How do you back up your digital images?

I could live without a lot of things I currently own. I know this to be a fact because I sold, gave away, or otherwise lost most of my possessions during my divorce ten years ago. It shocked me how much I loved the lightness of not owning things.

This terrible exposure is one of the few photos I took of my grandfather. He’s relaxing in his home. It was the summer of 1982; he was 66 and I was 15. This connects me to so many pleasant memories. I’m so happy I still have this photo.

But I don’t want to live without my photographs. Thankfully, every last photo I took as a kid and young adult survived. I keep them in boxes; I digitized them all a couple years ago. They connect me to memories I might otherwise have lost.

Since the divorce I’ve returned to photography in a big way. Between film and digital photos, and including scans of all of my old photos, I now have well north of 20,000 images on my computer’s hard drive.

Holy backup, Batman! And I do back them up, to a wee external hard drive. But if my house burns down, both computer and external drive are toast.

So I became interested in uploading my images to “the cloud” (i.e., someone else’s server, via the Internet).

I investigated a few solutions, none perfect, but quickly settled on Flickr. As a Flickr Pro customer, I have unlimited storage. And their Flickr Uploadr automatically uploads every new photo. It marked them all private so you can’t see them.

It was occasionally useful, as it let me find an old photo much faster than searching through folders on my hard drive.

But I use Flickr primarily to host images I share here, and those private photos just clogged my camera roll and intruded into every search result. And because I upload for public consumption a processed version of each photo, I see duplicates everywhere.

It made Flickr hard for me to use. This week I decided I’d had enough. I uninstalled the Uploadr and deleted all of the private photos.

And so I’m back to looking for a way to store my photo collection in the cloud. Do you do this? If so, what solution are you using and how well is it working for you?


44 responses to “How do you back up your digital images?”

  1. Michael McNeill Avatar
    Michael McNeill

    An interesting post, Jim. Like you I have several very precious photographs and negatives of family members no longer with us – including quite a few negatives dating back to the 1920s and 30s. It has helped that these are physical things and also that my mother hasn’t moved house in 60 years and didn’t throw much away. And she never had a house fire, thank goodness.

    The photographs that mean the most to me are of the people I knew and are no longer with us. And while I’m pleased that I also have photographs of the people in my family that had already passed before I came along, I simply don’t feel the same connection to them. So I wonder how many photographs we actually need to keep, to pass on to future generations. One thing’s for sure – we can’t keep them all.

    Unfortunately I’m unable to offer any suggestions as to your Cloud Storage problem, but will be interested to read other comments. I did use StreamNation but they shut their servers down a while ago. It’s safe to assume that very few companies we are familiar with now will be around in 30, 50, 100 years time. How can we ensure that our children – and their children – will be able to access our image archives? Perhaps these problems will be solved in due time – for now, my solution is to print the ones I really want to keep, enjoy them hanging on the wall and hope for the best!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I recognize that if anybody will care about my photos when I’m gone, it’ll be my kids, and even then that’s not fully guaranteed. My mom has a bunch of family photos of people I never knew. She also has a box full of photos from the years I was growing up, which I hope I can scan someday. I’d love to see those days again.

      As for my photos, I just want them to survive my lifetime. I don’t mind transferring them to various different places as companies fold, if that’s what it takes.

  2. chris Avatar

    jim, I think you need to take less pictures ..
    seriously, try setting a limit of say an absolute max. of 5 shots a day and see how it goes. I would still consider Flickr as being one of the best storage options :0)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Even if I took one photo every ten years I’d still want to back it up online someplace.

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    You know, I was storing photography jobs on CD or DVD gold discs with a 100+ year life, like Mitsui or Delkin (they’re probably the same discs). Seemed to make sense to get photos I wasn’t going to access much after the initial job, off my computer. I just accessed these the other day, to prep for load onto a 2TB free-standing hard drive, and they still worked just fine, and some of those are over 10 years old. There seem to be a lot of people “anti-disc”, but I’m not one of them provided you buy the right discs that don’t tarnish and where the dye layer doesn’t fade. The down-side is whether or not you’ll be able to get a disc reader/writer for the rest of your life!

    I also store a lot of personal images on thumb drives. If you buy the really good brand-names, these are supposed to last forever (well, your life-time anyway). I have less than 32 gigs of digital personal photos anyway, so I can have a lot of these laying around covering me in case of fire or water damage. I’m sure an IT tech person can tell you why these aren’t a good idea, but everytime I read about their failure rate, the specs seem to read like my usage will probably impact their life by 0.01 percent. My biggest concern is what they are using to hold that info on there. Is it passive, hence OK when there’s no power applied, or is their a tiny charge that dissipates over years that will cause the data to disappear. Dunno.

    As stated above, I’m migrating image files to what will eventually be a WD Passport 2TB drive. I’m doing it as a back-up only, and to have my files in one place. With as many hard-drives as I have had fail, killing perfectly good laptops, an active system that is mechanically based seems like the worst way to go. Plus their are manufactures with decent names and really poor reputations with mechanical hard-drive breakage. You have to do your research as to who is getting good reviews.

    Now we get to the cloud, which is what you’re interested in.

    1. I have a problem using anything that is going to charge me in perpetuity for a service. It’s why most all photographers I know have migrated away from PhotoShop, to buy-and-own programs like Lightroom. The only people that are using cloud/PhotoShop in my place are the retouchers, when we used to buy it for everybody. Someone decided during cellphone and cable television back in the 80’s, that the business model of the future will be to try and get between 10-50 bucks out of everybody, every month. Just small enough to not seem like much, until you’re paying 10 or 20 services that 10-50 bucks per month. Hell, when I retire, I’m probably not even going to have an internet connection at home! In fact, I don’t have one now!

    2. There are some services from some of the classic names, that don’t seem to cost much, or are free, but I know a bunch of photographers that have been through services that fold and give them the weekend to download everything off of it, or they lose it. People that put their trust in services have literally lost their work! There was plenty of that happening about 5 years ago, but even today, the business model means there’s no way to keep it from happening. One day the biggest players can decide it isn’t financially working out for them and they’ll give you scant notice and little time to admin your work and get it off their site.

    3. Even if services are cheap, or free, there are rules and such that you have to follow. Maybe they include making the cloud owner a partner in your copyright, maybe they can sell your work without your say, or use it without attribution. Life’s too short for all these rules and exceptions all the time.

    4.The upside to cloud storage is access to your work everywhere and at any time. In addition, there might be some sort of ftp site loading and unloading included that may make sense to you if you’re transferring large sized files around. If you’re a pro, you might have to pay for that anyway.

    I’ll be interested in reading people suggestions on here and the reasons for them!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have considered just burning high-quality DVDs of my work and asking my brother to store them at his house, or something like that. It wouldn’t be up to date all the time, though. That’s the compelling thing about the cloud: it instantly sucks up every photo I put in my photos folder.

      I did bite on the Creative Cloud program; I pay monthly for Photoshop and Lightroom. I don’t like Lightroom very much, after six months of using it. It’s just cumbersome. But Photoshop is worth the monthly charge to me as I was constantly upgrading my photo-editing software in the past. I figure I’ll spend only slightly more on the Creative Cloud program than I was paying for upgrades.

      To me, Internet is an essential utility, like water or electricity.

      I’m not going to make the cloud my primary or only storage site. My computer’s hard drive and my external drive are primary and secondary. The cloud backup is a failsafe, and a failsafe only.

  4. BIll Jurasz Avatar
    BIll Jurasz

    I have twin Time Machine back-ups (Apple), plus I use CrashPlan as my cloud based backup service. Notice these options are doing everything, not just photos. I have yet to use iCloud for the photos but migrate to that next year.

    The important thing to me about cloud based backup (of anything) is the issue with uploading everything at first. For the most powerful nation on earth we have slow, expensive internet. This means getting 20-30k images UP in the first place is SLOW. So find a provider that will let you seed the initial backup with a mailed-in hard disk. CrashPlan allows this, is why I used them. And its also what keeps me from migrating to iCloud for photos.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Holy frijoles, the initial upload. It took TWO WEEKS to upload just my jpegs to Flickr. I’m on AT&T Uverse and the upload speeds are pathetic, even compared to the rest of our nation’s slow, expensive Internet options. I’ll consider CrashPlan.

  5. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    This is a good topic for discussion and I am learning a lot reading the comments! I’ve been having storage problems recently myself, and recently bought a 2TB drive to backup all my scans. Since the negative is the ultimate backup I’ve done as much as I need to I think, but the problem I have is that I’m running out of space on my laptop with its 250GB hard drive, which means that at some point I will have to make a choice about which photos I want to have easy access to and which will be only in long-term storage.

    This seems like all part of the digital dilemma, and who can tell how much longer we’ll be able to read JPG files anyway? So much time and energy devoted to finding ways to store digitally-captured images that aren’t archival in the first place. Then again my parents never saved their negatives so the only images I have going into the 2000s are 4×6 prints. Still, those prints are holding up quite well I have to say. The only thing I can add to the conversation is that a digital photographer friend of mine swears by prints as the best way to preserve images and I agree with him. Not for everything, but certainly print all your best work or photos that mean a lot to you.

    1. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

      Forgot to mention, that for online storage I’m using my WordPress account. Every time I get a roll back from the lab and it’s processed, resized, and watermarked, it gets uploaded here so I can deal with it later and I have about 15 drafts of posts that may or may not ever be published (eventually most will be I’m sure), filled with pictures that I intend to share somewhere, sometime.

    2. BIll Jurasz Avatar
      BIll Jurasz

      Paper is the ultimate long-term backup strategy, bar none. You will never have the issue you state above, how long will we be able to read JPG files, with a print. This is why we try to make as many Shutterfly albums as we can with our daughter’s prints. I have pictures of me racing karts that I made into a photo album but lost the digital images. Thankfully I have the photo book, and it has proven harder to misplace than files are. And, as long as I have vision, we will always be able to view the prints.

      JPGs are likely to stay viable for a very long time, but that is far from guaranteed. And when the next thing comes are you really going to convert tens of thousand JPGs to the next format? Do you know how many video cassettes I never bothered to convert to MP4s?

      Back to photo albums, the nice thing about them is the ability to have a large number of prints made into a convenient book format. By convenient I don’t just mean “easy to sit on the sofa and look at”, but also in the “the house is on fire, grab those books on that shelf over there” scenario. I’m currently trying to get Blurb to do the equivalent of a proof sheet over the duration of a book as a fast, simple way to print lots of photos in a grid fashion in a book, without having to actually “design” the book.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        One thought about converting jpegs to the next format: it’s all software. I’ll bet some intrepid programmer will even be able to write a utility that converts in bulk.

        I had a scad of audio cassettes from my radio days. They were decaying; some of the earliest ones, from my freshman year on WMHD, were decayed so badly they didn’t play right anymore. I dug out an old tape deck, bought patch cables to convert to my PC’s mic input, and bought Goldwave, and painstakingly digitized each tape. It was a giant, unpleasant job. But that’s because I was going from physical to digital. Digital to digital is at least conceptually something that can be solved programmatically — and therefore much more easily.

    3. Jim Grey Avatar

      Call me naive, but jpeg has been around for at least 25 years and I’ll bet it’ll last another 25.

      I have resisted printing because I looooooooove how I can fit tens of thousands of images on a hard drive the size of my hand. I used to keep all my old prints from childhood/early adulthood in albums and they took up two whole shelves in one of my bookcases. I very seriously want to travel light; I don’t want lots of stuff to drag around. But Bill’s idea about creating Blurb books of best images is intriguing to me because they are so much more space efficient than traditional albums. I’m working on my photo book in Blurb’s software now and can see how I might use it for that application.

  6. stormmaster83 Avatar

    I’ll second the CrashPlan endorsement. I use it to back up my file server at home. While I’m not a serious photographer, I do have a lot of pictures of my kids that I want to keep safe.

    The big thing is to have multiple copies, with at least one offsite. Since your bandwidth is limited, stashing a hard drive or a stack of DVDs at someone else’s house is a good stop-gap until your first full backup completes. If you want to make your brother’s house a long-term solution, too, I’d recommend getting a tape drive and using that for your archives. Magnetic tape stores better than spinning disk or CD/DVD. Most IT shops that are serious about long-term archival use tape, unless they have the money to do massive replication (e.g. Google).

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Do you think that a service like CrashPlan is a good enough “offsite” solution? It seems to me at any rate that on-site external hard drive plus cloud backup should be sufficient. Especially if I do the give-my-brother-some-DVDs thing while I wait for the first full backup to complete.

      1. BIll Jurasz Avatar
        BIll Jurasz

        Well, CrashPlan IS a cloud backup, so I’m confused by your question.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          What I mean here is does he consider a cloud option equivalent to offsite. I do, but I wasn’t clear on what he thinks.

      2. stormmaster83 Avatar

        I do. The main drawbacks are your bandwidth. For the initial upload (and any subsequent large changes), it may take a long time for all of the files to get uploaded, which leaves you vulnerable to a failure in the meantime. Similarly, if you have to restore everything in the event of a catastrophic failure (as opposed to “oops, I accidentally deleted a few files”), you may be waiting a while.

        The safest bet would be to do both, but it’s a risk calculation at that point. For myself, CrashPlan is my only off-site backup.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Yes, totally, my upload bandwidth is a major drawback. My risk calculation says that once I have cloud backup, I won’t need physical offsite backup.

        2. BIll Jurasz Avatar
          BIll Jurasz

          Its worth noting that not only does CrashPlan offer a “seed” option, where they send you a large USB disk to do the initial backup to, they also offer the reverse. So if you need to restore everything from them they send you a hard disk with all your stuff on it. Much faster.

          FWIW, my last and my current employers (Apple, Oracle) use CrashPlan. (though both use internal servers as targets, not CrashPlan’s servers).

        3. Jim Grey Avatar

          Wow, now that’s great to know. That alleviates all of my concerns about needing to pull down my backup after a major failure.

  7. Ryan Boren Avatar

    Google Photos is my universal camera roll. Good iOS and Android apps. Good web interface, including mobile web. Automatically generated panoramas, movies, animations, collages, and vacation albums. Automatic captions and rotations. Machine learning that enables useful search and data mining. No longer part of G+.

    You can opt to sync your Google Photos library to a local Google Drive folder on your laptop/desktop. From there, they can be backed up elsewhere. I use Carbon Copy Cloner for local backups and Arq Backup for remote backups.

    Of course, you have to be okay with Google’s algorithms constantly roaming over your photos. I found the machine learning benefits convincing enough to outweigh my privacy concerns. The threat model for my photos doesn’t require e2e secrecy from Google.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for the tip. I used to be a Google lover but have cooled to it over the past few years, so this isn’t an angle I’d considered. I’ll have a look. I do happen to be okay with Google’s algorithms roaming over my photos.

  8. hmunro Avatar

    What a lot of smart, creative readers you have, Jim! I’ve learned about a lot of solutions here I’d never heard of before. I agree with the couple of readers who suggested an extra back-up on DVDs. If this seems silly, watch Werner Herzog’s film “Lo and Behold” and pay special attention to the section on solar flares. I hadn’t realized before how delicate our electronic data storage really is. Gamma rays aside, I’ve also started storing stuff on the cloud, through a service called SugarSync. I think it costs about $10 a month for 250GB — but they do offer this neat “Magic folder” feature that allows you to sync and access your data across all of your devices.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for the tip on SugarSync! Yes, I’ve realized there’s quite a community here and that I should tap into it sometimes!

  9. Joshua Fast Avatar

    For my personal work i invested in a NAS system for local backup and redundancy. For me i chose Qnap but Synology and Drobo also make great units. They are expensive but keep in mind they last 10+ years and if you stock them with a solid HDD such as WD Reds you will probably never see a failure. By default it will set itself to RAID 1 and both hard drives will be mirrors of each other. This gives you redundancy which is not the same as backup. If one hard drive crashes you are still up and running, no productivity loss or lost access. Replace the hard drive and it rebuilds itself and you are good to go.

    The cool thing about NAS is that they are like you’re own little personal server. You can configure vpn access, set them as time machine destinations etc etc. I use mine as a media server combined with plex to eliminate the need for physical dvd’s in our house.

    I like having an onsite and offsite backup. My onsite is just an external hdd that’s plugged into the back of the NAS. My offsite/cloud is crashplan. It’s hard to say no to unlimited storage for 10$ a month. Yes the initial transfer is painful. Mine took me almost 3 months to complete but after it’s done its set and forget. You can have it backup only during certain hours or live as things are changing.

    1. BIll Jurasz Avatar
      BIll Jurasz

      Good point that redundancy is not the same as backup! A quick explanation as to why is that in the event you accidentally remove a file it will be removed from both redundant copies. Whereas a backup actually keeps the old version so that you can reclaim it later if necessary. Some backup schemes (like Time Machine, or CrashPlan if you configure it properly) actually keep multiple old copies of the file around, meaning you can restore a file to its last state, or the state it was 2 days ago, or the state is was last week, etc. These systems act more like archives or version control in that sense and not just a plain backup. While not a big deal for JPGs, it can be a big deal for documents or data files.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, you’re set against everything but WW III. I feel like for my purposes I’m okay with just a simple external HDD if I also have a cloud/offsite solution. Because I feel like the risk is very low that my house will burn down at the same time my cloud provider goes belly up. If one or the other happens, I can skate by with just one until I fix the other.

      FWIW, my HDD is actually a disk shadow. I use a tool called Second Copy to keep my HDD in sync with folders I care about on my computer’s internal drive. Add, edit, delete; Second Copy makes the HDD files and folders match the internal drive’s.

      1. Joshua Fast Avatar

        It’s probably overkill if you are looking for a simple backup solution. A network storage solution is the next step in keeping data off individual computers and located in one central location. Hard drive failures are extremely common with consumer grade hard drives, having your data centrally located shields you from pc failures.

        BTW if you decide to use crash plan for cloud it will manage the drive mirroring for you. It can backup locally as well, doing what Second Copy is already doing.

  10. Gary Tyrrell Avatar

    I have yet to find a cloud service that I believe cares about my data as much as I do.

    My important data (far less than yours) lives on a series of high capacity flash drives. One is kept by the computer for convenience. One is part of the everyday carry pocket contents. One goes to the safe deposit box. Copies made and roasted rotated regularly.

    The thing that makes this (admittedly, overly manual) process work is the fact the bank is a four minute walk from my front door. In any other case, probably impractical.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This is the one thing I do worry about with cloud backup — should the day come I need to restore, will it work?

      At work, we do tests on this stuff all the time. But we have the server space to do it. All I have is this one desktop computer. I’m not deleting everything on my hard drive just to do a disaster-recovery test.

      So I back up to the cloud, and then my computer spontaneously combusts, and then I don’t really know whether my backup will work or not because I’ve never tested a restore.

      1. Backup Man Avatar
        Backup Man

        See below for some noodling on the topic. I don’t think there is an existing general solution that verifies restores for you, but photos might be a simple special case that you could handle yourself at reasonable bandwidth cost (and some scripting).

    2. Backup Man Avatar
      Backup Man

      You seem to be reusing your drives so this might not apply to you. But.

      How long can you store an unpowered flash drive before the charge dissipates (and the data is corrupted or lost)? I’ve seen mentioned months to a few years, depending on specifics. This means users shouldn’t expect to drop a flash drive or SSD in a safe deposit box indefinitely and be able to restore the contents when they come back. (Magnetic media is more forgiving, I think.)

      (There was a hiccup so this might have been posted twice. Apologies.)

  11. ypsi-slim Avatar

    I have full size 1 TB external hard drive from HP. I do not recommend those portable ones. Also I have a free 10 GB dropbox aacount.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have had three portables in the last 10 years. The first two died after a couple years each but this latest one has been a trooper. They’re so inexpensive now I just don’t worry about it. When this one dies, I’ll just replace it immediately and commence a full backup.

    2. Backup Man Avatar
      Backup Man

      I used Apple Time Machine on my iMac to do backups, which turned out to be totally worth it when the hard drive began to malfunction and never recovered. On the other hand, I have this nagging feeling that running Time Machine every hour wore down the hard drive.

      Those in the know may periodically check the drive SMART stats to detect problems early.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        For me, triple file redundancy makes me not worry so much about any one drive dying. I’ve got the data two other places!

  12. Backup Man Avatar
    Backup Man

    For what it’s worth, I like Backblaze for plain cloud backup. As far as I can tell, you have two basic cases to handle:

    1. The photos. Should be quite straightforward, assuming you can read the file formats.

    2. The database for organizing the photos. Databases are always liable to rot, get unsupported, etc. Best if you could dump it to a text file and backup/restore that, or use that as a fallback. Worst case you can then at least read and process the text file to rebuild the db.

    Backblaze can restore 1 file at a time if you like, so you could use that to sample the backup and check that the photos still are fine. For example, store their hashes somewhere and verify with a script that randomly restores a file and checks its hash (and runs regularly). Restoring the whole set will presumably take a while.

    You could also try a photo-oriented service like
    Don’t know how it compares to Flickr.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I actually don’t have a db for organizing the photos. I probably should; finding a particular shot is a pain. But at least for now for backup purposes this simplifies things pretty well.

      1. Bill Jurasz Avatar
        Bill Jurasz

        No DB for your photos? No kidding its a pain finding a particular shot. You need to, at least, keyword shots so that you can search by keyword. Face tagging helps a lot too, as do geotags. But those need to be stored in a DB. I’m sure people can recommend something on the Windows side for you.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          yeah. It is a pain to find things. I do have most photos geotagged. I shudder at a project to keyword tag all those photos now. I have Lightroom, which will do this, but oy, what a horrible interface.

  13. Richard Scholl Avatar
    Richard Scholl

    My opinion:
    Rather that depend on others and the potential for bankruptcies, etc. that might cause loss of my po\hotos, I believe that it is always safest to maintain control of my photos myself, which means keeping my own back-up, whether on back-up hard drives, DVDs or whatever. If you choose this method, you should take care to keep abreast of technology evolution lest you end up with your photos being on some sort of medium no longer readable. One advantage of film as a back-up is that it will always be “readable” if properly stored so that it doesn’t fade or otherwise deteriorate.
    Just saying. . .

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh, it wouldn’t be catastrophic if a cloud backup source went away. Just annoying: I’d just choose another and do it again. It is my failsafe system anyway, because the far more likely scenario is for one of the other of my two physical hard drives here to die.

  14. BIll Jurasz Avatar
    BIll Jurasz

    Richard, I have to disagree with your statement. You’ve put up a straw man argument. Nobody is saying “only use the cloud as a backup”. That’s the only way your argument makes sense. Rather the cloud is part of the backup for very valuable files.

    I have two local Time Machine vaults, so in case one drive crashes the other is still going. If the house is burning we grab one of those drives on the way out of the door. If it burns down when we are not there we have an offsite backup. And, importantly, that offsite backup is ALWAYS running. Its not running “when I found the time to burn another DVD”, etc.

    You can’t control everything.

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