Over time, the photo collection in your working storage location – usually the hard drive on your computer – can grow quite large and valuable. To preserve your memories over the long term, it’s important to create a backup plan and practice it on a regular basis. We use the term "backup" to mean a second copy of your digital photo file collection, and also the process of creating that copy.

Your backup plan in its simplest sense is the answer to four questions:

  1. What backup method will work best for me?

    Using the information in the Learn and Prepare sections of this website, choose one or more backup storage methods consistent with your needs, goals and budget. Then review the How to backup section to ensure the time and effort required meets your schedule.

    Tip: If you’re familiar with most of the issues, go directly to the Table: Backup Methods at a Glance and pick the method or methods that meet your requirements.

  2. Where will I keep my backup copy?

    The best way to be sure that your photos will be safe is to keep your backup copy in a separate physical location outside your home. Granted, this takes more effort, but it will guarantee that your memories will survive fire, flood, theft and other disasters. Suggestions include:

    • Your office
    • The home of a relative or close friend
    • A safe deposit box at a bank
    • An online storage service

    Choosing a different geographic region will provide additional security for your collection in case of a big natural disaster.

  3. When, and how often, will I backup my photo collection?

    Make a photo backup any time you have taken photos that you consider to be valuable, or whenever you have spent a lot of effort organizing your collection. You should make a complete backup on CD or DVDs at least once a year as insurance in case your storage media unexpectedly fails. Making successive "generations" of backups each year is a good way to prevent problems caused by aging media.

    We recommend backing up new photos right after a significant event or occasion when you’ve taken photos that are important to you. Of course, if they're still on your camera or camera card, you'll want to first transfer them to your working storage. This is also the best time to organize and label these photos, making sure that they’re easy to find as well as protected.

    You should also back up your collection whenever you’ve spent a lot of time organizing, labeling or editing your photos. Don’t forget to make backups of slideshows, collages, artwork and other creative projects on your computer.

    When you want to make a new backup, you might be tempted to overwrite an old backup on an external hard drive. Our recommendation is that you keep two or three generations’ worth of backups before you reuse the media. This way you have extra backups on hand in case one of them fails.

    As you know from the Learn section, the aging of media means that at some point in the future, your backup media will become unreadable. You can guard against this possibility by making sure that you make a complete backup of your collection once a year on a day you can remember such as New Year’s Day.

    Make a photo backup on an external hard drive or on CDs or DVDs when you buy a new computer, and just before you use your old computer for the last time. You can then copy your photos from this backup to your new computer. Make sure that all your photos are on the new computer before you recycle or give away your old computer. Don’t forget to check various folders and sub-folders (including MyPictures) on your old computer to make sure you haven’t forgotten any photos.

    If you’re very confident about your knowledge of computers, you may want to make smaller backups by performing a backup on only a portion of your collection whenever you have made some changes or added photos. While this is more economical and saves storage space, you need to be very disciplined in order to make these partial backups work reliably.

    If you have a large collection of photos which is greater than, say 12GB, you’ll require more than three DVDs, and might like to use the following backup schedule:

    • The basic rule of storing photos in at least two places still applies.
    • Whenever you’ve taken a set of important photos or edited them, make a backup to CDs or DVDs, or to an external hard drive.
    • Once a year, backup your entire collection to a hard drive. Nowadays, you can store several years’ worth of backups in separate directories on the bigger hard drives available. This way you have protection in case you accidentally erase a folder of photos one year.
    • Every three years, backup your entire collection to a set of write-once DVDs.

    If you have a very large collection, say 100GB or more, you might like to use several hard drives, and store each annual “generation” of backup on a different drive. It’s still wise to keep a set of write-once CDs or DVDs containing your photos because of the remote possibility of viruses erasing data on your hard drive.

  4. 4. How should I guard against my storage becoming obsolete?

    You know from the Learn that most storage devices will become obsolete over time. Because of this, you may have no way of retrieving your photos. This is why you need to keep an eye on trends in the technology marketplace, and move your photos to newer technology devices as frequently as every five to 10 years.

  5. Monitor
    Monitoring is a continuous process over the lifetime of your collection. You are the curator of your photo collection, much as the curator of an art gallery maintains both the condition of and access to the exhibits. The condition of your backup storage relates to its age and to its physical properties.

    You should monitor the condition of your backup storage once a year by doing the following:

    • Check to see that you can view photos from your backup storage on your computer.
    • Check your CDs and DVDs for scratches and dirt.
    • If there’s an increase in the noise level coming from your hard drive, there’s an increased risk of failure.
    • If you encounter any problems or errors, make a new backup right away.

    This refers to the support for and compatibility of your backup given the current hardware and software technology. Learn more here. For example, you may have documents on a 15-year-old 3.5” disk, but may be hard-pressed to find a compatible disk drive or software program capable of reading it on today’s computers. There are no rules for when a particular digital image format or technology will no longer be supported. Digital photo storage formats used for commercial content such as CDs or DVDs are often supported longer, yet these formats may eventually be replaced by newer technologies. An easy way to monitor changes of this type is to take notice of the features that appear — and disappear — in new personal computer models to ensure you’ll be able to access your backup.

    When monitoring tells you that a technology change in storage media is imminent, you’ll need to change or update your backup technology to become compatible with current standards

    In effect, if you see new storage technologies coming, we recommend that you wait for a year or two to make sure that the new storage technologies are viable, and can make fresh backups to the new medium. Just make sure you create backups on the new medium before the old storage method becomes obsolete.

    Obsolescence of a storage technology means that you can no longer buy compatible reader devices in regular retail stores. Today, for example, while it’s still possible to obtain floppy disks, it’s more difficult to get writing or reading devices for them. Given the high capacity of DVDs, it’s likely that CDs will become less popular over time — even while most DVD devices can still read or write to CDs.