When I started in photography, I had to deal with piles of slides and negatives. Storing the film I had shot was fairly simple using slide trays, boxes, or poly pages in three-ring binders. Switching to digital has eliminated film, but now we have to deal with digital files that have no physical form. The problem is finding a good safe way to archive these digital files. One that is easy too.
There are several ways to store digital photos. Some people just leave them on the memory cards since they can hold 1,000 or more photos. This is not really archiving them since memory cards are not a permanent type of storage. Ideally, when you are done shooting you should take the card out of the camera (or connect the camera directly to your computer) and transfer the files to the hard drive. This can be done manually or through software such as Photoshop, Picasa, iPhoto, etc.
If you place the memory card back in the camera and format it (to get ready to shoot again), then you now have only one copy of the photo. If anything were to happen to your computer or the hard drive then your photos are lost forever. When storing precious data on a computer you need a plan to ensure it is never lost.
To ensure that your files are never lost you need to have multiple copies in multiple locations to really ensure their safety. A common solution is the “3-2-1” method, involving three copies of a file on at least two types of media, with one copy stored off-site.
Digital files are just binary bits of data saved on some type of storage medium. It could be a flash memory card, hard drive, CD/DVD disc, or stored in the cloud. To ensure that your files are never lost you need to have multiple copies in multiple locations to really ensure their safety. If you are serious about archiving your digital files then check out "The DAM Book Digital Asset Management for Photographers" by Peter Krogh.
Peter came up with idea of 3-2-1 backup and it is in common practice with professional photographers. It breaks down into this. You need three copies of a file for it to be truly backed up. The backup should include at least two types of media (hard drive, optical disc, cloud, etc.). Then one copy should be stored off-site - three-two-one backup.
Now that we have a brief overview of the problem, let's try to look at some solutions. Inside your computer is the main hard drive. Most computers also have built in DVD/CD burners. If you typically only shoot a few hundred photos a month, then backing them up to a recordable disc is a good option. Blank DVDs and CDs are very inexpensive. A CD can hold about 700 megabytes of data, which for audio is plenty but when you start talking about photos from a 12 megapixel, or more, camera, it's not much space. Remember that the memory card in your camera is probably at least 1GB and likely 4GB or more. A blank DVD is a better solution since it can hold about 4.7 gigabytes of data.
If you own a laptop then you most likely have only one hard drive. This is also true if you have an all-in-one type desktop computer. If you have a tower-type PC, then you might have more than one drive installed. If you have two drives in your PC is the second drive used for backup or do you use it as data storage? Most tower PCs that have two drives are set to have the operating system and applications on the boot drive and the user data on the second drive. This is a safe way to operate a computer since your data is more protected. If the boot drive gets corrupted, which can easily happen on its own or because of a computer virus/malware, then your data is still safe on the secondary drive. No matter the type of computer you use, adding an additional hard drive for backup can be a simple as connecting an external box to you PC with a single cable.
An external hard drive can come in all shapes, sizes, and storage capacities. Let's say you have a 500-megabyte drive in your PC, then you will need at least a 500-megabyte external drive for backup. Remember that you will be backing up your data only, not the operating system or programs you've installed. You can match the size of the drive inside you PC, or better yet, get one slightly bigger. A 1 terabyte external drive is priced around $100 and a 2 terabyte drive is only slightly more. One advantage for Mac owners is that starting with OS X 10.5 and above you have a nice automatic backup system built into the OS called Time Machine. For anyone with a Mac I highly recommend getting an external hard drive and dedicate it to Time Machine.
External drives come in two physical sizes. There is a 3.5-inch drive that is the same type found in desktop computers. These drives are fast and come in an external case slightly larger than a VHS tape (if you can remember what they look like). This type of drive has to be plugged into an AC outlet for power. A portable hard drive uses the smaller 2.5-inch hard drives. These are the type of drives used in laptops. While not quite as fast they are much smaller. They also can get power from the USB or Firewire port so there is no need for AC adapters. This makes them perfect if you travel with a laptop and want to backup your data on the road. Portable drives have less storage capacity than the larger 3.5 inch drives, but 1 terabyte and even 2 terabyte drives are becoming pretty common. A 3.5-inch external can have capacities up to 4 terabytes.
The most common type of external drive has a USB 2.0 interface. Most modern computers have a USB 2.0 port, probably several. Newer PCs now have a faster USB 3.0 port. If your PC can handle the faster 3.0, get it. It can really make a difference when working with larger files. There are other ports that can be found on external drives. There is Firewire, which used to be more common and found on many Macintosh computers, and ESATA or external SATA. The newest, and most expensive, type is called Thunderbolt. For speeds USB 2.0 is the slowest, followed by Firewire 400, Firewire 800, ESATA, USB 3.0, and then Thunderbolt. For a single external drive, USB 2.0 or 3.0 will be the easiest to find and will have the lowest price.
Next time we'll take a look at some more elaborate types of data storage such as the "cloud", network attached, and ones that use multiple redundant drives in a single unit.