Ian Spanier & Michael Grecco: Digital Storage Advice

February 21, 2017

By Ian Spanier

Ian Spanier

When it comes to digital storage, professional photographers will benefit from a strong system that includes a searchable database and off-site backup. Anything less and you’re putting yourself at risk.

When it comes to digital storage I see photographers making a ton of mistakes. Many photographers will buy a smorgasbord collection of hard drives (both external and portable). The downside to this approach is that it often means you’re paying for packaging and, if you’ve been in business for more than a few years, a mixed-bag collection of connecting wires. Another common issue is having outdated drives that won’t even mount to newer computers—what a headache!

I’ll never forget being on my first big ad shoot. During the session, we were backing up shots onto a portable hard drive and about halfway through, the drive crashed. All of our images from the day were lost. Fortunately, we were shooting inside a mall with an Apple Store, so my assistant quickly ran down and grabbed a new drive. I promptly sent him back to grab a second.

Since that day, I’ve always been a bit of a backup fiend and will gladly lecture my assistants and fellow photographers about the merits of a good backup system.

My system, which I think is pretty basic, is born from the mistakes I’ve made over time. Of course, you’ll likely make your own mistakes too and will need a customized solution—so find a system that works for you.

Be sure to stay tuned to the blog, because next month we’re adding another perspective on storage solutions. That’s right—I spoke with photographer Michael Grecco to find out his approach towards a more complex, but very effective backup system.

The Past.

When I was still shooting film—which ultimately ended up digital in part—I started keeping pictures in portable drives and external drives. This was a mess. There were too many cords to manage and too many different connecting wires. It was clear to me that I needed a more cohesive database-based system.

At the time, iView had a program that kept thumbnails, keywords and stored metadata. (This later changed to Media Pro). I took all of my scans, digital files and retouched images and put them on CDs, all numbered and in order (is-000001, is-000002, etc.). My folders were labeled by the job name—not by the date. I used color labels to indicate the folder status: Red meant needs to be backed up, orange meant moved to portable drive, blue meant backed up once and grey meant backed up to at least two places.


Put the DVD down…too cheesy? Sorry it was the only shot I had with a DVD. © Ian Spanier Photography 2017.

Once labeled, I placed those job folders on an external drive. I kept my CDs and DVDs in holders that I could easily thumb through. I put the open jobs on a portable drive that I would keep with me as I traveled.

The one major flaw here was that I had no backup of my system off-site. Once my external drives filled up, I would have to add more drives and, at the time, memory was not as affordable as it is today. Bigger drives were costly. If I wanted to retrieve old files, I’d have to plug and unplug various drives and USB hubs until I found the right one. Even with iView, retrieving files from the drives was a painstaking process. To make things faster, I purchased an external CD burner drive so I could burn two discs at a time—but it still wasn’t ideal.

One day I asked an IT associate at my small media company how he backs up data. He introduced me to the RAID system (Redundant Array of Independent Disks), which combines several hard disks into one logical disk.

RAID offered a bit more than I needed at the time, but I knew my volume was growing rapidly, so I did a bit of research and came across Drobo (—a smaller RAID system that had a self-replicating feature. This means that, if one of the drives goes down, the others protect your data.

Suddenly I had a system that worked for my needs.


The Present.

With Drobo, I eliminated the disc system and began creating a label system that was more logical for my needs. I now name all my RAW files and job folders by date/name (021017_jobname, for example) then added “_raw” for the base folder and “-io” for image order folders. I continue to use my color labeling system and to put open jobs on external portable drives to keep with me (now I use two mirrored 1TB drives when I travel).

Probably the most overlooked aspect of a backup system is the off-site drive. I have a climate-controlled storage unit in New York City and decided that, along with storing my negatives there, I should store my drives in it as well.

At first I took my portable drives and copied over files that were on my Drobo. I’d place these drives in air tight Tupperware and store them in the unit. This got expensive, and as drives changed, I was moving from Thunderbolt to Firewire to USB cords—it wasn’t working.

Fortunately, I was already buying TB SATA drives for my Drobo (the same kind of drives you find inside a computer). I wasn’t quite sure how to get data on these drives without a dock—but then I came across a SATA drive dock at Staples and this immediately became my solution. SATA drives are more affordably priced, and I can purchase even larger TB drives to add to the Drobo (it’s expandable to 16TB). I can take smaller drives out of the Drobo and put anything from three to six months of work on the SATA Dock to the SATA drive. I use static-free bags and shipping boxes to store these drives. I label them by date and job reference.

I have moved away from iView. Lightroom is now my tool of choice. It’s a fantastic catalog database and, with its powerful image editing capabilities, I use it for prepping image for clients for retouching in Photoshop. I create a new catalog yearly, and I’ve added a second Drobo to store older files, keeping the last four years on my “live” Drobo.

I now live in Los Angeles, but I make it a habit to drop off backup drives every time I’m in New York. It’s not ideal to have a backup site 3,000 miles away, so I may look to find a new solution—the system evolves yet again.

So, I’ve given you a rundown of my approach towards data storage. I dove in to my past, recounting the days of using CDs and DVDs to store all my files and all the problems is created, and took you to my present. I now use the Drobo RAID system and Lightroom to cull and store my files. While my system is very basic and solves the problems that I need it to, I realize that every photographer will encounter their own set of problems.

Michael Grecco is a Los Angeles based photographer with a long history shooting. To protect his work, he’s developed a state-of-the-art backup system as well as developed his own static free storage solution. Image © Michael Grecco Photography 2017.

I was recently at a screening and ran into veteran Los Angeles-based photographer Michael Grecco. I’ve known Michal for some 20 years now, and while we were chatting, I discovered that Michael had developed a killer system for his backup—including a product line of protective housing for the same SATA drives I use. To me, this is the super-charged version of my system, and it has already brought to light some changes I should make. Michael was kind enough to sit for an interview, and hopefully his responses will inspire your storage system approach as well.

Ian Spanier:  What catalog system do you use for your archive? How has this changed over time?

Michael Grecco: First, I had to figure out what it is that I need to archive—and I also need to consider who would be using it. I do not believe that tossing files is ever a solution. This means I want to keep all the RAW files (or RAW footage) from every shoot. I also realized that there is no need to have all of this data online and accessible all the time on a server—that can get expensive. So here’s my solution: I archive the RAW shoot data on two sets of hard drives, in the ProStorage hard drive storage product in two different locations. Then I utilize two sets of NAS RAID for the files that do need to be accessible all the time, like layered retouched files. I hope our wonderful audience is getting the idea here: keep two sets of everything!

IS:  What RAID system do you use? Did I see Drobos in your video?

MG: I did use Drobos at one point when they were the state of the art. Now I use Synology NAS RAIDs. Just so everyone understands, a RAID is literally a redundant array of independent disks, which means that, if one fails, your data is still safe. How safe a RAID system is will be based on the RAID level. RAID level 0 is fast and has no redundancy (least safe); RAID level 5 or 10 is the safest. NAS (Network Attached Storage) means that the data is accessible on the network, like a computer on the network. The Synology’s are fast, which means you can get large layered files quickly and easily.

Michael developed ProStorage as a solution for storing SATA drives. Nothing beats photographer solutions created by photographers. Images courtesy of Michael Grecco Photography, All Rights Reserved 2017.

ProStorage 18 Hard Drive Storage Case for Hard Drive














IS:  Since you have a huge archive, your double RAID system is a good solution for your needs. Do you think that all photographers need such a hefty system, or is one RAID enough so long as they are backing up their files and storing elsewhere?

MG: I think it is more important to figure out a system where the data is backed up at least twice. Affordability is also very important. If you can’t afford two RAIDS, I would backup everything on sets of hard drives and store them in a ProStorage foam. If you can afford two sets of RAIDS, then yes—get a RAID and have another back up to support the main one. You do this on the network; it can be scheduled late at night. You can also keep the other machine in another location so if one got stolen or if there is a fire (knock on wood) the backup is somewhere else.

I have my office in my home and a converted two-car garage where my employees work. I have a unit in each office and they seamlessly back up each other. I also do an offline backup of the RAID to an 8TB drive and file that with the shoot drives in ProStorage. I also utilize the Time Machine bckups which can be done with the Synology RAIDS. I have two Synology NAS RAIDS—one is for all the Time Machine sparse bundles, the other backs up the backup.

Singer Jane Monheit poses for portrait on March 26, 2003 in New York, New York. © Michael Grecco Photography 2017.

IS: You have a great file naming convention that has worked in conjunction with your copyright registration system. What do you do if your client asks for files to be named by their naming convention?

MG: That’s a hard question because, if there are a great deal of repetitive frames on a shoot, it would be hard to switch up the naming convention. That said, we do not give clients all the files to a shoot (however, there’s always a rare exception). Usually we let clients edit from low-res jpegs, then we provide final color-corrected 16 Bit Tiffs. (In most cases, we are controlling the retouching. If a photographer cannot control the look of their work, they lose control over their career.)

I put all final retouched files on our server. That server gets backed up, and then I also add a folder to the set of offline drives in the shoot folder with the RAW files and then that of course get a duplicate drive.

IS: For your RAID system, what method do you use when you need to access the files remotely?

MG: We have Lightroom on all of our computers, but we have a catalog for the RAID on two towers, one in my office and one in the area where my team works. We can see and work with all of the images on the network from Lightroom. When I am on the road, I can log into the Synology remotely. I can pull down images from the road but Lightroom does not work that way. I would have to have the file name.


Protecting images as a new photographer or as a photographer with decades of imagery is crucial. As Michael explains, this is not just from an archival standpoint, but also protecting your images from illegal use. In next month’s feature, Ian and Michael continue their conversation about protecting your images.

Ian Spanier began taking photographs at six years old when his parents gave him his first point and shoot camera. After majoring in photography in college, Spanier worked in publishing as an editor, but making pictures never left him. Having only known 35mm, he taught himself medium and large format as well as lighting.

Clients include: MTV, Comedy Central, A&E, HBO, Runner’s World, Fast Company, Shape, UFC, Conde Nast Traveler, Danskin, Field & Stream, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Marie Claire, Time Out NY, Psychology Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, AirTran’s Go Magazine, The New York City Economic Development Corporation, Bank of America, Gerber Knife Company, This Old House, WP Carey, Time Inc. and Simon and Schuster, FLEX Magazine, M&F HERS,  Price Waterhouse, LowePro, FujiFilm, and 2Xist.

Ian’s first full book of published work, “Playboy, a Guide to Cigars” arrived in cigar shops November 2009 and the public version hit retail stores Spring 2010. The book is a collection of his photographs made in six countries spanning two and a half years. His newest book project, “Local Heroes: America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters,” came out to critical acclaim in the Fall of 2012.

Ian is a member of the Lowepro, “Loweprofessionals” Team and The Photoflex “Light Leaders,” a brand ambassador for Hoodman USA and Imagenomic.

The original masters of photography have always inspired Spanier as they shot what they saw. For him, there is no “one” subject that he photographs; he also chooses to shoot what he sees.

Although he works anywhere and everywhere, Spanier recently left NY for the sunny coast, and now lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles, CA. Questions or comments, e-mail him at: To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising, editorial and personal projects, visit his site at He is represented by Big Leo.

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