Digital photography has many advantages over traditional film, but unfortunately, security isn’t really one of them. Unlike prints or negatives, digital images can be lost forever in a catastrophic hard drive failure, or even accidentally deleted with a few clicks of the mouse.
Even if you do use a backup software option, there is always the chance of that failing. The hard and fast rule of backups is to have 3 different storage types, one of which should be off-site. So, for example, you might use a USB stick and a cloud storage account, to help reduce the risk of loss.
Here then are a few ways you can make sure those digital memories don’t vanish before their eyes.
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1. Save to recordable media
SD cards, CDs, and DVDs can all be a great way to backup your photos, but a complication here is that if you're not careful you could end up with a large collection of storage media.
This can be especially the case when dealing with SD cards from multiple cameras, or a growing pile of recorded CDs and even DVDs. This not only means things becoming potentially mixed up, but also lost or damaged.
Therefore while saving to media is fine as a short-term solution, it may not make for a long-term one.
2. Save to external drive
Mention "external hard drive" and most people will immediately think of a standalone SATA harddrive, connected up via USB to your computer, which you can then copy and write files to. While that's a perfectly fine way to run a set of backups, the caveat is that harddrives can fail.
Solid State Drives (SSDs) are more stable, but tend to cost more, and while reliability may seem like an initial plus it does mean you will have to find space for the drive and connecting wires on your computer work space.
That may not seem like a big problem, but it would seem more ideal to reduce clutter so that backups won't get in your way. Additionally, you might not want to use up your limited number of USB ports with an "always on" external harddrive connection.
In that regard, a USB flash drive will probably be the simpler solution, as not only does it not required leads connecting up to your PC, but they can be easily stored away until needed, and taken with you to other locations as required. Better still, USB flash drives tend to be relatively cheap while offering a large storage space.
In which case, saving to a single master USB stick can work well as a back up option for photos in general. However, the more devices and photos you have, the more difficult this can be to put in place.
Additionally, professional photographers can find that they need multiple recordable media devices, and managing those can become a challenge in themselves.
Even still, the one advantage external hard drives have over recordable media is the bigger and cheaper storage space, with external hard drives now commonly offering over 1TB of storage or more.
3. Store photos across multiple libraries
The best offense for any potential disaster is a good defense, and while it's advised to use multiple hardware options to backup and store your photos, there are also different software options you can use.
Apple used to offer Aperture to help organize photos, but there are alternatives available such as iPhoto Library Manager ($29.95, fatcatsoftware.com), the same trick works in iPhoto as well.
The concept is simple: Move older, unused, and duplicate images to a separate library stored on an external drive, preferably one that doesn’t see daily use.
This tip works best when libraries are stored on some kind of redundant storage like a Drobo or network-attached storage (NAS), or in conjunction with the advice offered in our next method, which also has the benefit of freeing up precious internal space on modern flash storage drives.
4. Archive photos in the cloud
If you happen to be a person who isn’t very proactive about keeping a good backup of digital photos, syncing them to the cloud is a great way to “set it and forget it.” There are an endless variety of services with Mac desktop clients, and many of them offer generous amounts of free or cheap storage as well.
Some of the more popular options cloud storage options include Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and others, including many offer mobile apps that can be configured to automatically back up the Camera Roll of iOS devices.
The same services also work with libraries from desktop applications like iPhoto, Aperture, or Adobe Lightroom, although you’ll want to make sure to save these files in a folder on internal or external storage that’s set up to sync from desktop to cloud for faster local access, rather than a network-based drive dependent upon internet access; Bitcasa offers such an option, and other cloud services can do the same using software like ExpanDrive ($49.95, expandrive.com).
5. Use cloud photo services as a backup
Speaking of the cloud, mobile shutterbugs are increasingly embracing the convenience of carrying entire photo collections in their pocket. Services like Picturelife, Adobe Creative Cloud, and ThisLife make it easy to back up photos from iOS or Android devices as well as Mac or PC, providing an additional layer of security plus the tools necessary to organize and edit photos from anywhere, no matter which device or web browser you happen to be on at the time.
However, consumers should be wary of putting all their eggs in one basket. As the demise of startup Everpix in late 2013 taught us, nothing is forever. Remember Kodak Gallery? (They wound up being bailed out by Shutterfly, the online print service that now owns ThisLife.) While Revel is backed by longtime software giant Adobe, companies launch, promote, and eventually fold products all the time.
It’s a good idea to find one you like and stick with it, but also use apps like Amazon Photos (which offers free photo storage for Prime members) or otherwise import backup copies on the desktop for redundancy.
If you're concerned about cost, then there are a number of services you can use for free, without limit:
Amazon Prime customers receive a number of benefits, not least free delivery, Prime Video, Prime Music, and book borrowing from the Kindle Prime Library. However, one understated benefit of Amazon Prime membership is the ability to store an unlimited number of photos on your account. Uploading is easy, and once done, so long as you remain an Amazon Prime customer, your photos will remain online and private with your account.
Google Photos is another free option for putting your photos in the cloud for free, and without limit. The only caveat is that Google will convert high resolution images into a slightly lower resolution. If that sounds drastic then don't worry, as for ordinary photos you're really not going to notice the different. You can organize photos into albums, and a neat timeline feature means you can scroll through them by date.
Facebook is another online service where you can upload your photos for free, without any apparent limited. As with other services, you can set them up into albums, which is handy as otherwise Facebook will simply display the most recently uploaded in your photo tab. As with your Facebook posts, you can set sharing permissions, so that your photos are visible only to you, only to named friends and family, or else public for anyone to see.
6. Print them out (just in case)
Unless your hobby is scrapbooking or you grew up in the Fotomat generation (kids, ask your parents), printing out thousands of digital photos might seem like a waste of money, time, and trees. Just because we’re so enamored with paperless photos now, the time may come where having a closet full of prints might be preferred or even come in handy. At the very least, they’re a decent hard copy that can be used to scan back into the computer, should the worst-case scenario transpire and your digital memories get wiped out.
Thankfully, prints are reasonably inexpensive these days. Services like Shutterfly offer unlimited photo storage from desktop or mobile devices (and that counts as another backup, score!), and are quite aggressive with weekly deals to make prints, custom books, and other photo-based products on the cheap. And don’t forget your local drugstore — Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, and others offer similar services with the convenience of being able to pick them up in store and save a bundle on shipping.
7. Backup, rinse, repeat
Last but not least, we can’t stress enough the importance of backing up your digital photos (and while we’re at it, videos, too). Many consumers don’t even bother printing their photos anymore since they can easily carry entire collections on a smartphone or tablet. These files are effectively your “negatives,” and should be treated as such — even if that means offloading a copy onto some form of storage media and shoving it in a shoebox, similar to what generations past did with the real thing.
Of course, keeping two copies of your digital photos in the same location isn’t necessarily a good idea, either. A fire, flood, or other natural disaster could wipe out everything you own in a heartbeat, which is where offline storage comes into play. Services like CrashPlan, Carbonite, or LiveDrive can securely back up entire desktop systems (including the digital photos stored there) for pennies per day without user interaction.
Now would also be a great time to invest in a new high-capacity USB 3.0 external hard drive (they’re quite cheap these days), and flip on Time Machine, the built-in backup software that comes standard with OS X. Many inexpensive NAS devices also support Time Machine, and products from Synology, ASUSTOR, and others can even access files remotely via mobile apps. Just be sure to make a backup of your backup every few years in case the original drive decides to meet its maker!
- We've featured the best free backup software.