Backing up your photos: the golden rules

Uploading your photo collection to the likes of Canon's Project1709 means that you'll have a back-up solution available that you can access anywhere.

Here are two questions to get all digital photographers thinking: If your hard disk were to fail right now, would you have any backups of your digital photos to fall back on? And even if you did, how many photos have you taken since your last backup, how much work would you lose, and would it really be possible to recover your photo library to its current state or anything like it? Here’s how to do it the right way…

1. Centralise your photo library
It’s going to be very difficult to back up your photos if they’re spread across your computer in a dozen different places. So spend some time drawing all your photos together into a single location, whether it’s the Pictures folder on your computer, which is the usual default, or some other location of your choosing.

And whenever you copy more pictures on to your computer, make sure you store them within your existing system, so that whatever back-up software or system you use, you’ll be able to identify the location where all your photos are kept.

2. Use external storage
The point of backups is that they should preserve your pictures in the event that something should happen to your computer. It may be stolen or destroyed in an accident, for example, or the hard disk drive may fail.

What you need to make sure is that the same fate that befalls your computer doesn’t happen to your backups too! This is why it makes no sense at all to store your backups on the same computer, even if it’s on another internal disk.

Instead, use an external disk drive that can be kept in a different location for safety. A cloud storage solution provides even more peace of mind. Uploading your photo collection to the likes of Canon’s Project1709 means that you’ll have a back-up solution available that you can access anywhere.

3. Use modern media
CDs and DVDs used to be the preferred option for archiving because of their perceived low cost, but they’re slow and inconvenient to use, and lack flexibility when you’re making regular backups.

External hard disks are a much better choice. They’ve come down considerably in price, and they have the capacity you need for handing the high-resolution files of today’s cameras.

Desktop drives offer the highest capacity for the lowest price, but they’re not so easy to keep separate from your computer. Portable drives are better in this respect – they’re compact and get their power from the USB cable, so they’re easy to disconnect and pack away.

4. Back-ups versus copies
You can simply copy all your photos to a separate disk drive, but that’s not an effective approach to backing up, and for two reasons:

First, the next time you want to do a back-up you either have to overwrite your original archive, which could take hours, or try to work out what you’ve added or changed and copy only those items.

The other problem with straight copying is that, depending on how you do it, it may lead to the loss of older files – you may delete photos you think you don’t want or make editing changes which you regret later.

5. Use back-up software
You’re much better off using proper back-up software, which may be built into your image-editing software (Adobe Lightroom, for example), your operating system (Apple’s Time Machine) or included free with an external disk drive.

Back-up software takes care of all the technicalities for you. It starts off by making a full back-up of the folders or the computer you specify, and from then on it carries out ‘incremental’ back ups, adding all the changes which have taken place since the last back-up.

It’s by far the quickest and most efficient way to back up your files, and it also preserves the state of your machine at any point from the current time right back to your first back-up.

6. Set a routine
Back-up utilities usually offer a way of scheduling regular back-ups. It might not be convenient every time, but do use this feature as much as you can. It’s much better to have a nagging reminder popping up from time to time than it is to risk losing valuable data.

This is another reason why portable external drives are more useful than mains-powered desktop drives – they don’t tie you down to carrying out back-ups in a specific location.

7. Work in progress
Many photographers back up their photos to an archive as soon as they copy them across to the computer. Keeping your original photos archived in this way is better than nothing, but it doesn’t constitute a proper back-up because you may invest just as much work in editing your photos as you do taking them.

If the worst comes to the worst and you lose your computer or its data, it’s true that you’ll have your original photos, but you’ll have lost all the edited versions and the countless hours you’ve spent digitally enhancing and perfecting them.

8. Safeguard your filing system
It’s not just the time spent editing your photos you need to safeguard, but the time you’ve spent organising them, creating virtual albums in your image cataloguing software, adding keywords and location information… this is ‘invisible’ work that can take many hours and needs protecting just as much as your photographs.

If all you had to fall back on was an image archive of the shots taken by your camera, could you really face all the work of rebuilding your filing system, and would you ever get round to replacing all the edited versions you’d painstakingly created?

So if you don’t have a back-up system in place, there’s no time to lose. If the shops are still open, go out now, get an external disk drive – or choose a cloud-based system – and start tonight!

How often do you back up your photo collection (be honest!)? Let us know below…

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