You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

What’s the best way to organise and store my digital photos?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 24-06-2016 Jack Schofield

undefined© iStock/ Getty undefined I store my photos on a six-year-old MacBook Pro, which still has a traditional hard drive. My next laptop will probably have a 512GB or smaller SSD, so I will need another way to store them. I would like to share a database with my husband, so we can store family and travel photos from phones and cameras. I’m still uncomfortable with the thought of all my family photos being online somewhere, which I accept may be a little illogical as I do use cloud back up for other items.

The next part of the question is how best to manage photos. I use iPhoto (now Photos) and briefly looked at Adobe Lightroom, but didn’t really need the pro features for the handful of times I shoot in RAW. However, iPhoto/Photos was/is creaking with the amount of photos I have. Jan

When storing digital photos, aim to have at least three copies of everything, preferably more. Ideally, all three sets of photos should be on different media, and one copy should be “off site”, not in your home.

There are lots of different ways to store photos. These include SD cards, USB thumb drives, DVD or Blu-ray discs, external hard drives, NAS (Network Attached Storage) boxes, and online (cloud) services. It depends how many photos you have, how often you need to access them, and how much you are willing to pay.

The best option for individuals is an external hard drive, connected to your PC via a USB or Thunderbolt port. Powered USB 3 drives are big, fast, reasonably priced, and generally reliable. At the moment, 3TB drives are probably your best bet, but you can choose from 2TB to 5TB drives. It depends on the size of your photo collection, and how fast it’s growing. Estimate how much space you will need in, say, five years.

You will need two external hard drives, so that one provides a backup. What I do is copy all the media files (photos, music, movies etc) on my desktop PC – the master database – to an external hard drive. This is synced to an identical external hard drive via FreeFileSync, but there are plenty of alternative programs.

This approach has two problems. First, it doesn’t provide an off-site backup. Second, it doesn’t offer a simple way to share photos that are not on the PC.

In your case, the cheapest solution is to buy his-and-hers external hard drives. You copy all your photos to your EHD, your husband copies all his photos to his EHD, and then you sync the two drives. Obviously this must be a two-way sync, so each drive ends up with both sets of photos. (A mirror sync will delete all the photos that are on one drive but not on the other.)

With this system, you will have at least two copies of each photo, and possibly more (if your PC or Time Capsule has copies). Each of you will have easy access to the other’s photos, as long as you’re at home.

Get a NAS

A more flexible, but more expensive, approach is to buy a NAS box. A NAS is basically a small computer with its own processor, memory and operating system. but it’s packaged as an appliance for storing and sharing files.

You could both store all your photos on the NAS, and access them at any time via Wi-Fi. The NAS makes it easy to look at photos on smartphones and tablets as well as on PCs. NAS boxes can be accessed from any operating system including macOS (OS X), iOS, Windows, Android and Linux, and you can access them remotely.

NAS boxes are usually supplied without any storage. You can buy a 2-bay, 4-bay or larger NAS and then install suitable hard drives. If you run out of space, you can replace the NAS hard drives with larger ones. Look at Synology and QNAP devices to see what you need, and can afford. As a Mac user, you will want AirPlay support.

Set up your NAS to use RAID 1, so you have two hard drives installed, and one is a mirror image of the other. This will provide a backup if one hard drive fails. You can also back up the NAS to another external hard drive, which you can store somewhere else. (At your office, a friend’s house, a bank vault or whatever.)

For more information, see my earlier answers: Which NAS should I buy to store files? and How do I set up a media server to share photos with phones and tablets?

Cloud backup

Nowadays, it’s easy to get an off-site back up by uploading files to the cloud. For photos, I recommend Flickr, which has been one of the best solutions for a decade. During that time, many other services have disappeared, such as Everpix, or changed the way they work, often for the worse. Flickr lets you share photos if you want, and it also has iPhone and Android apps.

Flickr provides 1TB of free photo storage with photo editing and management tools. Two accounts will provide 2TB.

The best alternative is SmugMug, which provides unlimited storage of photos for $40 a year. SmugMug is aimed at professional photographers, who can set up websites and sell photos and prints online. However, it’s easy enough for anyone to use, and you can password-protect folders, galleries, pages, or your whole site.

There are dozens of cloud services that don’t specialise in hosting images. There are also online backup services that will back up whole hard drives, including Backblaze, CrashPlan, Carbonite, and Mozy. I don’t have the space to go into all of them here. However, there are significant differences between sites that are serious about storing original photos online, and sites that just store files.

Photo organisers

The major task is to organise all your photos in one folder called Photos or something similar, so you can back them up. It’s easiest to store images in the sub-folders that were created in the camera. However, I suggest you open folders for each year (2013, 2014, 2015 etc) and then sub-folders for each month or each quarter. After that, you can have topic folders, such as Vienna trip, or Alice’s wedding, with a General folder for the leftovers.

You can also have separate folders for topics such as holidays or weddings, which you remember by name rather than by year. I have separate folders for family photos, which would otherwise be widely dispersed across the past decade.

Once you have a logical, expandable structure in place, you can use software to catalogue your photos and make individual pictures easier to find.

There are dozens of photo organizers, but I recommend Adobe Lightroom. Most people see it as a way of processing images, and it’s very good at that. It’s also a great way to organise the photos on your hard drive. You can sort them using EXIF data, move them into new folders, and rename them easily. See, for example, How to Organize Photos in Lightroom, and the YouTube video, Image Management in Lightroom.

Lightroom is ubiquitous in serious photographic circles so there are dozens of tips and tutorials, it can handle professional work volumes in a professional way, and – unlike Apple’s Aperture – it’s not going to be abandoned. It’s very reasonably priced by Adobe standards, and you can buy a standalone version without signing up for Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Adobe Elements is a cheaper alternative

Mylio (from “My life is organised”) is a different sort of alternative: it catalogues and organises photos wherever they happen to be stored, whether on PCs, smartphones, or online services. But for long-term backup purposes, it’s better to do the work up front and consolidate your photos in one place.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com 

More from The Guardian

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon