Files: keeping them safe

In the days of film photography, you would pay money for each shutter click. So this meant you had to refrain yourself from shooting like crazy. Some argue that you had to “think before you shoot” and so end up with better images while other argue that “today you can try new things” since you don’t have to pay for each click.

That also means (and it is the subject of this entry) that we are producing files. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Gigabytes of them. And then what?

There are already a couple of entries about which files I keep and how I organize them, so I won’t cover that again. What I would like to do in this entry is review the possibilities that we have for backing up our files and keeping them as safe as possible. As always (since this is a blog), I’ll talk about my experience and the system that I use – as an example which you can disagree with, take inspiration from and comment on

Online backup

Although this looks like a very good solution for backups, the size of image files (remember we are dealing with RAW images, or 16bits TIFFS) make is not really practicable in our ADSL world – upload time is just overkill. Let’s forget it for photography.

Hard drive backup

This is a very good solution: having all your files on one external hard drive. Its advantages are:

  1. relatively cheap per gigabyte – especially since you can rewrite data on it.
  2. very reliable (data doesn’t get corrupt) unless breakage.

Its weaknesses are:

  1. It has moving parts, so it is vulnerable to crashes or hardware failure.
  2. If you get a hard drive failure, you probably lost all of its content.

One solution is to have your data replicated in 2 drives (RAID 1) but we are leaving the realm of photography here.

DVD backup

Now that most PCs are equipped with a DVD burner, this is another very viable solution for images backup. The advantages are:

  1. DVDs are cheap, especially in big quantities.
  2. If manipulated with a minimum of common sense, they aren’t prone to breakage. If worse comes to worse, you may end up with a few files unreadable but not the whole DVD.


  1. A DVD isn’t a long term backup solution – you will need to burn new sets of DVD backups with the same data regularly (I would say as often as once a year)
  2. DVDs need careful storage: flat (to avoid deformation) and away from direct sunlight

So if you take a minimum of precaution, it also is a very valid solution for images backup.


My personal setup is to have all my pictures saved on my data hard drive that is inside my PC but separate from the system hard drive. Every 3 months, I burn a DVD with the images of the current year. And once a year, I will burn a new set of DVDs with all my previous images. That allows me to have easy access (on a hard drive) to all my images and keep a backup copy in case of a hard drive crash.

I don’t need a backup software, I just use the default DVD burner – which I load with files until the current DVD is full.

The weaknesses of this system is that:

  • You can count on Murphy that if ever I experience a hard drive failure (never happened to me yet) it will be the perfect timing to lose 2-3 months worth of images.
  • My DVDs aren’t stored remotely so if my apartment burns I lose everything (and not only my images, by the way).

I am not a professional photographer with contracted work by customers, so I can live with these risks. Obviously, a pro has a lot of more constraints and if you want to know more, have a look at what Michael Reichmann does while on location and as well as his general image backup system (a bit old).

Just for fun, a panorama from the Swiss Mountains near Gruyères (sorry, not a fantastic picture, but that is all a have at hand for the moment…)


10 Responses to Files: keeping them safe

  1. Xavier says:

    Hi Joel,

    Your post comes in the nick of time. Indeed, I’ve launched a topic in another forum asking how people store their pictures. Some interesting options have been mentionned. You can have a look there :

  2. Steve says:

    This is the very reason that I still shoot in film mainly. I do shoot in digital…but not for stuff that really matters. I know that in 50 years time I’ll still be able to look at my prints and develop from the negatives. Who’s to say what digital photographic formats will be around then?

  3. sam says:

    “very reliable (data doesn’t get corrupt) unless breakage.”
    Well, that depends on the OS in use right now ( ) 🙂 I store mine on a Ubuntu Server, use NFS, and it works very well.

  4. WOOOOW!!!!

    You have a great site. It is just great.

    Keep up the excellent work.

  5. gjofili says:

    Well, well, well… I am not a professional photographer either… but I do all three methods.. I keep one set of pictures in the current internal HD (almost 120 Gb) , on set in an external one e other in DVDs… but I’ve never re-burned the DVD set… I think I should.

  6. Ian says:

    A quick word about cd/dvd backups. Use good media, Japanese is best, and burn at a slow speed. 4x for dvd and no more than 10x for cd’s. If the media says ‘made in japan’, then it is made by Taiyo Yuden, the only Japanese manufacturer, which is probably the best you will get. is a good source of info.

  7. Tony says:

    My business produces data on DVD for hospitals, so we’ve done a LOT of research on what practices are best.

    First DVD-R is better than DVD+R due to checksums built into the format.

    Second, like Ian says, Taiyo Yuden is the best. I have a letter from them certifying their top line DVD-R blanks at 50 years if stored in a humidity controlled environment with no sunlight.

    What I do is burn two copies. One sits by the computer, the other goes in a media fire safe in a closet.

    Still, it doesn’t hurt to refresh that backup media every 5 years. And, transfer it to the next technology when that comes out before you can’t get DVD drives anymore (Optical cubes? Who knows…)

  8. Tony says:

    @Steve: Who’s to say that in 50 years there will still be photographic labs? Don’t assume that film is not subject to the same legacy problems as digital. It’s still a “technology” it’s just that computer tech has historically run on a faster timeline than other tech. Think of how hard it is to get a replacement turntable needle to play those old LP’s today… Radio Shack has even stopped selling them – it doesn’t matter that the LP’s store better and sound better. They’ve been replaced by digital media.

  9. jcornuz says:

    HI guys,

    Thanks for your input. Lots of interesting stuff you have added here. It is very true that medium quality and storage conditions can make a lot of difference. Still, the saved once for all approach doesn’t exist…

    Take care,


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