Digital photos require specific care to make sure they aren’t damaged or lost. The computer environment that digital photos are stored in provides both great opportunities and great dangers. If not properly backed up, a single computer failure can wipe out your digital photo collection. A mistake in editing can overwrite the original photo (your negative) with a new file, making the old one impossible to recover. If not properly archived, a disaster such as fire or flood can also wipe out your entire digital photo collection. The following information will help prevent such disasters.
To properly store digital photos requires the development of a workflow, a standard process of taking, storing, editing and archiving your digital photos. A workflow is generally a personal method reflecting how you like to organize data. I’ll detail my workflow, how much of it you wish to follow is up to you – simply adapt these concepts to your personal way of working.
Please note that references below to digital labelling (the International Press Telecommunications Council standard - IPTC and Adobe's XPM metadata standard) and captioning are described in the section of this site called Labelling Digital Photos.
In A Nutshell
There are lots of words below detailing how to properly take care of your digital photos - but it all boils down to three simple rules:
RULE OF ONE - this rule states that there should be one set of untouched (unedited) photos. These are the original photos from your camera, in old school terms, these are your "negatives". Never overwrite these - if you're editing, always edit a copy, never the originals.
RULE OF TWO - at any given point in time, ensure that no matter what you are doing, there are at least two separate sets of your photos. Initially, when you copy photos you've just taken from your camera to your computer, the two sets are the photos on the camera's memory card and the copied set on your computer. Before you erase the photos on your memory card, ensure that that the Rule of Two is maintained, make a backup of the set on your computer (to another HD, memory stick, offsite storage, a DVD, etc.). So, when you erase your camera's memory card, there are still two separate sets of your digital photos.
RULE OF THREE - The Rule of Two is for immediately working with your photos, the Rule of Three states that at some point, you must have a backup of your photos located off-site (away from a catastrophic disaster such as fire or flood - which would wipe out all the backups in your house). So, the Rule of Three adds a third, archival set, stored off-site.
That's it - the information presented below are just some suggested mechanics for how to follow these rules.
A CAUTIONARY TALE: While kayaking with a photographer friend a few years ago, he told me that he had recently lost 50,000 photos (several years worth). He had them all on an external HD attached to his laptop. The laptop got moved, the HD was tugged and tipped over and fell while it was running. This caused a hard, hard drive crash (physical damage to the disks) and the photos could not be recovered. These were his only set of those photos. They are lost forever. If he had been following the Rule of Two (or Three), he would still have these photos today.
Backup vs Archive
I use terms backup and archive to mean two different things. Backup is making a duplicate copy to prevent a problem in the event of something like a computer failure. Archive is safe storage and at least one archive copy of your photos should be stored off-site (away from home). In my case, for backup, I use an external hard drive. These drives are inexpensive and a good insurance policy against the failure of your main hard drive. I use software that automatically backs up my data folders, including my digital photos, to the external drives. This is critical, do not do backups manually, have software that will do this type of backup on a regular basis (every 4 hours on my computer).
For archiving, I use small external HDs (these replaced my previous use of CDs/DVDs a few of years ago). One of these HDs stays in the house, the second (archival copy) is stored in my bank's safety deposit box (it could be any off-site location, a friend's house, a relative's house, etc.). Every month I swap these (I make a current archival set to the HD in my house and then take it to the bank and swap it with the HD in my safety deposit box). If your house gets flooded out, blown away or burned down, the archive copy of your photos will still be available. With the monthly swap of the HDs, the drives are checked and the data refreshed.
On-line Backup/Archive (Cloud Storage)
If you have a high speed Internet connection and a large data allotment, another option available today is on-line storage (aka cloud storage). This is where you send your files to a commercial data storage business. The issue here is to choose a reliable firm - the risks are the methodologies they use to store your data and the success of the firm itself (I've had software that's been orphaned by a company going out of business). So, I'm not sure if this type of storage should replace the archiving your photos to external HDs, but it certainly could replace or enhance your backup procedures. Examples of on-line backup system include Dropbox, Mozy and Carbonite. There are also software manufacturer specific cloud storage such as Apple iCloud, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. And there are photo storage/display specific sites such as Flickr and Google Photo. Of note, many of these systems are slow with large datasets unless you have an extremely high speed connection (I live on the wrong side of the great North American digital divide (the boonies) and found my 3 Mbps connection unusable for photo storage). Do an Internet search for reviews on which might be the best Internet system for you. Verify that the photo storage system is not altering your photos in any way (some systems use compression, you want to store your original photos in their original form).
Consolidate Your Photos
A problem that has recently cropped up, given that every portable digital device these days can take photos, is to make sure that ALL your photos are all stored in the same location on your computer (the location that you make your backups and archival copies from). This is also critical given the vulnerability of portable devices such as smartphones to theft, loss or damage. Get in the habit of transferring photos from your portable device to your computer on a regular basis. I do it the old fashioned way (a USB cable connecting my phone to my computer) - but there are also wireless solutions for this.
- Take your photos at the highest resolution/quality your camera will allow. When using a scanner, scan paper documents and photos at appropriate resolutions (usually 300 to 600 dpi).
- Copy the digital images to your computer as soon as it is convenient. The software that comes with your camera often determines where these photos end up*. In my case I use a chronological system of year and month, within a folder called Digital Photo Originals. So photos taken in October 2015 would be in a subfolder called "2015-10" within a "2015" folder within a folder called "Digital Photo Originals". So the path to a single photo on my system might look like "Digital Photo Originals > 2015 > 2015-10 > imagename.jpg". If you use the default setting of your camera’s image transfer software, it will often put the photos into your "My Documents > My Pictures" folder on a PC system. On a mac using iPhoto they will end up in your iPhoto Library. Note that this is not universal – each camera manufacturer has their own system – check your computer to see where all your original photos have ended up.
*For myself, I avoid the use of photo transfer software. I've simply created a master Digital Photos Originals folder (directory) on my computer and directly copy all my photos, from all my cameras (and smartphones), to that folder (within the folder structure mentioned above). This makes it extremely easy to both locate and backup my photos
- Before you erase the photos from your camera’s memory card, make a copy of them to a separate storage medium such as an external HD, a memory stick or a reliable on-line backup service. This is your first backup. The idea is to always maintain at least two copies of your photos. For the paranoid, this backup will be something not physically attached to your computer (in the case of a disaster such as a lightning surge that would take out all the electronics connected to your computer). Once a copy of the photos has been safely backed up, you can erase them from your memory card.
- The original images from your camera or scanner are your "negatives." Once these original images are on my computer I usually add my IPTC/XMP data (digital labelling) to the images. During this process, I also batch rename the photos with a prefix of the date (so IMG_4612 becomes 2015-03-21-IMG_4612). This is an optional step - for me it ensures that I never have a duplicate filename
- I then create a "topic" folders based what that particular series of photos is all about. Such a topic might be "Rideau boat trip", "Jimmy’s 6th birthday", etc. Since there could be several topics related to one camera download, I make as many topic folders as I need. These topic folders are located in a separate "Photos" folder with year subfolders. So the path to one of my topic folders might look like "Photos > 2007 > Jimmy’s 6th birthday." I copy all my "keepers" to the topic folder(s). I use a thumbnail photo software program to make easy work of this. All future work on these photos will now only be done on copies of the original photos now located in my topic folder(s). My original "negatives" are untouched in my original chronological folders. Since the originals and copies are in two completely separate folder systems, there is less chance of making a mistake such as editing an original photo.
For genealogical photos, specifically digital photographs and scans of old (pre my generation) family photos, I use the same topic based system, but this time using my family names for my photo folders. My topic names now become Watson, Wickenden, Stanfield, French, etc. These are located in a separate "Genealogy > Photos" folder system.
- I now edit the photos within the topic based folder. Editing involves such things as cropping, removing "red-eye" and adjusting such things as brightness, contrast and sharpness. Of note, since you are working on a copy of the photo, if you make a mistake while editing, you can always go back to your original photo (in your chronological folder which contains your original "negatives"), make another copy of it into the topic based folder and start the edit again. Of note, I only edit selected photos, not every photo I take.
- It is now time to back-up and archive the photos. In my case, a backup of all my files has been made automatically to an external hard drive at all steps of the workflow, but it could also be done manually. To archive your photos write the entire topic folder to 2 HDs or other reliable storage. This could be your internal HD plus an external HD, two external HDs or your internal HD plus cloud storage, or other such combinations.
- If you're not using cloud storage, store one of your external HDs offsite (relative’s home, safety deposit box). In the event of catastrophe (flood, fire) your offsite copies will survive. These days I use two small portable HDs (that fit in my safety deposit box). Every month or so, I swap them - making sure the one hooked to my computer is right up to date with my all my photos (and also other types of data such as my Word files, etc.) and then swapping that one with the HD in the safety deposit box. Of note, I don’t erase the photos from my computer's HD so I’m maintaining multiple copies of all my digital photos. Hard drives are inexpensive enough these days that there is no reason not to have your entire digital photo collection instantly available to you on your computer.
Note 1: With my system, an external HD is always offsite. If you are only using one external HD, bring it home, add your new files, verify their integrity on the HD (i.e. by looking at them with a thumbnail image program) and then bring the HD back offsite. Don't leave it overnight at home - murphy's law says that's when your house will burn down (taking all of your photos with it). The risk of using only 1 HD is that if you get a power surge while it is connected to your computer, it could take out all your HDs. So, my recommendation is to use 2 HDs, one always being offsite. If you only use 1 external HD for offsite storage and have a second external HD connected to your computer (with all your photos on it), uplug it and put it aside while you update your offsite storage HD.
Note 2: Hard drives (and memory sticks) do fail - that's a given (in the last 10 years I've had 2 external HDs and 2 memory stick fail). So, any backup/archive plan should take this into account (i.e. The Rule of Three).
In order to find my photos I use a simple visual method. I find that on-the-fly thumbnail generation programs (i.e. Breezebrowser, Picasa, XnView) work very well. I use this type of program to quickly scan though my topic folders.
There are dedicated photo database programs available (i.e. iMatch). These usually rely on adding keywords (tags) to photos to make for a search type of retrieval. But you have to be disciplined enough to take the time to use keywords/tags with all your photos and make sure the keyword system you are using is consistent. I don't do this since I’m not disciplined enough to label all my photos with keywords, doing the IPTC/XMP captioning is chore enough. But for some a photo database system would work well. For most though, the software that came with your camera (which often includes some sort of thumbnail viewing option) will likely work just fine. The free programs Picasa (from Google), XnView or Zoner Photo Studio Free, also do a good job.
The above process involves a lot of manual manipulations. There is software available to help simplify that process. A cautionary note here is that when it comes to archiving information, proprietary software systems are to be avoided. The idea is to store your information using long-term digital standards. The assumption is that if someone gets one of your JPEG images 50 years from now they will be able to easily view it with the software of the day. However, if that same photo only resides in your favourite genealogy program or photo album software, that future person may not be able to view it. So, my philosophy is to maintain all of my original data in long term archival digital data formats – these would include photo formats such as JPEG and TIF. It’s fine to keep copies of your photos in your genealogy and/or photo album software, just make sure you have archival copies in original JPEG or TIF format.
When a digital photo is taken or an image is scanned, the parameters set by the camera/scanner are applied to that image. With a camera these include such things as contrast, saturation, sharpness and white balance. The end result may not be 100% ideal. Some photos may require editing. This is usually done with software supplied by the camera manufacturer or a separate photo editing program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements. The process is the same no matter what software you use.
Load an image from your "topic" folder into the editor. This ensures that you are working on a copy of the photo, not your original "negative" (which should still be in your chronological folder). Always work on a copy of your photo, never edit the original. If you are planning to do multiple edits, then save the photo in a lossless format such as TIF. In this case I usually add a "-e" extender to the filename to indicate an edited file (i.e. "2015-08-23-5653-e.tif").
I won’t go into the details of digital photo editing (there are whole courses on the subject). Suffice to say that common edits would include cropping and adjusting things such as contrast, brightness, sharpness and the removal of red-eye. In the case of old colour photos that have colour shifted to magenta, it may involve restoring the original colours.
A genealogical editing tip is that photo editing should concentrate of the faces of the subjects in the photos. Adjustments to such things as contrast, brightness and sharpness should be focussed on the faces in the photos – to make these as recognizable as possible.
When you have achieved perfection, purists may wish to save the final image in lossless TIF format, but for most, a low compression (high quality) JPEG is fine.
I used to advocate the visible captioning (text right on the photo) of photos - but today the digital labelling of photos using the IPTC/XMP standard is sufficient. See Labelling Digital Photos.
My use of the term "archiving" is a bit misleading since what you are doing is saving your images to the currently best available inexpensive storage medium (such as an external HD) while waiting for the next best available storage medium to come along (think of the progression of tape to floppy disk to zip disk to CD/DVD to external HDs). I used to use CDs and DVDs (which have a shelf life of 20 to 50 years depending on who you believe). I now exclusively use small HDs which is sufficiently long that when the next inexpensive storage standard comes along (high capacity flash memory drives or SSDs) you can move your archived images to that new medium.
If you plan to use CDs/DVDs here are a few rules about them to ensure maximum archival life*:
Make 2 copies of the CD/DVD, store one locally and store one offsite (away from your house).
- Use good quality, recognized brand name CDs/DVDs (do not use cheap no-name brands. With CDs, you get what you pay for)
- Do NOT put paper labels on the CDs/DVDs - label them with a marker specifically designed for CD/DVD labelling.
- Store the CDs/DVDs in a dark place, within the temperature and humidity ranges specified by the manufacturer.
As noted, I do not use CD/DVDs for archival storage anymore. These days, I use two small (2.5" - 1 Tb) external HDs as my main archival copy of my photos. One HD is always kept in my safety deposit box and once a month I swap them. In addition, I'm keeping two sets of my photos on my computer (internal HD plus an external HD). One can never have too many backups and with today’s low prices for high capacity hard drive storage there is no reason not to have enough room in your computer to keep all your digital photos. And while cloud storage is not an option for me, it is to many and can substitute for one of the HDs.
Using Memory Sticks for Archiving: - Memory sticks (USB drives, Flash memory drives, etc.) are rapidly coming down in per Gb price. I've noted them above for use in a backup procedure, but not archiving. They can be used for archiving as long as a few precautions are taken. Similar to CDs/DVDs they have a shelf life and just like CDs/DVDs should be stored in optimum (not too hot, not too cold, not too humid) conditions. There is a big difference in quality, inexpensive can mean cheaply made and prone to failure. Before you trust a memory stick to archive your photos, cycle data (fill the drive with photos and then copy those photos back to your hard drive) through the stick to make sure that the solid state memory is error free. When you make your final archive copy, either look at the drive using an on-the-fly thumbnail generator (i.e. Breezebrowser, XnView, Zoner) and/or copy the photos back to make sure there are no errors. Then store it off-site in good storage conditions.
Refreshing Archival Data
All current storage media (CDs, DVDs, memory keys, HDs) have a shelf life and all can fail for various reasons. In any archival system the data must be refreshed every so often. That means checking the integrity of your archival storage and replacing your archival storage media with new media at regular intervals (every 5 to 10 years).
In my current system with two external HDs, before I swap the new HD with the one in external storage, I make sure that my entire photo collection is intact on the HD. I use a freeware file verification program to ensure that the files on the external HD match the original files. A list of these types of programs can be found on Wikepedia at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_file_verification_software