In the days of film the only technology photographers need to worry about was their camera. With digital photography, the camera is just the start – wires, connectors, drives and backup storage becoming a big consideration.

Today’s solutions, tomorrow’s problems

I had a very interesting discussion with a small group of photographers recently on a subject which may not initially seem particularly interesting, but it very quickly exposed the breadth of experiences and approaches by different photographers, based on their backgrounds and to some extent their ages. It also led on to an even more important consideration.

The topic was storage and back up of photographic image files. You can be forgiven for thinking let’s keep this conversation as short as possible! However, the discussion quickly raised a number of issues which, particularly as digital photographers, we should all be aware of.

It started with a simple question, the gist of which was ‘If I’m getting more hard drive space to store images should I buy a HDD (hard disk drive) or an SSD (solid state drive) and why?’

HDD is cheaper to buy but, because the drive writes to a spinning disk (i.e. it has moving parts) it can be prone to failure if it not treated well, or is dropped or bashed about. SSD has no moving parts and is much quicker at handling data, but these advantages come at a premium price and one which is beyond many people’s budgets, especially if the choice is between a disk drive or a new lens.

Connections on drives from SCSI and eSATA to USB-C

As digital cameras increasingly record larger and larger image files, then drives have a tendency to fill up much more quickly. You could argue that the solution to this is to shoot fewer images and edit those you shoot much harder and tighter. I’m sure we’ve all shot more images of a subject on a digital camera than we ever did on film because there is no perceived cost in doing so. The cost is actually in time to edit, and in hard drive space if we don’t. Life doesn’t always allow that editing time and quickly a small editing job can assume enormous proportions.

Very quickly the conversation went in several different directions. Aside from cost, the different approaches of different photographers soon became evident. Rather surprisingly, both an age gap and a geographic divide quickly appeared! For older photographers, schooled in the age of film like myself, attention was very much on the merits of the different types of drives and, based on years of bitter experience, how drives can fail and connector changes render them obsolete.

At the other end of the scale were the younger photographers, born into the age of the digital camera or even the camera phone. For them the disk drive was largely irrelevant as image storage sat in the domain of the ‘cloud’.

The discussion also revealed a misplaced perception that everyone has fast internet which can handle large image files with ease and speed. Where I live, in the countryside only some 80 miles from central London, we can’t even get dial up internet, let alone high speed fibre broadband. Our internet access is via 4G – which can be affected by weather conditions etc.

I remember someone from Adobe telling me many years ago when they launched Creative Cloud that photographers would have to get used to downloading software rather than installing from a CD. I had a wry smile at that one. For those that lived in cities it was probably a no brainier, but to those in rural areas the internet then was not only slow but also unstable. I remember my first Creative Cloud install took three attempts to download and the one that succeeded took over 12 hours to complete! It also took up a huge chunk of my internet allowance for the month.

But I digress. HDD or SSD? That was the question. The answer is, it was the wrong question! On a very simple level the choice revolves around the capacity required and the budget. For a drive which was going to live life on the road then the added reliability of having no moving parts is a consideration, but for an office-bound archive or back-up drive the reliability shouldn’t be so much of an issue, provided that you accept that any drive can fail and probably will at some point in time.

There is, however, one issue which is crucial when buying any drive and that is connectivity. I recently started to create a master multi-drive back up of my archive. Little did I anticipate how long and big a job this would become. Surely you just plug in a drive to the archive, copy the files, making sure you have two copies of each on separate drives? Think again!

My images were spread over about 20 drives – a mixture of large desktop drives and smaller portable drives, all of which I’d accumulated over a period of about 15 years. I quickly discovered that amongst this collection I had USB and USB-C drives, but I also had two types of FireWire drives and even two drives with SCSI connectors! So the hunt was on!

Copying the USB (current standard for all but the most expensive HDD drives) and USB-C (current standard for SSD drives and most new computers, and replacing USB) was easy and relatively fast. However to copy the older drives I needed to be able to connect to them! In my box of tangled old cables I quickly discovered that I had cables for most of them. The only problem was that those cables usually had a connector to what was the standard at the time on the other end and most of these weren’t USB or USB-C.

Out came the old laptops, and through them I could connect in one way or another to all the older drives, but not connect these to the new back up drives with the newer USB and/or USB-C connectors. To cut a long story short, the take-home message when buying a new drive, regardless of whether it’s HDD or SSD, is get one which connects to the latest standard, currently USB-C which is likely to be around for some time. And if it doesn’t, make sure you buy a connector for it now, not in 5 or 10 years time when they are either obsolete or very difficult to find.

Technology moves fast -and faster than we realise – so future-proof whatever you buy as much as you can to defy its built-in obsolescence. It also has a way of complicating what should be simplified in the process. As I think back to the initial, simple and logical question asking for advice, I would never have anticipated such a complicated, multi-faceted answer to defeat so many potential long-term problems which could unfold themselves with time.

It’s worth remembering that technology is for the present only. It will always evolve, sometimes in directions we don’t anticipate or give enough thought to. If you want proof of this, you need look no further than the way in which we make photographs and how it has changed in less than two decades. The digital image was first invented by Kodak over 70 years ago but lay unexploited until the other pieces of its successful application in photography fell into place… but that’s a whole other discussion!


By Chris Coe

Chris is a professional photographer, and the founder of Travel Photographer of the Year. He has been working as a professional photographer since 1992, shooting both editorial and advertising photography, and has published over 50 books. He lectures on and teaches photography, mentors and is a competition judge.