Don’t Just Move Photos to an External Drive: That’s NOT a Backup

Top view of external hard drive connected to laptop on the red table

How do you store your photos? If you’re just dumping them on an external drive, that’s not a backup. You need to have multiple copies of your photos (or any other data) in at least two different places or you could easily lose them all.

This may seem obvious to some people, but we’ve seen many people lose their photos — or need to pay for professional data recovery services — after an external drive holding the single copy of their photos failed.

Back Up and Protect Your Computer the Easy Way

Windows includes a number of backup and recovery tools for free, but the reality is that they aren’t anywhere near as good as commercial solutions. Carbonite automatically backs up all of your files, photos, and documents and stores them encrypted in the cloud.

Not only do you get cheap unlimited cloud backup, but you can also use Carbonite to backup your PC to a local hard drive. And you get versioning, deleted file protection, mobile apps so you can access your files from any device, and a whole lot more.

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Backups Require Multiple Copies!

Storing any type of important data in just one place is a mistake. You need copies of your data in more than one place to have an actual backup. This is simple for some types of data — it’s easy to have a handful of important document files on your computer and regularly back them up somehow — but tougher for larger amounts of data.

Photo collections — or videos, which are even bigger — can be large and not fit on a typical laptop’s internal drive. You may be tempted to store them all on an external drive, which can offer terabytes of space while many popular laptops only offer 64 to 128 GB of solid-state drive space.

It can be tempting to dump your photos — and any other type of large data — on the external drive and just store it there if your computer doesn’t have much drive space. And, if you’ve never had a drive fail, it can seem to work fine. It may even work fine for years. But drives can always fail, and it’s crucial to have another copy.

Data Recovery Services Are Expensive, and Don’t Always Work

Let’s say that external drive with all your photos and other important data fails. If you’re lucky, it may be possible to fix it. For example, part of the drive may have failed, but the actual data may still be stored safely. You might need to pay for professional data recovery services that will crack the drive open and attempt to get back your files. This could easily cost you upwards of a thousand dollars, depending on the service you go with. And it’s not a guaranteed result — it’s possible that a drive failure could render your data completely inaccessible, or that you’d only be able to recover some data from it.

Screw Hard Disk Drive To Repair For Recovery Information

Backing Up an External Drive

If want to store your photos and other data on an external drive, that’s fine. But, at a minimum, you should be regularly backing up that external drive to another external drive. Dump your photos on the main external drive as normal. Get a second external drive and regularly make a copy of the data from the first external drive to the second one.

You can do this manually by dragging and dropping files, but you’ll probably want to use an application that will “sync” the contents of one drive to an external drive. Microsoft’s old SyncToy application does this well, but the open-source FreeFileSync application is more robust. Unfortunately, even this open-source tool tries to install junkware, so watch out when you install it. There’s just no way around this in the Windows software ecosystem.

You could also store the photos on your computer and back them up to an external drive. This works well if you have a computer with a large internal drive — if you have a desktop PC, you might want to buy and install a new hard drive. You could then back up the computer’s files to an external drive with normal backup software and you’d have copies in multiple places.

Online backup services are another option. CrashPlan, Carbonite, and Mozy are all designed for creating a backup copy of your files on remote servers. These could back up the photos (and any other important files) on your external drive to an online location. This is especially convenient because it gives you an “off-site backup,” which is important — if your home burns down or is robbed and you lose everything, you’ll still have copies of your important photos available from elsewhere.

Other possibilities include dedicated photo-storage services like Flickr, Google Photos, Apple’s iCloud Photo Library, Microsoft’s OneDrive, and Dropbox. Upload photos to a cloud storage location and you’ll have an off-site backup.


We focused on photos here because photos are large files that many people have large collections of. Like any type of data, backups are absolutely essential. But backups may not seem essential if you haven’t lost any important data to a drive failure or software bug.

For all your important data files, be sure you have multiple copies in at least two different places. Your irreplaceable data will then be protected if you have a hardware failure.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.