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Post Production Tips

Should You Delete Your RAW Photos, Or Archive Them Forever? – Q&A

By Matthew Saville on November 22nd 2013

Question:

Should I delete my RAW original photos, after delivering them to a client?  I have the high-res edited JPG files and I’ve never had to go back to my RAWs for any reason, so do I really need them taking up tons of space on my computer?

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Answer:

First and foremost, if you’re a hobbyist then please read this, but with a grain of salt.  This post is mainly directed at professional portrait and wedding photographers because they are getting paid to capture (and usually to post-produce) images.  Not only might they want to re-access a RAW image for print enlargement reasons, the are also likely to encounter requests such as “hey can you look for more photos of this or that pose / person?”

Of course there are a lot of part-time and newly full-time professions out there, who may be trying to use a single computer as a professional workflow solution, and that is why I am writing this post today.

RAW Archives: The Professional Responsibility

Simply put, yes as a professional photographer I hold onto all RAW “keeper” images forever.  Why?  Because hard drive storage costs about 5-10 cents per gigabyte these days, and so per-image we’re talking about fractions of a penny here.  (Yes, that was an “Office Space” reference for you!)  If your business cannot afford this expense, well, I’ll save that rant for another day.  ;-)

Notice that I keep saying RAW keepers.  RAW rejects, on the other hand, can be deleted after satisfactory delivery of final products such as a wedding album or portrait canvas, etc.  If the client never saw the photo in the first place, and the image is nearly identical to one of the keepers, then there’s definitely no reason to keep them around permanently.

If you’re truly OCD like I am, you can keep medium resolution JPG versions of your reject files too.  Either way, this will save you a very significant chunk of change.

As a post-production specialist myself, I’ve dealt with plenty of medium and high-volume photo business conditions.  In all of these situations, maintaining an archive has simply never been a financial hardship.  Maybe a few of you could save some money by cutting back on the “spray and pray” tactic with 36 megapixel RAW files.  The bottom line is this: the more you shoot, the more money you should be making, and the more you can afford to archive.

By the way, while we’re on the subject of 36 megapixels- if you’re a Nikon pro then you can turn down your camera’s RAW bit rate to 12 bits instead of 14, and the RAW compression to “lossy”.  This may sound like blasphemy to some, and that’s fine.  However I’ve done extensive RAW testing with many types of NEF files, and there is essentially no difference.

Or on the other hand, if you don’t shoot very much at all then you should be able to fit 1-2 years onto 1 TB hard drives, which go for $70 or so. (Even the small portable ones!)

Best Business Practice VS Personal Preference

To be clear: I’m not accusing any pros of running their business improperly, I’m mainly just trying to point out a major (and slightly unrelated) flaw in most people’s workflow solutions: They let stuff pile up. They either take forever to edit images, and/or they assume that every last gig they’ve ever shot right needs to be at their fingertips on their main computer hard drive, or on some massive high-tech all-in-one external backup device. This is simply NOT a good idea.

At first it may be tempting to keep your workflow all in one place, on one drive even.  Just leave everything on one computer, and use a cloud service, and/or “Time Machine” or similar set-and-forget type of backup.  And when your computer fills up, you might be tempted to just delete the oldest stuff.  Don’t do it!  Bite the bullet and introduce a proper, long-term external / off-site archival solution into your workflow.

Your workflow should consist of an “INBOX / OUTBOX” type system.  Simply put: everything comes in, organized neatly in separate folders by shoot, job, or date.  Then it gets edited in a timely manner, uploaded or delivered or whatever, and then it goes out.

Your “INBOX” and “OUTBOX” folders would usually reside on your main computer, and a set of external hard drives would serve as your long-term archival solution.  Personally I consume 1-3 terabyte external hard drives on a 1-2 year cycle.  So all I do is go out every “Black Friday”, and buy a new set of hard drives for the upcoming year.  Bonus points if you buy two different drives, so as to avoid production-batch type faults in two hard drives at once.

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The main thing to remember is that you simply cannot afford to let stuff accumulate on one hard drive, especially after photos have been fully edited and delivered to a client. Get it off your computer, onto external hard drives.

Long-Term Archival Options

Instead of buying one big, fat, high-tech device that has some sort of redundancy built into it, allow me to propose a more simple, affordable solution that in my opinion will protect you against more than the failure of a single hard drive.  (Which is the ONLY thing those super-devices (RAID, Drobo, etc.) can protect you against!)  Personally, I just buy two hard drives and manually archive my data to both drives.  This way I can keep one of them near my desk and the other in a fire safe or at a friends’ house, etc.  Why do I do this?  Because I would rather protect myself against more risks, such as theft or natural disaster.  Also, of course, don’t forget sheer human stupidity.  If you accidentally delete a file off a high-tech redundant system, you delete your backup too!

I have nothing against these types of high-capacity devices for general workflow use.  They’re extremely fast and very useful if you work from more than one computer.  My wedding photography studio, Lin & Jirsa, uses numerous NAS devices and our favorites are by far the devices from Synology and G-Technology.  However for long-term “cold storage”, I firmly believe in using more basic options.

Avoid Photo Pack-rat Syndrome

Oppositely, another thing I don’t understand is people’s compulsion to have every single photo they’ve ever captured right at their fingertips.  As if having multiple hard drives neatly organized by year is a totally unacceptable solution?

Honestly, do you really need all 4,000 images from that wedding you shot two years ago taking up space on your computer? No.  Do you really need to have the last half-decade of work at your fingertips on some monstrous, 8-16 terabyte mega-drive? Nope!  By the way, sitting at my desk it takes me all of 20-30 seconds to reach over and grab my 2005 archive drive and plug it in.

But I digress. One way or another your computer itself it should ONLY contain your current “INBOX” and “OUTBOX” categories of the past 1-4 weeks worth of images, nothing else. Maybe if you have a huge hard drive you can also store an “all-time favorites portfolio” …but personally I have a simple external 2.5″ RAID 1 device for that. (The G-RAID mini looks gorgeous and is super reliable if you’re an Apple user, (see our review here!) …or for PC users on a budget my preference is the Cineraid enclosure which is BUS-powered via USB 3.0!)

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Immediate Workflow Backup

Of course this workflow only talks about long-term archival workflow solutions.  You should back up your “WIP” (work-in-progress” images immediately at the time you download them, and maintain that backup in an external location until you have delivered / uploaded your images, or whatever.  However that is another discussion for another time!

Photo Archive System Summary

[Rewind: SLR Lounge Lightroom 4 Workflow DVD – The Archival Process]

The bottom line is that you gotta stay on top of your workflow. I have been doing private and group/workshop coaching on the subject of workflow for many years now, and this is the NUMBER ONE DOWNFALL of all workflow systems. You gotta stay on top of your process, and invest not just a few bucks but also your precious time into properly archiving your work.  Not next month, not next week.  Today!

Take care, and please don’t hesitate to ask any question at all about photography archival systems!
=Matt=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Simon

    Thanks Matt, great article!

    As someone who is just now transitioning from hobby photography into paid work, albeit only part time on the bottom rung, your backup suggestions are greatly appreciated.
    I had been thinking about a single dual backup NAS drive, but after reading your article I think I may opt for 2 separate portable HDD’s instead, for which there are some fantastic local deals.
    I was wondering what your opinion would be of also storing individual shoots to DVD or Bluray, which I could potentially then post to my parents to store at their house in a different part of the country?

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  2. Jens

    As an IT expert, backing up like this sounds very annoying and as something we found acceptable for business data in the 90’s… Today I would never use that approach as it’s so prone to human error… (it happens eventually, you forgot to backup or one of the hard drives died and you forgot to replace it etc., it happens, it always does…)

    Personally I would go for an online storage/backup service, and have a low power consuming device on 24/7 syncing (e.g. there is lots of SMB NAS boxes that delivers great features here, many of the services support history or not to sync deletes)

    With today’s connections I don’t see an issue unless you need to sync 100+GB/day… And even then, if you do need to sync that much a day, it surely means you doing great in the business so you should be able to afford the connection to support that and the superior backup services and devices…

    As i private person I prefer the above approach for all my personal work… be it my hobby photos or software projects…

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  3. Stimpy

    “If you’re truly OCD like I am, you can keep medium resolution JPG versions…”

    If you were truly as OCD as you claim to be, you would not write an article full of the term “RAW.” Unless you are “shouting” every time you write it, it should be in lower case since it is neither an acronym (as JPEG is) nor an actual file extension (as JPG would be if preceded by a period). Even the use of all caps for file extensions (.TIF, .CR2, .NEF, etc.) is discouraged but accepted in many circles because, in the case of the examples cited, they coincide with the acronyms which describe the files.

    Concerning backups, I feel that most writers don’t stress enough the value of off-site backups, preferably stored in a different geographic region. Across town is not a different geographic region. If a tornado, hurricane, or earthquake rips through your office then the chances are too high that it would damage or destroy a location on the other side of town, too.

    Lest you think I’m all negative, I did like that you pointed out how a storage system with redundancy (Drobo, RAID, etc.) is not a sufficient “backup” when used alone because of the chance for accidental file deletion. Good business practice will have you store your data in a minimum of three locations at all times, at least one of which is normally off-line and at least one of which is off-site.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Stimpy, I think you’re going to have to join one of those “circles of acceptance” regarding the use of the term RAW in all caps, because that is just the way many photographers use it. Language has rules, yes, but the common tongue will always be, well, common… ;-)

      =Matt=

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  4. michelle ford

    matt, you just reminded me. i need to cleanup. i think though that i’m going to refine my process just a little bit more and put all my POTENTIAL delete RAWs into a quarterly folder so it’s easier to wipe them out. right now going back through every folder is a pain.

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  5. Jordan

    My way of storage, archival and backup is as follows:

    1) All RAW files go into a ‘to be sorted folder’ of which, I’ll import into LR and delete the naff ones.
    2) I’ll move that initial folder into the relative folder on my hard drive after sorting out keepers.
    3) All files then copied to a separate machine and backed up to the cloud (private area on my site) simultaneously.

    This means that all photos are on two separate machines in my house, and to the cloud.

    While I get the argument that sending lots of data up to the cloud can take a while, you can just leave your machine on overnight after a shoot, come back the next morning and it’ll be all done. Most businesses (and a lot of homes these days) have sufficient broadband speeds that it simply isn’t an issue.

    Let’s be honest, a service like Backblaze is the price of a new hard drive, and is much more convenient than buying an extra drive and manually backing up and having extra drives around/off location somewhere.

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  6. Wendy Lilygreen

    Thank you an interesting and informative article which has provided me with ideas for improving filing system which whilst backed up is still a mess!
    Wendy :)

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  7. John

    What portable drives and size do you recommend and what about USB 2.0 or 3.0? Thanks

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    • Matthew Saville

      John, I recommend 1TB USB 3.0 portable drives, they seem to be the best value these days. However if your workflow would consume more than 1-2 (redundant pairs) of these in a year, then maybe the portable drives might not be the best choice. The best bargain in higher capacity drives is currently in 3 TB USB 3.0 3.5″ drives…

      Don’t bother getting USB 2.0 unless you know for sure that 90% of your transfers can be run overnight LOL!

      =Matt=

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  8. Shiju V Joseph

    Hey nice article there….but I guess there is a cheaper alternative to buying physical drives

    Use amazon s3 for storage, you have to pay only for the space you are using and this will work out much cheaper than buying disks. Plus forget about disk failures . Amazon s3 is quite reliable

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    • Matthew Saville

      Shiju, maybe in a few more years when fiber-optic internet is a little more ubiquitous I will start recommending that photographers archive their entire collection on the cloud, HOWEVER for now it is still highly impractical for most internet connections to upload multiple GB’s of data every single day / week. Of course it all depends on the volume you shoot!

      I simply believe that for the time being, local storage is the most affordable, reliable and practical option.

      =Matt=

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