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Getting Started with Lightroom: Where Should I Store My Photos?

November 05, 2011 | | Comments 57

Author’s Note: You will find a more recent, and more detailed, version of this article within our extended Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog Creation and Image Storage Fundamentals tutorial. I strongly suggest that you follow the link and read the new and improved post instead!

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is an image management system for serious photographers who need help organizing thousands of digital images. It can help you search and find your favorite photographs in a flash. While Lightroom is a wonderful image management tool, this software will not devise a well-reasoned mass data storage plan for you. Since Adobe classifies Photoshop Lightroom as a professional grade application, it means that the software includes little guidance, or instructions, for the novice user. The Adobe software engineers assume that you already understand the “ins and outs” of mass digital file storage and that you already have a data storage system and a robust backup plan in place before you start messing around with this software. My experience leading Lightroom training seminars and digital photography workshops all over the country has convinced me that most new Lightroom users lack these plans.

You need to tell Photoshop Lightroom where to store your images and you need to make your own backup plans. This software is great but it will not help you decide where your images should be stored nor will it help you protect your precious digital photos from disk failure. I have met hundreds of serious photographers in my workshops, and on my website, who have not mapped out their mass file storage options. This lack of planning becomes a bigger and bigger issue as the volume of images that you are storing increases.

Let’s start exploring the question “where should I store my digital photos” with an analogy. Your computer’s hard drive is like a giant filing cabinet. Now, imagine that you have thousands of important paper documents to file away. You could throw all of these paper documents into the cabinet’s drawers at once or you could carefully file them away one group at a time. If you throw all of the paper documents into the cabinet at once without taking the time to set up logical divisions, then the results are a big mess. Dumping thousands of important documents into a drawer with no dividers or labels doesn’t accomplish much. A useful filing cabinet must have clearly labeled drawers, dividers, and folders. The files inside the cabinet need to be segregated into logical groupings and carefully filed away.

A computer’s hard drive is no different. Where I use the word “drawers” to describe the parts of a physical filing cabinet, substitute the term “hard drives.” Where I use the word “dividers,” the digital equivalent is a “partition,” and “folders” are still called “folders.” The point of the analogy is that we need to use the same organizational tools in the digital world that we use in the physical world. Organizing any massive collection of important information requires dividing the assets up into logical groupings, carefully filing the groupings away, and giving each folder a meaningful label.

Storing a single digital photograph isn’t a big challenge. The complexity of digital image storage doesn’t emerge until we have hundreds, or thousands, of images to store. As the volume of images increases the need for divisions between groups of photos climbs. Lumping all of your digital images into a single folder eventually becomes counterproductive. Likewise, dividing images into folders is only helpful when there are clear and obvious rules that govern which images land in folder X and which get placed into folder Y. Randomly spreading your images around into hundreds of poorly labeled folders is not helpful either. Random or arbitrary divisions only create more confusion.

If you are going to use the internal Pictures folder for your image storage then I urge you to create a sub-folder called something like “Photos Go Here” plus a separate folder for your Lightroom Catalog files. Images, and the sub-folders that contain them, belong in your Photos Go Here folder. The Lightroom Catalog folder will eventually hold your Lightroom database and its helper files. Making this division between the Photos Go Here folder and your Photoshop Lightroom Catalog folder keeps things nice and tidy

Storing your photographs on your internal hard drive makes perfect sense for some photographers. Using the startup disk–the drive that contains your operating system and the factory default Pictures folder–makes sense if this is your only internal hard drive and if your image library will fit on the disk. If your computer was built with a large capacity startup disk then maintaining enough free space is no problem. For others, limited startup disk capacity presents an additional challenge. Filling any hard drive up completely is a bad idea, and even more so with your computer’s startup disk. You must leave at least 10% of your startup disk capacity blank or bad things will start to happen!

My laptop has a 250 gigabyte internal hard drive. If we take my startup disk’s total capacity and subtract out the essential free space–the overhead–we can calculate the drive’s actual storage space. 250 – (250 x .1)= 225 gigabytes of actual useable storage space. Unfortunately, two-hundred and twenty-five gigabytes of space is no longer adequate for my image storage needs. The problem is that I have shot more than 40,000 digital images over the past ten years and storing these files requires about a terabyte of storage space! (Using the SI scale we can say that a terabyte equals 1000 gigabytes, a gigabyte equals a 1000 megabytes, and a megabyte equals 1000 kilobytes of information.)

Storing all of images on my startup disk is no longer possible because I have hit the point where my internal hard drive is not big enough to hold all of my photos. If you get to the point where your internal disk lacks sufficient free space for your storage needs then you have three choices. You could either:  a) delete thousands of photos; b) replace your internal drive with a larger capacity disk; or c) move your photos over to an additional hard drive.

If your computer’s hardware will allow it, then adding an additional hard drive into your tower might make sense. Most desktop computers, and a few laptop chassis, can hold multiple internal hard drives. Many computers these days come from the factory with multiple internal hard drives. We are increasingly seeing desktop computers ship from the factory with a relatively small startup disk and a much larger second internal hard drive meant for massive data storage. Some computers even mix drive types for this configuration. A really slick new computer might use a Solid State Drive (SSD) for the startup disk and a Serial ATA Drive for the massive data storage drive.

Apple iMac Hard Drive Options

Solid State Drives are in some ways the wave of the future. This drive technology uses flash memory and no moving parts so your programs can run faster. SSD drives are built into snazzy new devices like the iPad. SSD drives launch applications in a flash but this technology is extremely expensive for mass data storage. Serial ATA Drives, on the other hand, are not as snappy but they are a much more affordable option for storing an enormous volume of files.

If my computer could hold two internal hard drives then I could install all of my programs on the startup disk and store all of my images on the second drive. This elegant storage solution is easy to achieve with most desktop computers but, unfortunately, it is not option with my laptop. My laptop, a MacBookPro, can only hold one internal drive. I could replace my laptop’s original 250 gigabyte internal drive with a much larger disk by taking the computer apart, swapping out the disks, and then cloning all of my existing files onto the new drive. Replacing my internal hard drive with a larger capacity model is doable, but it requires a lot of work and the cost of a massive high-speed internal laptop disk is prohibitive.

OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Mini External Hard Drive

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini RAID External Hard Drive

I use a high-quality high-speed external hard drive instead of internal storage for my 40,000 digital images. High-quality high-speed external hard-drives, like the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Dual Mini, are a wonderful image storage solution for digital photographers working with laptop computers. Storing my images on a super fast external drive frees up space on my laptop’s internal disk and it gives my image library more room to grow. High capacity external drives are relatively inexpensive, easily replaced, and they require no installation.

I use separate external hard drives for my primary image storage and for my backup plan. The data on every one of my drives–my laptop’s internal disk and my external image storage drive–is automatically cloned every night to another set of external drives. I keep another clone of my image storage disk off-site and update this drive every week. I take backup seriously because I cannot afford to loose the data on my internal hard drive or the images on my external photo storage disk.

You already have Professional-Grade Backup Plans, right? Please tell me that you are taking active steps to prevent a single hard disk failure from destroying all your precious digital images. There is a fundamental law in computing. All disks will inevitably fail and the data that the disk contained may not be recoverable!

Moral: building a robust backup system is crucial no matter where you choose to store your images!

Internal drives and external drives will all eventually fail. Expensive drives fail and cheap disks fail. Nothing lasts forever. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is a wonderful image management tool but it is not a backup system. Photoshop Lightroom’s Catalog backup tool will not protect your images if disaster strikes. Photoshop Lightroom’s “create a second copy on import option” is not a robust backup system either. Take the time now, before you get involved in learning Photoshop Lightroom, to think about your image storage needs and your backup plans.

Read our article on “Getting Started: What Does ‘Import’ Mean in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom?” once you are have decided where to store your images and your Photoshop Lightroom Catalog.

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About the Author: David Marx is a digital photography instructor whose engaging teaching style inspires photographers of all skill levels. David is an Adobe Certified Lightroom Expert. To learn more about David's Adobe Photoshop Lightroom software training seminars and digital photography field workshops please visit www.davidmarx.com or follow David Marx on Google+.