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How to Keep Family Photos Secure, Backed Up & Accessible

I decided to write about something I have always been passionate about: photographing family memories. With that said, I must admit that over the last 34 years I’ve done precious little to protect them.

Earlier this year I decided to get serious about organizing and backing up my family’s pictures. My daughter was due soon, and we already had a mind-boggling number of photos with our son, Michael. Thinking of all the fantastic photo opportunities (and extreme exhaustion) my daughter’s arrival would bring, I recalled several pictures I took of my first son eating watermelon. At that time I was exhausted and didn’t have a good photo offload/backup procedure in place, and somehow those great pictures disappeared into the abyss. I swore not to let something like that happen again, and I resolved to make 2016 the year I would wrangle all my family’s past and present photos.

Wrangling the Massive Digital Photo Heap

I did a lot of online searching and couldn’t find an exact breakdown that would work for me, so after some good brainstorming and trial and error, I came up with my own system.

Here’s the needs I wanted for my growing photo collection:

  • A clear organization hierarchy
  • A solid backup solution for all photos
  • An online location where all my photos could be viewed on demand

1) Developing a solid organization hierarchy for photos.

In any well-designed system, nomenclature and hierarchy are imperative to keeping large amounts of information organized and quickly accessible. Your photo collection may not be quite like a complex coded CMS in which one thing being out of place can break the whole system or a feature film in which a single lost shot may incur thousands of dollars in reshoots, but family photos are invaluable. If you lose one photo, you’ll never again have the opportunity to capture that exact moment.

With that said, the first step I took was to establish a solid folder structure hierarchy for my photos that would work for all past and future photos.

Here’s the folder structure hierarchy/nomenclature I landed on:

The root or base directory folders are all organized by year. Starting with 2016 and working it’s way downward.

As you can see, the root (or base) directory folders are all organized by year, in reverse chronological order.

Within each year’s folder, there are subfolders grouping photos by event or subject:

similar events photos are grouped

Photos of similar events/subjects are grouped together:

specific events of similar grouped

If a single event took place in several locations or over several days, I’d create more subfolders to accommodate that;

several events that were related as sub-folder structure

several events that were related as sub-folder structure

Organizing a lifetime of digital photos I’d taken was quite a grueling task, but I knew that once I got my collection organized, I’d make dang sure that all my future photos would be offloaded exactly where they belong!

2) Set Up a Solid Backup Solution

Making sure your family photos last to tell your legacy means planning for disasters before they happen. Rest assured that if you have no backup plan, your primary plan will fail. Hard drives crash all the time, most of the time for no reason at all. If, God forbid, my house were to burn down, I wouldn’t want to lose all my digital photo memories with it!

There are lots of different backup solutions to choose from. The key is to get one that works for you—it can’t be so labor-intensive that you never actually back up your photos.

Here’s what works for me: I keep two onsite copies and one offsite copy of every photo. Initially, I save the photos to the internal drive in my main desktop computer in the hierarchical folder structure I outlined above. I then log into SmugMug, where I create a folder and gallery structure that matches my internal hard drive exactly. This serves as my remote backup. After that, I mirror the internal computer drive to an external hard drive. This way, when one of my hard drives starts to fail (Again, this happens all the time!) I can quickly replace it and copy the data from my working drive. If both drives fail or my house burns down, then I still have all the original images safe my SmugMug account. A bonus of keeping my SmugMug account updated means that I can view my photos anywhere with internet access.



What about all those cell phone photos?

We all know that at any point our darkest fears could come true, and we could leave our cell phone on a park bench or at fast food joint. To make this scenario less nightmarish, I use two smartphone app backup solutions. Google Photos and Amazon Cloud Drive both start backing up my phone’s photos the moment I hit WiFi.

Google Photo App Backup App Solution

Google Photos App Backup App Solution

Amazon Photo App Backup App Solution

Amazon Cloud Drive Photo App Backup App Solution

You may wonder why I use two apps. Google Photos, while really good at running the backup job in the background, doesn’t back up the photos in full quality. Amazon Cloud Drive, which is included with Amazon Prime membership, allows unlimited picture uploads at full quality. However, I’ve found that you really need to be persistent in triggering the Amazon Photo backup.

By using two backup apps, I’ve ensured that I’ll lose the smallest number of photos possible should my phone and me accidentally part ways.

3) Develop a consistent photo offloading procedure.

Step One: Copy DSLR or Phone Media to Internal Hard Drive

First, I copy the media to my desktop tower internal drive. Then I organize the pictures into the proper folders, first by year, then by the event and, if necessary, sub-event.

Step Two: Internal Hard Drive to SmugMug Backup
I then set up the corresponding folders and albums in SmugMug. I make sure to match the hierarchy of my internal hard drive exactly. Next, I upload the images in their proper places in my SmugMug account.

Step Three: Copy Internal Hard Drive to USB Backup
The last thing I do is hook up an external USB hard drive and use Microsoft’s free utility SyncToy to mirror my internal drive. To do this, I set SyncToy to the Echo Command, which will make the USB drive match the internal hard drive exactly.

My SyncToy Settings

My SyncToy Settings

Many Ways to Slice it

There are tons of different backup solutions you can use for your photos.

Keeping Identical Folder and File Structure is Key.

Keeping the folder and file structure identical across locations is key!

From Raid 1 Mirrored Hard Drive setups to Apple’s iCloud photo stream, and even remote syncing services like Dropbox, you have no shortage of options. I’ve just outlined one solution that I found works well for me. The most important thing is to figure out a system that works for you and use it.

After all, what’s the point of taking all those photos if you can’t look at them in your old age and have them bring a smile to your face?

Technologies Utilized:

SmugMug 20 Percent Off Coupon

Don’t be shy!

What steps do you take to organize and back up your personal digital photo collection?

What are your experiences with trusting your precious family’s digital legacy to online backup services?

Any disasters or long-time success stories?

Is there a service people need be wary of?

Is there a silver bullet that I somehow missed?

Please share your tips and stories in the comments below.

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