Protecting your memories – digitising and backing up your precious photos

Sonnie Bailey

23 September 2015

QUICK! Your house is on fire. You need to get out quickly!

Apart from family and pets, what are you going to take with you? 

For many people, a few key things come to mind.

  • Important documents that will be very difficult to replace. Like birth certificates, passports, marriage certificates, and wills and enduring power of attorney documents, if you keep them at home. 

I generally recommend keeping documents of this sort in one place. Not only because you can easily grab them in the event of a fire, but because it makes life easier if you ever need to find them. If you haven’t got a system for keeping these sorts of documents in order, Erik Dewey has a great resource, “The Big Book of Everything”, that is US-centric but can put you in the right direction.  

I also think it’s prudent to keep digital copies of these documents on the cloud – subject to my comments about the cloud in this post and other articles I’ve written. If you use a password manager, you can also maintain essential information in a secure note. Believe me, this can save you a LOT of time. 

  • Photo albums. In this digital world, this might not seem so relevant. But I bet you still have old albums with photos that haven’t been digitised that could be lost forever.

Even in the domain of digital photos, many people only save their photos locally, and a fire will destroy them as if they were physical albums.

The rest of the post is about saving your photos, although my suggestions are more broadly applicable.


Backing up your data is really important. If you only have your photos (or data) in one place, then there’s a high risk of losing everything should something go wrong. 

I would go further and say that you should back up everything at least twice. There’s a saying in the military that “two is one and one is none”, which in practical terms means that if it ever comes time to rely on your back up, there’s a good chance that it either won’t work or it won’t be there.

With your physical photos: digitise them. There are a lot of services that can do this for you. But if you don’t have the time or money to do this, go through your photo albums and take photos of the photos. It’s makeshift, but it means that you’ll still have them in some form should the worst happen. And with photos, the fidelity is often not nearly as important as the memories they elicit for you. For most people, this will only take a few hours, and once you get in the rhythm you can listen to music or podcasts while you do it.

With your digital photos: back them up on an extra hard drive (which you store out of the house, for example at work), and back them up to the cloud, using a service like Dropbox. (And yes, this might require you to pay for the service to have enough storage to keep all of your photos. But think of it as an investment, or insurance, that gives you peace of mind.) 

If your primary device for taking photos is a phone, you can set the phone to automatically store your photos on the cloud. Android phones often ask you if you want to save photos to Dropbox when you set it up. With iOS you need to install the relevant Dropbox application(s) and follow the instructions to do this

I don’t think relying solely on cloud backups is prudent, however. Someone could inadvertently delete photos from your computer which would consequently delete the backups on the cloud. You also never know if there could be a glitch with the service provider in the future. You should back up to a separate hard drive periodically. I do it every few months, which might put some of my photos at risk, but not the majority of them.

If you’re concerned about the cloud and your photos being hacked

If you’re concerned about storing sensitive data on the cloud, consider this. You’re balancing two risks: one, is losing all of your precious photos. Another, is that your photos becoming public.

Personally, I think the first is more likely and going to have a bigger impact than the latter. (Of course, this is subject to who you are. The majority of us find “security through obscurity”. If you have some degree of fame or notoriety, you may want to consider this more deeply.) 

Can you get perfect security by storing images on the cloud? No. Can you get perfect security anywhere? No. Someone who was really inclined would be able to access the physical devices that hold these images. 

As a broader example, unless you live behind huge gates and have iron bars over all of your windows at home, you’re vulnerable to someone coming in. When it comes to security, digital or otherwise, you need to make trade-offs. 

There are things that you can do to increase your security when you use these services. You can enable two-step verification. You can associate your account with an email address that you never use for emails, and that no one will ever know about (this is called “ring fencing”). You can use a password manager such as 1Password or Lastpass to keep your login credentials so that you can maintain an incredibly strong password that would be difficult to crack.

An addendum: managing your photos

If you’re like me and have tens of thousands of photos, which translates to hundreds of gigabytes. You’ll wonder how you can manage them all. Unless you have a lot of time, and you’re really diligent, it’s virtually impossible.

Maybe, at another phase of your life you’ll be able to make a project of it and enjoy going through them all. I always hold out that hope.

But in any case, technology can come to the rescue:

  • Computers continue to get faster, and browsing through thousands of photos will get easier as you continue to upgrade. Ram, video cards, and solid state hard drives help.
  • Software continues to get better at helping you to find photos based on certain characteristics. For example:
  • Photos have “metadata” that can tell you information about when it was taken, what device it was taken on, and sometimes even GPS data to tell you where it was taken. If you’re looking photos based on this type of criteria, you can search for it.
  • Software such as Picasa (free software made available by Google) has astonishingly good facial recognition. I’ve personally given up trying to keep photos in relevant folders and now, for the most part, sort photos in Picasa based on who is in it. 


New ways of sorting and finding photos will continue to appear. Dropbox has an app called Carousel that helps you look through photos that you have stored on Dropbox. It has a cool feature called Flashbacks, which shows you photos from the current week, in previous years. It’s an interesting way to get an insight into what you were doing 1, 3, 5, or 9 years ago. 

What I’m prescribing may seem like overkill. But it’s surprisingly easy to implement. And before I did it, the prospect of losing all of my photos nagged at me. It’s something I never worry about. And every time I hear of someone losing their photos, my first emotion is sadness for them. But I’ll be honest, it’s also tinged with a small feeling of vindication, that I’m doing the right thing. 

Other articles you may like:

My crystal ball is on the fritz (#AI)

My crystal ball is on the fritz (#AI)

The sweet and the sour

The sweet and the sour

Why I’m preoccupied with existential risks – and you should be, too

Why I’m preoccupied with existential risks – and you should be, too

Unregulated financial coaches: I’m not sure how they do it!

Unregulated financial coaches: I’m not sure how they do it!

How I money (2022)

How I money (2022)

Recessions, bear markets, and bananas

Recessions, bear markets, and bananas