Understanding backups: Safely preserve your most important photos and files

Backup 101… Make that 3-2-1


Think about all the electronic data you have. Your photos, documents, music, movies… all of it. Now imagine it gone. As someone who once lost some photographs, I can tell you it was a feeling akin to being robbed.

While one can always replace the music and re-buy your movies that you purchased, what about all the data YOU created? Images of your vacations, a wedding, your kids, your pets, all gone! You can’t click on Amazon and order those back at any price. The same for your documents, voice mail recordings and all the other goodness our computers and smart phones produce.

But you have a backup right?

In order for your data to be backed up you must have a “copy” of it. Silly as that may read, not all of us have a handle on a proper procedure for backing up our irreplaceable data.

People have been known to buy a USB hard drive, plug it into their computer, move their files over to the new drive and then put the drive away in the closet as a “backup”. “The box it came in said it’s for that!” They would say. “And I have more space on my computer now!” What they don’t realize is that when they moved and not copy their files to the “backup” drive, those files become originals. There is no backup, and when the drive fails, all your stuff is gone. Notice I didn’t say “if” it fails.

Eventually, all drives fail…all of them. It could be 5 minutes after you plug it in (defective), or 10+ years of continuous use. You just can’t tell so you should never rely on them alone to keep what’s important to you safe. This is true for DVD’s or CD’s you might have burned too!

According to the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), those discs can last for 20 to 200 years depending on type and if they are stored under “ recommended conditions ”. Environmental conditions like moisture, oxidation, sunlight, can break down the layers of dye making the discs useless.

(Image from the Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Remember the “read/write” type? CD-RW or DVD-RW discs? The CLIR states that they are “generally “ not considered for long-term or archival use” , and that “life expectancy tests are seldom done for this medium”.

From personal experience I can tell you that it’s possible to put files on a USB stick that has been working with no problem for years only to have it fail the next time I needed to use it.

What to do?

I first heard of the 3-2-1 backup procedure on The Tech Guy podcast with Leo Laporte. Leo was talking about Peter Krogh’s “The DAM Book”. DAM is short for Digital Asset Management. What I learned was that in order to properly keep your data safe and restorable you would need (a minimum) of 3 copies (that is the originals plus two copies), consisting of 2 different media (hard drive, USB stick, DVD, Cloud…paper!) with 1 of those copes being kept offsite.

You might ask yourself why bother with 2 types of media? Can’t I just get a few hard drives and call it a day? You could, but let me explain why a second type of media could be useful. A password list is a good example. If all your passwords are on electronic media and you have no power… backup or not, you won’t have access to them. But a piece of paper or a notebook with the passwords will still be readable. Paper is a great backup for documents or photographs! But of course, paper burns or can get wet. Electronic media isn’t fond of fire and water either, which leads me to the number 1 in 3-2-1: One copy kept offsite.

Theft, or a total disaster like a house fire or flood, can destroy your home and everything in it. An offsite copy (that would now be your originals), would still be safe. Offsite can mean the Cloud (One Drive, Google Drive, Drop Box, Google Photos, Etc…) or an encrypted hard-drive kept at your work or friends house.

One last but important point after a backup is Verification . Once you have made a backup, check it. Is your data really there and readable ? Log into photo.google.com and contacts.google.com every so often to see. Backup Programs can be incorrectly set or other unforeseen issues can happen. Maybe you missed dragging all the files over? It happens, trust me.

The 3-2-1 technique is used by many businesses, pro photographers and governments. Think of it as your own self-made insurance policy. My hope is you never have to suffer the loss of something like a voice mail from a loved one, or the pictures of your most precious day, or the manuscript you been writing for years.

Peace of mind can be as easy as 3-2-1.


Additional Resources:

Context app or link Notes
Photos photos.google.com Log in periodically to make sure your recent photos are backed up
Contacts contacts.google.com Confirm your contacts are up-to-date in the cloud
Text messages sms backup and restore A good app for backing up text messages
Voice Mail How to Save a Voicemail Message To upload/download Republic voicemail messages to an app or account
Windows PC Backup SyncBack Free Backup Free (or pay if you wish) program for backing up a Windows PC
Cloud (For little data to backup) Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox Cloud Backup, small amount free with ability to pay for more space.
Cloud (For a lot of data to backup) Amazon Glacier Cheap Cloud backup for large amounts of data you don’t regularly need to access.

Backblaze is the service i use. Very much recommend.
Unlimited data backup per pc for the best cost.


I have security concerns about backing up my photos and other data to a cloud, Google photos or Amazon. Samsung cloud is offered on my Galaxy J7 and I don’t use it, either. With sites being hacked on a regular basis, it seems to me wise to keep my files as safe and secure as possible. My photos and other images I keep off Google and other sites and the cloud (can one say clouds?) b/c I don’t want them stolen. I sell my art and designs in online shops and galleries. I do take your point that there should be an off-site copy of files. I would prefer to do that through someone I can trust.

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Anything is “hackable”. Money in your mattress can be stolen as can backup DVDs in a desk drawer. One has to balance security as one of the factors in the equation. I would argue, that for nearly all users and situations, the risk of data loss is much higher than your data being stolen/hacked from one of the major providers as long as the user doesn’t act as the weak link by falling for phishing or using a weak password.


I agree with everything you and @louisdi say!

I don’t keep anything I consider sensitive in the Cloud for the same reasons you and @louisdi express unless the file is encrypted. Or, I don’t upload sensitive data at all, but still have an offsite backup (also encrypted).

While I have no issues myself about using Could storage for my photos as a backup, I can understand your position as a professional @mwc to not want something uploaded that could be stolen. I would treat it as sensitive and either upload it as an encrypted file, or do as you suggest and:

The Cloud is just another “Offsite” pick. Taking a dive to someone you trust is just as good :slight_smile:

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