How to Properly Backup your Photos (and other data)

Your photos are an investment of your time, money, effort, and more. You have taken the time and gone through the effort to take the picture, edit it, keep organized in a collection, and perhaps even print or share it. Not to mention the costs of the gear it took to do all of that as well. Hopefully, for you, there is also some sort of emotional investment into the photos and the moments that happened when you took them. There is a lot that goes into each and every photo taken, and you should take the time to properly protect that investment.

This article is about properly backing up your digital photos (and all of your other documents and files). Not to wax poetic or anything, but people often do not realize how important things are to them until they no longer have them. Data security and redundancy is a topic that I deal with everyday, so perhaps I am being a little passionate about it. I know it is a boring topic, and you are probably thinking, "is this really related to photography?" Yes, it is boring, but it is also a very important topic to give some thought to, especially as it relates to your photographs.

One of the many facets of my day job as a higher education adminsitrator involves overseeing information technology for a performing arts college at a flagship university. Far too often, I deal with people that are at risk of losing their files, and, unfortunately, in some cases, they do. Most often, it is simply because their files existed in only one place. A comparatively small problem of having a hardware malfunction or losing a flash drive turns into a much bigger problem when you have no data redundancies in place. Just recently, a colleague of mine had a hard drive failure, which resulted in this person permanently lose over 30 years of work. My hope in writing this blog post is that it will save someone the headache and heartache of permanently losing your precious photos (and much more).

Let's start with the basic rule of thumb that has served me well for years and gotten me out of a few jams. Keep at least three distinct copies of your files in no fewer than two separate physical locations. Now, please allow me to explain this in some detail. Your files should be on three separate storage devices, which can consist of any combination of hard drives, flash media, cloud storage, or any other digital storage mediums (although I would discourage antiquated technologies).

The phrase "separate locations" is an important concept and is just as important as the number of devices on which your store the files. Two copies of the file on the same storage device does not really count toward your total of three copies, as one hard drive failure would put you out of two of your copies. Likewise, if all devices containing copies are in close proximity to one another, a single unfortunate event, such as a fire, flood, theft, or other catastrophe could cause you to permanently lose all of your files. For instance, copies on two distinct hard drives (not two partitions of one hard drive) housed in the same computer is technicianally storing on two storage devices.  That might help you in the case of one of the hard drives failing, and that may be fine in terms of a desktop or other stationary computer.  In a laptop or mobile device, however, having that item stolen or otherwise lost would result in losing two copies very quickly. Cloud storage is a convenient way to store in a different location. If you have larger storage needs, an external hard drive kept in a vehicle, at work, at a relative or friends house, or in a safety storage box is another safe and convenient alternative.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. You should develop a plan for backing up your files regularly and stick to it. A device without a recent backup is better than nothing, but that is of only limited use if you don't have everything you want to keep on it. In the interest of developing a plan, let's briefly consider some pros and cons of some common storage options.

The obvious location is the internal storage of your computer or mobile device. It is likely to be the most convenient location because it is locally stored and is therefore provides instant access, even without access to the internet. Some computers offer secondary hard drives in the casing of the device. This my serve you well in case of a hard drive failure, but if your device is stolen, lost, or altogether destroyed, you'll lose both copies in one fell swoop. That being said, local, on-device storage is a good choice for the first storage location.

External physical media such as an external hard drive or flash drive is a good second option. External media continues to become less and less expensive. At the time of this writing, a single external hard drive of several terabytes can be purchased for just over $100. Also, external storage can be quite portable. Flash drives of substantial size can fit on a keychain or small storage cards can fit in a wallet or purse. Another pro is that external media offers a fast way of transferring files over to another device, even between different locations. When looked at this way, a hard drive that is transported or shipped to a different location can be viewed as bandwidth in a way very similar to transferring files via the internet or network. If you have a lot of photos or large photo files, downloading them to a hard drive and transporting to another location or device can be faster, cheaper, and offer more storage capacity than uploading to or downloading from a cloud service, for instance. On the downside, this is another physical device that you must keep up with. Large external devices can be bulky, heavy, or require an external power source. On the flip side, small and light external devices run the risk of being easily lost. Hard drives with moving parts (e.g., platter drives), in particular are suspectable to damage when mishandled or improperly stored, which can render them useless. Flash storage options, including solid state drives, are a little more stable and often offer much higher data transfer rates (usually at a higher premium). Because I have a very large collection of photos with large file sizes, I keep copies of my entire library on two identical hard drives (one located at home and the other at the office). I have three other external hard drives for my files: one is portable; the second is large and faster, but stationary; and the third is built into my wireless router and serves as an automatic backup of my devices.

Cloud storage is becoming more and more a part of our everyday experiences of technology. (Note: I consider servers within this same vein of storage medium, although that may mean different things in terms of meeting the location requirement.) Cloud storage is extremely convenient, as it has provided ways of streamlining workflows between multiple devices. With most cloud services, you can access your data from almost anywhere on most any device as long as you have an internet connection, meaning that you might not even need to carry a storage medium, or even a computer around with you. Cloud services make sharing your photos or files with others very convenient with link sharing or file/folder syncing options. Many mobile devices, netbooks, and computer applications allow or even require storage directly to the cloud, altogether bypassing local, on-device storage. Many cloud options offer automatic backups and/or syncing of data, which can mean backing up without thinking about it and that makes you more likely to actually have an up-to-date backup. Some cloud services even offer versioning of your changes when you save over a file. Some cloud services even have a cloud trash bin, which can be convenient for that file you deleted, but suddenly realize you need back. Also, on the plus side, cloud storage typically means that you have met your two-location minimum (unless you use a something like a self-hosted server or hard-drive). Further, there are many cloud storage options that are inexpensive or even free. Some cloud storage services offer redundancy of storage, but I tend not to rely on that as additional backups. If the company/service one day ceases to exist, you could potentially lose your photos altogether without other backups elsewhere. Cloud storage is also dependant upon having some sort of internet or network backup. If you find yourself without internet service, you may not be able access the files being stored in the cloud. Further, without an internet connection, you will not be able to upload new or saved changes to your data. Actually, in the course of writing this article, I did not save my work automatically, lost internet and power very briefly, and had to write a large portion of this post from scratch again. I have many cloud services for several different purposes and use them every day. I still like having my data backed up on physical media that I can access in worst-case scenarios, but my daily workflow heavily integrates cloud services and allows me to move seamless between all of my devices. I tend to use cloud services more for their convenience than as a backup option, but it can certainly be a safety net.

I know that I have covered a lot of ground here and it is something that is quite boring, but it is an important topic to consider. Do not wait until it is too late to think about your photo backup strategy. I hope this post has been helpful. 

Do you use other backup and storage options? For the options listed above, are there pros and cons that I haven't thought of that you would like to share? Leave your thoughts, comments, and questions in the comments section below.


Blog thumbnail image courtesy of Lane Pearman (via License via Creative Commons.