Archiving Digital Photos - dummies

By Robert Correll

Archiving preserves a copy of your photos (and working files) for long-term storage. Your digital photo collection is in some ways easier to safeguard than photo prints and negatives. The electronic files themselves are, for all intents and purposes, indestructible — as long as you ensure the safety of the media you store them in. You don’t have to worry about prints getting bent or soaked with humidity, or about boxes of them occupying an entire room.

Take time to plan your backup and archive process, and diligently carry out your plans. You can’t throw a sleeve of negatives into a cardboard box and tuck them away in a closet.

Playing it safe

First, decide how you want to back up and archive your photos. You have to consider issues such as storage capacity, availability, and organization, in addition to the categories in this list:

Cost: You want to pay as little as possible, but you have to strike a balance between being cost-effective and being simply foolish. Don’t buy the cheapest (and possibly least reliable) equipment known to mankind to protect your valuable files.

  • Capacity: Digital photos and movies take up a lot of space. Choose a storage medium that fits your current and anticipated future workload. The table lays out your options.
  • Access: Determine whether you can easily access your backups and whether an unforeseen circumstance (like a company going out of business and never updating its software) can prevent you from protecting your work.
  • Security: Assess your security situation to determine how safe (physically, and from a computer networking standpoint) the files are. Put the appropriate safeguards on your home or local network, such as Internet firewalls and password protection. In addition, files can be easily damaged if you store them at home and your house burns down. If that’s your only backup copy, you’ve lost them.
  • The future: Consider how easy or hard it will be to transfer archived files from one storage device to another. For example, old hard drives may require a connection that will someday be obsolete unless you occasionally update your backup technology. In the very long term, provide thumbnails (small pictures) or a printed index or another form of inventory that, for example, your kids or their kids can easily figure out when you’re long gone.
Archival Media Pros and Cons
Media Pros Cons
CD-ROM/DVD-ROM Data can’t be erased; price per gigabyte isn’t bad; no moving parts to the CD/DVD itself. Limited capacity; most camera memory cards have more space; questionable media longevity.
Tape backup Large capacity and longevity. Cost for tapes, drive, and software; often uses file formats specific to one system; may require special software to back up and restore; can be “eaten” by disgruntled machines; data can be erased by strong magnetic fields. Feels like a 1980s solution.
Memory card or flash drive Easy to use; doesn’t occupy much space; no moving parts. Cost per gigabyte makes for an impractical solution; would require 125 8GB digital camera memory cards to match the storage space of a single 1 terabyte drive.
Internal hard drive Affordable; holds lots; fast; useful for temporary backups. Moving parts; susceptible to crashing; difficult to swap in or out; data can be accidentally erased.
External hard drive Affordable; holds lots; portability; can be stored off site; great for long-term storage. Moving parts; not as accessible as an internal hard drive.
Solid State Drive (SSD) Essentially a huge flash drive; no moving parts; exceptionally fast; can be internal or external. Smaller capacity and higher price than normal hard drives, questionable longevity (yes, you read that right — SSD data degrades over time as you use the drive).
Network storage Reliable, fast, networked RAID storage increases capacity, performance, and reliability. Requires a network, must set up and administer, can be technically demanding, can crash, stored onsite.
Online/Cloud The ultimate in off-site storage; no additional hardware needed; can be accessed from anywhere at any time. Time and bandwidth required for initial backup; requires computer with Internet access; requires service subscription and an account in good standing; long-term viability depends on company health; vulnerable to unauthorized access, especially if you’re famous.

Putting the plan into action

All the cool storage devices in the world are useless if you never use them. Have a plan for backing up and archiving your files. The key to making backups work is to develop a routine that matches the time and energy you’re willing to invest. If the process becomes so laborious that you quit, it’s worthless.

Follow these steps to walk through the recommended plan, using a combination of extra internal (in your computer case; you’ll have to install them yourself or find someone who knows how to do this) and external (sitting on your desktop in an enclosure of some sort) hard drives:

  1. Complete an initial photo backup.

    Back up new photos on internal or external (preferred) hard drives when you transfer photos and movies from camera to computer. You can’t afford to lose the initial transfer. These files form the basis of your collection and can’t be re-created.

    The mechanics of the initial backup are up to you. I simply copy and paste the photo folder to another location on an external drive. You may want to export photos from your photo-management software or use a backup program to copy a smaller bunch. This advice applies to each of the following steps.

  2. Perform a weekly internal (on your computer) backup of photo catalogs and working files.
    Back up catalogs (which may contain the bulk of your adjustments) and any other working files to internal hard drives. If you can’t afford to lose a single day’s worth of productivity, consider daily backups. For a more relaxed timeline, back up catalogs, edited, and final files monthly.
  3. Perform an end-of-month external backup.
    Back up everything to external hard drives, a file server, or a network. For a more relaxed timeline, back up quarterly or by project.
  4. Perform a biannual off-site backup.

    Create an off-site backup with all original photo files, catalogs, working, and final files. Put them in a storage barn on your property, rent a safety deposit box from a bank, or ask your grandparents to put them in their attic. Just make sure that they’re physically separated from your computer and the building you’re in. That way, if anything happens to your building, your photos and work files remain safe. For a more relaxed timeline, back up annually.

The suggested plan may not work for everyone. One alternative, keyed toward a business environment, is to treat every job as a discrete unit and back up photos, catalogs and work files according to job number. When you transfer the initial photos, back them up. When you finish the job, back up everything and tuck things away on a hard drive devoted to that client. Depending on your workload and client list, you may have one hard drive for many clients or many hard drives for one client.