Going digital: the cost of photo storage


imageStoring photos costs next to nothing. 

You can take over twelve (12) high-resolution, properly backed up digital photos for a single penny.  

For the cost of a Starbucks latte, with tip, you can take around five thousand (5,000) high-res shots.  

Snap away

So not only should you feel free to go wild taking pics – you can also go digital for next to nothing, and free yourself from reams of paper documents every year.  

What’s the catch?   You have to make sure they’re backed up, and you have to learn to use photo management software (e.g. Google’s Picasa). 

Back story

I’ve enjoyed digital photography since 2001, when I got my first digital camera, a Nikon CoolPix 950.  I loved this little camera:  it had a cool swivel-body design and felt great in my hands. 

I ended up taking 10,000 shots with it in the first year.    Nikon Coolpix 950

Since then, I have upgraded to a Canon EOS-20D (a digital SLR and a fantastic camera) and, for around-the-house and other daily subjects, a conveniently small Canon SD1100IS, also highly recommended. 

My current DSLR is a Canon EOS-20DSomewhere around 2006, with the debut of Google’s free – and extremely easy to use – Picasa photo management software, I realized that snapping a quick picture of a paper document was an easy way to preserve it.  

Instead of makingimageand filing paper copies of my company expense reports, I snapped digital pictures of them and tagged them in Picasa as “expense reports.”   

Instead of filing auto repair bills, I snapped and tagged.   And so on.

Today, the only paper documents I keep are official legal documents, such as car titles and signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).   The rest are on my computer’s hard drives as digital photos – backed up and archived as well. Picasa’s incremental search enables me to find any tagged photo in seconds. 

I love being paperless now.     

From time to time, I wondered about the “real” cost of all these digital photos.  It was cheap, I knew — but exactly how cheap was it?   Could I take photos at high resolutions like eight megapixels, or should I downsize to save space? 

I decided to find out.  

Figuring the storage cost of a photo

If you’re not interested in technical number-crunching related to figuring the cost of storage, you can skip to the next section.

I’m not even going to consider the cost of the electricity needed to power the camera or the computer:  it’s surely almost nothing.  (Maybe a helpful reader will do the math?)  Nor am I going to consider the cost of the camera, since that’s a personal choice.   

Hard drive detail

Instead, the cost of a digital photo is simply the cost of the hard drive space needed to store it.   Here are some conservative assumptions of the cost of disk space in a personal computer (all currencies in U.S. dollars):

Cost of 1 terabyte (1 TB = 1,000 GB) of hard drive space = $100.  
Easy to find terabyte drives at this price point or below.

Cost of 1 gigabyte (1 GB = 1,000 MB) of storage = $0.10 = one dime.   
Just ten cents per raw gigabyte!  That is amazing to me.  

Now that we know the cost of raw hard drive storage, we need to make some assumptions about the size of each photo. Then we can simply divide one into the other to get the cost per photo: 

Size of a high-resolution (8 MP) photo is five megabytes (5 MB).   
I got this figure by looking at some actual JPEG photos I took with my Canon EOS-20D.  Since JPEG is a compressed format, picture sizes will vary for different subjects, but this seems like a reasonable, conservative number.

Now we can calculate the raw storage cost of a digital photo:

Cost of a high-resolution digital photo is $0.0005 = 1/20th of a penny.
To get this, I multiplied $0.10 per GB storage cost by  0.005 GB (that’s 5 MB for a photo).  

Put another way, you can take 20 high-resolution pictures for a single penny.

So there’s our first answer: twenty photos for a penny, or an amazing two thousand photos for a dollar.   That’s insanely inexpensive!  

But hold on – as with many things, reality is just slightly more complex.  

Figuring total cost of ownership (TCO)

For a more accurate storage cost, we should really account for storing multiple copies of our pictures.    In reality, we don’t just take the photos and store them on a single hard drive;  they need to be backed up. too.   A good rule of thumb is that anything worth preserving should be saved in at least three places.  

With only a single backup (the “originals” and a backup copy), if your primary hard drive fails or is otherwise compromised (drenched, burned, stolen, etc), you have to cross your fingers and hope that your single backup copy is good.   Not pleasant.

To protect against a single hard drive failure – namely, the hard drive on which you store your precious photos, as well as a lot of other stuff – you can set up a mirrored drive configuration (RAID-1).   Everything the system writes to a mirrored hard drive, it also writes at the same time to a second hard drive (the mirror), maintaining the two as exact copies of each other.   I use RAID mirroring on all my storage drives and highly recommend it.   Unfortunately, RAID is a slightly advanced technology – you may want to ask your favorite tech buddy for help getting started with it.  

So let’s assume that for every hard drive you buy, you’ll buy at least another two for backup, mirroring, and/or archival.   

But this still isn’t completely accurate:  it models cost as if the photos were “paying for” the entire hard drive.  In reality, the hard drive is shared: with the operating system (e.g. Windows OS, Mac OS, etc.), with installed applications, and generally with a number of  other, non-photographic data like documents and databases.   (Hopefully you are backing all this up, too.)  Accordingly, if we discount the cost of the hard drive space by something reasonable like 50%, then photo storage becomes even less expensive (twice as cheap).  

With this updated and more realistic model of keeping three copies of our photos around and sharing the “cost model” of storage within the computer, we now get:

Cost per PHOTO gigabyte (1 GB = 1,000 MB) of storage = $0.05 = one nickel.   
Divide the raw storage cost of $0.10 per GB by two to discount it. 

Storage needed for a 8 MP photo is fifteen megabytes (15 MB).   
Since we always want three copies around, we multiply the photo size (5 MB) by three.

And now we can divide one into the other to find out the “real cost” per digital photo: 

“Real cost” of a persistent high-resolution digital photo is $0.00075 = ~1/12th of a penny.
To get this, I multiplied $0.05 per GB storage cost by  0.015 GB (that’s 15 MB) per photo stored in triplicate.    “Persistent” is used here in the software engineering sense of “can or will not go away easily.”

So if there’s any bad news, it’s that the real cost of a digital photo is really a little more than what we calculated initially as the “raw storage cost.”    The good news is that a little more than “incredibly small” is still incredibly small:  we can take about twelve “persistent” photos for a penny.

Life is good.


Any way you cut it, photo storage is super-cheap!    What does this mean in our everyday life?

We can take twelve eight-megapixel photos for a penny.    That’s twelve hundred high-resolution, doubly backed up digital photos for, oh, about a buck. 

For the price of one Starbucks grande cappuccino, dry, with tip ($4), we can take and store almost five thousand high-resolution photos.   If it’s pretty, take a picture of the cappuccino, too.   

Latte art

Five thousand photos per year is about fourteen per day, every day.   Or about one hundred photos every weekend of the year.  

Five thousand high-resolution pictures will still only consume about 25 GB of primary hard drive space.  This is only a few percent of today’s desktop drives, which are 1,000 GB  (1 TB) and rising in size. 

The incremental cost of digital pictures is almost zero.  You have already sunk big dollars into the camera, the computer, and its hard drives.   Using digital photos to capture anything now costs almost nothing, whether it’s your kid drooling on the rug or every bleedin’ piece of paper that you would have filed somewhere, only to never, ever be able to find it when you need it…. 

So snap away!   If you do decide to go digital, just make sure that you back it all up.   The only question about hard drive failure is:  when?

Six failed hard drives    Think it won’t happen?  Here’s six
of my hard drives that failed.

On digitizing documents…

Don't be like thisI’ve had flatbed scanners over the years, and although I will admit it’s been a while, I don’t like them nearly as well as digital cameras for capturing documents.  

For one, a scanner is another piece of hardware to buy and maintain.  Number two, it’s another piece of software to figure out and run when you want to scan.   Thirdly, a scanner takes up valuable desk space.   And finally, a digital camera is extremely portable and can be used anywhere to “capture” a document.

To capture a paper document with a digital camera, I simply take a picture of it, making sure to include the entire document — you can always crop it later.   I try to use a flash whenever possible to minimize movement and shadow; it also makes text sharper.  Then every so often, I transfer the images to my computer and “tag” them in Picasa (e.g. “expense report” or “financial” or “bill”) so that I can find them almost instantly in the future. 

More reading…
  • Backup Tips IOMega.com
    A good primer: “A comprehensive data backup strategy is vital to your data security. Too many people wait until disaster strikes before they think about a backup. A good backup is an excellent way to protect against viruses, deteriorating hard drives, disasters and human errors. If it would not be cost effective or even possible to re-enter data, then you need a backup strategy.
  • Introducing Picasa 3  A video tutorial by Google on YouTube
    If you don’t currently use photo management software, Picasa is an excellent, free starting point.   The install is painless – try it today at Picasa.com!
  • What’s new in Picasa 3.5  Another video tutorial from Google on YouTube
  • How to store digital photos  PhotoShelter.com
    A good look at issues, cost, capacity planning, and total cost of ownership for the beginner all the way up to professional photographers.
  • Mozy.com  
    If you’re not backing up yet, this is a cheap, free, and painless way to get started.  Mozy is very easy to use, just download the software and follow the basic instructions.
  • Digital photography Wikipedia
    "Almost all of the cost of digital photography is capital cost, meaning that the cost is for the equipment needed to store and copy the images, and once purchased requires virtually no further expense outlay.”

2 responses to this post.

  1. Keith, another well written and helpful post. Where have you been all my non-techie life? I just have a question about taking digital photos of documents. How does that work? Do you take several photos per page to get all the content or take one photo and then blow it up when you want to re-read it? I love the idea of having less paper. wanda


  2. Hi Wanda — usually you can take one photo at medium resolution for a standard page (although the post shows that you shouldn’t really worry about using too much resolution, since storage is so cheap). If you have fine detail on the page, use your maximum resolution. I generally just put it on a table — or a chair — and snap a picture of it, trying to stay about three feet away to minimize any wash-out from the flash. Use the zoom to make the page mostly fill up your viewfinder. Then “tag” it later in Picasa or other photo management software — e.g. “water bill” or “parking ticket” etc. — so that you’ll be able to find it instantly in the future if you have to. You should be able to see by zooming in that the resolution is just fine for documents (Picasa has a 1:1 button that auto-zooms to the full resolution).


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