Digital Image Storage

USB Flash Drives for Image Archival

My buddy Monte and I were discussing the ever-present issue of data storage for our digital photography systems; we have both done several significant migrations to larger systems for our digital photo libraries over the past several years.

Monte explained that he had some tens of gigs (maybe 30-40GB) of client wedding photos that he wanted to offload from his working system and archive. We got into the discussion of what would be the best approach. After just a few minutes, an obvious answer appeared: flash media.

When archiving digital photos long-term, removable USB flash drives (thumb drives, jump drives) represent the current best solution.

The primary consideration for choosing a storage medium is how it will stand up against time. Hard disk drives, with moving components and magnetic data, cannot be relied upon for archival.

Optical media woul be a great choice, but is still not widely available in large enough capacities to make digital media storage viable using optical media.

Enter flash, or solid state, storage. Impervious to all but the most extreme environmental conditions; you can put a flash drive through the washer and dryer and most likely will retain ALL the data.

Capacities are increasing rapidly and prices are dropping an average of 40% annually. Today, a 32GB removable USB flash drive costs around $75; a 4GB flash drive is now around $10. And for something that you’re planning to keep for years, the tiny size of these drives is ideal.

Like Monte, I’m currently in a situation where I have client projects I want to archive. CD or DVD won’t cut it. Hard drives are not archival. For me, spending up to $75 to archive several thousand dollars worth of client files is a no-brainer. And most client projects will fit on smaller drives, or multiple clients on one drive.

My largest client projects are just under 30GB. But I have many client projects that are just 3 or 4 GB. I can safely archive these with long term reliability-in duplicate or even triplicate-very inexpensively.

If you have projects that don’t need to be taking up resources on your working photo/imaging/video storage systems, offload them to USB drives. Buy larger capacity drives as they become available.

Set up a good labeling and organizing system so you can easily find something from within potentially many USB drives. (You can use Lightroom catalogs for this, too; more about this in a future article.)

Using USB flash drives, even a busy studio can store many clients’ projects for many years… safely and cheaply, while taking up very little space.


  1. Great thoughts Nat! I’ve never thought of a USB flash drive as an archival solution, but I should have. Thanks for pointing this out!

  2. thank you for sharing this very informative and useful post. hope to hear more from you and please keep on posting.

  3. This old post came up today in a search about the suitability of USB drives for long term archival. Do you still stand by your suggestion? What has been your experience? Most articles say that Flash drives are too volatile to trust, compared to hard drives and DVD-Rs.

    • I still like the concept of using solid state storage for long term archival. I agree that USB flash drives might not be ideal, but solid state hard drives are certainly robust. However, I don’t maintain these types of archives myself. Currently I am still using standard hard drives (magnetic) for all my storage and archival. The down side is that I have to keep cycling through drives as they become filled to capacity or they die. I honestly don’t have a solution for 100-year+ storage of my data and this is not an area in which I have domain expertise. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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