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Choosing Data Storage Media for Photos and Video: When Not to Use Optical Media

This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management for Photographers (Learning Resource Guide).
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Today, we have access to a variety of data storage media: hard drives, solid state drives, external hard drives, USB flash drives, media cards, cloud storage, optical media, and for some (especially for video), even tapes. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and most have their merits, so picking among them for the ideal option for your digital asset management system can be somewhat like choosing among variations of your different flavour of ice cream.

For few years in the 2000s, small-scale data storage was expensive and unreliable, and cloud-storage solutions didn't exist on a consumer level. Many photographers used CDs DVDs to backup their work, and in some quarters the idea persists that DVDs are still a good option. In this quick tip we'll debunk that myth and recap better hardware options.

From Spinning Rust to Digital Dust

While opinions vary on how best to preserve data on digital storage media, experts consistently agree that CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs are not suitable for long-term data storage. Unlike original, commercially produced music or video discs, writable discs have a relatively short life span. The difference lies in the data recording process. Commercially produced discs are made by stamping the data on the disc. The stamping moulds the data as pits and grooves in the plastic, which are then read by a laser scanning the surface of the disc. 

CDs and DVDsCDs and DVDsCDs and DVDs
Photography by Marius Iordache [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, CDs and DVDs used for writing data have a recording surface made from a layer of dye that can be modified to store data. The data is written by using heat to modify the layer of dye, thus the expression “burning a disc.” Over time, the layer of dye degrades, causing the data to shift on the surface. The data then becomes unreadable to the laser beam.

Be safe with your data. Have three copies of your data, stored on at least two different storage media, and store one copy off-site.

Blu-ray discs use a more precise method of writing data to the disc, which allows more data to be stored on each disc. Blu-ray discs are also more resistant to scratching than CDs or DVDs, but the data on a writable Blu-ray degrades as quickly as data on a writable CD or DVD.

CDs and DVDs available at discount stores have a life span of around two years. Some of the better-quality discs use gold or a gold alloy with the dye, offering a longer life span for the data. You can also extend the life of a burned disc by a few months to a year if you keep it in a cool, dark space, but in any case, a disc’s lifespan is still limited to about five years or less.

Instead of burning photos and videos onto CDs or DVDs for long-term storage, use two or more of the following storage methods:

Magnetic Media

Hard drives, both in-computer and external, store data on a rotating disc. Hard drives are plentiful, hold a great deal of data, and are relatively inexpensive. They are likely to be your first and largest resource for data storage.

Interior of a hard driveInterior of a hard driveInterior of a hard drive
Photograph by Evan-Amos (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The disadvantage of hard drives is that they depend upon moving parts both to read and write data, and moving parts are prone to failure and damage. To preserve the life of hard drives, keep electrically-sourced drives powered up, and unless specifically built for travel, avoid excessive handling of the drives.

Because of their propensity to fail, hard drives should not be your only storage media. 

Flash Storage

Solid-state drives (SSDs) electronically write data into memory chips. SSDs don’t have moving parts and so are less vulnerable to physical failure. SSDs are fast and reliable, but they can suddenly fail, usually when subjected to some kind of physical stress. External SSDs are typically built into durable cases that protect the drive against the usual bumps, bangs, and temperature variations of travel. SSDs are good, but they are expensive.

USB flash drive interior and exteriorUSB flash drive interior and exteriorUSB flash drive interior and exterior
Top photograph by TEL0000 (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons; bottom photograph by Ravenperch (CC BY-SA 2.0).

USB flash drives use the same technology as solid-state drives but function on a smaller scale. Flash drives connect to a computer via a USB port, so data transfer between the computer and the flash drive is controlled by the speed of the USB port. Flash drives are small, widely compatible, and relatively affordable. They are not as inexpensive as hard drives, but they are more reasonably priced than SSDs. USB flash drives come with storage capacities that range from a few to 256 gigabytes.

Optical Media Still Has a Function

While writable CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs may not be suitable for long-term data storage, they are an inexpensive and easily stored medium for *short-term* use. If using optical media, improve their reliability by observing a few basic rules:

  1. Use good quality, write-once discs. 
  2. Handle the disc by grasping the outside or inside edges. Avoid touching the writable and label sides of the disc.
  3. Use only pens or markers identified as “CD/DVD safe” to label the disc. They are free of solvents that will seep through to the recorded side of the disc. Do not use adhesive labels on discs. They will exert an inward pulling force on the discs and the weight of the label can be enough to unbalance the disc in an optical reader. 
  4. Do not print on your discs with an inkjet printer. Printer ink also contains solvents that will damage the recording side of the disc. If you *do* want to print on your discs—for example, to label a disc for a client—use discs that are made specifically for printing. They have a special surface and finish to withstand the printing process and inks.
  5. Store discs immediately, using protective, acid-free sleeves in a notebook or binder, or store the discs in jewel cases.


Whatever storage media you use, backup your images and videos on to the media using a process that validates your data. Look for the simplest option in whatever software you are using to duplicate your files. Validation often involves nothing more than selecting or turning on that option.

Follow the 3-2-1 Rule

However you store copies of your data, remember Golden Rule #2 of digital asset management: "Be safe with your data. Have three copies of your data, stored on at least two different storage media, and store one copy off-site."

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