Best off line long term storage solution for digital photos?

So today, our large external hard drive has started misbehaving, which contains all of our digital photos that we have been far too lazy to ever print out or deal with, yet would be extremely bummed out if they were ever lost. A replacement is obviously needed. My wife loves to take photos, takes a ton of them all at high resolution, and then offloads them to the external drive. As a result, I have hundreds of gigabytes of pictures on this drive. While I realize there are probably numerous ‘cloud’ solutions to this problem, call me old fashioned, but I don’t like the idea of my photos being entirely online. A reliable service is probably still a decent monthly fee, and you are always just one hacked account away from someone getting into your private stuff, etc. Given that, what is currently the best way to store digital photos off line in the long term?

It seems like any hard drive based solution can still fail catastrophically at any point and leave you screwed. I suppose the stuff could be wildly compressed and stored on Flash drives, but I’m not sure how much compression you can really get with these photos and if Flash drives are big enough and cheap enough. What would you recommend?

As a side note, if I transfer all the photos off the dying (but not yet dead) drive, store that drive for 10 years, and then boot it up again, will it even work? Do drives that have sat dormant for long periods of time fail, even if kept in ideal conditions?

Why would you be bummed-out if they were lost? They only exist if you *look *at them.

Choose the most precious, best ones–the ones you want your grandchildren to see someday–have them printed out on good paper with good ink, put them in a photo album and put them on the shelf, where you can pull it out and look at it whenever you wish. It’ll be good for 100 years at least.

Eve - Yes, I realize that among the tens of thousands of photos, only a handful are truly ‘worth keeping’ from the standpoint of longevity, but as I stated, neither my wife nor I is religious about going through the photos. In her case, it is far worse, because she has the ‘fancy camera’ and all such photos are often multiples (bracketed) and are huge files. For the sake of this discussion, assume every photo has value and the space is required. What’s my cheapest versus most reliable long term option?

As a side note, do you ever really know what’s a valuable photo? Often only after someone dies, loses a lot of weight, becomes a celebrity or is in the news, etc. do you ever care. My photo of me with David Carradine got dragged out as ‘interesting’ only after he accidentally killed himself. Likewise, who cares about that picture with the World Trade Center in the background until it isn’t there any more?

Oh, you’ll need someone techier than me, then. I am strictly a print-and-photo-album girl. In fact, every ten years or so I winnow down my albums: “who the hell *is *this person I have ten photos of? Into the shredder he goes.”

I do have my photos on two sep. zip drives, but I guess you already do, too?

Put simply, there is no good solution for long-term storage of digital data.

The best option is still tape, but I am not aware of any consumer-level tape drives out there (meaning, not ridiculously expensive).

Burned optical disks degrade if not stored properly, and don’t have all that much capacity if you really have hundreds of gigabytes to deal with.

Flash drives are not guaranteed to be any more reliable than conventional hard drives.

I would suggest buying a few hard drives, from different manufacturers, replicating your data onto each of them, putting them all in different places, and checking on them every year or so.

My brother is building a server, he wants 3 separate 2TB hard drives in it. He explained he could set it up so that if any one hard drive failed the others would retain the lost info, but I have no idea how. Something like that could work, a multi-drive server.

Yes, and if he accidentally deletes something, it will be deleted on all the drives instantaneously. RAID (the term for this configuration) is not a backup strategy.

EDIT: Okay, well, technically it is. But not a good one.

I am guessing you use a laptop, which is why you use an external hard drive to store these photos. This makes it harder.

What I do: I keep all of the photos on an internal hard drive. I have two small portable external hard drives that I swap out and use to backup whatever is on the internal hard drive. One of them stays at work or some off-site location. I have data on these drives that dates back 17 years or more. I have never lost any data.

What you can do that is similar: You can buy two external hard drives (Compared to the costs of losing your entire picture albums, the cost is small). Name them EHD #1 and EHD#2. Copy all of the data from your old external hard drive to EHD #1. This will be your main copy. Now, copy everything that is on EHD#1 to EHD #2. EHD#2 will be your off-site backup. Take it somewhere out of your house. Don’t leave it in your car if you have a garage (it will be lost in a fire). Bring EHD#2 back home once every two months or so and recopy everything from EHD#1 to EHD#2. There is software that will allow you to do this copying more easily.

+1 … But every couple of years, think about copying to a new device, perhaps with a new OS.

I have files on various types of now obsolete storage (Syquest carts, ZIP drives, HD) that use obsolete or uncommon interfaces like SCSI and IDE - not to mention OS and disk format options. Get at those files now means resurrecting and ancient computer - and even then I may not be able to copy them to a newer device - I have waited too long.

One option would be to get an external storage device that supports RAID. RAID is where multiple drives are used together. In one mode (RAID 0 I think), two drives are used as a single drive. To you it looks like a single drive, but everything you write to it is written to both drives. The advantage with this approach is that if one drive goes bad, you can remove it, plug in a new one, and the device will automatically re-mirror all the info. You’ll only lose everything if both drives go bad at once.

I have a setup like this at home. I think the enclosure cost around $150 and I put 2 1TB drives in it, which gives me 1TB of total storage (because everything is mirrored).

Some devices will be enabled for Network Attached Storage (NAS), which means you can just plug it into the ethernet. You don’t need to have it attached to a computer. This way all your computers can see and use the device. And some devices will even act as a media center, allowing you to stream the photos and movies to viewing devices throughout your house.

I’d do what Hermitian suggested. A quick Google search suggests that a 1 TB external hard drive runs about $100, so for $200 you can have storage, and backup storage, for hundreds of gigs of photos.

This is essentially what we do. We keep a copy at a friend’s house, stuck in the back of one of their closets. There is nothing on the hard drive that needs security, it’s just stuff we’d be bummed if we lost. It’s mostly photos and music (all of ours is ripped from CDs we own, and would be a pita to replace.)

Storing it at a friend’s house means it’s easy to get to, free to store, and fire/flood/tornado isn’t likely to hit both houses at the same time.

I have a 1 TB RAID-0 NAS, It’s nice for a backup and centralized storage of huge media files, but I’m not convinced about the integrity of it for a one and only data archive. Someone could steal it, it could get lost in a fire, hit with a power surge, the controller could go bad and corrupt all the data. I intend to get a dockable hard drive to do a backup once a month and leave it at my parent’s house.

Printing photos is horribly expensive relative to alternatives and I’m not convinced of the longetivity of the “archival” comsumer level photo papers and inks right now. Better to have it printed professionally on real print photographic paper.

Long term storage- the reality is you can’t just store digital media in a shoebox like you can film and expect it to be useable decades later. Even if we’re still using SATA and USB a decade from now, which we might be, I’d be worried about any electrolytic capacitors on the drive or controller (if external) drying up. Having two external hard drives, and storing one off site, and periodically replacing them if technology demands is probably the best solution to the OP.

Buy new hard drive every year or two, update, put old drive in safe storage with a date label. Or old backup drive, whatever. Put some of your most significant moments on picasa or flickr etc - doesnt have to be exhaustive, just so that you’d have something if worst came to worst.

Some programs like Lightroom can copy to your main drive and a backup drive at the same time when importing your pictures. I use a network drive so even if my laptop goes boom 2 seconds afterwards, I have a copy automatically.

Over time you’ll have tons of drives, so you can try to restore from the newest, then the next newest, etc. And in practise something better will turn up, you dont need to be doing this for 40 years, only so that you wont have more than a few years at risk at best.

As far as winnowing/sorting now goes, one problem is what you think you want now may not be what people want to see in 20 or 30 years.


The setup described doesn’t have to be RAID.

I have two 2TB drives in my box. I use a backup program to back the data from one up to the other nightly. If I accidentally delete something, it’s still on the other one until the backup gets flushed (time varies with how full the drive is and how much data is churning, but it’s certainly plenty to recover from an “oops”).

There’s a minor amount of hassle if I have to restore from backup that wouldn’t exist with RAID, and I don’t get the faster read/writes that you get with RAID, but that’s not what it’s for.

The important data (photos, emails, etc.) is also backed up online.

Hard drives will suffer from “bit rot” if left unused (or used but data isn’t refreshed) for a long time; this issue is rarely discussed but can happen with any magnetic media (also, sector data is only written once at the factory, so you can’t refresh this, thus bad sectors appearing in drives which are otherwise in good (mechanical) working order). Flash memory will also undergo similar degradation (but it appears that it is more reliable; a spec of 10 years at 85C is orders of magnitudes longer at 25C).

Long-term storage? Print it out on acid-free paper and put it in a box. I guarantee 100 years from now, what’s in the box will be more viewable than any digital storage of 2012-vintage. If I’m wrong, sue me.

Meanwhile, for reliable, medium-term storage, I suggest you check out a Drobo.

You might not like the idea of online storage, but in reality it is your best option. I would take time and research online backup plans and start getting comfortable.

I don’t like hard disks because they’re too easily written to. Every time you open your photos, you risk corrupting them. For this reason I prefer DVD±R.

You might also want to take a look at SanDisk’s Memory Vault. Limited rewritability, guarantee for 100 years.

I keep my photo libraries on an external drive which I keep backed up with Time Machine. Every few months or so I burn the latest photos to a DVD.