Backing up your digital photos :: Digital Photo Secrets

Backing up your digital photos

by David Peterson 22 comments

Don't take a chance with your precious images. Digital storage of data can and does fail so it is vitally important to backup your photos to ensure they will be around for years and years to come.

We should do backup regularly because our computers and hard drives are NOT a safe place to store our photos for a long period of time. Hard drives crash; You could accidentally delete the files with a few mouse clicks; or (in the worst case) your computer could be stolen or destroyed by fire.

Here are some ways to save your photos for the future:

Make a print (or two)

With the digital age, we tend not to print photos. We take the shot, look at it later on our computer and then usually forget about it. There only copy of the photo is on your computer so if something happens to your computer, your saved memories are gone forever.

A print will be a physical copy of your priceless photo. You can keep the photo in your house, give to a relative, or best yet place in a bank vault. This provides maximum safety.

Use a professional photo lab to have your photos printed (rather than using your own printer) as some inks from home printers will fade after only a few years.

Create a CD (or two)

A more space saving way to store photos is to burn the image files onto a CD. This will keep a pristine copy of your photos just in case the unthinkable happens. Most image programs have an option to burn images to CD, as does Windows XP.

Be aware that your burned CDs won't last a long time. I make two (or three) copies of the images onto different CDs so that if one fails I still have another. You should check your CDs every couple of years (by copying the files to your computer so you know it can read the files) because they do wear out.

DVDs are in a similar boat. The coating they use to make the DVD burnable wears out over time sp keep checking your CDs and DVDs regularly.

Purchase an external hard drive

A more convenient option than burning lots of CD is to purchase an external hard drive. You can plug this into your computer's USB port and copy your images. Then put the hard drive somewhere cool, dry and safe. However, this is a more expensive option than CDs.

Internet-Based Storage

If you have a fast Internet connection, an online photo backup service is a great way to ensure your photos are backed up. Most of the Photo Printing services (like ShutterFly and HP's SnapFish) provide free limited backup services, as does Flickr. However, each of these require you to manually upload your photos. I recommend choosing a dedicated photo backup service like Protect My Photos that will (for a small yearly fee) protect your photos automatically. This is great because you don't have to remember to upload your newest photos. They are automatically backed up!

Multiple Copies

Don't just backup your images using one method. I subscribe to an online photo service, regularly create CD backups as well as storing my photos on my computer to ensure I have at least three copies at all times. I don't trust each one of these methods on it's own, but am happier that I have all three.

Final Notes

There are problems with all the backup solutions above. Unfortunately there is no perfect solution yet for long term backups in the digital age. Storage fails and formats change (who uses floppy disks anymore?)

Making regular backups, and keeping them current is a chore but a little time invested now will ensure your photos will be around for years to come.

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  1. Patty says:

    I meant to say 'I keep all my pictures on my compact flash cards until they are on my backup disc as well as my PC'!!!


  2. Patty says:

    Some of my colleagues think I am paranoid, however one of them recently lost all their photos because someone accidentally turned off her computer during a windows security update session, and someone else messed up the attempt to regain them! Long ago I found I had too many data items to use CDs and even DVDs. I have two drives in my PC, one for programs, the other for data only, mostly photos. Like some other people on this post, I keep all pictures on my compact flash cards until they are on my PC, then every month I back up from my second internal drive to two (yes, two) external drives. One of these I then keep in a secret drawer in a piece of furniture I have, the other I leave out, so a copy can be put on that right away. If I am leaving the house for a vacation, this drive goes into a fire resistant large very heavy coded access safe I have bolted into the basement floor. I used to have a business and when I retired, I kept the safe! This is not for everyone but it suits me. Oh yes, I also have two surge protectrors (I have two PCs.) I also have a gadget that I can use to access my internal drive as though it were an external one, on another PC without actually installing it, just in case it is my PC that goes bust, and not the drive.

  3. Rudy says:

    Thanks for remind me... Many times i forgot to backup.

    Normally, I do backup to CD-RW or DVD-RW and after 1 CD/DVD full, burn to DVD and remove from DVD-RW

  4. Marc says:

    I see some comments about formatting compact flash cards only after having backed up their data... Is formatting a card necessary each time you're done with it's data, or is just erasing the pictures off it adequate?

  5. James Martin says:

    I post all my photos on line with a Photomax account where the photos are never deleted, backups are created regulary and stored in a granite vault.
    You can store up to 5 GB free forever. If you would like cd"s or Movie Magic DVD's they are available plus lots of other items with your photos.

  6. ralph schensema says:

    Hi, I was told by the person who I trust at Future shop who does all the repair work to back up all my photos on cd's, but not to use the first copy to keep it from getting damaged by handing, they can get scrateched etc.

  7. David Peterson says:

    Hi Koen,

    The commercial CD process uses a 'stamping' method. This process ensures the CD has a much longer life. Unfortunately, it's very expensive to setup a new CD so while this process works when you have a large number (in the thousands) of CDs to create, it's too expensive for one-off backups.


  8. Koen says:

    I prefer to use the term 'archiving' when talking about storing my pictures for a long time. 'Backup' I use for normal files for which many programs exist. But English is not my mother tongue...

    I am aware of the fact the best way is to have the images printed, but we have too many nowadays. As many other people I resort to the 'many copies' option, for which the probability to all become unreadable at the same time is about zero.

    At regular times I copy new pictures from my camera to the organizer of Photoshop Elements AND to a CD (adding until it is full). When the CD is full, I copy it to another CD (but this is recent) with a gold reflective layer. The producer (Emtec) claims 'tested for lifetime archiving'. I'll be never be able to test this ;-) of course, but hope it will last longer than other (cheaper) CD's.

    What I'd like to know and can't find anywhere, is the lifetime of commercially made CD's. The burning is physically different and should guarantee longer life, but how long?? If it is much longer, I would recommend anyone to have their archives made this way.

  9. Barbara says:

    Thankfully, I learned as a computer newbie, to back up everything once a week. Also, very thankfully, I've never lost any pics. When I started into digital photography, about 2mos after I purchased my first computer, I learned to backup my pics when I first take them from camera to computer. It doesn't take long, if you do it right away, instead of waiting until you have tons of pics. I put them on a CD and then when the CD is full, I put them on a DVD.

    As was stated by others, I keep my CDs and DVDs fresh by copying the files to my computer and then putting them back on the same media. On occasion, I purchase new disks and copy the older disks to the new ones. Then I use the old disks to start copying pics again. It's a cycle I find well worth the time!!

  10. sadni says:

    it was ironic that i talked about saving my pics to a cd (all my trips!) but never did and then i got THE virus. wiped me out completely... one thing i never did, is when i wnet to alaska, for some reason, i just never deleted the pics from my memory cards!! (I have many). i learned my lesson the hard way, i will now put them on cds.... sandi

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.