Saving Your Digital Photos: A Guide For Consumers

As a professional photographer, I know all the ins and outs of saving my images files for the long run. I have multiple hard drives, cloud storage, and off-site backups. But I know about this stuff because of the industry I’m in. Most people who are not photographers, however, don’t. It’s not common sense and it’s not taught in school. Too many people sadly lose important digital media and it’s gone forever because no one told them how to keep it safe. Statistically, it’s more likely to lose digital media than it is printed media.

Computers crash. Phones get stolen. USB drives get misplaced.

Most people these days take photos every day with a smartphone. But what happens when the phone falls in water, gets destroyed, is stolen, or stops working? All your photos from the last two years are gone with it.

Consumer-level digital cameras are also quite accessible to those who are interested in taking slightly better photos than what can be done with a phone. But many people simply rely on the memory card in the camera and never download or print the photos. Eventually the card might get lost or corrupted, with the photos having never even made it off.

Many people also receive digital photo files from a professional photographer. Photos are often delivered on a USB drive, a CD/DVD, or downloaded via an online gallery. It’s easy to assume the photos will be accessible forever. Some photographers do not provide prints and a lot of consumers never make their own prints. CDs and DVDs can break, scratch, or become unreadable. USB drives are small and easily lost, and are also susceptible to data corruption. A downloadable gallery may expire, and depending on the device you tried downloading your photos with, you might not have even downloaded the full resolution files (without realizing this). In ten years, the media your photos are stored on will probably be obsolete. What if your wedding photos were on a 3.5-inch floppy disk? Yeah.

It’s easy to assume that once your photos are saved to your computer, they are safe forever. But keep in mind, computers stop working and hard drives crash, taking your photos with them.

It’s a good idea to be proactive in taking measures to save your photos, and there are some simple steps anyone can take that have minimal costs.



External Hard Drives

Invest in at least one external hard drive, preferably two (or more if you’re a really careful person). Prices for hard drives have come down dramatically in recent years, so it’s easy to buy a large-capacity hard drive for under $100. Most external hard drives on the store shelves are called “portable” drives and are “plug and play,” meaning you can plug in the USB cord to your computer and copy and paste files right away without needing to download special software. It’s best to get at least two hard drives where you regularly back up your data to, in case one drive corrupts or fails. (All hard drives fail. It’s not a matter of if, but when.) Never ever rely on JUST your computer’s internal hard drive to keep photos safe forever!

Note: Some external hard drives say they are for Windows PC only or Mac only. In reality, you can just format your new hard drive before using it, and it should work on either computer platform. (If you’re not computer-savvy, you should be able to look up how to format a hard drive online. It’s pretty easy. Only do it when you first get a new hard drive because formatting will delete all data on a hard drive.)



The Cloud

In addition to using external hard drives, it’s best to also use an online cloud-based storage site. There are many paid and free options available to choose from depending on your needs and the amount of digital data you want to store. As long as you continue to renew your subscription to whichever cloud site you use, your photos will (theoretically) be safe forever. Cloud storage is one way to ensure your photos will survive any type of disaster such as flood, fire, tornado, or hurricane, in which computers, hard drives, memory cards, and printed photos could be destroyed.

Cloud sites: Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, SmugMug, Zenfolio, Amazon, and more.



Your Phone Pictures

If you take photos on your smartphone, you should set yourself a backup schedule every two weeks or every month. Some even have an option to automatically upload photos to the cloud (such as Google Drive or iCloud) as they are taken. When you are at home or anywhere on a wifi network, select all new photos you took and upload them to your chosen cloud server. Then, access the cloud server from your computer and download the photos. Another way to transfer photos from your phone is by connecting the phone to your computer using the USB charger/data cable. Once photos are saved to your computer, make sure to back them up to an external hard drive along with your other photos. This is also a good idea to do so that you can delete photos off of your phone so you don’t run out of space.

Organization: I organize my personal photos in folders on my computer arranged in chronological order by date. I make separate folders for each year and then each month.


Professional Portraits and Wedding Photos

If you receive photos from a photographer on a device such as a CD, DVD, or USB drive, make sure to copy these to your computer and any additional storage mediums as soon as possible. If you are downloading high-resolution photos that the photographer posted to an online gallery, you will need to use a computer (not a phone or tablet) to download them. If you use a mobile device the files will be “crunched” (downsized) and will lose quality. If the photographer only offers an online gallery option and you are having trouble downloading the images or have limited internet bandwidth (data), it never hurts to ask if they could instead provide you with a USB drive of the photos to get them to your computer more easily. Keep in mind that CDs and DVDs are quickly becoming antiquated as many computers no longer come with a built-in optical drive.



Print Your Photos

Last but certainly not least: PRINT YOUR PHOTOS. Do not rely on data backups or cloud storage alone to save your memories. There are several good-quality print labs you can use, even if you are not a professional photographer. Don’t print your photos at the one-hour kiosk; I’ve seen firsthand how quickly these prints can fade. Use a service such as Mpix or Nations Photo Lab, both which have simple online ordering systems, to make prints and photo books. Your family will appreciate having tangible photographs to look at, and these may be the only thing left in the unfortunate event of digital data loss.

And, of course, be sure to order your professional portraits and wedding photos from the photographer so you can get the best quality items!


Roxanne is a professional portrait photographer in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.


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