Save your digital photos, Part 2: How I do it

In Part 1 of “Save your digital photos,” I listed a number of reasons why you should be backing up your digital photos.

And I mentioned LOCKSS, which I will reiterate and emphasize again here, is the TLDNR take-away message I want you to get from both Parts 1 and 2. If you read or remember nothing else, please just always remember this rule of thumb in regards to your digital files, and (assuming you follow it) you should be good to go:

LOCKSS = Lots of copies keeps stuff safe.

Also in Part 1, I mentioned this OHS blog post with “Tips for Saving Your Digital Photographs”. My own personal digital photo preservation routine seems to fall within the parameters they recommend, so I thought maybe I would share the specifics of it here, to give an idea of what a home user might do to ensure that their digital photogrpahs will both exist, and be accessible, for a long time.

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And now, for some minutiae.

The following are the details of my own personal digital preservation regimen. (So, to be clear, this is what I do at home, not in my professional capacity as an archivist at the library.)

My way is certainly not the only solution or even necessarily the best. But I feel that it has served me well in the past. I can confidently say, “If my laptop died tomorrow, I really wouldn’t be that upset about it, because I know all my stuff is safely stored in multiple places.”

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Here is what I do, roughly broken down into steps:

Step 1: Download the photos.

At least once a month (I have a reminder set), I download the photos from my smart phone and my digital camera onto my computer’s hard drive. I usually leave the photos on the camera’s memory card, also, for about a month. For instance, at the end of May, I would copy all of May’s photos onto my hard drive, leave the a copy of the May photos on the camera, and delete the April photos still left on the camera. I usually dump this month’s photos into a virtual holding tank, a folder called (creatively enough) “New Pics,” until I am ready to organize them. (Don’t worry; I do the organizing pretty soon after the data dump. But I usually have to collect the images from two cameras and an iPhone before I start organizing, to make sure I have everything.)

Why do Step 1? Copying your photos from your camera devices onto your hard drive gives you a second copy of them and protects you from losing the photos if you lose your camera or phone. (I know some cell phones have “cloud” backup, but I bet your digital camera probably doesn’t.) However, this only works until the memory in your camera or phone fills up. You will need a more long-term solution (see Step 4+), also, but this is good for starters.

Step 2: Create & utilize named folders.

I have folders for each month (e.g., “2011-10 Oct”), with descriptively named folders for each event in that month. I usually use the ISO 8601 date and then a descriptive name, such as: “2011-12-25 Christmas.” If I have random pictures (no particular event), I just toss them into the appropriate month’s folder.

Why do Step 2? It’s easy to accumulate a lot of digital photos (since they are cheap and easy to create!), and they can become a jumbled, unmanageable mess pretty easily. Also, if you have photos from the same event but different cameras, the potentially different sequential file naming schemes might not keep them next to each other in your “All My Photos Ever” folder. Step 2 does not technically do anything to help preserve the images themselves, but it will help preserve the meaning of the photos. (Ever found a bunch of old photos and thought, “Gee, I wonder what was going on here?” or “Grandma looks so young; I wonder what year this was?” Yeah, thought so.)

Step 2b: Cull the collection.

Once you’ve got all the photos from a certain event in front of you, take a few minutes to delete any you don’t need or want. Delete pocket shots (the camera equivalent of “butt dialing“). At least consider deleting blurry ones and ones with really unfortunate facial expressions. If you have several shots that are nearly identical, consider choosing the best one and deleting the rest.

You could do this culling after Step 1 (file download) or after Step 3 (filenaming), but I think it makes the most sense after you’ve filed by event (so you can see everything together) but before you go to all the trouble of renaming everything.

Why do Step 2b? There are two good reasons to do this: #1 digital storage is pretty cheap these days, but it’s still not free; and #2 you won’t have to wonder “now which 2011 family Christmas photo did I decide was the best one?” every time you want it. (If you really want to keep all the shots even though it looks like a flipbook, you could mark the best one as “BEST” (so creative, I know) when filenaming (see step 3), but that doesn’t help you save storage space.)

A word of caution about Step 2b: On the flip side, don’t delete photos you actually want just to save space, unless you are really desperate. My husband fully supports my mass proliferation of photographs, reminding me: storage space is cheap.  So, if you really want it, find a way to keep it. (You can buy more CDs or a bigger hard drive; but once those photos are gone, they’re gone.)

Step 3: Create meaningful file names.

I change the generic photo filenames assigned by the camera to something more descriptive, which helps me find the image I want without having to look at every file. Again, I like the ISO 8601 date, the event, then the generically assigned file name (most cameras use a sequential numbering system so this keeps the photos in chronological order), and then sometimes info about the subject. For example: “2011-12-25 Christmas IMG_0099 opening gifts.jpg” or “2011-12-25 Christmas IMG_0100 Lisa Matt.jpg.” (Note: You should try to keep the file names short, because some operating systems have trouble with longer file names. I am not always good about keeping things short — you’ve read my blog, right? — so I am guilty of not doing this. But I still thought I ought to mention it.)

Meaningful folder and file names

Meaningful folder and file names

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Okay, so you’ve got your photos from all your digital devices (go you!); you’ve organized them in relevant folders and given them meaningful filenames (woohoo!). Now, you want to make sure all that hard work doesn’t go to waste. You need to protect those image files against the many ways they can be lost (see Part 1).

If all else fails, remember LOCKSS: Lots of copies keeps stuff safe.

Step 4: Do regular external backups.

When I say “regular,” I mean pretty often. I do my backup of photos (as well as other files) once a week (another reminder is set).

And when I say “external,” I mean to another physical location besides your the hard drive to which you downloaded the photos in Step 1. I mean, create a regularly-updated second copy of your stuff somewhere. That “somewhere” could be an external hard drive, CDs, DVDs, cloud storage, USB drives, etc.

Personally, I don’t recommend CDs, DVDs, or USB drives (and do I even need to address floppy disks?) because they can go bad over time, and you have to remember to check them periodically (and possibly refresh them – which means, making copies on new disks/media to replace the old ones). I recommend using an external hard drive of some sort, because if you keep using the same drive every time to backup things, you will realize immediately when it goes bad because you are accessing it every week to make those backups. If you put your photos on a CD and throw it in a drawer, thinking, “Okay, there’s my backup for 2011,” then in a few years when your computer crashes, you might find that CD can’t be read anymore either. Then what? You just lost 2011’s photos.

By using a hard drive, which I will access frequently to make additional backups (thereby acting as a check to make sure it’s still working, without having to remember to check it for no other reason than checking it), I don’t have to remember the CDs (or DVDs or USB sticks or SD cards or whatever) that I stowed away years ago and hope they still work when I need them; or to remember to check them every 6-12 months or so.

Nevertheless, any backup media you choose to use is better than none at all. Because if you make any backup copies, there’s at least a chance they’ll still work when you need them. If you make no copies at all, I guarantee you will lose those photos when your computer/phone/camera dies.

In my case, I use an external hard drive system called a NAS — Network-Attached Storage — which has a two-disk RAID (redundant array of independent disks) configuration.

NAS (Network-Attached Storage)

NAS (Network-Attached Storage)

Without getting too technical, this means that I can backup my files over our home network to this little box that has two identical hard drives in it (in our case, 1 terabyte each). Although the box technically contains 2 TB of space, you can only fill up one disk’s worth of space – in my case, 1 TB – because the second disk exists solely to backup the first. So, in this way, I actually have a double backup going on. If one of the two disks goes bad, I still have a backup.

Why do Step 4? You need an external second copy of your files in case your first copy gets lost, stolen, destroyed, corrupted, or otherwise killed in some way.

Step 5: Keep an off-site backup.

Now, if you opted to go with cloud storage for your Step 4, where your photos are backed up over the Internet, then you may not need to do Step 5 also. Theoretically, anyone with any business running a cloud storage service should have your files protected in multiple ways, and obviously this storage is off-site because it is stored on the company’s servers in who-knows-where. So, if you used cloud storage for Step 4, you are probably covered on Step 5 also.

I do use online storage for part of my Step 5. I have an account at Smugmug, where I am able to backup an unlimited number of photos for $40 per year. The site has lots of cool features (and no, they aren’t paying me to promote them), but I mostly got the account for backup purposes. However, I have since implemented another off-site backup solution, since the cost for restoring all my images from Smugmug would be pretty high.

As my other off-site backup solution, I have a second pair of external hard drives (in addition to the ones in the NAS). I keep one of the drives at my house at any given time and make weekly backups to it, just like I do the NAS. The other drive is at my parents’ house, 100+ miles away. Whenever I visit my parents (usually every few months), I swap the two hard drives.

One of my off-site backup solutions

One of my off-site backup solutions

Why do Step 5? Keeping an off-site backup gives you an additional layer of protection against more types of loss. Let’s say you do Steps 1-4, but your backup is stored at your house, along with your computer. What if someone steals your computer and your external hard drive? What if your home is destroyed by a fire or natural disaster? If it’s a house fire, then storing your off-site backup at a friend’s house nearby will save you, but what if it’s a major disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, or flood? Odds are, if your friend’s house is in the same metro area, it will be affected also. Ideally, you would want your off-site storage several hundred miles away. This is another plus to cloud storage, because odds are, those servers are going to be hundreds of miles away from you and probably spread across many different locations.

My swap-a-hard-drive-at-Mom-and-Dad’s-house method is pretty good, but it might be a couple of months out-of-date. But at least I can get those last couple of months’ of picturse off of Smugmug. It’s a lot easier to copy the files from a hard drive than to get them back from the Internet either through download or ordering CDs (which would be expensive and I don’t even want to think about how many CDs I would need to order from them).

Step 6: Print out the pictures.

Any photos that I want to be accessible for many years, I have printed. Yes, this costs money. Do it anyway. I don’t recommend printing your photos at home; photo print services have better machines, processes, and inks. Just leave it to the pro’s. Personally, I use Shutterfly (and no they aren’t paying me), but there are many good ones.

Another plus to using an online photo printing site is that it can be an off-site backup, depending on how long the photos are stored there. You can order photo CDs if you need to. In fact, as I was fact-checking to write this, I learned that Shutterfly now has unlimited free photo storage; they didn’t used to, which was part of why I got Smugmug, among other things. Anyway, the point is: free online photo storage – with the option to order your photos on CDs (if you need them later) – does exist, so there’s really no good excuse not to do it. If you don’t have Internet access, go to the public library; furthermore, if you don’t have Internet access, how are you even reading this?

I like Shutterfly because the pictures look good, they aren’t too expensive ($0.15 per 4×6, currently), and (perhaps the biggest factor why I use them) they print the filename on the back. Remember all that filenaming you did? Yeah, here’s another way it pays off. Not necessarily having to rewrite all that again on the back of your prints. Although, you might want to write on them; that the pre-printed filename may rub off eventually. Without going off on a tangent about the best way to archivally label your photos, just please make sure your prints are labeled in some way (Step 6b) – or else you’ll still have the whole, “What was going on here and when?” scenario years later, if you don’t transfer the descriptions to the prints also.

Why do Step 6? For all the time I’ve spent developing and implementing my plan for how to keep my digital photos safe, I must admit, I still don’t 100% trust digital-only. I could write a whole separate blog entry about why that is, but suffice it to say that anything digital is always going to be technology-dependent, meaning you will need certain equipment and software in order to access it.

You know what’s not technology-dependent? Hard copy. That’s why you can still rummage through Grandma’s box of photos, even though the camera or even the negatives may be long gone. Back in the Day, the only option for enjoying your photos was to have prints made. And as long as those prints exist and you’ve got eyes to see, you’ll be able to enjoy them. You won’t be rooting around looking for a way to access that old hard drive or disk — assuming the media hasn’t gone bad — in 2050. You can just kick back with an album or box of pictures. Old School.

No special equipment required.

No special equipment required.

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Okay, I know that was very long and involved and full of details. Part of that is because I’m verbose. But part of that is because actually managing to effectively preserve your photo memories in this day and age is involved. You must make a conscious effort to do it. And for some people, simply telling them, “You need to backup your photos,” is not really all that helpful. So I thought perhaps sharing something a little more step-by-step might be helpful.

This post is an example of one possible plan for keeping your digital photos safe. There are many options. And, like I have said, the way described here (“my” way) is not the only way or even necessarily the best way. But I think I have all the major bases covered. I can say with some degree of confidence that if my laptop kicked the bucket tomorrow (again, knock on wood), all my photos are safe because they exist somewhere else (in some cases multiple somewheres). I would even go so far as to say that if my house burned to the ground with all my physical belongings inside (WAY knock on wood), I could replace all of my digital photos except maybe the last week’s worth.

So while some might call all of this “overkill,” I call it “peace of mind.”

3 responses to “Save your digital photos, Part 2: How I do it

  1. Pingback: Save your digital photos, Part 3: Why you need to do it (Photo Reprise) | Glancing Backwards

  2. Pingback: Ex post facto reference: Saving digital photos to floppy disks? (Don’t) | Glancing Backwards

  3. Pingback: A rebuttal to HP’s “Scan and share children’s artwork” blog post | Glancing Backwards

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