It doesn't matter if you're a professional photographer, a mom with four kids, a world traveler or just a guy who looks for unusual subjects in ordinary places - your photos are valuable. They are art pieces, one-of-a-kind snapshots of moments that will never happen again, and a unique reflection of the way you see the world.
Digital has done a lot of great things for photographers, but it has one very profound drawback. Digital photos are more vulnerable than film photos. Sure, film photos have to be protected, too, and negatives can be easy to lose. They can be destroyed by fire or lost in a move, but for the most part, a conscientious film photographer can file them, store them in binders, lock them up and keep them safe. For the digital photographer, though, one catastrophic hard drive failure can wipe out months - even years - of precious photos, and there's often nothing that can be done to retrieve them. You already know that your photos should be given the same protection as the things in your life that have monetary value, but manually backing them up is time consuming and often gets filed away on the "to do later" list. I lost a hard drive with some valuable photos on it a few weeks ago. So I thought it was worth examining some of the common ways to make sure your photos are always safe.
I have two kinds of backups for all my photos. I use an online backup service, as well as copying all my photos to another computer. Unfortunately, I had not setup any kind of automatic backup for the computer that held these photos, so I did lose a few of my most recent photos. Lost forever. That's now changed, and I have backups upon backups and multiple alerts to tell me if any of the backups don't work.
I found out there are few hands-off ways to make sure your photos are backed up. If you (for example) obsess over photos of your children almost as much as you obsess over your actual children, you might want to take advantage of more than one of them.
Online Backup Services
There are several online backup services available for consumers. I use, CrashPlan (and I'll talk about their features because I have experience using them), but there are others like Mozy, and Zip Cloud, SugarSync, Carbonite, offer data backup services that run automatically and in the background, so they (in theory) don't disrupt your daily computer work and you don't have to remember to use them. Every time you add a new file to your hard drive, that file gets uploaded to the server where it remains until you need it. One of the biggest advantages to using an online service is that your files are stored off-site, so if there's a fire or a burglary your images will be safe elsewhere and easily retrievable.
Most will also send you an email if they notice your computer hasn't 'checked in' with them in a while, so you'll know if the backups stop working. CrashPlanallows me to do local backups to other computers as well as to their servers, so I my laptop backs up to my desk computer, and vice versa.
The disadvantages to these types of services are that they are often limited in storage capacity (some like CrashPlan have an unlimited plan). If you take a lot of photos, you won't be able to back up all of them because there simply won't be enough room in your account, so you'll have to spend time sorting through your photos and choosing only those images you couldn't stand to lose - a process that can be just as time consuming as manually backing everything up. So if you have lots of photos, make sure you find a reputable unlimited service.
Your ISP may also place limitations on the amount of data you can upload over the internet, so be aware of what those limitations are before you sign up for an online backup service. Satellite internet, for example, or cellular tethering plans often have strict data transfer limitations, and will punish you if you exceed them by drastically slowing down your connection or billing you for every GB you go over your limit. If you have this type of ISP and you want to back up a lot of photos, an online service is probably not the right choice for you.
External hard drives
There are many products on the market that you can use to back up your files at home, and just like those online services they can be set up to run automatically and in the background. Western Digital has a broad range of external hard drives on the market (most of them with a high storage capacity of 1TB or greater) that are inexpensive (between $99 and $250 US) and easy to use. They come with backup software preinstalled, so all you need to do is plug them in, select the directories you want automatically backed up, and then let them do the work.
If you want to spend a little extra money, ioSafe makes fire and waterproof external hard drives that perform the same functions as the Western Digital products, but have the added benefit of protecting your photos even if your house burns down or is wiped out by a flood.
There are some drawbacks to these products too, though. Like all hardware, external hard drives are subject to failure and data loss, and sometimes they develop software glitches, or user-error plays a part in suspending backups. Since you've set them up to run in the background, you may not be aware that your files aren't being backed up until a catastrophic hard drive failure forces you to go looking for them. External hard drives should be checked periodically (at least monthly) to make sure they're still functioning correctly. And don't forget that they aren't safe from burglary (or fire, unless you've chosen one with that design), so if you're using an external hard drive you ought to also have a back-up back-up plan as well.
It takes some extra time, but if you are very protective of your files it's a good idea to supplement online or external backups with manual backups to DVDs. This tactic does actually have several advantages over the other two types of backups. First, you can file your DVDs away in a binder and place them in a bank vault (where they are unlikely to be stolen). You can also keep an extra set to give to a friend to store them for you, that way you're protected in case some catastrophic event strikes your home.
To make manual backups work, you need to make sure you set a strict back up schedule and stick to it. Make Monday mornings back-up days, for example, and set yourself a reminder so that when you sit down to do your email on that day, you'll be burning DVDs in the background.
While external and online backups happen in real-time, if you're backing up manually there will always be a week or two (at the least) worth of unprotected photos sitting on your hard drive, so make sure you couple this with some kind of automatic, real-time back up service.
Don't put it off
Hard drive failures are common. Tragically, frighteningly common. And your photos can not be replaced, reshot, or pulled back from oblivion. As I well know. I lost some of my more recent photos when my hard drive crashed. I had my other computers fully and constantly backed up, and I kept telling myself "I'll get to this one". And, as always happens, that one was the one that failed.
So don't delay. Setup a backup plan TODAY.
It might be a little bit painful to set up an automatic back-up system or pay for the hardware, and it's certainly at least a pain to have to manually burn all your photos to DVD. But there is far greater pain waiting for you should anything ever happen to your photos. Ask yourself how much you would be willing to spend in time and cash to get those photos back once they're gone. You will probably only spend a fraction of that to protect them in the first place.
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