Ask LH: Should I Compress My Photos To Save Space?

Ask LH: Should I Compress My Photos To Save Space?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m running out of hard drive space because I have an enormous collection of photos. Apart from getting more storage or culling some pictures, the other option I’ve been thinking about is converting all my images to the WebP file format. It looks like it could compress down to somewhere between 40 to 60 per cent of the original size. Is this a good idea?

Am I committing myself to a file format that hasn’t got the same backing as some more mainstream image file formats? What would you recommend? Thanks, Running Out Of Space

Photo file picture from Shutterstock

Dear ROOS,

We wouldn’t personally recommend this. WebP lossless images (that is, images that retain all original data in the compression process) are around 25 percent smaller in size compared to PNGs. Converting all your images to the WebP format will therefore free up a quarter of your used hard drive space, which doesn’t sound too bad on paper.

However, the trade-off probably isn’t worth it. WebP isn’t compatible with all image editors and viewing devices. It also lacks native support for some web browsers including Firefox and Internet Explorer. This is likely to cause annoyances that negate any space gains you make.

Converting your photos to WebP lossy images will free up even more space, but this will result in a degradation in image quality. Deliberately culling detail from your photos is obviously a bad idea and is really only recommended to web developers working with small images.

Instead, we’d recommend investing in a separate hard drive or migrating some of your photos to the cloud. There are plenty of free online storage services available including Flickr, Google, SkyDrive. Click here for an overview of what five of the best cloud storage providers offer.

You could also try scanning your hard drive for image duplicates you no longer need. VisiPics is a de-dupe web app that lets you compare and delete duplicate images on Windows machines. It scans the photo content of each image file and then groups matches together. You can adjust the match intensity via a sliding scale which is handy if you want to delete similar photos (i.e. — do you really need 500 wedding ceremony pics that all look the same?)

Whichever method you go with, be sure to retain backups of your favourite photos in different locations as an insurance policy; which is something you should already be doing.

If any readers want to jump to WebP’s defense (or has a space-saving suggestion of their own) let ROOS know in the comments section below.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Mehhh nobody needs their home photos in like 829495 mp, which is generally why people get into storage issues over photos…

    in reality you only need a red as high as the biggest screen you own.. Sure in 10 years they might look a little dated, but then.. Is that not both part of the charm and quite likely to happen anyway?

    • No, they get into storage issues when their cameras shoot 20-160mb raw files, plus the layered tiffs that go along with them.

      People who think they are running out of space due to jpegs are either inadvertently counting their crappy handheld video files, or are running a 20mb hard drive from 1993.

      The suggestion that you only need a resolution as high as your monitor is retarded (and not just because it makes zero sense without a ppi). If you followed that logic, you would only have enough resolution for a 4×6″ print. And that’s with my 1920×1200 monitor. For someone with a more standard 1280×800, they couldn’t even do that without running into issues.

      Storage is cheap. Much like holding terrible opinions.

      • Er… Whatever your PPI is determines your max res of your screen.. so not sure what your point is regarding that..

        You only need them big enough to be full quality at whatever size you are going to be displaying them. The only exception is when you want to get them printed to poster or larger sizes… Which nobody realistically is going to do with every photo they take, and most people who aren’t pro photographers will probably ever do at all bigger than a small frame.

        For home snaps you still don’t need professional PPI levels just for a print.. It might be nice, so maybe do your best ones, but for archival its just crazy..

        • 72 PPI at 1920×1200 is very different from 300 PPI at 1920 x 1200 as a designer.
          As photographer/designer who takes resolution seriously, you don’t want to be limited to your screen res when it comes to printing photos.

          • …. Right.. And as a pro, it’s probably worth your time to invest in more storage.. which is pretty much exactly what I said heh!

            Which nobody realistically is going to do with every photo they take, and most people who aren’t pro photographers
            For home snaps


    • Nope. Let’s say 1920×1080. Not sure that’s going to stack up if you later want a print to hang on your wall.

      Just get more storage. Storage is cheap. Much cheaper than your time.

  • ROOS, I suggest you upload your pictures to Flickr, which offers 1Tb of storage.
    Even though it is highly recommended that you keep your images in at least 3 places (for proper backup), Flickr should resolve you problem straight away, while you save some money to buy more drives.

    Michael_debyl, even though most of the time we look at our pictures on the screen of a computer, eventually, you may want to print a big size of a picture (like a portrait of someone you really like and want to hang on a wall). For this motive, you should keep your full resolution images. Because once you go down (resolution), there is no way back…..

    Archiving and managing your images can be a lengthy and consuming process, but I assure you it is worth it. Your pictures are the ONLY thing in your computer that you cannot get back in case you loose them! If you loose that picture of you daughter/son at age 1, there is no way for you to go back and take it again!
    Everything else can be copied or redone, if needed.
    Think about it.

  • If you really, really must compress then use super-high-quality JPEG. It is readily supported, and will probably continue to be.
    WebP may be better in some circumstances, but it is not as well supported and every format conversion you have to perform using lossy formats will just make artifacts worse.

    Buy a bigger drive, and perhaps consider setting yourself up with something like Amazon Glacier. 1c per gigabyte per month is a pretty good price for backup storage.

  • I now shoot in RAW. However to save space I choose the best of the pics and leave them in RAW format, the rest that I do not want to delete I compress to high quality jpeg.

  • Surely these days are over. Hard Drives are cheap, I’m not rich but when I fill a hard drive, I just buy another one. $139 for a 3TB Segate Hard Drive at Officeworks (I’m sure you could find cheaper & better) there’s your dedicated photo/media hard drive right there. When I was studying I would buy a new 3TB hard drive every year, made it clear with labels what is on the hard drives and what year they are.
    Everyones backup system is different but really, talking about compressing photos to save storage bit silly in my eyes.

  • Once you install the codec at then viewing the pictures within Windows isn’t that much of an issue. Programs like GIMP (with plugin) allow you to edit them and if you wanted the bulk convert then you could use IrFanView (with plugin). Just in case anyone is interested.
    Yeah – I’d go with the extra storage and the backup plan. You can’t get those memories back if something goes wrong.

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