The Case for Keeping Every Raw Photo You Shoot (Or Not)

I save everything I shoot. I never realized the issue with this until one day, I looked up, and my 8 TB hard drive only had 3 GB left, at which point I realized: I have a problem.

But I’m not sure if the problem is me. While it’s true you can go back to the first time I shot a DSLR and find every raw photo from that time more than a decade ago on my current hard drives, is that so wrong? Maybe someone should come up with a smaller file size? Maybe more manufacturers should offer more small raw options on these new megapixel monsters?

I don’t know the answer here. On one hand, I haven’t touched some of the files in years. On the other hand, there’s a good case to be made for saving every photo you’ve ever taken. For one, software is always improving, but so is your skill as a photographer (from checking out Fstoppers tutorials, of course). What you were able to do with Photoshop CS3 more than a decade ago is very different from what’s possible with Creative Cloud and modern plugins. Noise reduction and sharpening technologies have gotten better and easier to use. Re-editing old photos could prove to be a worthwhile experience.

Then there’s the historic value. When news of Bill Clinton’s affair with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky broke in the 1990s, photographer Dirck Halstead found a photo of the two of them hugging on the campaign trail in old negatives. If he had discarded his negatives, he would never have been able to produce this now-important photo.

As an educator and Fstoppers writer, I will occasionally need that shot where the flash didn't fire or where the color was off just to prove a point. Sometimes, my out-of-focus images make for interesting bokeh overlays or backgrounds (like the one at the top of this post) and I find myself saving those as well.

But still, shelling out lots of money for hard drives gets tiresome. I’m running an ioSafe 218 NAS Unit with 12 TB of space to store both my images and videos, but even that’s bursting at the seams with the added video files I save on there.

What Do Others Do?

For me, saving everything has its advantages. For instance, in this photo of this lovely sunset, I’d never be able to recover the shadows if I only had a JPG file. You can see the best I can process out the JPG versus the detail I can pull from the RAW in this comparison slider:

Not having the raw file causes a lot of color information to be lost in the shadows.

So, what do other photographers do? I polled photography colleagues to see what their thoughts were on the subject.

By and large, most seemed to subscribe to the school of “save everything,” but there were variations on the theme. Many said that they save everything, but go through a shoot before saving to weed out out-of-focus shots or photos of feet. Still, others purge photos after a couple of years, whether that’s deleting entirely or moving to deep storage. One person commented that they save the RAW files for all of their selects, but dump the rest — akin to trimming a project for deep storage in Adobe Premiere Pro.

So, the consensus seems to be: there is no consensus.

What do you do? Do you save everything? Nothing? Somewhere in-between? Share your strategy in the comments below.

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Lee Christiansen's picture

I usually keep all the Raw files from client projects for 2-3 years at least... just in case they have a request. After that I feel free to clear out any non-submitted images. But I always keep every Raw file of every submitted picture.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Save everything, drives are business expense. I have a lot of client work backed up that will never be used or used again, some clients have closed their business. Those could go and probably should go, but the same drives have things I want keep as well. Too much to go through and delete.May be one day.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

lol. Yes, my kids grew tired of having their picture taken a ling time ago. :)

Burt Johnson's picture

I finally bit the bullet and bought a 8-bay Thunderbolt3 cabinet (G-Tech G-Speed Shuttle XL) and loaded it with 8TB drives. With RAID, that gives me 56TB of usable space. I already have 25TB filled on it, so it is becoming difficult to backup with TimeMachine (I use a 40TB Drobo for local backup, and BackBlaze for cloud backup).

Most of ours are travel photos. We just returned from 12 weeks in 6 countries yesterday (Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iran, Jordan, Israel and Egypt). We will probably never be in any of those places again, so the photos really are "lifetime importance" to us. We delete usually 30% to 50% as part of the initial review (sometimes we machine-gun shoot a dance or street scene, and delete all but 1 or 2 from a sequence).

When I fill this disk (with 30TB remaining, I might not live that long, since I just turned 70...) I will probably just upgrade the 8TB slots to whatever is available at the time.

michaeljin's picture

I only save what actually needs to be saved. I am not going to be going back 5 years from now and re-editing photos from a family birthday party and most of the client I work with are not going to ever come back and ask me to re-edit any photos. I just export them as JPEG's and upload them onto a few online services (Google Photos will save unlimited 16mp JPEGs for free and they'll even do the downsizing for you.). That's more than large enough for most purposes.

Unless there's a specific reason to save something else, the only thing that I save in original RAW format are my family photos, personal work, and the occasional major event such as a friend or family member's wedding.

Stephen Holst's picture

Personally I go through my images and discard any ones that aren't good and I would encourage others to do the same because why hold onto bad shots. I backup any that I keep. I'm just an amateur photographer, by the way. With that said, if you feel you must keep all your images, even the bad ones, AND you are an Amazon Prime member I would suggest putting them in your cloud drive. Amazon provides unlimited storage for image files (JPG and RAW formats). Go ahead, keep 'em all.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

I keep everything. You never know when you need something, and sometimes I surprise even myself at some of the images I've taken way back whenever. The downside is storage; I have two 4 Tb disks that's getting full (one's a backup) and most of it is stuff I have no idea I have. I also found a few corrupted files that I've copied multiple times from one disk to another as I upgraded. So I guess it's evaluating what's important for you.

Deleted Account's picture

If I shoot 200 for a client and 100 make the first cut and are sent as previews. The rest are binned after a few months.
Depending on jobs, I'll have a few iterations of each shot so that when I'm viewing on the big screen I can choose the best. The client never sees the others so no point keeping them.

John Skinner's picture

This is the differences between people that shoot everyday for work, and people that THINK they're working.

Covering 3 to 5 events daily, imagine if I was to keep all of those images (many of them frame/frame/frame due to short bursts. THIS is why we CULL. Typical game day will be in excess of 2000-3000 images. But how many are O-of-F or dupes. How about just bad images period.

You all need to start Photo Mechanic'ing yourselves and start whacking images. Not everything is a keeper.

Chun Lam's picture

Save everything. Storage is cheap; with only 150$ for 8 TB's, you can easily have a nas with 40 - 48 workable TBs coming in under 1500$. Think about how long that will keep you afloat the next time you're considering purchasing the next piece of glass.

michaeljin's picture

"Save everything."

Why? Regardless of how cheap or expensive storage is, unless you're hoarding data for the sake of hoarding data, everything you save needs to be organized and managed. Starting form the process of keywording (because without it, you're probably going to get lost pretty quickly), logging jobs across different catalogs and drives, and keeping up with maintaining your RAID arrays, that's a lot of man hours and upkeep, not to mention continued expense in the form of your electricity bill and occasionally replacing drives.

If you're going to go through all of that, it would seem to me that there ought to be some worthwhile end goal in mind. How often are you going to look back at those old photos, much less re-edit them from RAW? Is there a meaningful benefit to saving absolutely everything vs. just keeping your 4 or 5--star images? A lot of people mention "You never know what you may need." or "You never know what you may find.", but you sort of do. We tend to have a general idea of what will be important to us down the road and if you think you're going to be digging through your photos 20 years from now to look for an image of some random bystander in a street shot who happened to become a celebrity, I think that's a lot of work for a pretty small chance of a payoff.

That's just me, though. I'd rather have the $1500 lens than $1500 worth of hard drives.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I only keep the selects and final edits. The rest are gone quickly. It makes no sense to me to hoard all the files, especially the bad ones, no matter how cheap storage is. I'll make a decisive call on which ones to keep and that's it. There will be many other shoots.

Deleted Account's picture

I review all files for focus and for misfits. If it's in focus and not an errant photo, I keep it. Great for mining stock photos down the road.

JetCity Ninja's picture

i'm a data hoarder. my home server's racks keep growing and growing. i think i'm up to half a petabyte now. as drives get larger, i constantly swap out smaller ones for larger ones to prevent having to commit a whole closet to RAID boxes. at least i'm able to sell the old drives as "hardly used" since they only power-on twice and only stay on until i've migrated the data to a newer, larger drive.

if it's in focus and not a burst series, i keep the RAW. for bursts, i only keep those i want and those with potential. all others in the burst get deleted.

michaeljin's picture

How's that electric bill treating you?

Paultimate Duncan's picture

Sounds like you don't understand how little power is used or the purpose if archiving. Educate yourself.

michaeljin's picture

I fully understand both the amount of power used and the purpose of archiving. "A little power" is a relative thing. Maybe you run a particularly energy consuming household, but having half a petabyte of redundant storage is likely going to consume an amount of power that you're going to notice on your electricity bill. Whether you think it is a significant amount or not is a matter of your personal finances, although you could certainly argue that it's probably insignificant to anyone who can afford that kind of solution in the first place (and I would agree).

As for the purpose of archiving, I simply don't believe in archiving things that aren't worth being archived. I don't understand this gigantic fear surrounding data loss in photography. Certainly, if you run a business, protect your data as you need to. The same if you are in the practice of documentary photography where you're trying to record and preserve things. For the rest of us mere mortals, I'm 100% sure that few are going to be looking back years from now and re-editing a photo of some random flower or random lone stranger walking across a building with an umbrella, much less requiring a large enough file to print a 40"x60" of it. The same goes for the vast majority of photos that I take. Hell, if every single photo on my hard drive disappeared today, literally the only photos I would care about are my family photos (which is why those are the ones that I back up).

I don't treat my photography so preciously. As long as I still have my camera and lenses, I can always take new photos. I don't get really hung up or reminisce on old work. It's all ephemeral and when I die, I know that all of my negatives and all of my hard drives are going in the trash anyway either directly as a way to clear out my stuff or through the longer process of rot and neglect of family who probably won't care to preserve it because my photos of people on the street are not going to hold any significance to them. So why bother archiving stuff that I know that I'll never look back on and that nobody else will ever care about? YMMV, of course.

And that's the reality in the end, though. We go through all of this effort to archive and preserve this stuff, but unless you're some celebrity photographer, it's rather unlikely that anyone is going to care about it later (if anyone even cares about it now). I think many photographers get caught up in this notion of immortality and come to believe that their photos will somehow matter later on in life when it's rather unlikely for this to actually be the case.

So I suppose my question would be, "Outside of purely business purposes, why do you think it's so important to archive your photography and what do you imagine that you will actually do with all of those archived RAW files?"

And on the off chance that you DO think people will care about your photographer, I'd still argue against backing up your data. Print your photos to archival standards, burn your negatives, shred your RAW files with 32-passes, and store your prints well. Congratulations, you've created scarcity that your family may be able to make some money from.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

I think a lot of us are kidding ourselves if they believe that they are going to go back and re-edit a shot taken more than 6 years at minimum. By that time you'll mostly have new gear, learned better techniques, etc. After a certain time I purge out my raw and just stow the jpg. If it's work, then it gets archived a little longer otherwise, the jpg are the keepers and I'm sure with time jpg quality will improve

Rod Kestel's picture

Do you mean every RAW off camera? I cannot see the point of that. Yeah it's only disk but then you have to manage all that junk.

Surely you don't want to keep the duds or the 5 attempts with similar light, framing etc. If it's a shot that works then yeah, I keep the original.

Deleted Account's picture

A downside of storing something is that you might waste your time looking at it again. Do the work up front and save what is worth saving.

J N's picture

AWS Glacier: $4/TB/month. More expensive than disk drives, but you can back up to it anywhere on the planet, likewise retrieval, and you get bored reading all the nines of durability.

Nikita Tretyakov's picture

Shooting jpeg+raf with Fujifilm. After a wedding or a shoot I do backups of all photos to different places. Then the selection process starts, which I do on jpegs. When I know my selects, I add their raf counterparts. So in the end, I keep everything from the wedding except of rafs of rejected photos. Saves a lot of space!

Scott Hussey's picture

The cost of storage is less than the cost (in time) to delete unnecessary raw files. I keep everything. And each year I move about 4 TB of files onto USB drives which I keep in a fireproof safe.

A 4TB drive costs less than $100 - roughly equivalent to 40 minutes of chargeable time. And I guarantee that I'd spend more than 40 minutes a year purging raws if I did that.

michaeljin's picture

I purge in the process of culling so there's little extra time spent. There's no significant additional cost if you already account for this in your process and have set parameters to identify the files that you want to back up that you build into your workflow.

Christoph .'s picture

For some reason photographers always tend to be data hoarders.

I only keep RAWs from landscapes and I do also like to keep weddings just because of their important nature - of those I only keep the good ones. I cannot understand why people would want to keep RAWs of out of focus and blurry, or just plain crap shots.

Realistically, I've never needed to go back to a raw file after the fact. I've never actually encountered a situation that I have needed the raw to be able to do it. I archive 90% of my work in compressed formats like JPG. I only need a NAS with 2 4TB drives and after 10 years of photography I only have a few TB because jpg is so much smaller.

Keith Meinhold's picture

A bit of both. I tend to go through the images from the camera in Lightroom, rank them and immediately trash the rejects even before processing. The rest I keep in RAW even if I decide against further processing. I have some older files than I have been meaning to process again as my tase has evolved, but never get around to it.

Paultimate Duncan's picture

The fact that unlimited backup storage can be had for $6 a month means anyone not saving everything even semi worthy simply doesn't understand the technology they are using. Stop acting like your stubborn grandfathers and educate yourself on updated tech or get gradually left behind.

Also people complaining about hdd costs are both comically missing the point and hilariously mismanaging priorities. 8tb archival drives cost nothing compared to even mid-range glass. It's part of the required media work toolkid, get a grip.

Also as a final note to everyone; MAKE OFFSITE BACKUPS NOW. It's cheap and reliable and there are many unlimited options.

michaeljin's picture

I fully understand the technology I am using. I simply have no interest in devoting resources to backing up stuff that I will never need. Unlimited back-up storage such as the plans available on the cloud are only one prong in a true back-up solution. Any serious strategy will require at least some degree of hardware investment and even mid-range glass gives me a lot more daily function than extra hard drives. One allows me to take new photos while the other just sits there and stores photos that I probably don't care about anymore. Are you in the regular habit of revisiting photos from a decade ago and wanting to re-edit the RAW files? I can't say that I am or ever will be.

"More data kills data." The more irrelevant, sub-par, or simply unnecessary files that you back up is more stuff that you have to sift through later on in life to actually find what you want. The solution to this is either keywording EVERYTHING, which takes time, or just crossing your fingers and hoping that AI gets good enough fast enough to reliably find what you need from an ocean of files by the time you actually need to look for it.

Yes, you can easily back up everything, but I'd content that not everything is actually worth backing up. I don't mean in terms of price, but just that in backing up anything and everything, you're just creating a massive PITA that you're eventually going to have to reckon with down the road if you want to find anything worthwhile in that mess of junk data that you'll never use anyway.

Even for the extreme data hoarders, I highly doubt that you're all backing up the full raw files of completely black exposures where your strobe light didn't trigger properly or blurry photos of sidewalks where you camera might have accidentally fired while it was on a sling strap. We all put some sort of threshold on the things we choose to keep or discard. The people who choose not to back up EVERYTHING are simply putting their threshold at a different point from you.

super steel_'s picture

6 months thats it, its in the contract. ive never had a client ask for photos again. ever.

Adam Rubinstein's picture

Personal work: Cull initially to separate obvious garbage from obvious not-garbage, delete the obvious garbage, and save everything from that point.

For clients: Back up all originals, then the same as personal work.

I rate at each stage of culling, and I know I almost NEVER go back to those lower-rated images, so I trust my gut on what's garbage/not. (Knowing I have a copy of everything, even the garbage, for clients, is what gives me the confidence to delete from my working set of files.)

Nestor Camacho's picture

Well if you have an issue buying another 8TB HDD then you should switch professions, specially at the prices that external HDD are today, Just buy another one and label the previous one (A label on the case itself) that says photos from first date to (photos from last date. You never know, maybe you have a photo of someone that passed away and yours might be the only good image of that person and the family might contact you. Maybe the sons of a wedding you took 12 years ago, might contact you in 13 years from know because they need the images to celebrate their parents 25th anniversary, and so on. There are more than enough reasons to preserve old images and if the only reason to not save them is because of saving space instead of just buying a new HDD then I'm at a lost here. :-) Just get a new drive Office Depot always has offers and are almost giving them away. I buy them in twins of 4TB and if one gets damaged, I have the other, One is almost always connected and the other I have offline in case some randsomware defies my PC's security. Just get a few 4TB HDD and they should each hold a few years worth of images, and just label each pair and add as they get full.