Backing up your photos: why and how

I recently finished a task that turned out to be undeserving of my procrastination and left me with a welcome sense of relief. I made a backup of every digital photograph in my collection, over 15,000 images, spanning nearly 6 years from early 2000. It had been far too long since my last backup. It was easy, didn’t take a long time, and now I know that these treasured memories will be safe if something catastrophic ever happens to the hard drive they are stored on. Here’s how I did it.

Most of the photographs I take are for the purpose of documenting our family history. This includes important events like birthdays and holidays but mostly it is the recording of everday life, the moments in-between when we are relaxed and just being ourselves. I think those photos, probably some that I don’t even think very much of today, will be the ones that will spark the strongest memories and emotions when we’re older. Digital photography has enabled the capturing of all of those moments cheaply and efficiently. But preserving those photographs is often just an afterthought.

Making a backup copy of your photos is a simple method of ensuring that they are protected. (Another very simple method is printing them, at least the really good ones — prints on archival paper and ink are very durable and can last a long time.) There are many methods of creating backups. What I’ll cover here is a simple method that is available using inexpensive hardware and software that you probably already have: a CD or DVD burner.

Chances are you’ve already got a CD burner. DVD burners aren’t as standard but you can pick one up now for under $75. There are other backup solutions but nothing as ubiquitous, as easy to use and test, and nothing as cheap. If you buy a retail boxed CD or DVD burner you’ll get some software with it for burning (creating) discs. How much data you have to backup will help you decide what kind of drive to get but if you’re not sure then just get a dual-layer DVD burner. CD-ROMs can hold about 650 megabytes, DVDs can hold about 4.7 gigbytes (4,700 megabytes), and dual-layer DVDs can hold about 8.5 gigabytes (8,500 megabytes). Divide how many megabytes your photo collection is by the storage per disc (for example) and you’ll know how many discs you’ll need.

Photo foldersThe first thing you’ll want to do is get your files organized on your hard drive. One efficient storage system is to organize all of your photos by year and then by the date they were taken. For example, I have a main folder for each year, and then another folder for each time I transfer photos from my camera to my PC inside of that. After I transfer photos to my PC, I will sometimes rename the folder so that it contains the date and the name of the event to help me remember it. This is efficient because it helps me find photos quickly but it also makes everything easy to backup.

Start by creating a “data” disc with your burning software. Then you just need to specify which folders to include on the disc, usually by just dragging them onto the burning software window. Add folders until the disc shows that it would be full, burn it, and repeat until you’re done. As the discs pop out of the burner (which should only take a few minutes per disc), label them to indicate what is on them and the current date so you know when you made the backup.

You’ll only need to backup everything, a complete backup, once. From then on, you’ll just be adding to your backup set. How often you do this depends on how quickly you accumulate new photos. Once a month or as often as you have enough data to fill a new disc is probably sufficient.

Storage of the backups is important. You want to make sure that the storage location is cool, dry, and dark. Avoid locations where the discs are exposed to direct sunlight, humidity, or heat and they should last you a good long while. Also, be careful with how you handle them — only touch the edges with your hands and don’t get any scratches or fingerprints on the bottom of the disc where the data is written.

Some manufacturers claim that their discs can store data for decades or even a century under perfect conditions. I wouldn’t bet on any disc lasting that long in the real world. It’s best to keep your backups for a year, maybe two, and then replace old discs with fresh backups. There are too many ways for removable media to be destroyed and the discs are so cheap — why risk it? At least pull them out and test them twice a year if you want to keep them longer. Pop the disc into your computer and verify that you can still access the data. Throw it away and make a new one if there is anything wrong with it.

Want to be really secure? Here are some extra measures you can take. Create two backups each time you make a set and store one copy at your home and another copy at a physically separate location (a friend’s house, perhaps). Then your backups are safe even if your house burns down. Want something a little faster? Buy an external hard-drive backup system. They’re fast but are relatively expensive (around $200). You also can’t expand them at will by buying more media but the convenience is hard to beat. Actually, I have one of these which I use for backups but only to provide some security between sessions when I backup to DVD (especially when I get lazy and don’t do it for a while). Want software that automates some of the steps? Image management software often comes with the ability to make simple CD or DVD backups of your photo collection. Corel Photo Album, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and Apple iPhoto all allow you to organize your photos and make backups easily. Or try Picasa for an excellent free solution (Windows only).

By John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you're interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.