Cherish your photos – how to protect and preserve your digital memories

Very little in the 189 year old world of photography has evolved as quickly as the transition to digital. Twenty years ago, there were no consumer grade digital cameras on the market and even during the 90’s, digital photography had a very slow uptake from consumers, mainly due to the insane cost and poor quality of digital cameras.

In just 9 years, the entire film camera market has virtually disappeared. Iconic brands like Polaroid stopped making their cameras, and the major players in good old film photography have all moved to Digital, with just a handful of them still selling small amounts of the products that made them famous.
With this transition, we’ve also completely changed the way we make, store and publish our photos. Ten years ago, getting your hands on your photos involved a trip to the local 1-hour store, or dropping them off in an envelope at the drugstore. Nowadays, many people don’t even bother making physical prints, and just upload them to their photo hosting site of choice or store them on their computer.

The move to digital photography also opens up a bunch of new ways things can go wrong – with old fashioned film, a decent photo developer could pop the film in a dark box, open it up, and in the worst case scenario, you’d lose a couple of shots. Nowadays, digital usually means you either have your photos, or you don’t.

In this article, I’ll go over some basic ways to protect, preserve and publish your photos, and look at products that can help keep your photos safe.

The risks

The risks involved in dealing with digital photos are real – any time you store photos on digital media, something can go wrong. This could be as simple as physically losing the storage card, or as aggravating as some kind of data corruption deleting all your photos.

Thankfully, current digital storage methods are quite fail-safe, but there are still things that can go wrong, though more often than not, you can prevent them with a couple of simple measures.

The basics of data protection – part 1 – your memory card

When it comes to data storage, you need to know how things can go wrong:

  1. Physically losing a storage card
  2. Data corruption on a storage card
  3. Physical damage to a storage card
  4. Loss or damage to your camera
  5. Loss of data stored on your computer

Preventing physical damage is simple- always take good care of your cards. If you use multiple cards, number them, but use a marker instead of sticker, or you may find your card becoming stuck in your camera. If you are using multiple cards on a single trip (and you should, more on that later), invest in a decent card storage solution.

Staying away from data corruption is slightly tougher, as you have very little control over what happens to all those 1’s and 0’s being sent to your card. The best way to prevent data loss is simple – invest in a good card.

Don’t be tempted to settle for one of those cheap cards at the local supercenter or grocery store. This is an investment that should last for years – so stick to brands geared towards professional users like Sandisk and Lexar.

Yes – their cards are probably 2-3 times more expensive than other brands, but this is one product you won’t want to be cheap with. When buying a memory card, you’ll need to pay attention to two other things – the size and the class.

The size is a simple one – pick a good balance between the number of photos you want to store, and how much you’ll be hurt if you lose the card. A 16GB card is awesome, and will store a weeks worth of photos, but losing it also means you’ll lose a weeks worth of photos.

A simple chart showing how many photos a card can store can be found here. I use 4GB and 8GB cards, but tend to only fill them about 50%, swapping them out after I’ve shot about 200 photos, or when I’ve just finished shooting stuff I really don’t want to lose.

Picking the “class” of the card is tougher. The class rating is a small number usually printed on the label, which describes the maximum speed the card can sustain. The higher the number, the better the speed. On SD and SDHC cards, a class 4 card is slower than the current fastest rating, class 6. Some cards also print the actual speed on the label, so pay attention to what you are buying.

Especially if you plan to use the card with (HD) movie mode, you’ll need the speed. If you use your camera with a slow card that can’t keep up, you may run into write errors, or failed photos/videos.

The quality of the card also comes into play – a poor quality card will eventually break. I’ve had cards where the plastic shell split open, and cards with damaged contacts. One other advantage of a good card is good warranty – should something go wrong, the manufacturer of a good quality card will be there to help you.

When handling your card, make sure to treat it according to the user manual of your camera; never pull the card out when the camera is still writing to it, and always make sure you “unmount” your card if you used it in your computer.

The basics of data protection – part 2 – photo handling

Think of your photo files not just as files, but as memories. When the time comes to transfer them from your card to your PC, use a good quality card reader – once again, it pays to invest in something decent. If you invested in a pricey memory card, it doesn’t make sense to stick it in a $5 reader to transfer the files.

The easiest way to transfer files is of course to use your camera when connected to your PC. As you copy your files, start indexing them right away. Most cameras come with some kind of transfer/index software, but I highly recommend downloading Picasa (made by Google). This free application makes the transfer process as smooth as possible, and once all your photos are indexed, finding them is a breeze. In addition to this, Picasa can help send your photos to an online storage service.

The basics of data protection – part 3 – become a paranoid nutjob

Photos are just bits and bytes, and storage space is cheap. This combination is perfect for becoming a bit of a nutjob. If you are on vacation, don’t settle for storing your photos on a memory card in your purse – get those photos on a hard drive or online service as soon as you can. In my personal setup, I’ll have THREE copies of all my photos stored, even before I arrive back home from a trip.

One copy is on the memory card. I never ever format a memory card when I am on a trip, and I always carry enough spare cards to store everything I plan to shoot.

A second copy goes onto a laptop as soon as I reach my hotel, and a third copy is on an external storage drive (or uploaded if the hotel Internet is speedy enough).

Is this overkill? You bet! Does this make me a paranoid nutjob? You bet! Have I ever lost any digital photos with this method? Nope.

Yes – I agree that my method looks silly, but by safeguarding my files, I don’t run the risk of losing anything. It doesn’t matter if you are not a professional photographer, those memories can’t be recreated if you lose them.

Of course, having three copies of photos is useless if you store the three copies in one place – so I usually keep my SD card holder in my jacket, my laptop in my laptop bag, and my external drive in a second piece of luggage.

The basics of data protection – part 4 – gadgets are your best friend

When it comes to safeguarding your photos, you are not alone. There is an entire industry that revolves around selling cool gadgets with the sole purpose of keeping your stuff safe. Of course, not every backup method requires a gadget, the easiest way to create backups of your photos is to record them to a CD or DVD, just keep in mind that recordable optical media is not going to be a permanent solution – some discs only have a shelf life of 5-10 years. My four favorite tried and tested gadget solutions are:

  • External storage device
  • Dedicated photo storage device
  • Eye-Fi Wireless memory card
  • Smugmug photo hosting site

External storage device

The External storage device is just that – an external hard drive (or USB memory key). They are simple, cheap and reliable.

An 80GB portable hard drive can be found for as little as $40, so there really is no reason to ignore them. Their USB connections are speedy, and you’ll be able to copy all the photos off your laptop onto a drive in about 5 minutes. Since they are designed to be portable, they can also survive a bit of bumping around, though the additional investment in a carrying case is worthwhile.

Dedicated photo storage device

Dedicated photo storage devices are what you buy when you take things to the next level. Not everyone wants to travel with their laptop, despite the recent trend towards smaller machines.

Products like the Epson P-6000 are designed for (semi) professional photographers. This $600 product has a 4″ LCD screen and card slots for SD and Compact Flash cards. Simply turn the device on, pop a card in, and start the backup procedure. The Epson is very fast – an 8GB memory card is fully transferred in about 4 minutes.

Once copied, you can view, index and even edit photos, plus the device doubles as a media player. Once you arrive back home, you simply plug the P-6000 into your PC, and transfer all your photos. I’ll post a full review of this amazing little device next week.

If $600 is out of your league, don’t worry – basic photo storage devices start at about $150.

Eye-Fi Wireless memory card

Next in my gadget lineup, is the Eye-Fi Wireless memory card. The concept is simple – take a normal SD memory card, and add a WiFi interface.

The result is a memory card that can send its photos directly to your computer, or a whole variety of photo hosting sites. Imagine taking a photo, then walking up to a WiFi hotspot – your camera instantly sends all the photos you made directly to Flickr, Smugmug or one of 30 other sites, all without any user intervention. When it starts transferring, you can even get an email on your phone.

The Eye-Fi cards start at just $59.95 for a basic card (for sending photos to your own PC), up to $119 for a card with geotagging (which adds your location embedded in each photo file).

Smugmug photo hosting site

The final tool in my photo storage arsenal is a service instead of a physical product. For years, I’ve relied on Smugmug for storing my photos. The service has been around since 2002, and of all the online services I reviewed, it is quite simply the best. They provide professional (and friendly) service, charge just $39.95/year for unlimited storage and their interface is easy to use, yet very powerful.

Uploading to Smugmug is easy, and they offer a variety of tools for PC and Mac users, as well as a nice iPhone application.

One other reason I really like Smugmug is their security – I can pick who can see my photos, on an album level. For a fee, I can even have them mail me a DVD backup of every single photo I have stored with them, which is perfect if I ever lose my files at home.

Final thoughts

My tips may seem like overkill, and they are by no means the perfect solution for everyone. Even if you only stick to the most basic tip (protecting your memory cards), you’ll be safer than doing nothing.

How much effort (and money) you put into safeguarding your photos all depends on how important those photos are to you. You don’t need to be a professional photographer on an assignment to cherish your photos. Even a $150 photo storage device can mean the difference between having your photos, and losing them.

That said, if all you do is make photos of the Eiffel tower and other objects photographed by millions of others each year, losing them won’t be too much of a disaster.