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  • Mike

How to protect your digital photos.

Last week I had what could have been a horrible experience. My work PC I use for photo editing died, and it did so catastrophically. $800 later and I am now writing this on a new machine. My motherboard and CPU were dead, and several hard drives could not be recovered. The total downtime I had was a weekend waiting for parts and a single day of installing Windows and getting everything reinstalled.

I remember back in the early 2000s when my family had a catastrophic hard drive failure on our primary PC in the household. We had over a thousand family photos die. My father never forgot his mistake of not backing up. He bought a CD burner and began to burn CDs of all our family photos that were taken on digital cameras. There is a portion of my family history that has no images due to this failure, it’s a shame. While my father learned the hard why why backing up is important he did learn from this tragedy how to employ the very important skill of backing up. Moreover, he found a way to make backing up fairly easy. A single CD could contain a few hundred images. A single DVD might contain our whole family history in image form. After all a 1MP image would only be between 500kb and 1MB.

But what happens if you have a Lightroom catalog full of images? My Lightroom catalog has over 16,000 images, over a terabyte of data. To put that in perspective, it would take me 213 DVDs to back up just 1TB of my images. A better strategy is certainly needed to back up my files. Hard drives have become very cheap thanks to a combination of factors that work to your advantage.

Many people are moving over to SSD (Solid State Drive) technology in favor of its higher read-write speed and the advantages it brings. This has led to regular hard drives being in lower demand among gamers and general consumers. Hard drive manufacturers sell drives with more storage space cheaper than ever before. For example Here is a 1TB drive by Western Digital for $50. For $10 more you can get a 2TB drive. For merely $100 you can get a 4TB Drive from WD. You have no real choice but to buy hard drives for backup, but as you can see the insurance they offer is worth it.

For some of us, our entire career lies in our digital files. Back in the old days a lot of money and time were spent by professional photographers organizing and protecting film negatives. Even as a nonprofessional it’s important to be able to see your old work in order to view how you are progressing skill wise.

Now that you know how necessary it is to back up your photos, lets get into the actual how-to.

1. Have a backup strategy and stick to it religiously.

There’s nothing here you “can do.” Rather I will tell you what you must do. If you value your images you must develop a backup strategy. You must treat that backup strategy as if it were your religion. If every Sunday a religious person goes to church, you too must work your backup strategy every week as if your soul depended on it, in a way it does. You poured your soul into making your images, protect them. Once something goes wrong and you have corrupt files or a dead drive it will either be too late or extremely expensive to recover them. Data recovery services are at nosebleed prices, they are also a reactive measure, so be proactive.

One word of advice though. Try to find ways to make your backup strategy as easy as possible. Humans are more willing to do easy things than frustrating or complicated ones. Try to find ways to make the act of backing up something you can easily remember to do or use software automate it. In my case I have all my .RAW files in subfolders by year and month inside a master folder. All I have to do to back things up is copy the one folder to a new drive to have it copied. I then throw my Lightroom catalog in that folder and am good until the next backup a month later. Making a backup doesn’t have to be complicated, don’t make the mistake of making this more complicated than it needs to be.

2. Employ strategies to make that backup redundant

Backing up involves making a copy of your files on another drive. What happens if both your primary files and the backup are plugged into a computer that gets fried in a power surge? If you can’t answer that question it’s because your weakest link in your backup strategy needs attention. Ask yourself questions like this. “What if my computer gets stolen? Can I still recover or am I screwed?” Perhaps it would be wise for you to use an external drive and store that someplace safe.

An IT technician displays a laptop that was damaged by floodwaters.

Don't worry if half your plan involves using a cloud storage solution, but whatever you do, diversify your backup. You can even use flash drives to make multiple copies of your photo archives.

3. Find a way to make an off-site and offline backup

You must find a way to store your files offsite if possible. Perhaps your backup strategy involves a flash drive in your desk at work or your parents house. Having backups offsite isn’t very complicated or expensive. In the case of my family, we store a few external hard drives in a safety deposit box at the bank. The chances of someone stealing our backups are nil, so is fire or flooding. Even a doomsday scenario of an EMP attack on the US is unlikely to affect those drives since the metal boxes inside boxes are a good Faraday cage. With rent of a safety deposit box between $15-$25 a year in most places, it may be a wise investment.

Cloud storage is also a good choice but it cannot be your only method of storing your files. What happens if the company goes into bankruptcy and sells off everything? What happens if a cyber attack deletes all the databases so that your files become lost in cyberspace? What happens if Adobe ever decided to make you pay a fee to download your files and it was by the Gb? Don't rely on a single point of failure to store your files.

4. Have backups for your backups.

If you think what I’m saying makes sense then you are also probably thinking that you shouldn’t copy your files once and think that is good enough. Indeed, it isn’t! You need to backup your files multiple times. In my case I back up weekly to a second hard drive since a hard drive failure is my most likely point of failure. Every 6 months I go to the bank with my laptop and copy my new files to an external hard drive. Done! This step doesn’t have to be complicated or tedious.

5. Label everything.

You need to have everything laid out for when the time comes to use your backed up files. Look at your file structure and ask yourself; “Is this going to be confusing?” Can you put your files where they need to go for Lightroom if you use it? Can you tell what you were doing when you made your backups?

You also need to consider how the physical drives are labeled. Write on the drives, engrave them with something, whatever it takes so that you can get your hands on your backed up files as soon as you need them without wasting time hunting for the right drive. I have several stacks of old drives lying around yet I can instantly locate my photo backup drives, they have a special place and tags on them I printed with a label maker. You don’t have to get complicated here.


Backing up is a necessary part of digital photography. It’s easy and can be done as cheap as you want to go. Even an older hard drive for $20 is acceptable so long as the drive is kept in a stable environment. However you do it, just back your stuff up. Because when your system goes down and all your hard work is in jeopardy it’s a terrible feeling. But when you have your computational crisis, it’s such a feeling of relief to know that all your stuff is safely backed up and ready to be restored.

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