Your photos are irreplaceable
Do you back up photos and video?
Everyone with a smartphone has a camera, and they’re using ’em right and left to snap photos and shoot videos. Add in digital cameras from inexpensive to professional, and there is a lot of digital media being created every day.
Much of it isn’t getting backed up. The goal? Multiple copies of your photos and videos in multiple places.
If it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.
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As soon as is practical, make copies of the photographs stored on your camera on some other device, like your computer. On smart devices, enable auto-upload to one of the many cloud storage providers to automatically back up all your photos there. And, of course, back up your PC, especially if it contains your photos. Sensitive photos need extra consideration to prevent accidental exposure.
Back up photos on your digital camera
As soon as you take a picture or video with a digital camera, it exists in only one place: the original shot in the camera. It’s impractical to back up after every shot, so we do have to accept a window of time where there’s no backup at all. During that time, if you lose the camera, you lose all the photographs on it.
The best approach to minimize the window of vulnerability is to copy those photos to something else as soon as is convenient.
When I went on an overseas trip some years ago, I realized the photographs I took would be the only truly irreplaceable thing should we run into trouble. So I developed this technique to back up photos:
- I took photographs throughout each day.
- At the end of the day, I copied those photographs to my laptop computer. This is a copy, not a move. After this step, the photos were in two places: in the camera, and on my laptop.
- The laptop was backed up each night to an external hard disk.1 The photos were then in three places: the camera, the laptop, and the external hard drive. Only then would I even consider removing the pictures from the camera’s memory card.
Given the importance of these photos, I took an extra step. Rather than removing them from the camera’s memory card, I physically mailed each memory card home as it filled up. They were waiting for me when I returned.
That last step is probably overkill for day-to-day use, but something worth considering for those once-in-a-lifetime travel adventures, which this was.
The fundamental concept is very, very simple: as soon as is practical, make a second or third copy of the photographs stored on your camera on some other device, like your computer.
Back up photos on your smartphone
Everything I’ve outlined for your digital camera applies to your smartphone. Smartphones have the added convenience of being connected to the internet, which makes it easier. As soon as is practical, make copies of the photographs and videos you’ve taken.
Sharing a photograph or video effectively makes a copy. This, then, is one simple way to back up: email your photographs to yourself. While still somewhat cumbersome, this gets us closer to being able to back up those photographs closer to the time that we take them. (Sharing on social media also makes a copy, but most reduce the quality of your upload, so you’re not really backing up the original.)
This is exactly what I do on my phone. As soon as I take a photo, it’s automatically uploaded to my DropBox account. That’s one copy. It’s then automatically downloaded to every computer I have running DropBox.
I strongly recommend this approach. Make sure you have enough storage in your online account, and make sure the application on your phone has permission to upload your photos. If there are size restrictions, consider lifting them. If there are network restrictions (“WiFi only”, for example) consider lifting those as well. This way you’ll know your photos will be backed up as soon as you take them.
If you must leave restrictions in place, make sure items not backed up automatically get backed up some other way as soon as possible.
Back up photos to your cloud
Many times, photographs or videos posted using mobile apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others, is posted directly online. This implies it exists in only one place: online. That means it’s not backed up. For example, if you lose access to your account, you’ll lose all the images you’ve stored there.
This is important.
- Understand how the app works. Does it leave a copy of the photo on your device? If so, great: you can back it up using the techniques I’ve outlined above.3
- If the app only uploads to their service, you’ll need to back it up yourself. As soon as it’s convenient, make a copy. Download the image or video to your PC, or share it to a different service or via email.
- Consider not using the app’s own camera feature. Instead, take pictures using the camera app on your device, which is backed up by your cloud storage service. Then share the specific photo or video to, or open it with, the social media app you intend to use.
Cloud services — particularly video- and photo-specific services — can be extremely helpful in sharing or backing up your images. They often serve both functions. But you must be aware of how they work. You need to take the right steps so as not to leave your photos in only one place that you might then lose forever.
Now that they’re on your PC, back that up too
The techniques above result in your photos and videos making their way to your PC.
That’s still not quite enough.
You should be backing up your computer for more reasons than just your pictures. If you’ve got a properly configured periodic backup that includes the folders in which you store your photos and videos, you’re basically done.
But I want you to consider one more option: backing up your photos and videos to the cloud — again, if you’ve followed my advice in the previous section.
The problem is that for many people, these are precious memories that can never be replaced. If anything warrants additional protection, these photos qualify. Backing up to an online service protects you from anything taking out your home computer(s) and backup(s), like a fire or a burglary.
I’d consider either of two approaches:
- Use a photo-sharing service, like Flickr, Google Photos, or others, and upload everything. You don’t need to make everything public — in fact, you probably don’t want to — but you’ll have backup copies of everything.
- Use an online backup service. Images and videos are just files on your computer, and backup services back up whatever you choose to include. Using an online service might be preferable if you’re already using one to back up your computer, or you realize there are a few more things falling into the “too precious to lose” category.
In all cases, I strongly encourage you to, at a minimum, save the original, highest resolution, un-edited versions of your files. You can always re-create the edited versions if you elect not to save them as well, but you can’t go back to the original from a modified, cropped, filtered, or resized file.
A note about those “sensitive” photos
When I wrote the original version of this article, news broke of a hacker who gained access to a number of celebrity nude photos. He’d hacked into their iCloud accounts.
Please think carefully before taking “sensitive” photos (not limited to naked selfies). The safest thing to do is not take photos or videos that would embarrass or harm you if posted publicly.
I realize that’s not always possible. Sometimes taking a photo of something sensitive is exactly the right thing to do, for any number of reasons.
If you find yourself in this situation, you need to take extra care to avoid accidental disclosure.
- Think twice about sharing. If it can be seen, it can be copied. When you share a photo or video with a friend, you lose all control over it. Some day — perhaps when they are no longer your friend — they could post it publicly.
- Remove it from the cloud. I still strongly recommend using cloud services to back up your photos on devices that support it. In the case of sensitive information, I also strongly recommend later moving that back-up copy to local storage over which you have more control.
- Encrypt it if online. If you do use cloud services for backup, make sure those backups are encrypted. This means you can’t use them as an easy source for sharing, but that’s exactly what you want: to keep private things private.
- Remove it from the camera. Many people’s sensitive photographs are compromised by nothing more complicated than losing their smartphone or camera. Even if it’s quickly recovered, the information on the device can be copied.
Much of this applies to any sensitive information, including emails and documents stored in an online account. Photographs and videos, however, seem to be a particularly ripe spot for hacker activity.
Footnotes & References
1: I actually took care to have the external hard disk travel as separately from the laptop as possible – for example, the camera was carry-on luggage, while the external hard drive was in checked baggage.
2: In fact, many get quite insistent, and it’s easy to have multiple utilities all trying to do it for you.
3: Many of the DropBox-like services will notice that certain apps are installed or that certain folders exist, and may offer to upload the photos taken in those apps in addition to those taken by the device’s camera app.