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How to Back Up Photos and Never Lose Them Again

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 to that numerous digital cameras, from inexpensive to professional, and you’ve got a lot of digital media being created every day.

A lot of it isn’t getting backed up.

Let’s remember the goal: never have only a single copy of your photographs.

If there’s only a single copy, it’s not backed up.

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Back up photos on your digital camera

As soon as you take a picture or video with a digital camera, you have exactly one copy1 of that photograph – the original in the camera. It’s typically impractical to back it up after every shot, so we do have to accept some amount 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 that 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 that the photographs I took would be the only thing truly irreplaceable should we run into troubles. So I developed this technique to backup photos:

  • I took photographs throughout each day.
  • At the end of the day, I copied those photographs to my laptop computer. Again, this is a copy, not a move. After this step, the photos existed in two places: they were still in the camera, and also on my laptop: a minimal backup for something so important.
  • The laptop itself was also backed up each night to a portable external hard disk.2 That resulted in three copies of the photos: the camera, the laptop, and the backup of the laptop. Only then would I even consider removing the pictures from the camera’s memory card.

Selfie Given the importance of these photographs, I took an extra step. Rather than removing them from the camera’s memory card, I physically mailed the memory card home when it filled up, and inserted a new, blank memory card I’d brought along with me. Those memory cards were all waiting for me when I got home.

That last step might be 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 and videos on your smartphone

Everything I’ve just outlined for your digital camera applies equally to your smartphone. As soon as is practical, make a copy of the photographs and videos you’ve taken with it. In fact, if you don’t have internet connectivity, it’s exactly what you must do.

Smartphones typically have the added convenience of being connected to the internet in some way. We can leverage that to make the copy process not just easier, but possibly completely automatic.

First, as you’ve probably already done on occasion, sharing a photograph or video from your smartphone effectively makes a copy. As soon as you email that photograph to someone, they have a copy, in addition to the copy on your phone. You can leverage that: simply email your photographs to yourself, using an email account you can then access online or at your computer.

While still somewhat cumbersome, this gets us closer to being able to back up those photographs closer to the time that we take them.

Better still: do it automatically.

Of late, many of the cloud storage utilities available for smart phones from services like DropBox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, and others will automatically upload photos and videos as you take them, if you give them permission to do so.3

This is exactly what I do on my Android-based phones. As soon as I take any photo with my phone, it’s automatically uploaded to my OneDrive account. That’s one copy. Then the photograph is also automatically download onto every computer on which I have OneDrive running. That’s an additional three or four copies without having to lift a finger.

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 limitations on when it’s allowed to upload them, consider being permissive in favor of getting those images backed up quickly and without condition. If there are size restrictions on what will be uploaded, consider lifting them. If there are network restrictions (“WiFi only”, for example) consider lifting those as well, so you know your photos will be backed up as soon as you take them, no matter what they are and where you are.

If you must leave those restrictions in place, take steps to ensure that items not backed up automatically get backed up manually as soon as possible.

Back up photos in your cloud

Many times, a photograph or video – particularly with mobile apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, and others – is posted directly online, where it’s the only copy of that image. Of course, you know what that means: it’s not backed up. If you lose access to your account with that service, you lose the images you’ve stored there.

This is a tad more problematic, but it’s important:

  • Understand how the app you’re using works. Does it leave a copy of the photo on your phone? If so, great: you can back it up using the techniques I’ve outlined above.
  • If the app only uploads your image or video to their service, you need to back it up yourself . That means as soon as it’s convenient, make a copy. Typically that means downloading the image or video to your PC, or using embedded sharing functionality to share it with a different service or email.

Cloud services – particularly video- and photo-specific services – can be extremely helpful as places to share or back up your images; they often serve both functions. But you must be aware of what’s happening to your data, and take the appropriate steps to ensure you’re not left with only one copy that you might then lose forever.

Now that they’re on your PC, back that up too

The techniques above ultimately result in your photos and videos making their way to your PC – either manually, as you copy images from your camera or online account, or automatically, as a cloud sync service does it for you.

That’s still not quite enough.

Naturally, you should be backing up your computer, and 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 pretty close to being done. In fact, in most cases, you can probably stop here.

But I want you to consider one more option: backing up your photos and videos to the cloud.

The problem is that for many people, these photos and videos are precious memories that can never be replaced if lost. If anything warrants an additional layer of protection, it seems that these would qualify. By backing up to an online service, you’re protected from anything that might take 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, Picasa, or others, and upload everything. You may not need to make everything publicly visible – in fact, you probably don’t want to – but you’ll have backup copies of everything in one place, optimized for review (and, if you choose, sharing as well).
  • Use an online backup service. Images and videos are just files on your computer, and all of the online backup services are tailored to back up whatever data you might choose to include. Using an online service might be preferable if you’re already using one to back up your computer, or you realize that there are a few more things that fall into the “too precious to lose” category besides images.

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, tweaked, or resized file.

A note about those “sensitive” photos

As I was writing the original version of this article, news broke of a hacker gaining access to a number of celebrity nude photos by hacking into their iCloud accounts.

First: think carefully before even taking what I’ll refer to as “sensitive” photos (this isn’t limited to just naked selfies). In general, the safest thing to do is simply not to take photos or videos that would embarrass or otherwise harm you if posted publicly.

Now, 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 owe it to yourself to take extra care to avoid accidental disclosure.

  • Think twice about sharing. Remember that when you share that photo or video with a friend you lose all control over it. Some day, when they are no longer your friend, they can do whatever they like with it, including posting it publicly.
  • Remove it from the cloud. Yes, I still strongly recommend using cloud-based services to back up your photos and images for devices that support such. But in the case of sensitive information, I also strongly recommend moving that back-up copy off any online services to local storage over which you have much more control. Remember also that a single copy is not a backup; you want to make sure you have at least two copies in one form or another.
  • Encrypt it if online. If you do use online services for backup, make sure those backups are encrypted in some form. Yes, this means you can’t necessarily use them as an easy source for sharing your photos directly, but that’s exactly what you want when it comes to “those” photos.
  • Backup offline. As I said, you want to move your sensitive images from online storage to your own offline storage as soon as possible, to minimize the window of opportunity for someone to hack your account and gain access.
  • Remove it from the camera. Many people’s sensitive photographs are compromised by nothing more complicated that losing their smartphone or camera. Even if only for a short time before it’s recovered, the information on the device can be quickly copied or forwarded. Once again, copy it to local storage you have control over, and/or encrypted online storage.

Ultimately, much of this discussion applies to any sensitive information, including emails and documents you might have stored in an online account. Photographs and videos, however, seem to be a particularly ripe spot for hacker activity.

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Footnotes & references

1: By one copy I mean the one and only original. The term “copy”, on its own, is considered ambiguous and/or confusing by some. If there’s just the one and only original, it’s not backed up.

2: 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.

3: In fact, many get quite insistent, and it’s easy to have multiple utilities all trying to do it for you.

27 comments on “How to Back Up Photos and Never Lose Them Again”

  1. There is another aspect of dealing with my photos digitally that I need help with. It is this: is there a recommended program that can help me eliminate duplicate photos from my collection? Because of photo backups that got carelessly added back into my photo folders, I have a lot of unnecessary duplicates. I am looking for a way to help me speed up the process of finding and eliminating them. I know there are programs online that can do this, but do you, Leo, or does anyone else have first-hand experience with a program you can recommend? The programs I find online, I’m leery of trying them blind, even if they’re accompanied by enthusiastic “reviews,” which I’m never sure if those are genuine or if they’re plants.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Picasa has a duplicate photo finder. It’s under tools/experimental. It shows duplicate pictures, but also similar ones as well. I haven’t really used it but I’ve just done so on my collection of ~10000 pics and it showed the duplicates very quickly. It might be enough for your needs.

  3. Thanks a million, Leo. Our veterans appreciate your brain. One of our computers is hooked up to a Seagate 9C2AG-500, 1000GB backup. I think it does this automatically. Certain files are also backed up on the Google Cloud. If certain files, such as photos, are deleted from the computer, will the Seagate also delete the same files? We hope not, but wait with bated breath for Leo’s brain. Thanks, Leo.

  4. I’m sure you know that many new cameras are WiFi enabled and can back themselves up over the Internet. My Nikon does not, but by adding an “EyeFi” SD memory card it will send pictures to my iPad or computer and save a full sized copy in the cloud.

    • i also have the same nikon camera that needs eyefi so i went away and bought a mirco sd card and a big sd card which will work on the camera and also can put it into my phone to see my pictures straight away

  5. In addition to following all Leos great advice remember the old fashioned and fun way to save photos for friends and family, print them on premium paper and use a good printer with archival inks. There are many out there! Or have someone print for you!

  6. Another step I highly recommend: When shooting RAW format, after copying your photos to your computer immediately convert them to .jpg and verify that all of them convert successfully. Only then delete the photos on the memory card, if you will be reusing the card for more photos. I lost a number of photos when I assumed that the RAW files had copied correctly to the computer, only to find that they had been corrupted in the transfer. If the photos are still on the memory card, you can recopy any that didn’t copy correctly the first time.

  7. I’ve also considered using M-disc to back up my most important pictures that I want to make sure get passed onto future generation. M disc is a really special DVD that last like 1000 years that can be written to by any newer LG DVD burner and read by any DVD player. And a DVD stores a lot of pics. I actually have the drive and the discs, but have not gotten my act together and burned the discs yet.


  8. Long term, we don’t know how long or when DVD burners and readers will be replaced with some thing else , We will still have good discs but no means to read them.

    • I don’t see the DVD or CD format vanishing for many years. And as long as media exists to play, the players will continue to exist. The success of
      M-disc with mean that compatible players will continue to exist. And think of it, LP’s are still around.

  9. A while ago I stumbled upon Apowersoft Phone Manager Pro which has worked really well for copying photos, videos, and music (as well as contact list, notes, and more) from my cell phone to my Windows computer. You connect wirelessly and smoothly. Now I realize the price was right since the computer software was a Giveaway of the Day (regular price is $39.95), but it has made the process very simple. You also need to get and install the free app for your phone (android and IOS – Apple) from the Google Play Store. You can connect wirelessly or via USB cable. It works and works well. Just another option to throw into the mix.

  10. Questions — doesn’t running your camera’s internet connection all the time (to upload photos to the cloud as they are taken) run down your battery? And run up your data bill?

    Comments — At home I back up to an external drive that sits on the desk behind the computer, and to one of a pair of “portable” externals that take turns going to the bank and sitting in our safe-deposit box. The vault at the bank is above ground level, so not in danger from floods. If something happens to the house, I’ll still have all of the pics but the newest ones………………

    On trips I travel with a chromebook which has zero storage. I carry flash drives with me, and back up to two different flash drives each night, one of which stays with me when I’m out and about, and the other of which stays in the hotel.

  11. After taking a photo/video in my Android phone, it is auto backup to Onedrive. When I delete the photo in my phone, the photo in the Onedrive is not deleted. Is there a way to set it so that when the photo is deleted from my phone it will also be deleted from Onedrive?


    • I don’t believe that is possible. A feature like that would make it too easy to accidentally delete a photo from OneDrive that someone really didn’t want to delete.

  12. I suggest also using programs such as “mailbigfile” to send the photos to yourself or partner etc, each day.

  13. I have given long term backup of my genealogy photos. When I have a photo taken abt 1900 ish, there is little for me to put names and dates to such precious items of family history.

    I chose to use jpegs as they are the most common formats This leads me to look at the headers in jpgs images. the most recognised is what is known as EXIF
    entries. These data hold what I call image capture, such as camera used, lens settings, etc. The other bit of metadata called IPTC is the one that has to be entered manually. This typically may have details such as the people in the photo, a title one may chose to apply, etc I think that important need these data added.

    BTW Windows Search will index these and can be found with Windows search. The advantage is that this header stays in the header thru resaves etc. I don’t know the size limit, but you can almost write an essay.

    Therefore for long term genealogy and such uses, all this info is searchable within the jpeg format. Renaming the file still keeps the EXIF and IPTC.

    Always remember to choose a file that will likely to be supported. Also applies to the storage media. What will be supported in 20.40, etc years from now. That’s a whole new subject

  14. Perhaps it is overkill, but to backup photos I use Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, Flickr and Photobucket as well as multiple flash drives and DVDs. I think I’m covered. 😉

  15. This article – and the comments – is a great example of why Ask Leo is imperative reading for me.
    Leo, you could CHARGE us a subscription fee, and I’d gladly pay it.
    Many thanks for all you do in making computing more comprehensible.

  16. I need to know how to clean out my internal memory on my android ZTE with out loosing everything.
    I don’t have nothing but my phone.

  17. all well and good, but exactly how do I copy my cell phone photo’s to my desktop computer, via a USB cord, is it just a matter of connecting the usb patch cord to my cell phone like I would do to make hard copies at a photo kiosk at walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, etc. or do I have to purchase some sort of manager system that will help me make the transfer of photo’s and also help me get specific photos back onto my cell phone for use when I get hard copies as above from walgreens, etc. How much does all this cost, I am on a fixed income, Social Security Retirement benefits only and I often run out of money before I run out of month.

    • A USB cord is one way. The exact steps depend on exactly what phone you have, but it’s a good way to simply copy/paste photos from your phone to the computer. Another way, as mentioned in the article, is to use a utility like DropBox to automatically copy them to your PC right after they’re taken. All of the above is free.


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