March 29, 2010

3 Fool-Proof Digital Photo Storage Solutions (and one big DON'T)

Digital Photo Storage

by Geraldine DeRuiter

I love Real Simple magazine. I really do. My grandmother-in-law bought me a subscription for my birthday, and whenever it arrives, it's like finding a present amongst a pile of bills and junk mail. The New Uses for Old Things column is a constant source of joy for me. (Using an upside down muffin pan to cool a pie? Brilliant! Now if only I had the willpower to wait for a pie to cool before eating it.) And the organizational tips usually convince me that I can whip my junk drawer of a life into shape in no time.

But this month, Real Simple, my definitive authority in the world of home organization, let me down. They profiled the real-life organizational techniques of four different women. Three of the tips offered aren't bad (though kind of impractical—most of us don't have the luxury of dedicating a whole room to giftwrap), but one tip isn't just unhelpful—it has the potential to be devastating.

It comes from Michele Bender, who I am sure meant well. She seems like an awesome person. I love the color of her sweatshirt, and I own a pair of Adidas nearly exactly like the ones she's wearing. Plus, she's a freelance writer. All in all, I think she and I should be friends.

But friends or not, I wouldn't take Michele's advice on archiving digital photographs. Her system, which Real Simple encourages its readers to emulate, is to burn all of her photos onto a CD, and delete them off her computer's hard drive to save room. She then stores the photos in a drawer. That's pretty much it.

When I first read it, I was stunned. I thought perhaps I had misunderstood. After all, I had learned a good while ago that burned CDs don't last forever. Even under ideal circumstances (e.g., away from extreme heat, cold, or moisture), CDs are only reliable for about 5 years or so. After that, they start to degrade. I've had it happen to me before (fortunately, only with audio CDs), but it's nevertheless heartbreaking. You put the CD in the drive, and receive a message that the disc is unreadable. There's nothing you can do from there.

I read through Real Simple's article again, and there was no mistake: they were advising readers to archive their photos on CDs, and delete them off their hard drives (which are by no means perfect, but still much more reliable than a CD). What's worse, the article showed a picture of Michele Bender's beautifully archived photo drawers, full of rainbow-colored CDs organized by year. And I realized, as the dates stretched back, that many of those CDs, containing photos of birthdays, holidays, and other precious Bender family memories, might already be unusable.

It's a fate I wish on no one.

And so, for Michele Bender, for the (usually not, but definitely this time) misguided editors of Real Simple magazine, and for those of you who, like me, take way too many pictures, here are my (almost fool-proof) photo storage solutions:

Keep Digital Photos on Your Hard Drive

... as long as it's backed up. Yes, it sounds crazy, but keeping images on your hard drive isn't that bad an idea. You'll know where they are, and you'll be able to access them easily. While hard drives aren't fool-proof (they can crash, and space is limited), they're far more durable than CDs. If you do choose this route, just make sure you've got a reliable backup. For as little as $5 a month for 150 GB, sites like IDrive will back up your hard drive files to their server, keeping photos and other documents safe (and, hey, that's something you should be doing anyway).

Keep Digital Photos on An External Hard Drive

This solution isn't just for the tech-savvy: truth be told, I didn't actually know what an external hard drive was, until I bought one. Essentially, an external hard drive is a device onto which you can store a large quantity of files. Think of it as a very big, reliable, and virtually unbreakable CD (that will last longer than a couple of years). They're fairly inexpensive (generally between $120 to $200), and there are lots of great options to choose from. Plus, saving your photos to an external hard drive means they won't take up space on your computer.

Put Digital Photos "In the Cloud" (Store Them Online)

By far the safest and best way to store your images, putting your photos online is easier than it sounds, and it's inexpensive, to boot (prices vary, but expect $25 to $50 a year for unlimited uploads). Sites like Flickr and Shutterfly let you upload your pictures to a secure server (where you'll be able to access them from any computer, as long as you have a reliable Internet connection), organize them into sets and collections, and order prints directly from the site. Another friend of mine swears by SmugMug, which lets you store unlimited photos and video, and features themes so you can customize and spruce up online albums. And just because something is online doesn't mean the whole world has to see it: you can select who can view your photos and videos, or elect to have them made private.

Considering all the viable, inexpensive, and secure options out there, you can see why I think Real Simple kind of missed the mark on this one. I was, however, impressed with one tidbit of information they provided: reminding their readers that old film photos can be digitized and protected, too. Scanners aren't expensive (I think mine was about $100), and you can scan and upload old photos and even negatives to your computer yourself. Or, if you're pressed for time (and let's be fair—who isn't?), you can take Real Simple's advice and pay to have someone else do the dirty work. They suggest ScanCafe, who will scan your photos, negatives, and slides for as little as $0.29 an image.

With so many inexpensive digital photo options out there, there's no need to risk losing your memories by keeping them on a CD. I really do sleep easier knowing that so many of my memories—our wedding album, family pictures, and thousands of photos my husband and I have taken together—are safe. Heck, even the unfortunate bowl cut I had in my fifth-grade class picture can now be preserved forever.

Actually, come to think of it, I might just store that last one on a CD. And only a CD.

Get your family organized and on the same page with Cozi, the free online family organizer.

Geraldine DeRuiter is the founder of, a travel blog for the accidentally adventurous.



I do almost all of the above (at the same time). You're right. The CD solution alone isn't a very good idea.

Trisha Miller

Excellent advice, and kudos for calling out Real Simple on their bad judgment in publishing an article that wasn't properly edited. An article about "tech" issues should have been given at least a cursory once-over by an editor with some tech-savvy, who would have caught this.

I shudder to think how many people will wind up devastated at losing their precious photos by following Ms. Bender's poor advice.

I am strongly in favor of using at least several methods together for the greatest chance of keeping your photos around for your children, grandchildren, and so on to enjoy.

Photo Sharing

Another great photo sharing website is Fambler. It's a social photo sharing website that provides free photo sharing and albums with advanced privacy settings, Facebook integration, blogging and custom themes for you photo galleries.

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