Backing Up and Saving Your Images: Part 1

Backing Up and Saving Your Images: Part 1


backing up imagesThere are few photographers who can claim they haven’t at one time or another accidentally deleted an image or lost an important file, yet so many of us negate the need to back up our libraries. It could be due to laziness, lack of time, lack of knowledge or sheer denial that anything bad will happen that prevents us from doing the most obvious thing – photography 101 – always back up your work.

If you don’t create a separate catalogue of files externally and your computer crashes, laptop gets stolen or your memory card corrupts – you’ll only have yourself to blame, and who’s to say the monetary value as well as wasted time these losses can bring . However, don’t hang your head in shame just yet as incredibly, a survey carried out by software giant Symantec last year, discovered that only 34% of photographers regularly backed up images, despite the fact that apparently two out of three admit to loosing data.

With that in mind we look at righting a wrong, in this four part series on backing up we will first give you some guidelines and suggestions to consider before, during and after you saving your files. The second part uncovers external hard drives; how to use them, how to choose one and who are the big players in the market. The third part assesses the emergence of online storage sites and the rise of backing up software. The final instalment will uncover ways in which you can retrieve lost or damaged files from your computer and memory cards. This may not be a lesson in creative, but it’s a lesson many of us photographers could learn from.


The first thing you will need to do is create a folder of all the files, images and documents you want to save. Whilst most contemporary hard drive capacities will run into terabytes of space, online storage can be a costly venture. With that in mind it is advisable to back up all your work or all the files in this newly created folder to an external device, then cherry pick the most precious files from this folder and upload these to the online storage provider also. However be sure to research the options carefully and pick an affordable solution that is within your budget; as online backup can become very expensive in the long run as the fees have to be continuously paid or the content is erased. Read every letter of the small print before you sign up to make sure you are 100% comfortable with their policies. It is often best to use a service that encrypts your information before it leaves your computer and is thus dedicated to keeping your work private. What is more a site that promises not to compromise the integrity of your information by giving it an array of advertisers is one to definitely consider.

Make it part of your routine

There is limited benefit in backing up your files once or leaving it as a bi-annual chore. If you are a prolific photographer, you’ll be uploading images regularly and so backing these up should become a regular habit. Furthermore if you have a penchant for editing you may want to ensure your newly altered frames are saved in their latest version. If you simply don’t have the time or energy to be as prompt with storage, why not circle the same date in your calendar every month or the same day every week to back up thus minimising the amount you would lose in a crash.

Keep your eggs in separate baskets

Some photographers prefer to just use an external hard drive for backing up images as they are arguably more cost effective, for example £60 ($95) will buy you around 1TB of storage – more than most photographers will ever need. Whereas others declare an online storage company more reliable; the most secure way to protect your data is to use both, however as we’ve just realised – online storage can become costly. The external hard drive will act as an accessible bank of data, but if that crashes or is stolen you will find yourself in the same situation as if you hadn’t backed up in the first place, so keeping an offsite copy of your data as well could be a happy medium. Rather than purchasing one massive external hard drive, it is advisable to buy several smaller capacity ‘passport’ style hard drives or even USB pens, and saving your work in replica across these devices. As well as keeping a data bank in your house or office, why not ask someone you trust to hold on to the other in case your main unit is lost, stolen or damaged? How many you use is your decision just remember there is a fine balance between paranoia and being safe, it’s just a case of being comfortable with the level of protection you choose.

Getting the most byte for your buck

As with most things in life, there is a solution for every budget, but ultimately you get what you pay for. The more money you spend, generally the higher performance and security feature, capacity and faster transfer speed you can expect. As explained above, it is not unheard of to find a 1TB Hard Drive for around £60 on a shopping website such as Amazon, however the performance and features you get for this may not be able to compete with a prestige model offering a lower capacity from a more reputable firm. So in short, shop around and if possible read customer reviews from a variety of sources to ascertain its ‘real’ value for money. We will discover what features you will need to evaluate in Part Two of this backing-up trilogy, as well as explaining what specifications are good, great and excellent.

Keep it retro

As well as backing up online and using an external hard drive, there is the option to back up onto CDs, DVDs or now Blu-Ray Discs. This is perhaps one of the simplest operations to perform as users need only to click and drag files onto the disc’s folder or simply select ‘burn to CD’ depending on your operating system.  There are several software packages available that are specifically designed to create a more straightforward workflow using this method, which we will discuss in part three. Furthermore, depending on which brand you purchase, CDs can often be quite cost effective. However due to the ‘open’ nature of the medium, discs can easily become scratched or damaged and thus your images corrupted. Whilst this is a worthy second or third string to your back-up bow, it is unadvisable to use this method as your sole backing-up solution.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

Some Older Comments

  • Janet Boring February 17, 2011 08:42 am

    I wouldn't want to deal with the internet sites to store photograph's because you run the risk of someone getting in your account and I think that the desktop hard drives is the best way to go but you have to be careful not to bump them hard or drop them because it ruins them. If you are very careful with them it is a wise investiment. You also don't have to type your e-mail address or screen name and a password to get into them to update your photograph file. I actually have four of them...1 320 gig, 1 terabyte,a 500gig and a 2 terabyte and I keep my photos on all three.

  • avoiding foreclosure February 17, 2011 02:08 am

    I save some of my important document on some flash disk and uploaded some files to sites that are offering some spaces for some files for their subscriber.

  • jancolors September 6, 2010 08:20 am

    I am using AmazonS3 + Jungle Disk to back up work & personal folders. I created incremental backups using ChronoSync back in 2006.

    The AmazonS3 arrangement is so inexpensive and secure, yet, I rarely see chatter about them on tech websites. It is a bit clugey to set up, but once you get your chrons going, it is a thing of beauty. Now, I believe they have integrated software that makes my upload setup obsolete, but I'm not changing yet.

    This saved my clients' files when the shop I was working at went out of business (I feared it might, so put all of it up in the cloud). I was able to form my own business and keep going.

    I have been using a Time Machine but have just ordered a Drobo to have backups & storage for all graphic & media files.

    I have burned things to DVD to take offsite but as a human, I am not so reliable.

    Great discussion here, I look forward to more!

  • MrThallid August 23, 2010 10:44 pm

    One thing about online storage - you may lose your right to privacy. I have heard recently that anything that is not "in your home" is no longer protected by the same laws of search and seizure.

  • Will August 21, 2010 07:37 am

    To those who swear by online back-up, the practicality of it depends on where you live. Here in New Zealand, for example, only a couple of places have fibre-optic broadband - most places are still limited to DSL (and dial-up is common!). Plus, and this is the deal-breaker, pretty much every ISP here charges by the Gb for data, so backing up a couple of hundred Gb every week will get very expensive very quickly. On my current plan, uploading all my photos would cost me around NZ$500 (about US$350) in data charges!

  • Janet Boring August 21, 2010 05:01 am

    I have two desktop hard drives. I keep the two at the house after tearing up a new one. The desktop hard drives can't take being dropped or any hard knocks or it will ruin them

  • kirpi August 20, 2010 10:27 pm

    I must admit that Jennie is right: online backup does not work for images in the real world. Uploading (for a private having a standard connection) is slow, but the real problem is how to get *all* your images back in case you need them. No way.
    Really, have an extra hard drive and store it in a remote location. There's no other way.

  • Jennie August 20, 2010 05:51 pm

    I shopped around for a long time for online storage & found Backblaze to be very affordable at $5 per month (they are also an ethical company, I found some companies' practices to be very dodgy) regardless of volume. However in the UK upload speeds are a problem rarely mentioned if you have a huge amount of images. After 4 months only 300 GB had uploaded out of 2TB and growing, not their fault but my Internet provider. I was shooting far more than would ever be able to be backed up to cloud. I therefore gave up on cloud and went back to relying just on external hard drives. I back up everything 3 times & keep 1 lot out of the office (advice given to me years ago by a very experienced tog).

  • kirpi August 20, 2010 04:39 pm

    Backing up pictures should start when you are in the field. I find that tiny tools like HyperDrive Album (they come in various memory size) are invaluable when you are away from home, say for a week or two.

  • Anders Thornblad August 20, 2010 04:26 pm

    If you backup to an external harddrive it is essential that you keep it in another place than besides your computer. In case of thieves, fire or maybe lightning it will all be gone at the same time.

    Backup = Make a copy and keep it "off-site"

    I have two external harddrives, one at my house in another room and one at my mothers place. Now and then I backup and switch the harddrives.


  • Duchateau August 20, 2010 03:22 pm

    I currently use a RAID1 configuration on my PC as a backup, in the event of a fire i'm pretty much screwed but thats one of life's little risks. If either disk fails, all the data is mirrored on the other and i put in a new drive and rebuild the array... pretty simple, and not all that expensive either.

  • Gus Jackson August 20, 2010 02:30 pm

    Dies anybody use, like or recommend Drobo FS? "Beyond Raid"


  • jm0825 August 20, 2010 02:26 pm

    I have had my experiences with external drives. I bought a 1Tb WD book, which I only used for back up and kept it in a foam padded case when it was not being used. I made about 15 backups and the after 18 months the thing died (warrany is only 6 months to a 1 year). I also bought a HP Media Server 1Tb and installed it and began to migrate all of my photos over to the new server. So I could reformat my existing drive and start over. The Server crashed losing a whole fall seasons worth of photos.(boy my wife was not happy with me!). Now I have carbonite which takes forever to backup because my upload speed is only 500kb/s and I have over 500gb of data to backup. I have gone to getting enterprise quality drives with 3 year warranties and putting them into my own external case. I just finished backing up my 500 gb of data to two 1TB drives and sent one of the drives to my daughter who lives in another state. DVDs, Blue Ray take way to long to write this much data. Hard Drives while not perfect give the speed and price point that makes sense at this time.

    Untiil they come out with 3d Holographic crystal writing like they have in Star Trek this is probably what I am going to continue to do.

  • Ingrid August 20, 2010 01:36 pm

    I agree with some of the comments already made -
    it's hard to beat the convenience and the easy of use of an online back up service such a Mozy. And you never have to think about it - it's automatic! AND it is SO reasonable. I think of it more as an insurance policy!

  • Jason August 20, 2010 12:25 pm

    My wife and I have been using Mozy to do online backups for a while on both our Mac and Windows laptops. It saved me a few times when we had major hardware failures on the external and internal drives.

    On the other hand my brother only used external usb storage and he lost everything when his place was broken into. They took his computer and all of his external drives. He lost years of irreplaceable work.

    Earlier this week my mother lost her laptop in a fire while on vacation and had no online backup or external USB.

    Needless to say, the whole family is now using online backup services.

    In reply to Bill's questions:

    >> 1. What happens if the company goes out of business? What kind of guarantees do they give?

    Since they only have a "backup" of my data, if they went out of business, I would just pick a new online provider and back everything up with them.

    >>2. What type of security or protection do they offer? I am a bit concerned having my backups in someone else’s hands.

    I use Mozy and I believe that Carbonite is the same with encryption. Your data will be encrypted on your side before it is sent over the internet to the backup provider. When you restore it, it is downloaded back down and your computer decyrpts it.

    >> 3. I see Mosy & Carbonite listed. Any other options recommended? I am an amateur photographer and do not have huge space needs.

    There are others out there. It seems that Mozy and Carbonite are the most popular. I started out with the free Mozy account which gives you up to 2Gig. It's amazing how quickly that space fills up. So, I upgraded to the paid service and have over 100Gig of photos and videos backed up.

  • Morgana August 20, 2010 11:56 am

    I back up to DVD, to external backup drive and also to an online archive. :)

  • Gireesh August 20, 2010 02:39 am

    I had a system where I treated my laptop as the main storage and external harddrive (750 GB) as my secondary storage. Over time, I my laptop ran out of space, and ended up with my external harddrive as primary storage....A big mistake..
    One fine day, there was a small accident, where the external hdd toppled and hit the desk, next think i know was the data was lost.

    As Luck would have it, I had most of the photos in my laptop, flickr, picasa, and some DVDs. Managed to get back almost 95% of the pics, however, lost about 2 months worth of pictures.

    Point I want to make is Discipline is key. One of the ways to enforce that is to Automate your process as much as possible.

  • Vlad August 19, 2010 03:03 am

    Backing up your pictures (and not only your pictures) should probably rank number 2 after learning how to organize them. Actually keeping your pictures organized (so you don't go nuts) and backing them up should go hand in hand.

    For most people just having an external hard drive is an amazing step towards achieving some piece of mind. The vast majority of photographers however only think about backing up their pictures after some disaster happens to their computer.

    I use the Western Digital 2TB Mirror Edition (comes with a RAID 1 configuration) for creating two copies of my files. In conjunction with the external drive I use SyncBack for regularly backing up all my stuff.

    The online option is pretty good too, but more time consuming. I load my best pictures to since they have unlimited storage and a not too expensive membership.

  • Kit August 18, 2010 10:49 pm

    The part that's killing me is that, no matter how good you are at keeping a schedule, a backup solution wihtout automation will eventually fail. Data recovery options are well and good, but this discussion really needs options for automation.

  • Adrian August 18, 2010 10:26 pm

    Thanks for the tips - look forward to part 3!

    Will it include Time Machine & metadata how-to or was this series a coincidence to my subject email request?

    Cheers once again DPS, excellent as usual,

  • v8280z August 18, 2010 04:19 am

    If you are looking for a permanent long term storage (Archival) there is a fairly new product on the market by a company called They claim it is a permanent solution that does not age like regular CDs due to the metals and rock used in the CD. This probably wouldn't be your best option for daily backups, but for quarterly or annual backups it may make sense.

  • Andrea McLaughlin August 18, 2010 02:57 am

    This is the Must Read overview of back-up workflow for digital media of all types:

  • Jeffrey August 18, 2010 01:05 am

    I run a raid 5 system at home (QNap 409), one disk fails I still have my data.
    especially now that I am shooting Raw the demand for disk pace is increasing.

  • Bill Vriesema August 18, 2010 12:50 am

    For those of you who use online backup services--

    1. What happens if the company goes out of business? What kind of guarantees do they give?
    2. What type of security or protection do they offer? I am a bit concerned having my backups in someone else's hands.
    3. I see Mosy & Carbonite listed. Any other options recommended? I am an amateur photographer and do not have huge space needs.
    I have an external hard drive now and am looking to go either to a second external hard drive (backup the backup) or to online storage.


  • Nick Burns August 18, 2010 12:33 am

    I'm sorry people, but this is the second time I've seen this on this site and I'm calling it out... I lose all respect for someone who can't master simple grammar.

    It's lose not loose. If you let your data loose, you may lose it!

  • Chris August 17, 2010 11:14 pm

    I have always been paranoid about backups and have never found a satisfactory solution that does everything. I have just been beta testing a new commercial online backup solution - which I deleted from my machine last night as it kills my internet connection (even at low traffic settings, I think my router decides it is having a denial of service attack & goes on strike) & hammers the hard disk as it reevaluates everything everytime rather ungracefully - the benefit of having a copy off site might not be coming to me yet.

    However, as a coincidence I received a PC magazine with a copy of Genie Timeline which does something along the lines of Apple's timemachine - the basic version is free and so far (okay, only a few days) it looks like a pretty nifty program that keeps quiet when the machine is busy - I've used Genie backups before and have a good experience to date so think this is one worth looking into (the full versions are pretty well priced) - I think a copy of this combined with Paragon drive backup to make an image looks like a good route to go - just need to sort the offsite thing now.

  • martin August 17, 2010 09:53 am

    I guess having my own Linux server with a RAID1 array, rsync (a nice unix based synchronisation utility) and running cygwin to back up my removable photo hard drive is a little much, but then again it's taken me through 2 OS crashes and drive failure.

  • Jason August 17, 2010 06:00 am

    I'm paranoid but not enought to backup to an online service. I have a backup network drive running 2 x 500gig HDDs mirrored. Way faster than an external drive and at least if one drive goes down there's a mirror of everything and I can just replace the bad one and re-mirror them. :) Very inexpensive to do nowadays. Maybe have $400 into the 2 drives and the NAS. And to top it off the NAS is networked to my entertainment center in the living room so I can view the vids and pics on my HDTV from there.

  • dok August 17, 2010 05:47 am

    I got all my pictures on a an external usb drive permanently connected to my computer and regularly make backups on a 2nd HD.
    Under Linux, GRSYNC (g.u.i. for rsync) is all I need to make backups with all the options needed.

  • Terry in Indiana August 17, 2010 05:44 am

    What a (sadly!) timely article series for me! Last week I dropped my external passport-style hard drive on the kitchen apparent damage on the outside, but it won't work any more. After researching data recovery options, I was floored at the highly expensive cost of my "fixing" my mistake! I thought I was being wise using the external hard drive, but if I ever get my photos back (2 years-worth of photos!!!) I am backing up my back-up!!! PLEASE...can't wait for the last part of the series about how to get the data out of damaged hard drives. I've been heartsick over this mess all weekend.... I'm not a professional, but my photos are treasures to me!

  • Karen Stuebing August 17, 2010 04:39 am

    I use two external HDDs for back up. After a couple years, I buy a new one and cycle the older one out. They're certainly inexpensive enough these days. Redundancy is always good.

    @Jen, I have also accidentally deleted photos I wanted to keep. There is a freeware program called restoration.exe. You'd be surprised how many deleted files you can recover.

  • Mary August 17, 2010 03:49 am

    I think everyone should be backing up "everything" that they feel is important or that they would not be able to replicate or duplicate. External storage is good, online backup at Mosy, Carbonite etc. are also excellent - I do both, I have multiple external drives and Carbonite backing stuff up on daily basis. The thing I like best about Online storage is that hopefully if a disaster hits my home, such as a flood, hurricane or fire...and my computers and/or external drives are lost - at least my data and photos stored online will still be available to me to restore. I also have started the long process of Scanning in and saving "older" non digital photos and printed documents, news articles, that are precious to me and they will now be backed up online as well.

  • Rob August 17, 2010 02:58 am

    I back up to an external HD using Time Machine. Works quite well.

  • Kit August 17, 2010 02:38 am

    My experience tells me to never ever rely on CDs, DVDs, and other digital media of that nature for long-term backup.

    They have a shelf life you know. Even the very best burnable media only lasts for about 10 years before it oxidizes, dye shifts, whatever. Yes. the manufacturers claim that their media will last for 20-100 years under optimal storage conditions, ie in a 60 degree, 0 humidity, completely dark environment. Who does that?

    I and most of my clients have been burned too many times by losing DVD media to trust them as a reliable backup source. Just beware.

    Is part 2 going to mention some ways to automate your backups? Carbon Copy Cloner is a fantastic tool for that on the Mac. For the PC, deltasync works well, though it can be a little fiddly to get just right.

  • Katja Nina August 17, 2010 02:26 am

    I backup on external drive plus on DVD every now and again which is held away from home. I am considering online back up but havent decided which provider to choose.

  • Avinash August 17, 2010 02:21 am

    Recently, my hard disk got corrupted and I lost all my photos. I was terribly sad and as you clearly mentioned it cost me bomb to get my photos retrieved (100% retrieval is not possible most of the times). Good lesson for me to learn.... !! looking forward for more information on backing up..!!!

  • PAtricia Verdone August 17, 2010 02:14 am

    I use and this is an automatic offsite back up for about $55 per year...

  • Jen at Cabin Fever August 17, 2010 01:58 am

    I've definitely accidentally deleted a photo or two. And after I pick myself up off of the floor after crying over it (ok, not really...) I remember that is why I back up my photos! Plus, I never trust my computer not to have some horrible seizure and die on me.

    I back up my computer two ways.....
    External Hard drive.
    CDs (yes, I still burn things to CDs... just in case)
    I don't trust or want to pay for "online storage"

    Cabin Fever in Vermont

    NEK Photography Blog

  • Jim August 17, 2010 01:56 am

    I use Adobe Lightroom for my photography. Currently I backup after I have made my pass(s) and deleted all the photos that are out of focus or I don't keep for a myriad of other reasons. I might shoot a 1000 photos but only keep, say two hundred. This is what I backup, not the 800 I delete. What do others do?

  • cheska August 17, 2010 01:54 am

    backing-up files and not just photos - very important but a lot of us tends to forget including myself. thanks for the tips! should start this as soon as possible!

  • Bob August 17, 2010 01:46 am

    The "online storage can be costly" line might have been true in the past, but I don't see how you can justify that these days. I agree with bastien above, a service like Mozy or Dropbox costs $5 per month for unlimited storage. My backup runs every night at 2am and keeps every file up to date: all photographs, all lightroom catalogs, everything.

    Plus I'm running weekly backups to external harddrives, but that's not as automated, so I rely on Mozy for the day to day work.

    $5 a month for not having to worry about backups is well worth it in my book. I've used the recovery feature to get back a corrupted lightroom catalog once, and that alone has been worth the cost.

    Online backup is cheap - don't get sucked into the myth that it's as expensive as it used to be. Times have changed.

  • Prime August 17, 2010 01:39 am

    I swear by back up. As rightly mentioned in the post, having multiple copies are essential. Another thing as important as back up is making sure that the data can be retrieved. No point in doing back up if you get corrupted files when you need them.

    I perform backup to 2 external drives and a file server. Photos are filed under directories based on the shooting date and grouped into larger folders of size 4.5Gb which get written to DVDs. Once in a week I run a sanity check (md5sum) against my backups in the hard disks to make sure that I can actually restore data from the back up.

    Looking forward for the next parts of the series.

  • Aaron August 17, 2010 01:01 am

    I have long used DVDs to save photos. After online discussions of how long the disk last, I also began saving to an external harddrive. I've learned nothing is fail safe! On vacation I had an external which froze up after rough handling and the photos were lost. Now I also upload to Flickr those photos I really don't want to lose. (The only problem is no RAW files allowed there.)

  • Keri August 17, 2010 12:59 am

    Personally i opt for a backup on an external drives kept away from my house and also for an online solution (carbonite) some say this is a bit on the paranoid front as i'm not a pro, but i don't want to loose my photos and as i work in IT i've experienced my fair share of computer/hard disk failures so i know how important good backups are!

    CD/DVD front - personally i don't subscribe to this as a feasible method of backup, i've had loads of these fail over time even without scratches, and unlike HDs data is a lot harder to recover if there is a problem.

  • Bastien August 17, 2010 12:58 am

    Pictures are not the only thing to backup, hard drives all die one day or another. I personally use an online backup service : mozy ( ) and I'm quite happy with it. Every friday night all my data is backed up automatically. Now even if my house burns down I can still get all my data back.