As we near the end of 2011, I realize that I’ve fallen behind on archiving and protecting my investment in my photography. So as I work on archiving my own files, it seems appropriate to address some questions I have heard from photographers at some of my recent workshops.
Note that there is a distinction between “backing up” your images and “archiving” them. When you “back up” your files, you are simply protecting yourself from losing your data if your computer should crash or your files get corrupted. Your images should be backed up immediately after shooting.
When you “archive” files, you are seeking to preserve them for the longest time possible. Who knows? One of the children you photograph today could grow up to be a President or other celebrity. Then, that image could be really valuable to you (or your heirs).
What’s the best way to store my digital files?
There isn’t really a “best” way. Let’s think like NASA: Have three of everything for backup, because you can’t always know which system will hold up and which one might fail.
Copy images from your camera card at the earliest opportunity after a shoot. As durable as camera cards can be, it’s pretty easy to lose or damage them. I recommend using a card reader rather than using a cable to connect the camera to the computer. Then, I normally do not erase the card until I need it again, and I format the card in the camera and not in the computer.
The method I use to store important images involves at least two hard drives, plus a premium DVD. The hard drives come from mainstream, reliable manufacturers and include at least a three-year or five-year warranty.
Even though external drives are more vulnerable to physical trauma than the drive inside your computer, I like the portability of external drives. They can be filled up and stored offsite with little trouble.
What about “cloud” storage?
Cloud storage simply involves uploading your image files over the internet to a service that promises to store and keep your data safe, and to back it up against a mishap. In my opinion, it’s a safer bet to store files with a larger company that is more likely to be financially stable and available for the long term.
I prefer a service that provides automated backup – preferably scheduled overnight, so it doesn’t bog down my internet connection. I also prefer to add remote access, private file sharing, file search, and of course password protection. You may wish to add other features.
And don’t forget: Email can be a very inexpensive, and fairly reliable, form of short-term cloud storage. I frequently email files to myself, provided they are not over 20 MB in size. Another way to do this is via a file-transmission service such as YouSendit or Dropbox. These services let you upload much larger files, but there’s frequently a fee involved. Be careful to set the file attributes to “never expires”!
Whatever you do, make it easy on yourself. Sometimes, I procrastinate or neglect to make back-ups. Try to make it part of your daily or weekly routine. A number of software applications are available to help you.
When a disk is full, or you have completed a set of DVDs, store them off-site (in a different physical location). A safe deposit box in a bank is a good option.
Before you store a drive offsite, label it to allow easy identification of the contents. And (this is critical), store external drives with the original power supply provided by the manufacturer. Connecting the wrong power supply will sometimes fry the internal electronics of the drive!
As you sort through the images you have taken this year, consider making prints (or a photo book) of your best images. Prints made on high-quality machines using high-quality media and manufacturers’ inks can last over 200 years in dark, cool, protected storage. I keep a number of key images archived this way, and I plan to add more to the group. (Who can predict what types of file formats and digital storage devices will be used decades from now?)
In the next two parts of this series, I’ll suggest ways to label your stored images so you can find them, and explain why some file formats are better than others for image archiving.
If you have questions, or other suggestions, let me know!