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How I archive RAW photo files

RAW files are important to keep in order to retain full editing potential. Here’s how I back mine up to protect them and save space on my computer.

Why RAW?

Aren’t JPG files good enough? 

RAW image files are the highest-quality files taken straight off the work cameras – without any edits applied to them. 

(note: in photography the acronym SOC is often used to mean “Straight Off Camera”. Usually in reference to comparing photos with and without edits, or to show how nice a photo someone got without edits.)  

RAW files contain more information in them than jpg files.  

JPG is a compressed format that has limited editing options/quality compared to RAW. Therefore, it is important to also save RAW files. 

Why not just JPG?

We use JPG all the time. All the unsplash and adobe stock images we get are jpg. Our edited photos from faculty portraits and other photo sessions are all saved as JPG. Why save RAW also? 

RAW files easily take up to 5x more space on a computer compared to highest quality JPG version of that same file. Which means they really aren’t convenient to store on individual computers. They also don’t have all the lighting and color and other edits applied to our “finished” products. 

So yes, full quality JPG are “good enough” for all our uses once things are edited. 

But, much like keeping negatives from print photos, it is important to have those original files just in case.  

Advancements in editing tools also make it possible to get better edits off decades old RAW files. But those improvements aren’t as improved for decades old JPG files… due to having less digital information to work with. 

Working format vs Archiving format

Think of RAW as an archiving format (much like negatives from film cameras, or keeping all video files from straight off a camera). 

Similar to RAW video footage, the size of RAW photos makes it unrealistic to keep on individual computers.  

Therefore it is important to back up all RAW files to a shared drive, but in a location that really is an out of the way location. Similar to storing things in an attic. In the chance you DO need them, you know where to crawl around to find them. 

How to archive RAW files

Also available via a semi-sufficient Loom video.

Minimal Viable Product version of archiving RAW files.

Just zip a well named folder with the files and upload to Box (or whatever shared network space is used by a team).

While it can be just fine to zip a folder of RAW files and upload that to Box, if someone wanted a photo that looked just like a finished JPG they have used elsewhere, a person would have to re-edit the entire photo from scratch. Everyone edits juuuust a little differently. Even the same photographer will change their editing preferences over the years.

My preferred way to archive RAW files

These instructions assume use of Lightroom to edit and catalog files.

Lightroom never edits the original RAW files, but it does keep track of all edits made to each file. While there are settings in Lightroom (and photoshop) to create a file that saves a record of all edits that apply to a RAW file in the same folder that RAW file is in, this is not the default behavior of Lightroom.

These directions assume Lightroom default settings.

Lightroom keeps track of edits in a singular and large catalog file which is stored in a subfolder somewhere on a computer, and not within the same folder as photos.

As photos are “imported” into lightroom… photos aren’t really moved (unless being imported from an SD card). Photos are added to a Lightroom catalog and arraigned in a hierarchy on the left had side of the screen that represents the folder structure those files are located on a computer.

Currently on my work computer I have folders structured by year and all photo sessions in sub-folders based on date. There are over 65k photos in my Lightroom catalog.

It is unrealistic to export/save that entire catalog.

But it is possible to export each photo session folder as a lightroom catalog.

Doing so not only makes a copy of each RAW file in that folder, it also creates a catalog of all edits made to each of those RAW files.

(again.. Technically the original RAW files haven’t been edited… but there is a record of which edits have been applied to a RAW file. You won’t have a file that you can open in another app that shows those edits until a file has been exported with those edits. It’s semantics… but it’s an important concept to understand.)

“Export this folder as a catalog”

Right click on a folder

Select “Rename…”

Copy the name 

Cancel the rename dialog 

Right click on the folder again and select “Export this folder as a catalog” 

In the “Export this folder as a catalog” dialog box, navigate to the location you want to export to and paste the folder name you copied in the previous step. 

Export negative files MUST BE checked

If this box isn’t checked in the “Export this folder as a catalog” dialog box, your RAW files won’t be copied to the catalog folder… which will totally defeat the purpose of archiving the RAW files. 

Keeping “Export this folder as a catalog” folder small

One thing to keep in mind is that some export options will make a needlessly large exported catalog folder. While this isn’t too awful for smaller sessions such as portraits, event sessions can add up to over 15GB which is the current max upload size for a single file (zip in this case) for Box.  

Also… upload/download of multi-GB files is time consuming. 

The settings that I’ve found that save the most space is to be sure that “Build/Include Smart Previews” and “Include available previews” are both UN-checked in the “Save as catalog” dialog box. This is also the step where you are asked where you want the new catalog to be saved. 


Exporting to catalog does create folder with the RAW files and a ton of small additional files that are a PITA to upload/download from Box. Therefore, I zip the exported catalog folder. Much easier to download at once. Also, all the subfiles don’t clog up Box search with files you really don’t want/need. 


Once the catalog folder has been created, compress it to a .zip file and upload to the appropriate location. 

What’s that location you ask? 

That’s really up to you, but I create separate folders by year and upload the zipped catalog into the corresponding year’s folder.

I use the date in this order as a prefix of sorts to each zipped catalog file.

2023-02-17 name of the photo

This format assures listing via date taken when ordering files alphabetically by name.

Deleting files on your computer

Once a zipped folder has been successfully uploaded, delete the zipped and unzipped folders from your computer.  

Also, if you don’t think you’ll need to access the originals for a while, delete the original folder from lightroom.  

Right click on the folder in Lightroom and select “Show in Finder” if macOS or “Show in Explorer” for Windows. 

Navigate up one level and delete that folder. It should have the same name as what is shown in Lightroom. 

Lightroom will then show a greyed out folder name. Right click and select “Remove”. 

Even though the original folder is deleted, Lightroom stores a bunch of files such as previews in some other location. Removing the greyed out folder will save space on your computer. 

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