If you're old enough to remember film, you probably have thousands of negatives carefully stored in glassine envelopes stuffed into shoeboxes, or in special storage pouch pages kept in three-ring binders, or just piled up in the paper envelopes your prints came in from the drug store (hopefully not). Digital has changed all that. Let's dive in and think about keeping your images safe. We'll examine where to store your files (let's call that "primary storage,") and how to make back-ups. We'll also look at some hardware products.
Filling Up Fast
Digital image files have one huge advantage over film negatives - you can easily make multiple copies. Lose your negatives to some natural disaster and you're done. But, with digital files, you're safe - as long as you have backups and store a copy offsite. Of course, if you're too lazy to make backups, well, good luck.
Most likely, you store your files on your computer's internal drive (that's drive C: in the Windows world). This is "primary storage," the place you go when you want to work with these files. Even though I'm good about deleting images I consider rejects, my own PC's hard drive, or storage closet, was filling up quickly. If this hasn't happened to you yet - it will. To protect against that drive failing, you absolutely, positively need another complete set of those files - backups (two backup sets, ideally). Let's think about expanding space for primary storage first.
The quickest solution to increase your storage space is to attach an external hard drive to your computer, most likely via a USB connection. You can buy an external 2TB drive for less than $90, 3TB for about $139 from Western Digital, Seagate, LaCie, and others at any major retailer. That's easy and ridiculously inexpensive, but adds the minor inconvenience of a power adapter and cord, and data cable to the jumble of wires you already have. Be sure to stick a label on the drive so you'll know what it's being used for even when the power is off. An alternative solution is to install a second internal hard drive inside your computer, similarly inexpensive and not that difficult for anyone reasonably competent with a screwdriver and willing to follow instructions.
Increasing your primary storage by 2TB or 3TB can easily hold you for years. But what happens when you fill up this drive, too? Add yet another? There's the rub; this isn't a scalable solution, but for such short money the immediate return on your modest investment can't be beat. There is one downside: If you want to share these files across multiple computers in your home, this isn't a very efficient set-up.
Back it up
So far, we've looked at how you can expand your primary storage space quickly and economically. Think of it as enlarging that closet I mentioned earlier. Alas, that's not enough. You also need to back up all of your data - that goes for spreadsheets, music, word processing documents, and everything else in addition to your photos. I also think it's vital to have more than one backup. Let's consider a couple of popular options.
The first rule for backups is this: Never back up your files to the same hard drive that you use for primary storage. I keep my primary storage on one device, a complete backup set to another drive, and yet another complete backup that I store in the safe deposit box at my bank. If my only backup is inside my home, that's not going to help if my house is destroyed by fire, tornado, hurricane, or flood. I urge you to keep a backup - of all your important documents - offsite.
You can make a backup of your data by plugging in a USB-attached external hard drive and installing the backup software that comes with it. Just about every external drive includes software you can install on your PC or Mac that backs up your files automatically. These programs work in the background when your computer is idle or at a time you schedule. It's easy and inexpensive. You can also purchase powerful backup software, such as Rebit, Novastor, Memeo, Norton Ghost and others.
An increasingly popular backup method is the use of "cloud" services that you reach via the Internet, including Mozy, Carbonite, iDrive, Norton, and others. Per-computer pricing is difficult to compare; Mozy's Home product is $5.99 a month for up to 50GB while Carbonite offers unlimited storage (for now) for $59 annually. Once you get going with such a service, it's great for off-site backup. Keep in mind that when you first open an account it can take days to initially upload all your files. And, as good as these services are, I still would never rely on one to have my only backup.
As we've seen, expanding your primary storage to hold your growing library of images, Photoshop files, and all your other data is as simple as plugging in an external drive or installing an additional internal drive. Separately, making backups is critical, and I strongly believe in having more than one backup, with one stored offsite or online. Knowing that your precious photos are safe brings peace of mind and may even help you sleep better.
Whether you're a gamer, photographer, busy professional or just on the go, be sure to check out the rest of our Storage Special Report. Demystify the digital clutter in your life!