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

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:

A sunset shot in raw on an Olympus E-M10 Mark II and processed in Photoshop.

A sunset shot in raw on an Olympus E-M10 Mark II and processed in Photoshop.

A sunset shot in JPG on an Olympus E-M10 Mark II and processed in Photoshop. Lots of detail was lost in the shadows when trying to process only the JPG.

A sunset shot in JPG on an Olympus E-M10 Mark II and processed in Photoshop. Lots of detail was lost in the shadows when trying to process only the JPG.

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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33 Comments

Previous comments

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

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.)

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.