A few weeks ago I wrote a post about sharing your photos online so your friends and family could enjoy them. But how do you make sure those digital photos are safe for the future? You’ll probably want to see those photos of your children again one day, and how about the ones of that great holiday? Well, yet again Digital Camera Beginner presents a quick guide, this time on the best ways to protect your digital photo collection.
Most of you probably have photos stored on your computer. They get here when you take them off the memory card in your camera and copy them over so you can look at them, share them, print them and all the other things you need to do with them. Some of you might even copy these to DVD or CD to keep them safe. But computers fail, CDs and DVDs can get damaged. Which is the best method to protect your photos…? Let’s have a look at each option in turn.
On Your Computer
The default option for most people. Although this is the easiest and most convenient, you shouldn’t rely on your computer. Backups are always a good idea for anything you value and the options below are worth thinking about for all your important documents and data, not just you pictures. Computer problems, thefts, fires and a whole host of other events can cause you to lose your data so it’s best to be prepared.
Even if nothing ever goes wrong with your computer, one day you’ll want to replace it with a new one and then you’ll be left with the problem of moving photos from one computer to another. This makes this solution a short term one at best, and one nobody should rely on.
Lifetime: Up to 5 years.
Camera Memory Card
This is an expensive way to work, and probably not practical for most people on a regular basis. A few of my friends use memory cards rather like films in their cameras, filling them up and then storing them. I personally wouldn’t go this far, but for important events it’s worth considering. Keeping a few memory cards of special family occasions or trips means you’re photos are safe from day to day computer issues, but you’re still keeping them in a single place. Memory cards also have a limited lifespan, and though it’s probably longer than your computer it still isn’t going to last you a lifetime. A good idea for valuable photos, but don’t put all your trust in it.
Lifetime: 5-10 years for good quality cards.
A favourite option for backups, mainly due to the price and convenience. Although both don’t hold enough data for a full computer backup with modern computers, they both (especially DVD) have enough storage to keep a reasonable number of photos. Another option that keeps your photos safe from day to day computer problems, DVDs and CDs can vary hugely in quality and life expectancy. If you want to rely on them for long term storage, look for archive quality disks and make multiple copies. Don’t forget that if you store the disks in one place they’ll still be at risk from big disasters, so you might want to think about spreading copies around some people you trust. Also, take note that rewritable DVDs will almost certainly have a shorter shelf life than their write once alternatives.
Lifetime: 10-20 years for good media in good conditions. Some manufacturers claim 100-200 years, but that’s a little hard to test!
Safety: Medium – High
External Hard Disk
Another popular option for backup and storage, again due to the low price and convenience. Used constantly these suffer from similar problems to storing the photos on your computer as they are permanently at risk of problems on your computer. If you use them just for backups then they are less likely to have problems and are probably the most cost and time effective way of doing regular backups. You should be able to fit everything on your computer onto a single disk, let alone your photos!
Unfortunately they suffer from similar lifetime problems to your computer and due to their mechanical nature are more likely to suffer hardware failures than other methods. The higher unit cost of a hard disk compared to other media such as CDs or DVDs also makes it less likely you’ll be able to keep multiple copies around for greater safety. A good regular backup method, but not suited to long term storage.
Lifetime: 5-10 years.
Safety: Low – Medium
Online storage of photos can include sharing sites such as flickr, cloud storage services such as Dropbox or dedicated backup services such as Carbonite. If you’re relying on these to store your photos you’ll want to look for a service that doesn’t reduce the quality of your pictures, will keep your data safe (by backing up your data etc.) and is from a company who are likely to stay in business for the forseeable future. A solution that does all these will probably involve spending money, but it’s likely to be well spent. This is the easiest way of making sure you have backups stored outside of your own home and makes someone else responsible for the hardware side of things.
Lifetime: Hard to say, but should be long.
Printing your photos may be expensive and seem a little dated these days, but it’s the single safest way to keep your precious photos safe. All the computers in the world could die and you’ll still have access to your images. If you print them properly they can survive a lot of physical punishment and are easy to distribute to relatives or friends. Plus, gathering people round to look at a photo album is still a more social experience than looking at a computer or your mobile phone!
If you go down this route then it’s worth getting your photos professionally printed, and look into the type of paper and inks used. As usual you’ll get what you pay for and better prints will look better and last longer.
Lifetime: 100+ years
Safety: Medium – High (and the more copies the better it gets)
If you want the longest lifetime for your photos then print is the way to go. Stored properly paper and inks can last for hundreds of years and won’t rely on future availability of technology. From a convenience and flexibility perspective, online backup is hard to beat as a reputable company will take care of your data better than you could probably achieve alone.
It’s also worth mixing and matching these techniques – I use an external hard disk for regular system backups with online backups for my more important files. This gives me the convenience of a local backup and the security of an off-site solution in case the worse happens. Whatever you do, don’t ignore backups completely – the worst just might happen!