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How to make backup copies of your photos, using DVDs and an external drive

July 23, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   After I wrote about rescuing a few hundred photos that were hidden away on some badly recorded CDs, I started receiving urgent photo questions in my e-mail. They all went more or less like this:
   "What's the best way to make backup copies of my photos? How can I be sure they'll be readable a month from now or five years from now?"
   Those are important concerns. They're questions that would hardly be asked a couple of years ago. But digital cameras are forcing all of us to deal with a problem computer administrators have dealt with for years: How to back up our files so that we'll still have them no matter what happens to the originals.
   The best method I've seen comes from photographer Peter Krogh. He describes a thorough, step-by-step procedure in his new book on how to manage a large collection of digital images. It's "The DAM Book: Digital Asset Management for Photographers," from O'Reilly Media, at www.oreilly.com.
   If you take hundreds of photos a month, Krogh's system could be ideal. But it's probably overkill for casual digital photographers. This week, I'll outline my own method. It's similar to the one Krogh uses but doesn't employ his detailed photo-renaming system. (His method is geared toward commercial photographers. Photo names have to be precise for them. My method doesn't require special names for photos.)
   You need an auxiliary hard drive and a DVD burner. Get the largest external hard drive you can afford, and be sure you have a DVD burner and not just a CD burner. Data DVDs hold 4.2 gigabytes (more than 4,000 megabytes), but CDs can hold only 650 to 800 megabytes, depending on the type of blank disks.
   An external hard drive is easy to add. USB 2 or Firewire models work best, but if all your computer has the slow-speed USB (USB 1.1, the original kind of USB), that will have to do. DVD burners work best if they're internal, not external. If your computer doesn't have a DVD burner but has a CD burner, buy a new internal DVD burner and replace the older one. (It's not hard at all. The new burner will come with instructions.)
   You can see where my method is heading. My system has two levels of backup.
   The first is contained on the external hard drive. The second is a set of DVDs that are exact duplicates of folders on the external drive. Your normal backup is on the hard drive.
   Set up your hard drive backup this way: For every photo shoot, copy every original photo (or at least every original you feel is good enough to keep!) to a folder on the external drive named for the date, such as 2006-0723. Within THAT folder, create a folder called "Edited" and copy all the edited, cropped or otherwise changed originals to it.
   So on your external drive you'd have a folder called, say, 2006-0723. In that folder you'd have another folder called Edited. Originals go into the main folder; any photos you have altered in any way go into the Edited folder.
   Any time you need to access a photo you took, say, a few months ago, you can simply open it up from the folder it resides in.
   But the locked-up, unerasable backups are on data DVDs.
   This sounds complicated, but it's not. Like Krogh, I make sure that each main folder on the external hard drive cannot be any larger than the amount of files that will fit on a DVD. Each folder is numbered using four digits, such as 0014.
   This means that making backups requires no backup software at all; all you need to do is copy each folder, once it has enough files, to a corresponding DVD. Keep the folder size to 4 GB or less. (Check using a right click in Windows or Cmd-I on a Mac.)
   In your burner software, name the disk using the name of the folder, such as 0014. After making the backup, write that name on the blank hub of the disk using a Sharpie or similar pen. Store all the backup DVDs in a safe place.
   To restore your photos after a disaster, simply copy each folder from its DVD to your external drive.
   Be sure to read today's blog for essential advice on how to make sure you're not wrecking your pictures when you edit them. It's a must-read.