Preserving Digital Photographs

How to Protect your digital photographs against loss

[note: though I’m talking about digital photos here, all of the same principles apply to backing up your digital music collection, and as a music lover, I highly recommend you include your music collection in your backup strategy]

I want to teach you how to protect your digital  photographs so that they can be passed down to your posterity.

“Easy come, easy go” is so true when it comes to digital photography.  Whether you have made the investment in having professionally crafted photographs made by Paul Duane Photography, or you have a large collection of digital snap shots from your own camera – there are some principles of digital photography storage that are CRITICAL to consider.

  • Digital photographs are delicate:  the are, in a sense – a simple thing: A digital photo is a file made up of billions of 1’s and 0’s strung together in a certain sequence, that creates a binary file that your computer / camera reads, and renders into a photograph. If just one of those 1’s or 0’s goes out of place – the image is destroyed. Storage mediums such as hard drives and CD / DVD’s simply house those 1’s and 0’s, and attempt to keep them in order.
  •  Hard drives WILL fail.  They are made up of hundreds of tiny moving parts. Between the delicate electronics and all of the tiny mechanical parts inside them – they will eventually fail.  Some last for a few years. Some last for several. Some fail during warranty (if this happens, sure – you will get your drive replaced, but the data on the drive will be lost forever.) This principle applies to the hard drive inside your laptop, desktop, and external hard drives.
  • CD – R and DVD – R discs, ie, discs your burn on your home PC, WILL fail eventually.  CD-R and DVD-R discs (CD RW and DVD RW included) are made up of 3 layers of material: there are 2 layers of plastic with a reflective, photo chemically reactive substrate sandwiched in between them. When you burn a disc, a tiny laser etches microscopic spots into the reflective surface of the disc. There are chemicals in that reflective surface that react to the laser light and change their reflective properties when the laser hits them. These chemicals oxidize and break down over time, making the data on your disc disappear. During my career I’ve had this happen to discs that were stored perfectly: in dark, dry, cool conditions – and these discs were only 14 months old.  The inexpensive burnable CD-R and DVD-R discs you buy at the store should be treated as a short term storage solution only.
  • Theft / Fire / Flood / Acts of God / Acts of Toddlers:  Even if your disks and hard drives are functioning perfectly, they may be stolen, lost, burned, ruined in household accidents, etc.

When it comes to protecting your data, this is the golden rule:

Your data is not safe until it exists in 3 locations.

Backup strategy is about the probability of you actually following through on it, and the probability of one of the steps failing.  The probability of 1 of the 3 storage locations being compromised is moderate. When 1 is compromised, you simply restore it from one of your existing 2 backup sources.  The probability of 2 of them being compromised at the same time is exceedingly low, but again – you would still have a 3rd source available to create a restoration from. The probability of all 3 being compromised at the same time is so low that it’s not even worth thinking about.

Here is my recommended storage strategy. It combines different storage mediums, locations, and is very cost effective. That being said – suppose you lost all of the photos of your kids growing up, your wedding photos, family vacation photos… what would you be willing to pay to bring them back into existence? The cost is incalculable, isn’t it?

1. Computer Hard Drive:  Your computer’s hard drive is the first stop for your digital photographs, and it’s the place you will access them the most often.   Your computer can get a virus, get stolen, or just plain old break down.  Eventually one of these things WILL happen to your computer.  Because of this, we are not going to count your computer’s hard drive as one of the 3 storage locations, although it is the “first stop” for your files.  Next stop:

2. External Drive: This can be either a burned CD / DVD or an external hard drive. Though they are not permanent methods of storage, when combined with 2 other methods, the whole group of 3 becomes very stable. This particular drive is an excellent buy, and is one that I personally use for my backup system:

Personally – I don’t even keep any important data on my computer’s hard drive. The only thing on my computer’s internal hard drive is the operating system and the applications. All user generated data – music, photographs, journal entries, etc… are kept on an external drive. This strategy has saved me on dozens of occasions. When your computer gets a virus or has some other kind of severe breakdown,  you can just re-format, reinstall, etc, and know that all of your important documents and files are safely waiting for you on an external drive, unaffected by the hot mess that your computer has become.

3. Archival Grade CD / DVD media: These discs are quite different from what you buy at the store-  These discs are not generally available to the public at stores.  There are only 2 manufacturers of them in the world.  They are made of a gold based substrate that does not oxidize and break down like conventional CD-R / DVD-R discs.  They have a storage life of a few hundred years, which is sufficient for passing down through the generations, but doesn’t exempt them from loss, theft, fire, physical breakage, etc. I deliver all of my wedding photography on this type of archival grade media.   If you take digital photos (and who doesn’t), and you want to keep them safe, I HIGHLY recommend that you purchase a box of these discs and make a habit of archiving your personal digital snap shots on these discs. For extra security, once they are burned, box them up and put them in a safe off site storage location (a relative’s house, safe deposit box, etc).

4. Remote Back up Services: There are a handful of great companies that offer a very cool service: While you are not using your computer, your information is backed up over the internet to a remote location. If your computer hard drive… no… WHEN your computer hard drive is compromised, you can simply restore all of your hard drive’s contents to your new hard drive by downloading it back from the backup service. Most of the services cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 / year. Considering the level of security this gives you, this kind of service is a no-brainer. Everyone should be doing this.  Check out services such as Carbonite and Mozy.


Coming soon:  How to create your own personal “cloud” backup service using these two great products:




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