My photo archival and backup process

If you’re not backing up your photos, or any work for that matter, you will eventually have a very bad day. I had two hard drive crashes in the past few years without a proper backup process and lost everything. Since my second hard drive crash, I finally learned the importance of having a backup. In hope to help others, I want to share my photo archival and backup process. You don’t have to follow my process, but I hope it gives you ideas that work for you.

My hard drive failures

I remember my first hard drive failure like it was yesterday. I had come home from work and saw that my computer and external drive were functioning just fine. Then I went out for a few hours. Upon coming home, I was hearing a strange sound. It was a grinding sound. I had no idea how long it had been happening for, which is scary. The sound was coming from my external hard drive, the drive I stored all of my work on. As a technology nut and computer guru, I knew this sound was bad news for the hard drive. I attempted to check the hard drive that it might still work, I tried a few tricks I had read around the internet, I even tried some recovery software in hopes it might capture something useful. Unfortunately, everything from high school and college, even freelance work and my latest projects were forever lost. The second time I lost a lot as well, but I had earlier copies of much of it in various locations. I was able to recover some files, but most was lost again. 

A standard hard drive is mechanical. Platters store your data and spin similar to a record player. A needle gently reads the platters as they spin to read and write data. Think of this as a combination of a cassette tape and record player in one. The data is magnetic, like a tape, but it spins and is read by a needle like a record. If the needle gets stuck or falls too far into the platter, it scratches the platter, physically destroying your data. There is no recovery from this without fixing the needle — and this requires specialized equipment and a laboratory clean room. Another possible failure is the bearing that spins the platter grinding and preventing or slowing the spinning of the platter. I suspect both of my hard drive failures were due to the needle scratching the platters. 

Professional hard drive recovery services do exist, but their target market is major businesses with documents that can’t be lost. The services are very specialized. I reached out to a few of these services the first time I lost my work. The average price was approximately $8,000, out of reach for my finances. I also had to provide a spare hard drive to copy the data to. The second time this happened, I reached out to the hard drive manufacturer in hopes they might be able to help. They asked me to ship them the drive for inspection and suggested their data recovery service, which again was in the thousands of dollars. Upon declining to afford such a service, they at least offered to send me a replacement hard drive at no cost. My work was gone and I couldn’t do anything about it, but at least I was offered a replacement hard drive. 

My process

My photo archival and backup process involves several components, some of which might be considered overkill. I also have a plan to take it a step further which I will include. There is no right or wrong way to backup your photos. Use my process as a starting point to get ideas that work for you or use my process completely. Regardless, have some plan and workflow established to avoid losing everything like what has happened to me… twice. Below are the tools I use. I will break them down into more details below.

Future:

  • Blue Ray burner

Sync Back

This is a free, I repeat FREE, hard drive backup and syncing application. You just have to install it, set it up, and let it run in the background. The only issue I have with this software is that the user interface is far from easy to follow. In fact, it’s fairly complicated. I find it difficult to recommend to everyone because of this. However, it is reliable once it’s setup. If you decide to try this, start slow, test it with a small folder to ensure the settings match what you’re trying to accomplish, then change the settings to cover everything you want backed up. 

I don’t plan for this to be a tutorial, but if there is demand for it, I can develop one in the future.  When I set this up, I chose the sync feature versus the backup option. When you start setting the software up, you’ll see what I am talking about. I also scheduled this to occur once per week during a period I am not usually using my PC. The sync option copies and deletes files so that one hard drive matches the other. It also looks for files that were changed and copies the changes to the backup hard drive. The problem with syncing is if files on one drive get corrupted, they can be backup up as corrupted files over the non-corrupted backups. One sign of hard drive failure can be files becoming corrupted or deleted without reason. If this occurs, it’s possible Sync Back recognizes this as intentional and mirrors the same thing to the backup drive. It’s a risk I know I’m taking, but it saves me time too. If this burns me in the end, I may change my decision to use this method. 

The normal backup option, as in not syncing, does not delete files that are missing from the main hard drive. This means that files on one drive you no longer want or need will remain on the backup. You will fill up storage space faster with this method and spend more time maintaining it by deleting files you no longer need. However, the benefit to this is the ability to restore files you thought you didn’t need and deleted. This is the safest option to use if you want to preserve your work.

Google Photos

Google Photos is a great, free tool that automatically backs up photos to the cloud and is incredible for organization and browsing them. It does come with some disadvantages, though. This application can be installed on your PC (Windows or Mac OS) or mobile device (Android or iOS). It runs in the background to automatically backup folders you specify to the cloud. 

For free, you’re allowed to upload as many photos as you want automatically. The service is unlimited. The catch is Google reduces them to 16 megapixels and uses their own image compression algorithm. When images are compressed, they lose data that can affect image quality. Google claims no one will notice a visual difference between the original photo and the compressed versions, and this is true if you’re looking at them on a screen. However, it’s still best to use the original quality image for print. I use this as a last resort solution if all else fails to backup my photography. I also use it for sharing and showing my work outside of my website and social media. Google’s image recognition AI is incredibly accurate at narrowing down what you’re looking for. Simply search “sunset” to see all sunset photos, for instance. It’s impressive how accurate the search results are. This even backs up RAW files, which are still subject to the compression process I believe. 

If you opt to ditch the compression Google uses, you lose unlimited storage and the original quality photos will take up your Google Drive storage. This isn’t terribly expensive and a good option to preserve your images and still take advantage of the intelligence Google adds. This can also eliminate some backup solutions, depending on your needs.

Amazon Prime Photos

As an Amazon Prime subscriber, I take full advantage of Amazon Prime Photos. This is an included service for Amazon Prime that stores photos, including RAW files, at no extra cost. There are no storage limits for photos either, but video content does take up storage. The user interface and search functions aren’t as nice as Google Photos, however. Additionally, the backup option isn’t automatic. You must take the steps to backup your photos manually. Amazon did recently add a sync function to the backup application, but it doesn’t work like I would have liked. It mirrors your photo library on both your PC and Amazon’s Cloud storage. In other words, deleting photos on your PC would delete them from Amazon too. This is nice for making access everywhere, but doesn’t help in saving storage space. 

Blue Ray burner

What I plan to add is a Blue Ray burner to my PC and start backing up my work to Blue Ray discs. This will provide a physical backup in the event my hard drives fail and I am unable to restore online copies of my work. You can’t trust every company to remain in business forever and attempting to recover everything when they do fail can be a near impossible task to accomplish. Having a physical copy is, many times, easier to deal with. Additionally, internet providers are increasingly moving towards data caps on home internet services. Restoring, even backing up, will eat into that data cap. If your online library grows incredibly large and you decide to restore it all or just large chunks of it, it’s entirely possible that process will use all of your data cap or more. Even if it didn’t, it could take days to download all of that content, depending on your internet connection. Online backups are nice, but not always the easiest to deal with.

The reasons I suggest using Blue Rays instead of DVDs or CDs are due to durability and storage capacity. Blue Rays are significantly more durable than DVDs or CDs, avoiding scratches well which preserves the lifespan of the disc. DVDs and CDs seem to get scratched by thin air, on the other hand. Blue Rays also store 25 GB or more of data. For most people, this can be a year’s worth of photos. DVDs store 4.7 GB by comparison. 

One thing you shouldn’t do is store photos on USB drives or memory cards. They’re too susceptible to corruption or data deletion. A simple static shock poses a risk of corrupting data on the card. It’s also worth noting that memory cards and flash drives have limited write limits too. They can only be saved to so many times before they no longer work. Once this limit is reached, files can no longer be deleted and new files can’t be added. They become a permanent record of what is on them at the end of their life, but corruption of data is still possible. 

My workflow

Since Google Photos and Sync Back run automatically, my workflow only applies to using Amazon Prime Photos and eventually backing up to Blue Ray discs. Typically, when am done shooting photos, I will copy them to my PC. I have a folder dedicated to my photos and I organize them with a folder for each year I have shot photos, then by event, occasion, or location. I may add a date to the folder names if either the location is a place I visit multiple times or the date might be important to see immediately. I don’t feel adding dates to names is essential because the metadata would capture this both in the folder creation date as well as the date the photos were taken. This triggers the automatic backup by Google Photos and when the scheduled weekly backup occurs, they will be backed up on my external hard drive. Because I edit my photos, I usually wait until I’m done editing to backup to Amazon and likely the same will apply to burning to Blue Ray. 

Because of limited storage, I tend to keep two years worth of photos on my computer at any time – the current year and the previous year. If I find myself going back to the previous year for pictures more than anything older than that. I also want to preserve my current year of work as I am far more likely to refer back to them. I find it rare that I every go back more than 2 years so I check my backups for this work and remove it from my PC. Since two of my backup tools are automatic, I don’t worry too much about them. However, I do check Amazon and manually upload my work there before I remove my photos. I aim to upload them to Amazon once I’m done editing, but I don’t always get around to this (shame on me). This would also be the moment I back them up to Blue Ray.

What is your photo archival and backup process? What do or would you do differently? Is there anything I am doing wrong? Also, please feel free to share your hard drive failure stories. It happens to everyone, we just believe it won’t happen to us. I hope this helps you avoid disaster in the future when your hard drive(s) finally do fail.

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