Online photo storage backup in the cloud is coming of age. It’s now viable to include cloud storage as part of a broader strategy for backing up your large image archive. But there are still some challenges that relate specifically to serious photographers’ needs, and those are what I’m focusing on here.
There are other options that do. Some are fully automated with an app that runs in the background of your computer and automatically handles the backup process. They’re essentially set-and-forget services. Others provide server space for you to manually upload your files to. Some offer encryption; some don’t. Some give you easy access to your images; some don’t.
What the “best” option is for you depends on the specifics of your workflow, how much control you want, whether you want to back up every photo or just the keepers, how much security you need, and how much you’re willing to spend. There’s no one single service that is going to be a perfect fit for every photographer’s workflow and preferences. There’s a lot of information below, but it’s worth taking some time to find the solution that works best for you. Some services offer free trials.
Backup, Backup, Backup
The standard recommendation–and one that I agree with–is that the minimum threshold for having your data “backed up” means that you have at least three copies of your files and that they should not be all in the same place and on the same media. More than three can be even better so long as it doesn’t become so onerous to keep track of everything that the backup system falters.
In addition to your main working files, you should have at least one local backup on something you can hold in your hand, like a hard drive, Blu-ray discs, DVDs, or, maybe even tape. Something like Time Machine on Mac is a good place to start. Those backups are convenient as your first line of defense and are the most convenient to restore from if you need to. But there’s not a single media type that provides a perfect long-term storage solution. Hard drives fail. Blu-ray discs and DVDs get scratched and are mostly unproven over time. Tape isn’t really practical or cost-effective in many cases. And pretty much all physical media formats are susceptive to bit rot over time. Formats also change–floppy disks, anyone? So you need something else as well.
That something else should be off-site. If your house or studio burns down and reduces your computer and the fancy network drive sitting next to it to a heap of molten plastic and metal, you’re in trouble. There are all sorts of ways to keep an off-site backup. One of the easiest is to swap out periodically out a hard drive that’s kept physically elsewhere, like the office, at home, or even with the in-laws. Basically, you want it to be somewhere that isn’t going to burn if your house burns down. The hardest part of that, of course, is the doing it part. There’s no real way to automate it, and skipping the swap out for a few months could lead to a lot of lost data.
In recent years fast internet connections and exponentially cheaper data storage costs have made it more viable to use online cloud storage as an added off-site option. They can be very effective, often easy to use, and can be surprisingly cost-effective.
That said, I don’t recommend relying on any online cloud storage as your primary or only form of backup for your images. Most of the time these services are very reliable. But there are just too many things you don’t control to put all of your eggs in one basket. The internet goes down. Servers get hacked. Monthly subscription fees don’t get paid. Terms of service get revised without notice. Companies go belly-up (like Digital Railroad in 2008 or both BigStash and Photokeeper in 2015) or bought out by Facebook (like Instagram). In short, cloud backups are good options for including as one part a broader backup strategy, but they aren’t a backup strategy in and of themselves.
Usage Scenario for Comparing Cloud Photo Storage
Before we get started, I should explain what expectations I’m using in the discussion below, because there are a bunch of different ways that photographers might want to integrate the cloud into their workflow.
The real-world benchmark I’m using here is backing up 1TB of RAW files.1 Of course, many of us have far more than that. But 1TB suggests you’re a serious shooter and not just taking the occasional family snapshots in JPG. You need something more flexible and robust than posting your photos on Facebook.
I’m specifying RAW files for several reasons. One is that many pro and serious shooters shoot RAW.2 Another is that they tend to be large files and create large archives. Another is that some of the dedicated photo backup solutions explicitly exclude RAW–there are many more options for backing up JPG images than RAW, but if a service supports RAW, it also supports JPG. And most importantly, protecting your RAW files is analogous to protecting your film negatives. They are the archival masters and can’t be replaced if lost.
I’m also going to assume that you have a fast broadband connection. Don’t even think about online backup of large photo archives if you’re on dial-up or flaky wifi. And storing large amounts of data on the cloud only really makes sense where you don’t have metered internet usage. If you’re somewhere like Australia where metered internet plans are common, the costs of just uploading the data over broadband could well end up being prohibitive before you even start thinking about storage costs.
But assuming you have a fast broadband connection that isn’t metered and that doesn’t include bandwidth caps, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the initial upload of 1TB to online cloud storage is going to take a while regardless of what option you go with. I don’t mean go-grab-a-coffee long. I mean days or weeks. But with some services, it’s unacceptably long (i.e., months or years). So it’s worth knowing what type of service you’re getting ahead of time. Once that initial upload is done, the day-to-day delays in uploading are usually much more manageable because they should just do an incremental backup of any data that’s new or updated.
And finally, all of the options I’ve outlined below work on both Mac and Windows.
Photo Backup Services for the Cloud
A number of sites and apps catering their offerings specifically to photographers include robust online backup features.
Photoshelter used to market itself as a bullet-proof backup service for your images (hence the name, presumably). At one time, it had its own curated stock photo business (Photoshelter Collection), but that’s long gone. These days its marketing leans more heavily on web portfolios. And it’s much more full-featured than just backing up. Among its other built-in features are ones for selling, showcasing, sharing, and organizing your images. But their backup remains as solid as it ever has.
Photoshelter is designed specifically for image files. Support for RAW files is included by default. It does not currently support video files–it has been talked about for many years, but I’m not holding my breath.
Photoshelter backups are not automated, and so it isn’t a set-and-forget service. You manually upload files to the system. There are several ways to upload files, including through the web interface, by FTP, through a Lightroom export or publish service, or through PhotoMechanic.
They have a few different plans that vary by features and image storage. The Pro plan now includes unlimited storage for $49.99/month. Other fees are involved if you take advantage of their e-commerce services.
I’ve used Photoshelter for over a decade now. And while I don’t tend to regard them primarily as a data backup service, I do store some master RAW files in the system alongside many more master TIFs, and I’ve always found its data storage to be fast, reliable, and accessible. It’s also a very useful way to serve responsive photo galleries if you’re using an external website or blog (so long as your external site isn’t on HTTPS). They’ve recently promised to renew their efforts to make improvements as we head into 2020 and beyond.
Zenfolio is another full-featured online photography service to help you showcase and sell your photos.
By default, the regular Zenfolio subscription options include minimal RAW file storage (up to 2GB for Unlimited, Premium, and Premium Business accounts/none for the Basic Plus plan). But you can add it as an optional extra. You’re charged for it on top of your regular subscription fee.
Prices are on a per-usage basis and vary slightly by location. In US dollars, it’s $0.085/GB/month. So backing up 1TB will be $85 per month.
The backup isn’t automated–you have to manually upload the files you want to back up.
General Cloud Backup Services
There are also many general backup services designed for most other file types that work just as well with RAW files. Some are better than others for our purposes of backing up a large archive of RAW images.
Thanks to a healthy marketing budget, Carbonite is one of the best known of the online backup services. It works with most file formats, including RAW files. It uses a backup app that runs in the background on your computer to automate the process.
For a while, Carbonite choked upload speeds. They’ve now done away with those and offer 3 unlimited plans which varying degrees of features and priced accordingly. The Basic Plan is $72/year but doesn’t include backing up external hard drives (you can add that as an option–and extra–service). If you want to add that feature as included, as well as being able to backup multiple computers (a desktop and a laptop, for example), you’ll need to step up to the $288/year plan.
When you install the app, not all file types are included by default in all plans. But you can change that in the settings.
Backblaze is an automated set-and-forget online backup service. It works with most file formats, including RAW files. The Backblaze app is native to PC or Mac and does not use Java (some people, like me, prefer not to use Java apps).
Now that Carbonite has abandoned its mandatory bandwidth throttling, Backblaze and Carbonite are very similar–unlimited backup, unlimited restores, fully automated, and a flat fee. How much you can upload each day will depend on your internet connection. I routinely get upwards of 100GB per day on my fast connection. You can also manually throttle the speed if you’re having network issues, and you can turn off backups when you’re running a laptop on battery power.
Backblaze also includes fine-grained controls over what files get backed up, scheduling when they are backed up, and notifications.
And one of the great features of Backblaze for backing up RAW files is that you can backup external hard drives. So long as those drives are connected to your system at least once every 30 days, they’ll be treated just like the rest of your storage. If you’re using something like a NAS, that’s a very useful feature. It supports USB, Firewire, and Thunderbolt external drives but not ethernet-connected network drives.
Restoring a smallish amount of data by downloading is convenient and quick. When you log in to your account online, you’re given a familiar file browser. You can browse for the files you need or search. You can also specify a timeframe within the past 30 days for when the files were backed up, which can come in very handy if you’ve accidentally overwritten files. Once you choose the files you want to restore, they’re zipped up, and you’re sent a direct link to download the zip file. There’s no specified maximum file size for download restoring, but the larger the restore size, the longer it takes in the queue. The largest I’ve done was about 60GB; it took about 24 hrs to be sent the download link. The download link for smaller restores usually gets sent within minutes.
If you need to restore larger amounts of data, you have two further options that are shipped to you: by USB Flash drive (up to 128GB / $99) or external hard drive (up to 3TB / $189, refunded if you return the drive within 30 days). While shipping the data might sound like a slow way to get your data, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s faster than downloading a 3TB restore.
I’ve been using Backblaze since 2009 and have been very happy with it. I’ve had to use the download restore for smaller batches of files many times and have used the hard drive option to restore a large archive when an external drive crashed. More recently, I’ve also added their B2 service into the mix of my automated backup routine.
Backblaze has a very simple pricing structure. It’s $5/month per computer with discounted rates if you pay for a year or two up front. There’s also a business plan that’s a flat-rate $50 per year per computer. All plans include unlimited data storage.
There’s also a mobile app that you can use to access your files on the go.
And unlike many of the other online backup offerings that use Amazon’s or Rackspace’s cloud storage, Backblaze maintain their own datacenter and have custom-designed their own storage pods.
CrashPlan is another general backup service that handles most file formats, including RAW. It’s an automated service, with a Java app running in the background on your computer.
For a monthly subscription (with discounts if paid yearly) you get unlimited online storage. You can back also back up external drives. And as an extra precaution against accidental deletions, they also keep all of your deleted files unless you explicitly tell them not to. That can come in very handy if you discover a few days later that you accidentally deleted something.
They used to offer a consumer version known as CrashPlan Home for $5/month, but they’ve now shifted their focus to business clients. The CrashPlan for Small Business plan is a flat rate of $10 per month per computer or file server.
CrashPlan also offers a seeded backup option where they send you a hard drive, which you fill up and send back to them to get the backup started. It can save a lot of time with that initial backup. The seeded backup service includes return shipping.
And if you need it, there’s also the option of restoring your data by them sending you a hard drive with the data loaded on it. There’s a charge of $164.99 for that.
Zoolz Home is an automated backup service with unlimited file storage. It’s built on the idea of cold storage. They specifically focus on “lifetime” cloud storage for data that isn’t retrieved often. The service supports most file formats, including RAW (Zoolz also supports preview images for most RAW formats).
Zoolz allows you to backup not just your internal hard drive but also external hard drives. One of the nice features of the external drive support that sets it apart from Backblaze is that you don’t have to reconnect your hard drive at least once every 30 days or have the backup deleted. On Zoolz, they just stay backed up.
Because Zoolz uses Amazon’s Glacier service (see below) there’s a lag of 3-5 hours for retrieving backed up files.
Zoolz’s pricing structure has changed. They now offer 1TB/5 user plan for $39.95 per year or a 4TB/5-user plan for $99.95 per year. The 4TB plan includes unlimited external/network drives.
Google eased into the cloud storage market surprisingly slowly. Their Google Drive offering started mostly as a way to integrate Google Docs and to sync documents so that they could be available on all your computers and devices. Initially, the storage space it offered was good but not enough to back up photo archives.
That’s changed. Google Drive now offers very large storage space plans at very reasonable prices. The 1TB plan is $9.99 per month [Note: Since I originally wrote this, Dropbox has matched this 1TB plan.] Even the 10TB plan is a very reasonable $99.99 per month. And you can go all the way up to 30TB.
And in a nice touch, Google Drive even has built-in support for generating RAW previews.
Google Drive works with an app that gets installed on your computer that automates the sync process. Your files are then available on your hard drive, through the website, as well as on your mobile devices.
But there is a big catch when it comes to backing up large image archives. You have only limited control over which folders are synced–it all has to go in a Google Drive folder on your computer, and everything under that gets synced. That means you can’t back up external hard drives or network drives.
And be careful if you want to use the same Google Drive account on more than one computer. By default, Google Drive mirrors the same folders on all your computers as well as with the online version. So if you’re not careful, you can very easily end up creating a duplicated 1TB (or larger) archive on both computers. That’s great for having redundant backups, but your laptop might hate you for it. There’s some control over excluding folders from sync to that particular computer in the Google Drive app’s preferences (under Sync Options tab), but for now, it’s not very flexible.
Google has also launched a Google Cloud service that is exponentially more powerful and also more complicated. It’s more akin to Amazon’s AWS ecosystem, and while it can be used for simple file storage, that’s not really the most sensible use case for it.
Dropbox’s offerings have been evolving periodically. The current plans for individuals that are relevant here are the Plus (2TB for $11.99/month) and the Professional (3TB for $19.99/month). They also have business plans, some of which include unlimited storage, that are priced by the number of users.
Dropbox’s core strengths are geared toward file syncing and more general backup, but the ability to be able to select which folders are backed up and synced makes it a useful option for backing up photo archives. It can also be a very straightforward way to quickly share images and files with clients on an ad hoc basis.
Microsoft is another one that storage plans that are somewhat of a moving target as they evolve. The current 1TB plan is now known as Office 365 Personal and is priced at $6.99/month. For larger amounts of storage space, you’ll need to step up to the business plans which are priced by user.
The plans are packed with features, but many of them might not be relevant to what you need for backing up photos. If you already have a OneDrive account or are looking for a one-stop cloud for business use, it’s worth a look, but it makes less sense to head in that direction just for backing up files.
SugarSync is another all-purpose automated sync and backup service. It works with most file formats, including RAW files. It’s similar to Dropbox in many respects.
SugarSync offers plans with higher data storage quotas. Their Business plan with 1TB of storage space is $55/month. As with Dropbox, you’ll want to carefully select the syncing options so that you don’t unintentionally back everything up to your laptop as well.
SOS Online Backup
SOS Online Backup has a lot of very attractive features, including affordable price plans, strong end-to-end encryption, what they call “infinite storage,” no file size or type limits, as well as version history and archiving. It also works by default with external drives and network drives (NAS) and doesn’t require the drives to be connected after they’re backed up. There are also mobile apps for accessing and manually backing up data. Like several of the others, there’s a sync service app that runs in the background, and you can set the schedule of when it runs.
It has plans for a single computer or bundles of five computers. You can find more info here
But there are two areas I have concerns. One is that it’s hard to cancel your account–there’s no easily identifiable way to do so through the online dashboard. Another is that there’s no obvious way to contact support. These are both important negatives in my book.
Making Your Own Cloud Storage Solution
If you’d rather have fine-grained control, you can also roll your own backup solution.
While it’s possible to host your own server as a data backup, creating a standalone, robust backup solution is often more trouble than it’s worth. But if you have a secure off-site location for a server, funds of hardware, and the technical chops to set it up and maintain it, it’s certainly possible.
A good middle ground is to use a hybrid solution of using commercial storage space with your own syncing and backup routine. That way, you can use something like rsync or any number of other sync apps running locally on your computer.
Rolling your own backup solution gives you the most control over what gets backed, when, and how much it costs. But it also means that if everything goes pear-shaped, it’s up to you to fix it.
Amazon Cloud Storage
Amazon offers two cloud storage options that are suitable for backing up images. Many of the automated backup services use Amazon S3 or Amazon Glacier for their data storage. And there’s no reason you can’t use them directly yourself.
Amazon S3 is scalable data storage. Have 4 petabytes of images to back up and a large budget? Go for it!
You pay for the data storage you use as well as for uploading, downloading, and accessing the files. Setting it up is more complicated than setting up one of the automated backup services, but once you’ve got it set up how you like, it’s very flexible, very reliable, very fast, and in the right circumstances, can be quite cost-effective. It can also be a useful way to send large files to clients, and when set up correctly, can essentially serve as a practically infinite cloud drive.
If you’re setting up Amazon S3 for the first time, though, take a careful look at the pricing structure and monitor your usage closely, at least at first. It’s easy to get sticker shock if you go hog wild in that first month as you experiment by uploading hundreds of gigabytes. There are several variables that go into determining the costs of S3, but in the most basic version, with 1TB of data stored, adding another 60GB during the month, and not doing any restores will set you back something like $30. Restoring 50GB will increase the total monthly price to something like $34. Restoring 1TB of data would increase the total to around $146. You can find the official Amazon S3 pricing here.
One option that’s worth looking at if you want to go the S3 route is their Reduced Redundancy option. That slightly reduces Amazon’s guarantee that your files are safe while also reducing the price. Using the same scenario above (1TB of data, 60GB going in), it would be about $25 (compared with $30 on regular S3), and adding 50GB restore would increase it to about $29 (compared with $34 on regular S3). Restoring 1TB of data would increase the total to around $146.
If you’re aiming for a true backup system where you don’t need rapid access to the files themselves and very, very rarely need to restore them, Amazon Glacier might be a better option. It’s similar to S3, but it’s a stripped-down version and is, therefore, cheaper, with the storage price running at $0.01 per GB. Like Amazon S3, for all intents and purposes, it’s limitless data storage.
But with that cost-saving comes a disadvantage of there being a lag between you requesting files and actually getting them, unlike with S3, where the files are constantly accessible. Glacier gets its name from cold storage, which is not designed for anything destined for rapid use.
The pricing structure of Glacier factors in several variables, but it’s basically 1 cent per GB for storage. Assuming you back up 1 TB of data and don’t retrieve or restore any of it, it comes out at $10/month. Unlike S3, there’s no charge for uploading data to Glacier–you’re only charged when you download data. But that’s where Glacier can really hit you. There’s a sliding scale for the prices depending on how quickly you need your data. While there’s no cost for uploading to Glacier, downloading involves both a retrieval cost and a transfer cost. In a worst-case scenario, when you need 1TB back urgently within 4 hours, it’ll set you back in the neighborhood of $1900. If you can wait 24 hours, it drops down to just over $400. If you can wait 72 hours, it’s down in the $200 range. In short, Glacier is very cost-effective for storing large amounts of data that you rarely access, but it can be expensive if you ever need to retrieve that data quickly. You can find the official Glacier pricing here and an unofficial calculator here.
Amazon Cloud Drive
While Amazon Cloud Drive has itself been around for a little while now, they’ve fairly recently made a play to position it as a place to store your photos with Prime Photos. Their offerings change–it started as unlimited photos and has more recently started adding limits–and it’s not suitable for professional use.
The folks at Backblaze have launched their own cloud storage service, called B2. It’s functionally similar to Amazon S3 and Microsoft Azure but with much lower fees and costs–about 1/4 of the cost of S3.
It’s now open to everyone. One important consideration is that while more and more third-party software is starting to support it–including some of my favorite go-to apps like Transmit and ChronoSync–not all of them do. So it’s worth checking first to see if your preferred apps already play nicely with it.
Wasabi is a newer cloud service. Their headline claim is that they’re “80% cheaper than Amazon S3.” Or, more explicitly: “Wasabi’s pricing model of $.0059 per GB/mo ($5.99 per TB/month) with no additional charges for egress or API requests means you don’t pay to access your data.” That model can be particularly attractive if you’re accessing the backup data a lot. Services like Amazon S3, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud would charge you for accessing and downloading the files, but Wasabi doesn’t.
In several ways, it’s similar to Amazon S3 but cheaper and with a more user-friendly interface. Their service is fully S3-compatible, which extends to plugins and services, and they’re very transparent with their pricing. In addition, the pedigrees of the people behind it, as well as its performance claims and pricing makes it well worth watching. They have a 30-day free trial that lets you store up to 1TB.
Other Options for Cloud Photo Storage
Here are some of the many other cloud backup services that are potentially of interest for this type of use but that I haven’t yet had a chance to take a good look at.
- Tresorit is a general data cloud backup service. It’s a Swiss service that puts emphasis on security and privacy. A single user account with 1TB is $30/month. They have multi-user accounts that can work out cheaper on a per-user basis.
- SpiderOak is another general backup service that puts emphasis on privacy. They have single-user plans for 1TB for $12/month.
- Box used to be known as Box.net, and in that form, they were actually one of the earliest players in the space. I haven’t tried them recently, though. The personal plans are limited to 100GB, but their business plans come with unlimited space for $15/user/month.
There are many other alternatives for cloud storage, each with its own pros and cons. Most of the services listed below are very good in their own way and are well-suited to other purposes. But in terms of backing up large archives of RAW image files, they have issues.
- PhotoDeck. There’s a lot to like about PhotoDeck, and it’s been coming along in leaps and bounds in the past several years. But despite an impressive feature set for creating an online presence, PhotoDeck doesn’t support RAW files.
- Flickr. Flickr can accept RAW files (they’re converted to JPG), but it’s not well suited to archiving large numbers of photos for the purposes of backup. It’s really designed for sharing, not archiving.
- 500px. There’s a lot to like, but it doesn’t support RAW. It’s really designed for sharing and showcasing, not archiving.
- Photobucket. Doesn’t support RAW files. It’s really designed for sharing, not archiving.
- Mozyhome. Not enough space. Standard plans are only 50GB or 125GB.
- MozyPro: Too expensive. 1TB of space is $380/month.
- Facebook. The world’s biggest photo-sharing site doesn’t support RAW and isn’t suitable for large-scale backup.
- Google+. While Google+ had a good reputation as a more photographer-friendly social media platform than Facebook, and it did indeed accept RAW files (and is especially good at converting them to JPGs), it has now been shuttered. Google Drive is a better bet [see above].
- JungleDisk has moved away from consumer use and is now aimed more at businesses. While they can still act as an intermediary service connecting to cloud storage providers like Dropbox and Google Drive, they’ve branched out into other areas. So it’s not really a good fit for backing up photos anymore–at least, not in any straightforward sense.
Recommendations for Cloud Photo Storage and Backup
There’s no “right” answer to which option is best. But here’s what I’d recommend based on my own experience if you’re looking for guidance.
If you want other features geared to photographers: Photoshelter or, if you’re already using Zenfolio or SmugMug, add the optional online storage add-ons they offer. I personally use PhotoShelter and have been doing so since they started.
If you want maximum control: Amazon S3, Amazon Glacier, or Microsoft Azure. The one I’m now using is B2. They’re very powerful, which gives you that high level of control, but by themselves they’re backend services, so you’ll need to find or develop a way to interface with them.
Come and Gone
There have been a number of services that have launched with much fanfare but failed to stick around. Normally, I wouldn’t mention them, but I’ll list some of the notable ones here for two reasons: in part as a matter of record in case people are looking for services they’ve heard about by name, and in part to underline the point that relying on third-party services for your backups can involve the risk of the third-party service going belly-up.
- PictureLife was bought out by SmugMug in 2016 and the standalone service was shut down.
- SmugVault. SmugVault as a separate offering was shut down in 2016.
- Wuala shut down at the end of 2015.
- Mosaic. It was a Lightroom-specific service that was paired with an online backup archive service. At some point in late-2015 or early-2016, its website started to point to ON1’s main website, with no mention of what became of the archival service. It’s possible that it might reappear at some point as part of ON1’s ever-growing suite of software and services, but for now, it seems defunct.
- Photokeeper. Another promising beginning that failed to get enough users to make it a viable business, and it closed up shop in late-2015.
- BigStash. A promising feature set was thwarted by business realities, and the company closed up shop in July 2015 before making it out of beta.
- Photokeeper shut down in 2015.
- Digital Railroad. A lot of photographers got burned badly when Digital Railroad folded very suddenly in 2008.
- To be pedantic, 1TB actually equals 1024GB. Some of the plans of the services discussed above offer 1000GB plans. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m using 1TB and 1000GB interchangeably. ↩
- Many sports shooters and photojournalists shoot in JPG. But chances are that any backup service that supports large numbers of RAW files will equally well support the massive JPG image archives those shooters generate. ↩