Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

If It’s All Digital, Won’t You Lose It Anyway?

If you do, you’re not doing it right.

Photo Album Page
A page out of an old photo album. Click for larger image. (Image: Leo Notenboom.)
A single original of anything is not backed up, and backing up is significantly easier, and of higher quality, in digital media.
The Best of Ask Leo!
Question: I had a thought about everything being digital: is there a chance that important information can be lost? From important and historical information to irreplaceable pictures, etc. I was holding a picture of me from 1980 (yes, genuine film). Had there been digital scanners and fast enough computers back then, the 5¼-inch disk would be unreadable by today’s drives. The disk would probably have errors, if you could find a used hard drive to even read it for your precious memories. Never mind historians, scholars, and the young storing all of their Facebook information in the Cloud only. I use external media and more than one type. I don’t know anyone who backs up a single thing, no matter how many speeches I give them.

Yes, it’s true.

I hear about it every day: digital information can be lost quite easily.

But I don’t see that as an indictment of digital technology at all. In fact, digital data opens up many more possibilities for data retention than it closes.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

My grandfather’s photographs

Digital can be lost easily — but then, so can film.

Many years ago my mother and I traveled to her birthplace in The Netherlands. It was my first trip overseas and my first chance to meet many of my relatives. We were to stay in her childhood home, still occupied by her parents.

The night before we arrived, there was a fire. While the building didn’t burn down completely, there was extensive damage. We ended up staying with my aunt and uncle instead.

One of my grandfather’s hobbies was photography. As I understand it, he was one of the earliest to play with photography in his area.

The vast majority of his photographs, some dating back several decades, were lost in the fire — photographs (and other memorabilia) that my mother had been looking forward to sharing with me.

If there’s only one…

It doesn’t have to be fire. Photos can be lost or damaged in any number of ways. Aside from scratches, fingerprints, and fading, there are bends, tears, and foxing on the edges. That’s why historians take such precious care of original material.

The problem is that in many cases there is only one original. Additional copies, if they exist at all, often lose some amount of quality in the duplication process.

If something happens to the original, it’s gone.

The only way to “back up” an original is to take the time to make a generally inferior duplicate.

Digital assets needn’t be lost

Your argument is really about backing up.

Too many people don’t back up. When they lose precious data, they blame the technology.

Fortunately, digital records give us more opportunities to protect precious memories than ever before.

To begin with, a digital copy of a digital original does not lose any quality. It’s a 100% pristine copy of the original — they’re essentially indistinguishable from one another. There are no scratches, tears, or other physical damage to contend with.

In addition, digital photographs can be duplicated trivially easily and quickly — no trip to Fotomat required.

While storage media can and does change over time, it’s easy to ensure that your photographs are always kept in current technologies, and even in the cloud, where they can also be backed up: safe no matter what happens in your home.

Saving those memories

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of digital for all these reasons and more. I have well over a terabyte of photographs. They’re all backed up on at least a couple of machines here at home, as well as online in DropBox.

For example, the image accompanying this article is taken from a high-resolution scan of one of my parents’ photo albums. The woman on the left is my grandmother, and the image on the right is of a swimming class in progress.

I can’t recreate a new original, but I can back up what I have. Included in that terabyte are scans of almost all the old photo albums that escaped the fire.

Please consider preserving your own precious memories, and backing them up, in a similar way.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

Podcast audio


17 comments on “If It’s All Digital, Won’t You Lose It Anyway?”

  1. Me backing up my photos and such is one thing, but what about information of greater importance?

    I have often wondered about how physically secure information (records) being generated today really are. Too, HOW are they kept, and where? For example, a young person enters the labor force. Records of his or her earnings, contributions to social security, etc., are kept how—totally electronically? I’m not sure it can be argued that hard copies are more likely to survive. Certainly electronic copies can be accessed, manipulated and duplicated more easily than hard copies. But what happens if somehow—and I have no idea how it could happen—these electronic records are destroyed by whatever means that could destroy them. This could be a catastrophe of biblical proportions. And I’m sure there are those out there who would literally die to wreak havoc with records of such importance. I suppose my question is, just how secure are digital records? What are the vulnerabilities?

    • Theres no way to know. I will say that the paper originals can be destroyed instantly and at once, whereas digital copies are hopefully and more likely backed up at several locations, all of which would have to disappear for the data to be completely destroyed.

  2. Funny that you published this article about storing photos today. I have over 6000 35 mm slides dating from 1950 into the 1980’s. Most of the early ones are family photos. I finally bought a digital slide scanner and over the weekend started to digitize my slides. The Kodachrome slides are as good today as they were back then. However, most of the others have turned pink and lost details. I used the non-Kodachrome to save money, they looked good back then; but, the processors also saved money by stretching the amount of film they developed beyond the amount the developer was designed to process.
    I don’t know if any of the detail can be recovered.

    • Larry, a levels adjustment layer in Photoshop Elements (I’m sure the same is true with other photo editing software), can work wonders in restoring faded colours in scanned photos or slides.

  3. I have lost hundreds of photos and files over the years because they were on a computer that crashed for one reason or another. Some of these were backed up onto disks but not all by any means. You would say, back them up. I most recently backed up onto an external hard drive touted by another computer guru using Windows 10. When that OS crashed after three weeks, that external hard drive would not back up into my now restored Windows 7. (Something similar happened with Macrium.) The only photos I could rescue were those on disks or the few I had moved to the cloud. I am an individual with a desktop who tries to stay up with technology in order to save and work with photos, music, and writings. I use a lot of data space. If I have to constantly copy onto disk, it takes the fun out of the projects, so I rely on the external HDD. I tried, it failed. The cloud is only moderately helpful for a person on a budget. One can play worst-case-scenarios, but for me having old paper is comforting.

  4. This is a way to lose it all. I do backups, semi regularly. It was time to backup my laptop, so I plugged in my USB hard drive. The backup failed. OK. Reboot and try again. Reboot failed to load, no operating system. Turned out the hard drive was wiped, totally. No problem, Grab recovery CD, and restore. Failed, backup hard drive was also totally wiped, Blank. I was using Macrium Reflect.
    Everything on the laptop was gone, but everything of importance was also saved on a desktop unit.

    • Good that you had a third copy. That’s why Leo recommend the 3-2-1 backup method.
      3 Copies (absolute minimum. I have 5)
      2 Backup formats (I take system image backups plus I use OneDrive to synchronize all of my personal files. If you prefer, you can use paper hard copies or even 2 different backup programs like Macrium Reflect and EaseUS Todo)
      1 One offsite backup (OneDrive is offsite, but I also swap a disk that I keep at work)

      The advantage of digital is that you can have several copies of your data.

    • The cloud should be one of two or more places that you should have your files stored. Even if your cloud storage doesn’t get paid for, your family should have access to your files on some other kind of backup media or your PC.

  5. I just bought a 8 TB external drive to back up two smaller (3 TB and 5 TB) external drives. My data is very soon going to be in 3 places.

    My question is, if my photos and videos are on the 3 TB external, I assume I can just run EaseUs Todo and backup the 3 TB to the 8 TB. But is there any point in doing so? Aren’t .jpg and .mp4 already in a compressed format? Is using a backup program going to save any time or space over just copying the files from one drive to the other?

    • Running a backup program like EaseUS Todo or Macrium Reflect is only really necessary for full system backups. Otherwise, copying files and folders is fine. The advantage of using a backup program for copying files and folders, though, is that the backups are automatically scheduled and you don’t have to think about it. Alternatively, you can use the Task Scheduler to schedule those file and folder backups but for the less geeky among us, using a backup program is probably easier.

  6. Stupid question of the day! I want to backup and eventually delete about 350GB of photos and videos that are located on one of my internal hard drives. I have a 3TB external drive for this purpose. I’m using Macrium Reflect Professional (64-bit) v. 5.3 for my regular backups to another, smaller external drive. (Now for the stupid part.) In Macrium Reflect, I setup a scheduled task to create incremental backups, but only keeping the 2 most recent complete backups. That works well to save space on the smaller external drive, but I wonder if that’s going to create a problem on the new drive if I delete the files on the internal drive. It seems to me if I have no files located in the folders, a backup of nothing will soon replace the backups that contain the photos and videos with nothing. Am I correct? Should I just do a manual file copy from the internal drive to the external drive as needed?

    • Incremental’s allow you to go back in time to the state the machine was in on a particular date — so you could go back to the date that the files were deleted and restore them.
      Important: this “back in time” is RESET each time you start a new FULL backup.
      You should periodically take a full backup to restart the series — having ONLY incremental backups is risky. I recommend monthly full and daily incrementals. That way you’ll always be able to go back in time to any date since the full backup was taken.
      If you also save the previous set of full + incrementals, you’d be able to go back to any date therein as well.

    • As Leo often says “It it’s not in more than one place, it’s not backed up.” Deleting the files from your internal drive will take them out of the backups and deleting older backups will remove the backups with the photos. A simple solution is to copy, not move, the photos to one external drive and copy the photos from that drive to the other external drive. This can even be automated with a .cmd file or having your backup program copy them as a scheduled backup so you don’t have to think about backing up.

    • I did this years ago because my computers hard drive was getting full. I copied all the photos and videos to an external hard drive. Just a straight copy; no backup software. I can plug the external hard drive into my TV and watch the photos and videos.

      I have backed up my computer to a second external hard drive. And you’re right. My current backups don’t have any of my photos or videos. Only the old ones. On top of that, I’m at the point where I want to get rid of some of the older backups, but if I do, then I lose my photo and video backups.

      So the other day, I went out and bought a third external hard drive. I am going to be backing up the photo and video hard drive to this third drive and any other files that I have archived to the second hard drive will also be backed up to this third drive.

      As Leo says, if it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up! You need to take a backup of just the 350 GB of photos and videos that you are planning to take off your computer (and label it photos and videos so you know never to delete that), and you need to have a backup of that backup on a different device/cloud/etc.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.