Easy Ways to Preserve Your Holiday Photos

We all take more photos than usual at this time of year. You might be taking pictures in the snow, photos of Christmas decorations, or just capturing holiday get-togethers. No matter what the subject, I'm reminded about just how important your photo collection actually is. These are treasured memories, and you don't want to trust decades of images to a finicky magnetized platter that spins at 7000 rpm and, as it ages, could fail catastrophically. I don't mean to scare you, but it's a fact of life: All computer gear breaks eventually, and it's important to have a backup of your photos when that inevitable day comes. So with that in mind, I've rounded up some easy ways to back up your photos to guard against calamity.

Floppies--Thousands of Floppies

Actually, I'm kidding. Back in the day, floppy disks were the most common way to back up your files, but they've been mercifully obsolete for many years now. I hope that bringing these relics up doesn't date me too badly--but in my defense, last year my dad asked me if using floppies was a practical backup strategy for his photos. That's when I pointed out to him that my last few computers didn't even come with floppy drive bays (which makes it all the stranger that I have a stack of floppies still stacked neatly on a shelf, "just in case").

The most common floppy disks have a capacity of 1.44MB, which means that you'd need a stack of about 700 floppies to store all the photos on just a single 8GB Secure Digital card.

So if a mountain of floppy disks won't do the trick, what other options do you have?

CD or DVD

Instead of floppies, my dad opted for the modern equivalent of floppy disks: CDs and DVDs. You'll certainly get a lot more stuff on each disc; CDs hold about 700MB of data and DVDs can be filled with 4.7GB of files. Since most PCs come with DVD writers these days, archiving your photos on shiny silver discs is easy to do.

If you have Windows Vista or Windows 7, you don't need any additional software to archive your photos. Just insert a blank disc in your PC's CD or DVD burner, choose Burn files to disc using Windows Explorer, and then follow the wizard to copy the photos. Windows does give you two options, which can be a little confusing.

The first option--called a Live File System disc--makes the disc work like a USB flash drive or ordinary hard drive, in that when you drag a file to the CD or DVD, the file is copied immediately. This is generally the best choice. The other option (a Mastered disc) feels a little archaic because you have to select the files to copy and then burn them all at once. The resulting disc is more compatible with other devices, though, like the DVD or Blu-ray player in your living room.

If you're still using Windows XP, you will need another program to make DVDs. I recommend Roxio Creator 2011, which I mentioned in my holiday gift guide.

An External Hard Drive

While CD and DVD burning doesn't require any additional investments (aside from blank discs), it's not especially convenient to have a stockpile of shiny silver platters in a box somewhere. And it's a very manual process: Whenever you accumulate a bunch of new photos, those DVDs aren't going to copy themselves. Just ask my dad. After a year of archiving photos on DVD, he recently enlisted my help to switch over to an automatic external hard drive backup solution.

For my money, an external USB hard drive is the sweet spot in the photo backup continuum. External drives are inexpensive, can be configured to back up your files automatically, are easy to recover data from, and generally last for years without failure. CDs and DVDs last longer (at least in theory), but backing up and later restoring files from them is a real hassle.

Drives like the Toshiba Canvio are small and unobtrusive on your desktop. The Canvio is even designed to be portable, so you can take it on a trip for instant backup of your photos the day you take them. The Canvio comes in sizes ranging from 500GB for $120 to a full terabyte for $180.

Windows Home Server

Finally, let's bring out the big gun. Suppose you have several PCs in your home and want an automated backup of each one. You could deploy a separate external drive to each computer, certainly--but at that point you might want to consider a Windows Home Server.

I might have recommended a Home Server before; I am a big fan, and I wish more people knew about them. A Home Server is amazingly easy to set up: Just plug it in, connect it to your network, and install a small program on each computer in your house. The Home Server will automatically back up each computer every night, giving you a central place from which to restore your photos (and other files) if you ever have trouble. The Home Server has a slew of other benefits as well, though, like the ability to share files and folders with everyone on your home network. There are a half-dozen Windows Home Server models available from companies like Acer, HP, Lenovo, and Asus, and prices range from $500 to 800. You can read more at Microsoft's Home Server site.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Little Man" by Janet Garinger, Orange, California

Janet writes: "This is a photo of my great-grandson on one of our walks. I took it with my Panasonic Lumix, and then added some selective blur using the Orton Effect."

This week's runner up: "Brown Eyes" by Kristin Grant, Canton, New York

Kristin says that she took this photo with a Nikon D40, and then edited it using the online photo editor Picnik.

To see all of this month's winners, visit the December Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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