Digital Preservation: How to Safeguard Your Photos from Technology Failures (to the Extent Possible)

Have you ever experienced that moment of panic when you turn on your device only to be met with silence? The stubbornly blank screen stares through you as the seconds drag into an eternity. Have you just lost everything? Mentally flipping through the contents, your heart stops as you recall the photo of your oldest’s first steps; that quirky smile with the cheeks you may never see again… did you have that somewhere else? Anywhere el— a soft whir and the dead screen blinks to life, and you fumble to the file, forgetting your original mission. Only when those bright eyes and triumphant smile beam back at do you feel your gut unclench as the world returns to an uneasy status quo. Nothing is lost…this time.

Have you since wondered, “How do I keep my memories, years of irreplaceable moments, safe? How do I make sure I never feel that way again?”. In the digital world that we live in, technology holds more of our life today than it ever has before. Now that we have cameras on our phones, we have amassed far more images than was ever possible before. But as we generate more and more, how do we ensure that we get to keep those photos? These day-to-day photos, and the ones that we have professionally done of our babies and family, are precious memories that you don’t want to lose; but all technology has the potential to fail, and even photographers lose photos.

What you are going for here is redundancy.

1. Print them!

Printing your memories is one of the safest ways to have them, and ideal for your most meaningful images. It is the medium least subject to “technology failure”, which we’ll define as anything that breaks our ability to view the photos within. This could mean hardware or software breakages, but also deprecation (no more CD drives) or systematic failures (company no longer in business). Technology is ever-changing, does fail, and often. CDs are nearly as unreadable as floppy-disks, thumb drives require dongles, hard drives always eventually fail, and cloud storage isn’t even immune to failure.

I have had family and friends lose years of memories with their loved ones due to technology failure. One, for example, lost the first 2 years of their baby's life because of a hard drive failure. I have had clients lose their wedding images (years ago when I offered weddings). Fortunately, I had them so I was able to give them their memories back; but some clients aren’t so lucky because technology failure happens to me too. I lost some weddings from a hard drive myself, and these experiences are why I now take digital backup so seriously. Losing your irreplaceable memories to technology failure is a gut-wrenching experience that no one should have to endure. That's why printing your photos is such an important step in preserving your memories. While it may seem old-fashioned, printing is one of the safest ways to ensure that your photos are always accessible.

That’s not to say you need to print every photo you take with your phone; print is a much more intentional medium. We will print fewer photos than we take with our phone, but those we do choose to print have much more intention behind them and as a result more impact. They often spark an emotion or memory that we don’t want to forget and, therefore, we will enjoy them much more even though we have fewer than the vast ocean of images on our phones.

So I recommend that you scroll through your phone at least once a year (either at the beginning or end of the year) and pick some everyday moments that stand out to you and print them, even if that means there is a lot. You can print them through chatbooks (not an affiliate link) and make yearly or monthly albums right from your phone. This would be great for the first 12 months of your baby’s life. My favorite lab that is open to consumers, Mpix (not an affiliate link), but even Walgreens is better than not printed. They don’t all have to be professional, especially for the everyday moments that you don’t want to forget.

2. Backup Digital Files on Multiple hard drives

Backing up digital files in multiple places is the safest way to keep your digital images. I know this can be time-consuming and requires 2 - 3 hard drives with the same things on them, but it’s the safest thing you can do to prevent digital loss as much as we can. You might be thinking that it seems like a lot of work to migrate the images several times, and it may be, but when one of those hard drives fails with several years of your kids' lives now gone, then it will be invaluable to you that you had a backup of your backup.

Technology is ever-changing and it will continue changing. Remember when we thought CDs weren’t going anywhere? Do you even own a way to read them anymore? The only ones I own right now have photos on them; with very little way to access them. I only have one very old laptop with a CD drive, and I haven’t taken the time to excavate the dinosaur and move them off the CD. Now with USBs going to USB-C, we have to use an adapter to use those old thumb-drives. So I recommend keeping your digital images on hard drives, at least 2 hard drives (ideally more), in addition to printing them.

As for how to organize them, I have a pretty simple organization system that works for me. What I like to do with mine is first to organize them by year. So have a folder for every year and, in the folders, you can either have all the files for the year, or you could segment them down into each sub-folders for each month, occasion, vacation, birthday, etc… Inside my yearly folders, I have every session by name and date so I can easily find things. For my personal yearly folder, I have any pro photos, and vacation photos in separate folders. All the others from my phone are just in there by date. It's simple but it works to find things quickly. The more complex your organization gets, the less likely you are to maintain it and the more likely your photos become an endless waterfall of thumbnails instead of a collection of memories.

External hard-drives come in 2 varieties, portable and desktop. Portable drives are what you’d think: you can easily move them. They are often super small, making them great to travel with, and they typically don’t require external power meaning you don’t have to plug them into the wall. They get all the power they need from your computer/ laptop. Sometimes they offer more protection from drops, but not all. Lacie is a great Rugged brand that will withstand drops, etc… Western Digital’s passport line is another great option for hard drives to back up your images on. These drives don't cost as much as desktop variations, but that doesn’t mean they are subpar. These drives are a great way to store and back up your memories.

Desktop drives offer a huge amount of storage, like 40TB (which I’m sure will sound laughably small in time) or more of space. They are larger and take up a more permanent space on your desk. This isn’t something you should move, not even into another room in your house. These drives are often much more fragile than portable drives and should be treated as such. Desktop drives are more expensive, and they also require external power. If you feel like this is the right choice for you, I’d recommend a “RAID 1” setup, which means a redundancy array of independent disks. That means multiple hard drives function together as one single hard drive. Ex: 5 - 6TB drives working as one big 6TB drive. The advantage of RAID is that if one of those 6TB drives were to fail, the data still exists mirrored on the other drives. So you can pull out the bad one and replace it with a new one and have all that data back. Hard drives will inevitably fail, but they don’t often all fail at the same time!

External drives typically use one of two types of storage: Solid State Drives (or SSDs), and Hard Disk Drives (HDDs). SSDs are incredibly fast, and more resilient to movement because they have no moving parts, but they are not as stable for long-term storage. HDDs are slower, but they are more stable for long-term storage. So I would recommend SSDs for regularly accessed or portable storage, and HDDs for a larger, stationary archive. SSDs for temporary, lightning fast, storage + HDDs for long-term storage.

3. Add Cloud Backup

Cloud backup systems are a great added protection against technology failure, but you should not solely rely on it alone as the cloud backup is still subject to failure. Cloud backup should only be used as a complementary layer of protection on top of what you are already doing in your home with your hard drives. This isn’t an easy one-and-done solution because cloud storage companies have lost customers’ data that they had put on their cloud backup due to fires, natural disasters, and even human error. In March 2021 one of the largest cloud storage providers in Europe lost two buildings in a fire along with many customers’ files. While writing this very article, Shutterfly started deleting the photos of inactive users; teary-eyed mothers have lamented the loss of 15 years of photos because they missed the email (and who among us hasn’t missed email). This serves as a reminder that redundancy, redundancy, and also redundancy is the key to keeping your digital memories safe and that even cloud storage is fallible.

Cloud backup is great extra protection, but always keep in mind it is still physical hard drives that store that data, and failure happens even with the massive companies that do this. This doesn’t happen often, so don’t be scared to use cloud backup, I just don’t want something to happen with the company you use and lose precious memories; so don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

The cloud backup I use is Crashplan, but there are so many cloud backups out there. Some good ones that I recommend are iCloud, Google Photos, Back Blaze, iDrive, Proton Drive, and Amazon Photos. You could even use multiple cloud storage services for extra security.

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