Backing Up Photos – Should We Bother At All?

Some kind of back up system is essential for any photographer, isn’t it?

My back up system for what I’d call my artistic photos (as opposed to family photos) is multi-layered, and probably overly complex.

I have them on my MacBook, then on an external HD that backs up everything on the MacBook.

I have another external HD to back up the photos on my MacBook only. (I used to use this to back up music too but these days Spotify seems to be all I need.)

I update both of these around once a month.

I also use Google Drive, which backs up my photos automatically as soon as I upload them from a memory card to the MacBook (via a USB card reader), and also syncs any changes.

For example if I delete an image on my MacBook whilst editing a batch of photos, Google Drive deletes the cloud copy too, so I don’t have any unwanted images cluttering up my Google storage.

I upload my best photos to Flickr, as a back up and to using tagging and albums to organise them (and subsequently find them) more easily than scanning through file names on my MacBook or one of the HDs.

So for an image I’ve considered good enough to upload to Flickr, I have five copies.

The original on my MacBook, one on each of two external HDs, one in Google Drive, and one in Flickr.

None of this backing up is particularly time consuming (especially the automated Google Drive back up), but why do I need so many back ups, when in reality I wouldn’t exactly be distraught even if I lost every photo I’d made overnight?

I’d just go out and make more.


This strongly ties in with my general feeling about the nature and purpose of photography.

Yes of course I like making pictures I’m proud of and want to share with others, but the main reason I go out with camera(s) is to wander and explore the countryside, looking for beautiful things. It’s long been a vital pillar to my physical and mental wellbeing.

Whether I actually do capture what I see with a camera, and then whether I share that, or even keep the image, is all secondary to the immersive experience of the hunt, and just the fresh air, solitude, and exercise.

Also, I love how a camera can capture a moment in time, and through some kind of sorcery allow us to defy the natural laws and see that moment over and over again for as long as we wish.

But by the same token, perhaps I feel that if I lose a photo, it’s a return to the true nature and flow of things.

That moment I was able to appreciate frozen for a far longer passage of time than it actually lasted, has now once more been allowed to pass by again, and I must find new moments to appreciate – either with a camera or just my naked eye.

Put another way, photographs (and cameras) are an extraordinary gift to us to help us appreciate the moments we sometimes seem too busy and self absorbed to notice without the benefit of a camera.

So when photographs are lost, we’ve already appreciated their gift for longer than we should have – we’ve been loaned it, rather than owned it – so surely we must be grateful we were able to receive and enjoy that gift at all?

This is why, in my mind, I’m philosophical about losing photos via some kind of back up malfunction – or perhaps through not backing them up at all.

But this doesn’t seem to fit with my actual, overly complex and layered back up processes I currently use for my own photographs.

So I’m strongly thinking about my back up set up, and how I might streamline it.

Or indeed whether, aside from having one HD copy plus another on Flickr, whether I need further back ups at all.

How about you? What kind of back up process do you have in place, and how well is it working for you?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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9 thoughts on “Backing Up Photos – Should We Bother At All?”

  1. Currently, my back-up system consists of a couple of shoe boxes under my bed 🙂

    Morning Dan
    Yet again your topic-of-the-day catches me in the process of deep contemplation. I’ve recently been thinking about all my digital files spread over numerous devices.

    Whereas my film negatives do take up more physical space (a few folders in an old suitcase) with prints in those shoe boxes under the bed… I do however know where they are. And at a moment’s notice I can pull them out to make some prints, or reminisce about a particular good(ish) print.

    Not the same can be said for all the digital images I’ve made over the years. I have CDs (remember those?) I have USB Flash Drive sticks (who knows how many) I have old hard drives removed from old PCs. I have a few Micro SD cards floating around somewhere. I have a couple of old mobile handsets. I have my current laptop and current mobile handset. The BIG questions is WHY?

    Well, I know why… PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE! Yes, we all merrily trundle down that, now all too familiar road, year in, year out. Now do I really need a 1, 2, 5, 10TB external hard drive? How much is enough? Or more correctly, how much is too much? Will it address, and hopefully resolve my anxiety regarding locating my digital files?

    Surely there must be a better way than this feast or famine lifestyle? All or nothing? But I fear (speaking for myself) that we are caught hook line and sinker. There is no escape the steady process by which large corporations make us blindly hand over our hard earned cash. We are mice following those silver-tongued Pied Pipers of BIG BUSINESS.

    Sadly there is no right or wrong answer. Just bite the bullet and hand over your dosh. Or resign yourself to loosing ALL your images someday 🙂 In the meantime, just enjoy making all those images.

    And no, I didn’t get into using an online solution because I don’t post online anymore. That is too stressful a process for me these days. If I want to share something interesting, I make a simple image with my phone and share that on FB. End of story. I can’t be asked to pre-empt everyone’s bias and personal preferences towards post-production and composition. So don’t post, and keep my life as simple as possible

    Not mine, but love this:

    Sunrise darkening
    From goldenrod to ruby—
    No other words come

    Have a good Dan
    Until next time 🙂

    1. Thanks Anton, always good to hear from you. I think I’ve largely managed to stay organised with different digital devices over the years. I know I have folders for the earliest camera phones I began photography with, like the Sony Ericsson K800i. But I haven’t revisited those photos (aside from a small handful on Flickr) in years and years, so they’re a redundant back up really, the digital equivalent of old papers gathering dust on a shelf.

      Regarding planned obsolescence, yes I’ve been banging this drum for years! It’s quite frightening how few people seem to realise this is a real thing, and that companies deliberately sabotage their older products and make them unusable, so you buy their new gear. This is one reason I love using digital cameras from 10-15 years ago, it’s a way of rebelling against planned obsolescence and bucking the trend!

      As old fashioned as it sounds, a box of your favourite prints under the bed is possibly one of the best ways to back up, because as you say, you can easily access them whenever you want. Plus it encourages you to only choose a few of the very best, not back up thousands of photos that you’re never going to look at again – and pay for the storage to do so.

      If you’re really paranoid and the prints were super important to you, you could keep the box (or a duplicate one) in a fireproof safe or security deposit box or something too.

      I definitely need to streamline my back up process!

  2. This is a solid question. For most of us, when we die, who will care about our photos? Probably nobody. My kids might like to have a few prints, maybe. That’s about it.

    A program I use called Second Copy “shadows” several folders on my main hard drive to an external USB drive — all adds, changes, deletes are mirrored. This includes the folders of my photography. It saved my bacon in 2017 when the main hard drive breathed its last after many years of meritorious service. I popped in a new hard drive, installed Windows, installed all my applications, and copied the contents of the USB drive to the hard drive. Bam. Back in business.

    Flickr also serves as a photo backup method of sorts. I do dump most of what I shoot there, so I can use it online. I’d say 75% of everything is there, but it’s all the processed final product, not the original images as shot (digital) or scanned (film).

    But frankly, if my house burned down and I lost my computer and backup USB drive, and Flickr shut down, — to your point, I’d just get on with making more images for all the reasons you list. I’d miss some of the images I lost, there would be a period of grief, but I would shortly get on with life.

    1. Thanks Jim, good point about leaving a legacy of photos. At best, people are more likely to be interested in family and event photos than any pretty pictures we make of flowers or landscapes.

      I’m slightly surprised you’d not be more upset at losing all your photos, only because I know how much you upload to Flickr (about 17k last time I looked).

      But yeh we’d dust ourselves off and just start shooting pictures again. It might in some ways be refreshing to have that reboot, a blank state and a chance for a new direction…

  3. Don’t obsess. Catastrophes happen that can wipe out all your digital or physical media. I’ve endured such losses with both types of storage to the tune of several thousand images.
    Make an effort, sure. But in the end accept that anything you try to keep may vanish through no fault of your own.

    1. Yes you’re right Marc, it’s balancing the robustness of your back up system with the true value (to you) of your photos. Most of us probably approach backing up with the mindset that most images we make must be saved as securely as possible. When actually, when your ego steps out of the way, there’s only a tiny fraction that might be worth saving, and even then, if the whole lot were lost, we could start again. Losing images we made before doesn’t take away the experience of making them, and all that we learned and enjoyed along the way.

  4. I get it and I don’t. On the one hand, I’m not willing to go through all the hoops required to securely back up digital files. When you take in all the issues with such a practice it’s just more than I’m willing to do. On the other hand, is my strong feeling that these pictures we take aren’t just for us. Some, like the shots of my kids growing up I want to secure for them and for their kids. But the others, the shots of life in my little part of the world, the shots of the world around me, those become part of our historical record. That’s how we know as much as we do about the lives of those who came before us.

    It’s a side effect of our digital world that all this stuff, pictures, emails, online comments, is temporary. There won’t be any letters for our ancestors to read to learn about what our world was like and there wont be many pictures either. I know, I’m talking about history and history isn’t in style, and people don’t want to care, but it does matter, and like it or not, we are the ones making it.

    I’m not writing letters or printing emails, but one of the things I like about film is its much better archivability. As mentioned above, a box under the bed will work. So most of my photography is on film, mostly because I just like it that way but a free benefit is that I don’t have to do much to preserve them. I reserve digital for experimentation and quick shots of stuff I need to send someone. Crap that truly doesn’t matter. For everything else, its a cardboard box in my dry basement.

    1. Yes you make some interesting points Ed. I’ve only been shooting seriously for maybe 13 or 14 years, but I know there are certainly places I’ve take pictures of that have changed in that time, buildings no longer there, and so on. Every photograph we make is a historical document – of that specific place, at that specific time – in some sense.

      Perhaps it’s important for all of us who make photos, with whichever camera or format, to print at least a selection off and keep in the proverbial shoebox under the bed, or have on display in our homes, so there is some physical evidence to pass on when we’re gone.

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