The Paranoid (but lazy) Photographer's Guide to Saving Your Photos.

Tips and advice to help keep your digital memories safe.

We know you're nervous about losing your photos -- and you should be! You shoot all the time, and you hardly ever back up. Occasionally, you burn a few of your favorites to CD or DVD, or offload them to that hard drive you keep connected to your computer. You know it's not enough, but you're a photographer, not a librarian.

We don't blame you -- we're just here to help. Because it is, in fact, possible to feel completely confident that you can shoot all you want and not run out of space, to find and use your image files when you need them, and to know that you're covered in case of theft, fire, or the almost-always-inevitable drive failure.

The first thing you can do for yourself and your future photos is to set your camera properly to today's current date and time. That way, if all else fails, at least your pictures will contain accurate information about when you took them.

If your camera's date has always been set, but your files are named willy-nilly on your computer, you can reorganize them around the new file structure you're about to implement. If not, just move forward and make sure that every picture you take from now on goes onto your computer's hard drive in an organized way.

Here is our three-step process to ensuring that your files are safely stored, plus some comforting words about future-proofing your images.

STEP ONE

GET YOUR FILES IN ORDER.

So far you have your picture files only on your hard drive. Fine. But before we even start with the backup and begin to copy them elsewhere, we've got to get them in order.

The first thing to do is figure out where your files are now.

When you insert your memory card into your card reader or plug your camera directly into the computer, as many as three dialogue boxes might pop up, asking you whether you want to copy the images to your computer.

If you left the organization to whatever program asked you if you wanted to offload, they're probably in the My Pictures folder (or Pictures on a Mac) on your computer's hard drive. This is a fine place for them, but we are going to impose a stricter system. So the next time the program asks you whether you want to copy your files, tell it No. And check off the box saying you never want to see this question again.

Why? Because you're going to do this yourself. Taking charge of this one small step lets you know exactly where your files are -- you'll always be able to tell what's where and whether you've backed up your latest images.

A clear file structure is the secret. For every year, month, day, and photo shoot, create a folder. Then at the start of every year, go into My Pictures and make a folder for the new year, and within that, each month. That way, when you offload images, you'll need to create a new folder only for the pictures you're offloading. The folder name for each shoot contains both the date and the keyword describing the subject (e.g., Zoes_1st_Birthday), so even without browsing software, it will be easy to locate what you need as long as you remember approximately when you shot it.

For instance, if you photographed the Central Park Zoo on October 12, 2008, your folder structure would look like this: My Pictures > 2008 > October 2008 > 12October2008_CentralParkZoo. If later that day you went to Carmine's for dinner, you'd add another folder: My Pictures > 2008 > October 2008 > 12October2008_Carmines.

Why make these folders yourself, when your software will do something like it for you? Because all software is different, and all software's defaults are different. So as your software usage evolves over the years, so too will the ways that the software creates its default file structure. Do it this way and, no matter what program you use 15 years from now, you'll still know exactly how to find your pictures and, generally, a single combination of keyword and date will be enough to remind you of what you shot.

STEP TWO

BACK UP AT HOME.

Now that you've got your files organized into a reasonable and consistent structure, and you've created a pattern for the future, make sure that you don't lose them. The secret to good backup is keeping all of your photographs in at least two places at once, and storing your favorite and most important images somewhere other than the primary place your computer resides.

Your first line of defense: an external hard drive. These come in many variations, and the one to buy depends on how much, and what kinds of files, you shoot.

If your computer has a big built-in hard drive -- and you're not a very heavy shooter or you shoot mainly JPEGs -- you'll need an external hard drive with only enough capacity to duplicate the one in your computer.

On the other hand, if you've already exceeded your computer's capacity or will need more storage than your computer can hold, get an external hard drive that can back itself up internally through mirroring. That's when an external storage device contains multiple drives and duplicates your files on each. (Technically it's called RAID 1.) With a mirrored system, you're covered should one of the drives fail.

To figure out which type of backup drive might suit you, check out the sidebar.

STEP THREE

GET THE BEST IMAGES OFF-SITE.

Your files are now organized, and everything is backed up at home. If your house is a fireproof, floodproof, earthquakeproof, theftproof bunker, you're all set. If not, and especially if you have good reason to be nervous (there are occasional wildfires near by, you live in a floodplain, you primarily use a notebook computer), get yourself an additional hard drive big enough to back everything up.

Once a month (or as often as you need to in order to feel comfortable) copy everything to it and then move it to somewhere safe -- your office, your mother's house, wherever.

For most people, it will probably be enough to take only your favorite pictures off-site. The simplest way? Sign up for online (sometimes referred to as "cloud") storage. Though this used to be prohibitively expensive, now it's both cheap to buy and easy to set up.

Carbonite (www.carbonite.com), for example, gives you unlimited space to back up your internal hard drive for $50 a year. Hewlett-Packard's Upline (www.upline.com) also provides unlimited space for $59 a year. But for now, slow upload speeds (it can take about 5 hours for every gigabyte, even if you have a fast DSL or cable connection) make it somewhat impractical to use the unlimited option and back up absolutely everything you have. So if you just want to get started with online storage, try Windows Live SkyDrive (skydrive.live.com), which lets you store 5GB for free.

Once you get your online storage set up, make online backup part of your workflow. Create a folder in your 2008 folder called 2008Best. Each time you edit images, drag copies of your favorites into 2008Best. Then, using the software that comes with your online storage solution, set it to automatically back up the 2008Best folder.

As long as you put your favorite photos in there, you can have confidence that they'll be safe, no matter what happens at home.

How much do you really have to worry about preserving your images for the distant future?

People tend to think of eight-track or even cassette tapes and panic that, before too long, their JPEGs will be illegible or their RAW files unconvertible. They fear that in 75 years their CDs will be unreadable and their current hard drives will have bit the dust.

While it's true that you shouldn't count on the long-term survival of your physical media -- and still less, your hard drive -- you should remain reasonably calm about the survival of the files themselves.

Why? Because as storage gets cheaper (and it will), you will continue to transfer your current image files to newer and bigger forms of storage. And because there are just so many darn JPEG files in existence, there will always be a good reason for software programmers to keep them legible.

As far as RAW files go, it's not a bad idea to convert your absolute favorites to Adobe's DNG file format, which Adobe promises to support as long as it survives as a company. But chances are that, again, as long as RAW files exist in such large numbers (and they certainly do), someone, somewhere, will have an economic interest in keeping them legible.

Still, however nervous you get about the possible loss of your files down the road, take comfort in this: No matter what you do to back up your images, you're a heck of a lot better off than you were keeping those old 4x6-inch prints and envelopes stuffed with negatives in a shoebox in your closet.

HARD DRIVES

There are three levels of external storage to choose from, depending on how much you need to back up.

FOR BACKUP ONLY:

If you don't shoot that much, you shoot only JPEGs, delete what you don't like, and have never come close to filling up your computer's hard drive, you can get away with simply buying an external, USB- or FireWire-connected hard drive, and using the automatic backup software it comes with to replicate what's on your machine. Just make sure the drive has at least as much storage capacity as the one in your computer. LaCie's handsome Hard Disk drives start at 500GB for $100, street (www.lacie.com). Iomega's 1TB eGO is $220, street, and comes in three colors (www.iomega.com). Seagate has FreeAgent Pro Desktop Drives that start at $126, street, for 500GB (www.seagate.com).

FOR BACKUP & STORAGE UP TO A TERABYTE:

If your computer's hard drive is too small for you, rely on external storage that backs itself up internally. Buffalo Technology's $490 (street) LinkStation Mini 1TB is small and fanless, and can mirror up to 500GB of information on each of its two internal drives (www.buffalotech.com). It includes software that lets you access your files via the web when you're not near your computer. For even more space, try Western Digital's My Book Mirror Edition 2TB drive for $440, street (www.wdc.com). Since it's mirrored, up to 1TB of your data is in there twice.

FOR A TON OF STORAGE THAT WILL LAST FOR YEARS:

If you shoot only RAW files, rarely delete, and have been getting into video, consider something expandable. Data Robotics' network-attached Drobo lets you put in four drives up to the current maximum of 4TB ($1,075, street, for USB connections; (www.drobo.com). HP's MediaSmart Server EX475 (www.hp.com) is another expandable option (starting at $690, street, for 1TB). It also has four drive bays, but you can connect external drives for a max of 9TB. Use it to share pictures to the web and other devices on your home network, too. Both of these systems provide internal backup of all your data, while taking up less hard-drive space than mirroring would. For ultimate RAID storage, check out Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro ($3,700, est. street, www.netgear.com), a networked system that lets you share up to 6TB of space online and to your computers at home.

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