Photo Archiving and Remote Photo Libraries

A few days back now a reader asked a question that I get surprisingly often: how do you store and manage all of your photos? I have been constrained to 256GB SSDs since 2010, so I know how to manage GBs of photos, without having to keep them on my hard drive.

I figured it was about time to share how I do all this — since it seems to be a question that many are interested it. The answer is actually pretty simple, here’s how:

  1. Get a big ass, fast as you can, external HD.
  2. Choose the photo management app of your choice.
  3. Archive the photos onto that external by moving the library folder (or the equivalent for that app) to the drive.
  4. Create a new library named after the current year.
  5. Every year move that library to the external drive and create a new library.

I have been doing this for a while now, well before the HD constraint, as a way to keep library sizes down and thus the app running smoother.

So why by year? Two reasons: one to make the app run faster when you load the library (especially if the library needs to update because of a change in the app) and secondly to make it easier to find that image when you need to. I don’t bother sorting out old years, instead I just massed moved it all to one file (for me I started in 2007).

So why bother with this, well I shoot in RAW wherever I can, here’s the break down of the library sizes that I have:

  • pre-2007 through 2007: 55.23GB
  • 2008: 41.65GB
  • 2009: 21.26 (no clue why the dip).
  • 2010: 40.56GB
  • 2011: 177.9GB
  • So far for 2012: 30GB

That’s why I can’t keep these on one computer, and those are only the library sizes of my Aperture library, most of 2012 has been shot in Lightroom.

As I mentioned in a earlier post, I am now using a Thunderbolt HDD for this storage and it is fantastically fast.

A Word About Photo Apps

As you can see I used Aperture exclusively for a while, but I am only now still using it because it is retina ready, while Lightroom is not. I actually prefer Lightroom to Aperture for the better noise control alone.

However Aperture does make it very easy to store photos this way. Lightroom makes it easy to export out a folder of images to another drive and still be able to view them in the current library — when that drive is attached. Of course this can lead to a lot of images in Lightroom, but both Aperture and Lightroom have advantages.

All this to say: it doesn’t matter what program you use, just figure out a reasonable way to off load the data in an easy to find manner. I prefer Lightroom because of the noise control and better image adjustments, but I prefer the layout and workflow of Aperture much more. It’s a mixed bag.

For Photo Heavy Years

I can assure you that I did not keep that entire 175GB library on my laptop at once. For times when the library starts to get bloated part way through the year, I will off load projects/folders inside the library to an archive library. Thus allowing me to keep most of this year’s library on my machine, while keeping storage requirements down.

This is a pain in the ass to manage at year end, so I usually just keep two libraries for that year in the archive — which always comes back to bite me when I am looking for an image later. I don’t recommend this kind of laziness.


My obligatory note: external HDDs fail and fail often. Make several redundant copies of your data.


My workflow is very simple and fairly common for this task. The main objectives are:

  1. Get the GBs off my SSD.
  2. Make recalling a photo as simple as knowing the year it was taken.

With camera file sizes growing, this is likely to become an issue for more and more people — even if all you use is iPhoto.

Originally posted for members on: July 23, 2012
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