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What to Do When You Have Low Disk Space

Low disk space is a problem that can crop up often for photographers, as we use such large file sizes that take up a lot of room on our computers and laptops.

When you have low disk space, your computer will often run slower than normal, perhaps even to the point of being unusable. This is especially true for programs like Photoshop, which tend to need a lot of disk space to run. You also might not be able to download new files or programs onto your computer, or even install updates to existing programs, which will leave you vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Here are some techniques that you can use to solve your low disk space problem and get everything running smoothly again.


Delete temporary and junk files

Temporary files are intended to be just that – temporary. If you don’t clean up your computer very often, though, you could be left with tons of these kinds of files just sitting around, taking up space. Other junk files can also take up space, and since you don’t need them at all, there’s no point in keeping them.

You can identify and clear up unused files with different software programs – there are a number of them available on the market, both free and paid solutions. However, if you know your machine well, you might be able to do the work yourself and exercise more control. Here are some of the files you can look out for:

  • Failed downloads, which often leave orphaned half-files that aren’t readable yet still take up space
  • Memory files from programs such as Microsoft Word, Lightroom, Photoshop, and so on (though do make sure that you have saved everything you want first)
  • Browser data
  • Search history (within the file browser)
  • Your recycle bin, which needs to be manually emptied


Get an external hard drive

Because we’re working with huge files, photographers can easily fill up standard hard drives and then be left with no way of going forwards. We don’t want to delete our work, but we have no room for more, either.

An external hard drive can help with this. We’ve already shared an extensive guide on how to choose an external hard drive and what you need to know about them, so we’ll be brief here. Once you have chosen an external with a lot of space, simply move as many files as you can onto it and delete them from your computer to free up room.

A good way to do this as a working photographer would be to copy and move over all raw files, while leaving the edited files on your computer for easy access. Any shoots that are so old you can be sure you won’t need access to them in any but the most unusual circumstances can also be moved across in their entirety.

Is it tedious to have to go and plug in your external to find a file that a client has asked for, two years later? Yes, it can be. But it’s a whole lot better than just deleting the files completely and not having them when they’re needed. An external also gives you a backup in case your computer fails in some way.

Cloud storage is also a way of creating your own external backup, which will allow you to delete home files in the same way.


Zip large files

In a similar way, if you don’t often need access to certain large files but you might do in the future, you can send them to a zipped folder and delete the originals. When you need them again, all you will have to do is unzip them.

This is a bit more of a tedious process than backing up with fewer benefits, so we would really recommend the external hard drive option instead of zipping where possible. But if you need a temporary solution that will work immediately, you can give this a try.


Reduce the disk space used by programs

You can help your computer run more smoothly by checking how much space is allocated to the programs you are using. You can do this in Photoshop, for example – and you will be surprised at how giving Photoshop less disk space can actually make it run better, because it is no longer draining your computer’s resources.

In Photoshop you’ll find the option to reduce the scratch disk storage by heading to Edit > Preferences > Scratch Disks (Windows) or Photoshop > Preferences > Scratch Disks (Mac). Once there, all you need to do is to reduce the amount of memory used.

The scratch disk, essentially, is used to store any data (such as your history) that cannot be placed into RAM. So, in other words, this is taking up extra storage space on your computer while it is running. Check similar settings for any other big programs you are running to keep improving your performance.


Force stop background programs

In every Windows machine you’ll find a program called Task Manager. The same tool is called Activity Monitor on Mac. You can get to it easily by typing the name into the search bar, and it will show you a list of all the programs that are currently using disk space as well as how much they are using.

You might be surprised to find that programs might be running in the background, even if you aren’t actively using them. You can sort through the list and select the ones you don’t want to be running, and force them to stop. This might cause problems if you don’t know what you are doing, because you could end up force quitting an essential process, so only click that button if you are sure.


There are lots of ways to improve your disk space. If you do get this issue a lot, however, you might want to consider upgrading to a machine which has much bigger storage space – it will save you a lot of time in the long run!

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