Here are some simple tips for how to back up photos and a list of equipment you will need. Chances are you have a lot of photos, they are not organized, your photographer told you it's important to back them up, but you aren't sure how or why it's important. When it comes to your important memories, it's best to do your due diligence and learn how to back up photos properly. Plus, keeping your photos safe is easier than you think.

Back Up Photos To An External Hard Drive

Why back up photos?

Hard drives fail, phones are lost, computers crash

This is unfortunately what prompts most people to look into how to back up photos in the first place. But not you-hopefully you are being proactive! You never know when a phone will be lost or damaged, when your computer will crash or a hard drive will fail. It's not a question of if but when and it happens to everybody at some point.

Save space on your computer + phone for smooth function

Did you know that if your computer is running slowly, it could be because the disc space is getting full? Now you know. Here is a great article to help you check your computer's disc space.

As a photographer, I don't store any images or files on my computer for this reason. I regularly run thousands of photos through programs and need my machine running smoothly. If my computer disc space is full of photos, my programs will slow down, so I store everything on an external drive.

Social media is not a back up reason #1: Image compression + loss of quality

Another fun fact, when you upload your images to social media they get compressed. This means that they're made into smaller, lower resolution files. Your eyes probably won't notice this since we enjoy social media on small phone screens. But if you pull your images off social media and try to view them larger or print them, you will notice the quality loss and poor resolution. This is just one of the reasons social media doesn't count as a way of backing up photos.

Social media is not a back up reason #2: It could disappear tomorrow

My favourite reason why social media doesn't count as a back up photo system is that it could disappear tomorrow. I know you are thinking that is unlikely- but, after 2020 nothing surprises me anymore. Our favourite social media apps could go bankrupt or lose their users overnight, and we wouldn't want to lose years worth of photos along with that. Let's stick to just one devastating event, shall we.

Online backup is also not enough- companies go bankrupt and discontinue.

The same goes for online photo backup systems such as DropBox, Google Photos, etc. While they promise long-term backup, we never know what is going to happen. Remember that these are brands and businesses that won't necessarily last forever, and it has happened before. Anyone remember the Kodak bankruptcy incident of 2012? They lost everything and their users lost loads of photos.

While I do think your photos should be backed up online, my point is that we should use online systems as supplements, not as an overall solution.

So what is the solution for protecting and saving your images?

Solution: You need a combination of two hard drives + online services + prints of your most important photos

Now that we understand why we need to back up our photos, here's how to do it. The industry standard for how to back up photos is that you need two external hard drives, an online backup, and prints. With this method, your photos will have the best chance of surviving bankruptcies, fires, floods, technological crashes, and whatever else this life brings us.

How To Back Up Photos To An External Drive:

Step One: Necessary Equipment

To back up your photos, you will need a minimum of two external drives, a USB extender, your computer, your online gallery of choice. You can get two desktop external drives, two smaller portable ones, or a combination (one of each). This is based on how you like to work and your preferences.

My preference for my two external drives is to have a portable one and a desktop one. These will be an identical copy of each other, meaning they will each have the same file structure and same photos on them. This way I can travel or work at different places with my portable drive, or work at my desk with the desktop drive. Since they are copies of each other, if one fails or is damaged, everything is safe on the other one. It's important to note that you need to actually replace a drive that fails. The goal is to have a minimum of three copies of your photos backed up at all times: two external drives, one online, and bonus points for printing the most important ones.

External Drives:

When purchasing external drives, my advice is to purchase as much space as your budget allows for. I would recommend getting a hard drive with at least 1-2 TB. Personally I use the Seagate 10TB Desktop Drive and the 5TB Portable Drive.

USB Connecter:

Since you will make a copy of your external drive, there will be a point where you need to plug more than one USB into your computer. For me, this was much easier with a USB extender.

SHOP USB EXTENDERS *affiliate link

Step Two: Gather The Photos You Want To Back Up

This step could take a while if you have never organized your photo files. Pull photos from your current phone, old phone, SD cards, cameras, online backups, photo galleries etc. Any photo that is important to you, make sure you get it. No photo left behind.

Step Three: Organize Your Photos

Decide on a folder structure

Within your drive, it can be helpful to organize photos into sub-folders. In my drives I organize by year, then event, or by person. For example: 2019 > Travel > Saskatchewan. You can use any file structure that works for you and will be easy for you to use.

Rename your photos

This is optional but I find it's a useful way to search for photos if I forget where I saved it. I use the Adobe program Bridge to batch rename hundreds of photos at once. There are many ways to rename photos, you can decide what your preference is.

Delete duplicates and photos you don't need

As you go through your files, feel free to delete any photos you don't need. This could take a while too, try to make a habit of periodically going through your photos to delete what you don't need.

Step Four: Drag + Drop 'Em

Take your organized files and drag them to your external drive

Once you are finished, take your nicely organized files and drag them to your desktop external drive. If you are backing up a lot of photos, you can leave this to work overnight. It's a good idea to just leave your computer alone while it copies your files. Bad things happen when this process gets interrupted. Best to avoid file corruption and let the machines do their thing.

After you copy your files to the first drive, do the same with your second drive. If you have a USB extender, you can get your computer to copy to both drives at once (Fancy! Look at you go!).

Step Five: Back Up Online

Take those same files and upload them to the cloud

Once your external drives are good to go, take those same files and upload them to your online backup platform of choice. Some reputable programs to look into are Drop Box, Google Drive, or Amazon Prime. Note that you might have to pay for extra storage depending on how much space you need. I am not a huge fan of using iCloud since it's hard to pull your photos out of it.

Step Six: Print Your Most Important Photos

Make a printed copy of the most important photos

Bonus points to you for doing this. Printing your most important photos adds another layer of protection to them. If, for whatever reason, the internet goes away and your hard drives fail, you will at least have a printed version. In my opinion, it's much nicer to enjoy your favourite photos in print anyway!

You can upload and print your own photos through my online Print Shop here (you have to make an account to access). There are beautiful products to display or store your photos within my Print Shop. Alternatively, these photo storage boxes work really well too.

Step Seven: Rinse + Repeat

Decide how often you want to back up your photos and put a reminder in your phone.

The first time you do this will be the most time consuming. From here on out, commit to going through your photos and backing them up monthly or seasonally. I would not recommend doing this yearly because by then it will become a huge task again, and a year's worth of photos is a a lot to lose.

Since I am a photographer, I back up each clients photos as I complete our job together. Personally, I try to make a point of backing up my own photos every month or two.

Miscellaneous Pro-Tips For Photo Backups:

  • Be advised that Apple's Time Machine performs automatic backups, but not archival backups. This means that once your Time Machine space fills up, it will delete the oldest backups. Time Machine is useful for many things but should not be relied on for photo backups.
  • Do a test before deleting anything. Go through your files on both your drives and make sure they are there. Try a test download and do a thorough look around.
  • While you are double checking your backup, look at the file size of your photos on the external drives. Make sure they are not zero. If they are, they did not copy over properly.
  • It's a good idea to digitize important printed photos.
  • You can take your backups one step further by having a third external drive stored at a different location (ex: Your parent's house).
  • Know that hard drives fail randomly and spontaneously — they really just pick a random day to stop working. Beware.

Congratulations, you now know how to back up photos! By being proactive with this you will avoid the devastation of losing photos, keep your computer + phone uncluttered, and hopefully allow you to enjoy some of your favourite images in print.


How To Set Up and Use iCloud
The Best Photo Backup Services for iPad, iPhone and Mac
Best Ways To Backup Your Photos in 2021
A Beginner's Guide To Backing Up Photos — Ami Vitale for NY Times
The Guide To Backups — India Earl (an ultimate educational guide, highly recommend this to fellow photographers)

*This post contains affiliate links, this means if you shop through these links I earn commission.


Hey — I'm Jena

I'm a family + newborn (and occasional wedding) photographer based in golden, bc.

I work with families who love the imperfect and the unposed.

meet me in the mountains for your own lifestyle family photography session.

You will see me in this hat very often...

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