image files has always been quicker on Dropbox when compared to Google Drive due to the methods in which Dropbox transfers files. Without getting into too much of the technical details, Dropbox uses a method of file transfer called block-level file copying, which essentially means that after the first time a file syncs, only the parts of any given file that change thereafter need to be uploaded. None of the other major cloud backup platforms offer this to their entire file set (but some do for their own proprietary files like OneDrive does for Microsoft Office documents).
Dropbox also supports LAN Sync which means when working with multiple computers on the same network using the same Dropbox account, files that are synced to Dropbox by one computer can be copied over the LAN to another computer rather than them both needing to upload and then download the file from the cloud, saving internet data usage and speeding up the file transfer in the process.
Just like Google Drive, Box and even Microsoft’s OneDrive, when installing the Dropbox app onto a computer, a folder is selected or created as the main file sync folder. Any files and directories saved, added or created from that folder will automatically sync to the cloud. Options are available to selectively sync folders or to sync everything that is stored on Dropbox. Through mobile apps on a phone or tablet you can create new folders, add files or photos and they will become available on your other devices (either through an app or via automatic syncing if you have this turned on on a compatible device). If you choose to do so, you are able to back up every image from your camera roll on a mobile phone or tablet automatically to Dropbox.
Smart Sync is one of the newer features of Dropbox which I really like. Basically Smart Sync allows every file on Dropbox to be available on any computer as a bookmark until it is required to be used, saving you local storage space in the process. You can see the file names, but until you need to use them they sit on Dropbox and are visible as “online-only content”. Any files created on other computers that have been synced to Dropbox will appear as a file bookmark until you choose to download them. You can change the default settings to choose what files or folders become local content. And you can individually make those changes on a file by file basis as well.
Sharing files with others from Dropbox is done by either inviting someone to collaborate on or view a folder via email, or by sending a direct link for download access to files. There are multiple options depending on the level of access any individual may need to those files.
It is possible to use Dropbox as the main directory path of your Adobe Lightroom catalogue. Because Dropbox looks at a centralised folder on any computer it is installed on, by creating your Lightroom catalogue and importing all of your images into a folder structure that is stored within that Dropbox shared folder, your files then automatically sync up into the cloud, making backups streamlined, but also meaning multiple computers can access that single catalogue (but only one computer can do so at any given time otherwise you risk losing data and possibly corrupting your catalogue). This can be very useful in combination with LAN Sync, but the downside to this is that only one computer at a time running Lightroom can access the catalogue file that has been created on Dropbox. You can selectively sync only certain parts of your catalogue by turning off folders in Dropbox (but this means those files in those selective folders won’t be able to be accessed via Lightroom until they are synced again) which for some people may be useful to save storage space on desktops or laptops. Out of all of the cloud platforms I have attempted to use this cloud based Lightroom catalogue on, Dropbox is the best and fastest solution. In my opinion it is a better solution to what Creative Cloud can offer mainly due to the speed in which things happen on Dropbox.
Dropbox offers a free tier of usage with 2GB of storage, and paid plans starting at AU$15.39 with 1TB of storage, or AU$30.79 for the Professional plan with 2TB of storage. At these prices Dropbox is definitely not the cheapest cloud storage provider around. But in terms of speed, functionality and features Dropbox is my personal favourite cloud platform for every day use. It’s not the only one I use though.
Google Drive – great for photographers file backups but lacking a few features
Of the mainstream cloud storage platforms, Google Drive is the cheapest and offers the most storage of them all. Anyone with a Google account has 15GB of storage for free to store any types of files they like. For AU$2.49 / month you can upgrade to 100GB of storage and for AU$12.49 / month 2TB of storage is available.
There are a lot of similar features offered in Google Drive to what Dropbox offers including options like the ability to selectively decide what files are synced locally and what are “online only” by right clicking on files on a Mac or Windows based machine and selecting the options under “Drive File Stream”. You can see all of your files as bookmarks just like Smart Sync in Dropbox. By default all files that are stored in Google Drive will be visible whether they are “available offline” or “online only”. I prefer the options in Dropbox which give the ability to not sync at all if you choose to do so.
Google Drive is the cheapest and offers the most storage of them all. Anyone with a Google account has 15GB of storage for free to store any types of files they like. For AU$2.49 / month you can upgrade to 100GB of storage and for AU$12.49 / month 2TB of storage is available.
As mentioned above in the Dropbox section, Google does not use any form of block-level file copying or any features similar to LAN Sync, so when changes are made to files to anything stored on Google Drive, the entire file needs to be uploaded again which uses far more bandwidth and is much slower than Dropbox.
I use Google Docs through my Google G-Suite subscription for a number of reasons including planning episodes of the Project RAWcast podcast, typing out articles when I am on the road and for collating spreadsheets of all sorts of different information. That comes with 30GB of storage space for US$6 / month. That’s an extra 30GB of storage which I can use to store some important image files for the purpose of having multiple backups. But otherwise, for me personally Google Drive definitely comes in behind Dropbox in terms of functionality and usability for my daily photography needs. For many though it will do the job well and is a cheaper option when compared to Dropbox.
Adobe Creative Cloud – potentially the best cloud storage backup for photographers
Adobe has been making a big push into the “cloud” market with the release of software solutions that are fully compatible on both desktop / laptop based computers, or mobile phones and tablets. In recent years Adobe has created a cloud storage solution that is designed to complement is suite of photography specific productivity tools like Photoshop and Lightroom, with the idea being that your work can be saved in a centralised location accessible across all devices running their apps.
I am still trying to figure out how to make the 100GB of storage I have available to me with my monthly Creative Cloud subscription be of any benefit to my overall photography workflow or to offer something other services don’t. As of writing this article, I currently use it to synchronise certain collections from the catalogue that is stored on my desktop iMac into Lightroom CC on mobile devices. But the reality is that the multiple catalogues I operate feel as if they are disjointed and not completely integrated as one set of files. The fact that you cannot “export originals” from Lightroom CC on mobile for any of the images that show across synced catalogues from Lightroom CC Classic (confusing, I know…) means that although your images and slider settings are consistent in that situation, I can’t actual export a TIF or PSD file from Lightroom CC on a mobile device. They only export as JPGs. This can be an issue in certain situations like making files available for print.
I terms of just a file storage and backup solution, Creative Cloud would be just as good as Box or Google Drive in terms of functionality. A centralised folder is created on a computer and all files in that folder would sync. You can manually upload files via a web based interface, or via apps available on mobile devices.
The future of Creative Cloud storage is something I am looking forward to though. With the imminent release of Adobe Photoshop for the iPad Pro, Adobe has built a new file type called Cloud PSD, which promises to offer a true cloud based file type that is compatible with its core photography software products. By uploading the Cloud PSD file to the cloud, all of your devices will have access to a centralised file, with a catalogue file storing the settings and changes. Details of this new file type are scarce at the moment, but if Cloud PSD allows full exports for a single file that multiple Lightroom installations have access to (and you can export the file in all its full glory), then Creative Cloud will become an indispensable cloud storage platform for those using Adobe products.
Pricing for Adobe Creative Cloud starts at AU$14.99 with 10GB storage and includes subscriptions to Lightroom and Photoshop. So in terms of pricing for Creative Cloud, it is a difficult to compare Adobe’s products with the other services listed above. Because the cloud storage component includes photography software many of us use already, and the potential is for it to help create a streamlined ecosystem between Lightroom or Photoshop installations, I would recommend using it. However at this stage I wouldn’t consider it as a replacement to Dropbox within my own photography workflow.
Box – designed for the enterprise but useful for photographers
Box is yet another cloud storage and backup option that offers very similar features in terms of long term storage, backup, file sharing and data integration with a huge range of third party services, particularly for enterprise purposes. Box has built its core business on supporting enterprise / business customers but does offer plans that may suit those in the photography industry.
Plans start for free for a total of 10GB of storage, but comes with a restriction of only being able to upload files that are 250MB or less in size. A “Personal Pro” plan will cost AU$14 / month for 100GB of storage and a 5GB maximum file size limit per file.
If it was a choice between Box and Google Drive, I would definitely recommend Google Drive due to the larger storage capacity available for the same price. There are no extra features that I could say would be beneficial to photographers available on Box when compared to other platforms, which again makes it harder to recommend.
NAS or personal cloud for photographers
Having full control over your file storage and incorporating storage space into your own network is going to be a big benefit to most. Quite simply the speed in which you can move, copy and backup files is far superior to using an internet based cloud platforms such as Dropbox or Google Drive. The major benefit of being able to store files in multiple places is always an advantage when it comes to file backups as well.
The internal hard drives in the average computer generally would top out at 500GB – 1TB. The most recent Lightroom image catalogue I just backed up and moved between my own NAS devices was 3.6TB. And that was just one catalogue from the past 12 months. I use Western Digital MyCloud Pro and Expert series drives, making files available to me via the WD MyCloud online service when I am away from my home network. WD MyCloud basically allows me to communicate directly with the storage hardware within my home network. Anything I store on those hard drives is accessible remotely. When this works it is great. The risk in relying on any NAS system though is hardware failure. If your hard drives crash, your images will be gone forever, which is why I would recommend using a combination of personal NAS / personal cloud storage and services such as Google Drive or Dropbox.
There are countless NAS solutions in various sizes and price points available from Western Digital, Seagate, Synology, QNAP and more. All of the major NAS hardware providers will offer a feature to be able to backup the content of any of their hard drives to Dropbox, Google Drive and others, and this could provide you with a streamlined way of ensuring you have backups of your files in multiple places – both locally on devices you control, and within a reliable cloud storage provider.
iCloud Drive – a cloud solution for photographers who use Apple products
Ok, so for those non Apple users out there feel free to tune out of this one. iCloud is the service that connects Apple devices like iPhone, iPad, MacBooks, iMacs and even Apple TV and allows for syncing of photos and other documents between them all. By creating an Apple ID you automatically get 5GB of iCloud storage for free. Plans then start at AU$1.49 / month for 50GB, up to AU$14.99 / month for 2TB.
iCloud was not initially designed as a pure cloud storage platform in the way Dropbox has been, but more so as a way of synchronising settings, allowing for device specific backups and storing calendar and email information. All of the different apps Apple built around that cloud app framework will sync their data within iCloud.
But it can be used as a file storage service just like the others listed above with a local folder being created on any Apple device being connected to that account, and file transfers synchronising across those folders to all devices. If you use an iPhone to shoot a lot of imagery, having those images in your camera roll appear on any connected device is very useful. Even RAW files will synchronise meaning a backup is available in the cloud, and those files will appear in the original format across connected devices.
The best cloud storage solution for your photography is the one that works for you
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, the usage case I have presented for myself may not suit the individual needs of every photographer. The combination of NAS / personal cloud combined with Dropbox and Google Drive works for me. I don’t regularly access the files on Google Drive, but through an automated backup process straight from my NAS to Google’s servers I can maintain multiple backups of certain files. Dropbox is definitely my main cloud storage platform of choice for the photography I produce, to backup my important files and to share them when required.
I also use Apple devices, and iCloud is a useful service for keeping those everyday memories produced from my mobile phone camera synced across multiple devices. With mobile devices becoming a bigger part of my photography workflow, iCloud can also provide that extra bit of storage away from my business and main photography related storage solutions.
There are plenty of other services in the market like Backblaze, which is a cost effective backup solution offering unlimited space for $6 / month. It doesn’t offer the file sharing and other features that Dropbox does, but to backup a lot of files it is another service to check out.
No matter how you look at it, using a good cloud storage platform should give you storage space for your precious files, the ability to automate backups and make your files available across as many devices as possible. And of course, keep your most valuable photography assets – your images – safe.