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Preserving Your Digital Photos Forever

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Sarah Bay Williams discusses one of the most important steps you need to take to preserve your digital photos.
This chapter is from the book

Back Up Your Junk

Undoubtedly, someone has advised you to back up your computer. If it hasn’t been suggested by someone who cares about your well-being and sanity, then you probably read about it in an advice column, in a magazine, or on a Web site or blog, or you heard about it on a news program. Worse, it was suggested to you the last time one of your hard drives fizzled like bacon on a griddle and you lost everything.

I know how it is. It’s exciting, and relatively expensive, to get a new computer. In terms of speed and hard drive space, you probably shop for as much as you can afford. One hundred and sixty gigabytes (GB) of internal hard drive space seems like a lot, and you probably say you’ll get that extra external hard drive to back up everything “soon, real soon.” You may have tried it before and found the whole process confusing and awkward. Did you back that up already? Are you going to overwrite something that isn’t backed up?

I advise that you learn to use automatic backup software, because it will let you stop worrying and love your backup system. There are a lot of backup software options out there. Take a look at “Backup Software” later in this chapter for some help.

In this chapter, I’ll give you one recipe for a simple way to back up your photos. You can choose to follow the recipe, do the research on a system of your own, or take advice from your local computer consultant on backup solutions. But the most important message of this chapter is do it—and make it as easy as possible for yourself so that it’ll actually get done.

Step 7: Back Up Your Photos

Here’s your goal: to have a master version of your photo collection (originals) and an identical backup copy of your photo collection. First, I’m going to advise you on how to set up the master version. Second, I’ll give you the recipe for one system of creating a backup copy. For this recipe, I advise that you dedicate one computer to downloading your photos (as opposed to, say, a laptop and a desktop computer that you use interchangeably), and I assume that you’re following all of the other steps in this book.

The Master Version of Your Photos

To determine where to keep the folder containing the master version of your photo collection, here’s a rule of thumb: If you have a pretty heftily sized internal hard drive in your computer (320GB or more), you can probably comfortably keep your entire photo collection (the originals) on that machine. However, if your computer has a hard drive smaller than 320GB, I recommend that you dedicate an external hard drive, 320GB or more, to be the home of the master version of your photo collection. There are plenty of other things like music and movies that probably will occupy lots of space on your computer’s hard drive.

A Recipe for Backup

Here is one recipe for backing up a computer with less than 320GB of internal hard drive space:

  • One computer with an internal 80GB to 160GB hard drive. Make a Photos-Download folder with the year and month structure in your Pictures folder (on the Macintosh, choose User > Pictures; in Windows, choose My Computer > Pictures).
  • One 500GB hard drive (hard drive 1; cost: about $160) connected via FireWire or USB 2.0 (more common for Windows users) to your computer. This is where your master version will live in a Photos1 folder.
  • Another hard drive like the one just mentioned in the previous paragraph (hard drive 2), either connected via FireWire to hard drive 1 (hard drive–to–hard drive connecting is called daisy chaining) or plugged into an additional USB port on your computer. (If you run out of ports, you can purchase a powered USB hub that will give four more ports for about $30.) This is where your backup copy will live in a Photos2 folder.
  • Automatic backup software on your computer (cost: about $30).

For recommendations on hard drives and automatic backup software for Macs and PCs, see the respective sections in “Beyond the Box” at the end of this chapter.

Now mix!

How to Back Up Your Photos

Follow these steps to back up your photos:

  1. Download your photos from your camera to the Photos-Download folder and its year and month filing structure.
  2. Select all new photos that you just downloaded, and drag them to the corresponding month in hard drive 1. (See “No Double Downloading, Dig?” in Chapter 5, “Downloading Photos to Your Computer,” for how to do this.)
  3. Set your backup software to automatically target your Photos1 folder to send new photos to the Photos2 folder on hard drive 2.
  4. Run your backup software.

And now you’re saying, “Wait! Hold on a minute here! The fourth step is ‘Run your backup software’? What kind of recipe instruction is that? That’s like giving me some flour, cheese, and an oven and telling me to go soufflé my soufflé!” But what’s important here is that you understand how backup software works. In using backup software, you’re having the software look at what you have in one place (your photos in the Photos1 folder) and compare it to what you have in a second place (your photos in your Photos2 folder) and fill in any gaps that the software finds in the second place to match the first. You’ll need to learn how to set up the parameters on whichever backup software you choose to use.

There are a few ways to cook this egg. For the purposes of the preceding recipe, you’re looking for backup from a first target folder to a second target folder, sometimes called left-to-right backup (not bidirectional or blind backup). In other words, you want the software to look at the first target, check in with the second target, and make any additions to the second target to make it just like the first.

Purging Photos from Your Photos-Download Folder

After the master version of your photos is on an external hard drive (hard drive 1), you can consider the photos that you download into your Photos-Download folder expendable. You have your master and backup copies of your photos on hard drives 1 and 2; therefore, you can delete photos from your computer’s Photos-Download folder if your computer’s internal hard drive space is reaching capacity.

When You’re On the Go

Of course, if you own a laptop, you’ll want to carry it around and take it with you when you travel. For convenience’s sake, you may not want to carry your external hard drives with you. But I’m betting you will want to share your photos with friends when you’re on the go. So, what do you know? You’ll have all of your most recent photos on your laptop in your Photos-Download folder. These can be your show-and-tell photos, while your master version and backup copies stay safe at home.

If you’re on the go with a laptop but without a backup drive, you can still make sure you have your photos in two places at all times. Simply don’t format your memory card if it has photos on it that haven’t been transferred to your master collection and backed up at least once. If you think you’ll be taking more than a few hundred photos, this will mean you should carry a few gigabytes of memory cards. (Or just one card that has lots and lots of gigabytes.)

And now, I have to tell you a story that conveniently (if you can call it that...) happened just before I sat down to write this chapter.

Murphy’s Law in Action

As if on cue, I was preparing my breakfast and about to sit down to get to work on polishing off this chapter when I heard an alarming exclamation (that I will spare you) coming from the living room. I rushed in to find that the love of my life, Paul, had just accidentally tipped his coffee over onto my laptop. Needless to say, there was a flurry of paper towels and rags and “Sorry! Sorry!” coming from him. Luckily, the laptop was not open for the spill, and after a few minutes we seemed to have most of the coffee sopped up. I switched the laptop on, and everything seemed fine...until the little arrow cursor stopped responding to my finger on the trackpad. Work came to a screeching halt.

Anyway, the computer is now partially disassembled (battery, RAM, and internal hard drive taken out) and has been sitting in the sun for 2 hours and 14 minutes in the hopes that any moisture that seeped into the cracks will simply evaporate and stop causing problems. I’m now writing on Paul’s laptop and feeling hopefully optimistic about the fact that I live in a sunny town, but we’ll see what happens.

But, hey! Look! I’m still working on this chapter, and I still have all the other work I’ve done on this book at my fingertips even though my computer is separated from its internal hard drive and sitting out there in the sun like a sunbathing beauty. You know why? Because last night, before I went to bed, I made sure all of my work efforts, as well as the new photos that I downloaded from my camera yesterday, were backed up.

So, I suppose I have to thank Paul for unwittingly, and in a timely manner, supplying the material for a scarily pertinent anecdote for this chapter about computer backup.

Follow my advice on backup so that the next time you spill something on your computer (or suffer a power surge, drop your computer, buy a faulty hard drive that malfunctions, or have an unfortunate encounter with an extra big magnet...) you will not lose your precious photos.

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