We all know we need data backups, and I hope you have some sort of backup system in place in case something catastrophic happens to your computer. But what about your photos? Are they lumped into whatever backup system you currently rely on to protect your data? If so, is that enough? After all, we're not talking about work projects you could likely reconstruct over a sleepless weekend. A child's first steps, family celebrations, once-in-a-lifetime travel—you can't re-create those memories. When digital photos are lost, they're gone for good.
It's important to be extra vigilant about protecting your photos. In this article, I'll outline a comprehensive photo backup system that should overcome any data disaster, and also recommend a bare minimum effort that you can get away with if necessary.
Step 1: Set Up a Comprehensive Local System Backup
Let's start with the ground layer: a backup of everything on your computer. For your Mac, Apple's Time Machine feature makes it easy to create and maintain an ongoing backup. All you need to do is plug an external hard disk into your Mac and say yes when asked if you want to use it as a Time Machine volume.
Time Machine works in the background, backing up any files that have changed in the previous hour. The best part is that you don't have to do anything; as long as the drive is connected, Time Machine does the work. If you use a laptop, just make sure you plug in the external drive regularly (such as before you go to bed). Time Machine also keeps old versions of your files, so if you accidentally delete something or you realize you need to go back to an earlier draft of a document, you can recover it.
Step 2: Add Insurance with a Local System Duplicate
Many people tell me, "I have a backup," and while that's better than nothing, it's missing one important factor: redundancy. In my (hard won) experience, having a single backup isn't enough. An equally important step is to create a separate duplicate of your hard disk.
This "bootable" duplicate should be an exact copy of your computer's hard drive that can start up and run the machine in case the internal drive fails. Use an application such as SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner to create this dupe on a separate external disk.
You can schedule automatic backups in each application, so the duplicate is refreshed every night, once a week, or on whatever schedule you choose. On a regular basis, start your computer from that backup drive to make sure it's working (and then restart from your normal drive, so you don't accidentally work with documents or data on the duplicate). My colleague Adam Engst proposes every Friday the 13th as "International 'Verify Your Backups' Day" as a good time to test your backups.
Step 3: Make a Special Duplicate of Your Photo and Video Files
So far we've covered what I think is the bare minimum for backing up your computer's data. Assuming that your photos and videos are stored on the same hard disk as the rest of your important data, the previous two steps give you two copies of your library in addition to the originals.
However, I think you should make separate backups just for your photos and videos. Why? Two reasons:
- These are photos, not spreadsheets, and they're worthy of keeping safe.
- Because photos and videos occupy so much storage, your entire library may not be kept on just your computer's main hard disk. Especially now that laptops are shipping with speedy but lower-capacity solid-state drives (SSDs), a photo library can easily spill over onto other disks.
If you're using Photos for OS X, look in your Pictures folder for a file named Photos Library.photoslibrary. Photos for OS X stores all the photos in that file. You need to copy that file to an external disk. If your library actually lives on an external disk, as mine does, buy a similarly sized hard drive and create a backup of Photos Library.photoslibrary.
Step 4: Add Offsite Backups
There's a problem with our backup scheme so far. Every copy of your data is likely sitting on your desk or within easy reach of it. Those backups protect against hard disk failures—and hard disks do fail. (I've lived through the experience.) But they're still vulnerable to fire, flood, or natural disasters. That's why you need an offsite backup; that is, a copy of your data, stored at a separate physical location.
The simplest way to gain this offsite protection is to buy a couple more external hard drives and make second backups of your duplicate disk and your photo library backup. Take those backups away to your home or office, a friend's house, a safe-deposit box, or some other safe location, and regularly swap these backups with the drives you keep on hand.
Another offsite option is to use an online backup service such as CrashPlan, which copies your data over the Internet to its secure servers. With this option, you don't have to remember to swap offsite drives, but backing up is probably hindered by your Internet access speed—uploading all the data you need, especially with large photo libraries—can literally take weeks or months. An alternative is to pay CrashPlan to send an empty hard disk that you fill, which is then used as the basis of your online backup.
CrashPlan includes a unique feature: You can use the CrashPlan software to back up your data to a friend's computer over the Internet, free of charge (except for the cost to your Internet provider). Make a CrashPlan backup locally to a hard disk, then send the disk to your friend to connect to her computer. When you make changes, only the changed files are copied to your remote backup.
Step 5: Store Your Photos in Online Photo Services
The final layer of photo protection I recommend is to use an online photo service such as Google Photos, Flickr, or Dropbox. These services offer conveniences with tradeoffs, but they're an easy last resort.
For example, a new free Flickr account includes 1TB of storage, if you're willing to view ads. Google Photos offers an option to store an unlimited amount of data, but it compresses the images (in a high-quality way) and doesn't include originals or raw files; if you prefer, you can opt to pay for a storage plan to back up your originals faithfully.
I say these are "last resorts" because you won't have access to edits you made—or even the originals—under some plans. But it's better than nothing in the event that everything else fails!
When All Else Fails: A 'Bare Minimum' Approach to Photo Backups
At the very least, I recommend making two backups of your photo and video library, one copy of which is stored offsite. A Time Machine backup or a duplicate of your entire computer that is regularly updated is also a must.
I know this sounds like a lot of effort, but when it comes to your digital media—your irreplaceable photos and videos—it's worth doing backups right.
Author and photographer Jeff Carlson (@jeffcarlson, firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Photos for OS X and iOS: Take, Edit, and Share Photos in the Apple Photography Ecosystem (Peachpit Press) and Take Control of Your Digital Photos on the Mac (Take Control Books), among many other books. He's also a columnist for the Seattle Times, a contributing editor at TidBITS, and writes for publications such as Macworld and Lynda.com.