Losing All Your Pictures

While I enjoy using vintage cameras, I'm no stranger to the world of technology.  One of the hazards that goes hand-in-hand with a reputation for geekery is that I'm often called upon by friends and family to step in when they experience computer problems.

I frequently get asked to help people who have lost their files.  Digital photos often make up a large portion of these files.  Unlike music you can download again, your photos are a record of memories that can't be recreated.  Hard drives fail.  Use one long enough and it's not a question of if it will fail, but when.  CDs and DVDs can get scratched or just plain go bad due to various environmental factors.  External hard drives are a useful storage device, but a shocking number of people copy all their files to these drives and think they have a "backup," when they've actually just moved all their eggs into a different basket.

Both of my grandmothers in 1989.  They've been gone for many years now, and this is a rare, favorite photo of them together.  Because I saved the negatives from most of my old photos, I'm able to scan these for digital safekeeping into the future.

Backups aren't hard, but they're often neglected.  How many pictures do you have on your PC, laptop, tablet or phone right now that you would be saddened to lose?  Years ago, people saved printed photos in albums or maybe a shoebox.  Today the vast majority of new images are shot digitally, and relatively few of those photos are made into actual prints.  Unlike those old family photos, you probably have no hard copy to reprint if your hard drive or memory card fail.

I can often help someone recover a deleted file, or rescue at least some of their files from a hard drive that's on its last legs.  But this blog isn't about data recovery.  Data recovery is a last resort, and sometimes files are just too far gone to recover using practical means. Be prepared for sticker shock if you ever need to turn to a professional data recovery service to salvage data from a crashed hard drive!  Happily these dire situations can be avoided with a simple backup strategy.

This article isn't meant to be a comprehensive backup tutorial, but here are some key ideas to consider when weighing how you can best protect your photos and other important files:

Remember that a backup is a duplicate copy of an existing file.  In a basic scenario, suppose you have a photo of Uncle Fred on your hard drive, cleverly named uncle_fred.jpg.  That file probably lives somewhere inside your "My Pictures" folder.  That's your original picture of Uncle Fred.  A backup would be if you copy that uncle_fred.jpg to your external USB hard drive.

It's important to bear in mind that you should never edit or otherwise modify the backup copy on your external USB drive.  In fact, you should never directly access any of the files on your backup drive.  The sole purpose of the backup is to provide a safety net should something happen to the original uncle_fred.jpg file.  If I seem to be stating the obvious, it's because lots of folks forget this basic rule.

So what are some ways to reliably back up your files? For starters, I would suggest that you avoid using camera memory cards for permanent file storage.  That's not their intended use, and juggling a stack of tiny SD cards isn't a practical storage option. Also, you probably don't want to rely on CDs or DVDs for backing up files.  There are several reasons not to use this option: CDs and DVDs are relatively fragile, they are typically not big enough to store all of your pictures without having to span multiple discs, and optical discs, like floppies before them, have begun the path toward technological obsolescence.  Newer computers have started omitting CD/ DVD drives altogether.

Here are some backup solutions you should investigate:

  1. External USB Drives - Despite my earlier warnings, these drives are a fast and relatively inexpensive way to back up a lot of data.  Most drives come with some kind of software designed to automate the backup process for you. (Large capacity thumb drives are also an option, but their small size makes them easy to misplace.)
  2. Online Backup / Storage Services (aka "The Cloud") - There are a ton of online services offering storage, often for free.  Some are simply sites where you can drag and drop files at will.  Dropbox is a well-known example of such a storage site.  Others are fully automated backup solutions that will continuously back up your locally stored files to the cloud.   You can find a review of many of these services here.  I use Carbonite but you will want to compare features and prices to see which works best for you.
  3. Offsite Backup - The idea here is to create a backup that you keep somewhere physically separate from your computer and (ideally) outside your home or office.  If you back up to an external USB drive on your computer desk, what will you do if someone breaks in and steals your computer and your backup drive? Offsite could mean a friend's house or any other safe location.

As you might guess, I use a combination of all three options to safeguard my data against loss.  Option #1 is the quickest and easiest, and if my main hard drive fails ensures the fastest way of getting my files restored.  Option #2 is the slowest option, since online backups and file restores can be quite slow.  Depending on how important your photos are to you, you may want to consider at least using an external USB drive.

However you decide to approach backups, any backup is far better than none at all.  So what are you waiting for?