There’s nothing as precious and irreplaceable as your personal photos and, with a little forethought and planning, there’s no reason to ever feel the heartbreak of losing even a single one of them to theft, broken devices, or disaster.
You Can Replace Everything But Your Photos
Insurance money will buy you a new computer if your house burns down. You can get a new phone if yours goes missing on the subway or takes a cold dip off the side of a boat. Financial documents can even be downloaded again from your bank. As miserable as it is to fix small problems like these, almost all the hardware and digital trappings of our lives can easily be rebuilt.
What you can’t do, however, is replace your photos if you lose them. With a single accident or hardware failure, that photo you love so much of your child but never got around to backing up is gone in the digital ether forever. Even worse is knowing that, after it happens, it would have been completely preventable if you’d just backed the damn things up.
So today, we’re here to arm you with a multi-prong plan to ensure that nothing short of the end of the world as we know it (and perhaps not even that) will separate you from photos of your friends and family. Let’s start by learning some basic backup concepts and then jump into an clear actionable plan to secure all our photos.
The Bulletproof Backup Plan: Local and Remote, Hot and Cold
“Backup” is a broad (and usually misunderstood) term. Not only are we going to show you how to properly backup your photos but we’re going to highlight some key backup concepts along the way so you know why we’re backing things up the way we are.
Before anything else, though we want you to understand one thing above all else: file syncing is not backup. A true backup is a copy of your file that isn’t linked to the state of the original. If you have photos from your kid’s Little League games on your computer and you burned them to a DVD, then that DVD is backup because the photos exist in two places and deleting them from your computer won’t delete them from the DVD.
When you sync files, however, with a service like Dropbox, whatever happens to one file happens to the other. You put a file in your Dropbox folder and it is automatically copied to the Dropbox servers. Feels like a backup, right? Except if you delete that file by accident, unless you notice that the file is gone within 30 day recovery window, the file is gone forever. While your photo backup routine can involve a service that syncs files, it should always also involve a service or method that creates a real stand alone backup that will stick around if the original file doesn’t.
With that in mind, our very first order of business to ensure that we have duplicate copies of every photo we wish to preserve.
Create a Local Backup Immediately
The absolute first thing you should do, if you don’t have one already, is create a local backup of all your photos. When it comes to convenience you can’t top a good local backup: it’s close by and very fast.
If your photos aren’t all in one place already, it’s time to collect them. This means you need to gather up all those SD cards from your camera you’ve been meaning to sort through, all the devices with photos stored on them (like you and your spouse’s smartphones), your laptop with those vacation photos from last year you never copied over to your desktop, and so on. Take a moment to think of everywhere you have photos scattered about (including places you probably have thought about in ages, like that old smartphone sitting in your desk drawer). Copy all those photos to a single folder on your computer, so it’s easy to organize them and back them up.
Then, back all those photos up to an external drive. That’s it. You can back up the files manually, by dragging and dropping them, or you can use software like Windows’ built-in File History function or Crashplan, our favorite backup utility. (The best part is that Crashplan is that you can create local backups to folders, drives, and network drives, or even a friend’s house without paying for the service.)
If you only have one external drive, we recommend leaving it unplugged when you aren’t using it. This is known as cold storage, and ensures your backups aren’t at the mercy of things like an electrical surge or malware attacking your computer. However, you can also use that external drive as hot storage—always plugged in to your PC—though we recommend getting a second external drive and using one as hot storage and one as cold storage, for extra security against computer crashes. (Don’t forget that external drives are cheap, and you can turn old hard drives into external drives on the cheap.)
If you use two drives, we recommend rotating the hot and cold drives each week, so there is a complete backup on each one.
Back Up Everything to the Cloud, Too
Once you have a local backup secured, and there is no risk that a single hard drive crash is going to wipe out your whole collection, the next step is to back up to the cloud. This is very important: local backups aren’t enough. If all the backups are physically in your home, then a fire can destroy them all in one swoop and you’ll lose those family photos forever. If you don’t have at least one offsite backup location, you’re not backing up properly.
We recommend a service like CrashPlan or Carbonite, which is designed to back up your entire computer (which you should be doing anyway). They usually cost around $5-6 a month or so. If purchasing a subscription to the aforementioned services or similar is in your budget, by all means do so as it kills two birds with one stone: you’ll be backing up not just your photos, but everything else too. Check out our full guide to Crashplan for info on how to set it up.
If a full backup service isn’t in your budget, that doesn’t mean you’re left out in the cold. You can sign up for a free Google account if you don’t already have one and take advantage of their generous photo storage plan. Google Photos offers free unlimited photo storage for all your photos up to 16MP in resolution. If you need storage of larger photos or RAW photos you can upgrade to 100GB of storage for those too for only $1.99 a month. Install the Desktop Uploader on your computer, point it at your photos folder, and everything will back up automatically, without you ever having to think about it. You can also set your smartphone to automatically upload photos you take.
If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, Amazon Photo is included and also great—it offers absolutely unlimited photo storage with no cap, like Google Photos, on resolution or format. There isn’t an official uploader like Google, but Amazon endorses odrive for the task—the features available in the free odrive account are more than sufficient to sync all your photos, using odrive’s desktop syncing tool, to your Amazon account.
Even if you already have a whole-computer solution like Crashplan, you may still want to check out the aforementioned solutions from Google and Amazon. Not only are they free or very cheap (and adding them into your backup routine means you have two remote backups in different locations) but they have tons of awesome photo-centered features like the ability to sort through your photos by faces, share photos easily with friends and family, and even order prints.
Going Even Further
At this point, you should be patting yourself on the back as simply having a second backup and home and your photos uploaded to a cloud service puts you in the tiny minority of the population that takes backing up their photos seriously. These are the most important steps you should take, and if you really want to back up your photos, they are not optional.
If you want to go even further, though, you can. Say you have a local hot backup, a local cold backup, and a remote hot backup. You could go even further with a local cold backup, like storing a backup drive in a safe deposit box.
If you do this, make sure you rotate your drives regularly, so they’re kept up to date. We also recommend you use encryption to secure the contents of the drive in case it is lost or stolen. If you use a tool like Crashplan to copy the photos to the drive, then the data is already encrypted. Otherwise there are numerous solutions out there for encrypting your data like TrueCrypt, Bitlocker, or any number of alternatives.
It may seem extreme, but the more types of backup you have, the more bulletproof your system will be.
With this backup strategy deployed, your photos will be as safe as safe can be. So happy with your digital photo backup workflow that you want to tackle preserving printed family photographs? The same backup strategy we applied to your digital photos can be applied to your traditional photos if you scan them and bring them into your digital collection.