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When my oldest son was 6 months old, all the photos we had of him on our computer were lost due to a hard drive failure. We couldn't retrieve any of those precious newborn photos from 0 to 6 months. Luckily we had prints already of some of those photos. But anything that wasn't already a print, goodbye forever. I don't want this to happen to you. If I'd backed up my photos, this would never have been an issue. But I didn't back up; it just never occurred to me that this could happen. Well, I definitely learned the hard way.
So here I'll talk about the best ways to backup your photos. Here I'll talk mainly about family photos, but the idea equally well to photos of scenery, of your various projects, or artistic photos. You took those photos for a reason so let's find out the fastest, easiest and safest ways to backup your pictures.
I'm going to bet that:
- you want to back up from any device, and
- you have lots of photos that need backing up.
I'll also assume you're busy, same as me, and you don't have the time for the cumbersome DIY approach of buying external hard drives and endlessly transferring your photos to them. No matter if you're a busy parent like me, or a professional photographer, losing photos is never a good thing.
It can actually be cheaper to use a photo backup service than to keep buying external hard drives.
If you plan on DIY-ing your backups and putting everything on external hard drive yourself, then you're responsible for its physical safety, which isn't easy with a young family. What if you have young kids pulling the storage drive out of the drawer and deciding it's a new toy to poke at and play with? It can be cheaper, safer, and more convenient to let a photo backup service handle all of that for you.
What to look for in a photo backup service
- Backup photos from any device - send your phone pics to backup via an app. Or via computer, your choice. Many parents and teens are quickly maxed out on phone space, so convenient upload from your phone or any other device is absolutely critical. Your photos need to be able to be sent from where you took them, you shouldn't have to move them elsewhere first.
- Secure storage - a reliable company who has a good track record is important here. We once tried a photo service which shut down after only a year or two of operation. There was some warning, but that's still a headache if you just want to keep your photos safely backed up.
- Easy filtering and easy retrieval - you want to be able to search your images easily by date or other properties. You might be looking for certain pics, and I found by experience that the DIY approach is a disaster if you are trying to find a pic. I went through photos one by one from albums spanning a number of years on my hard drive. Not fun! So be sure that whatever service you pick, you can do easy filtering and retrieval of photos.
- Privacy options that fit your needs - you might want just you and your spouse to be able to see the photos, or you might want to share with extended family members and others that you specify. Or you might want the whole world to see your photos. Whatever you want, the choice should be yours. This is more important than you might first think.
- Full resolution - you really do need full resolution storage because you might want to make prints of some of these in the future. Storing your images on Facebook isn't going to cut it; they compress the images there to save on storage so the resultant image isn't go to look good when printed, even if it looks OK on screen. Not all photo backup services store at full resolution, so be sure to select one that does.
- Price - of course, price is important. You don't want to be locked into an expensive plan, so pricing is a key point. Many - but not all! - photo sharing services are quite pricey once you pass the basic plans. Don't worry, I have some good recommendations for you below.
Best photo backup services
- SmugMug - this is my top recommendation to backup photos. This is because it fits all the requirements that I mentioned above, and on top of that delivers unlimited storage. You have the ability to create private share groups, drag-and-drop photo organization, and all of this comes with a beautiful website too. You can upload from any device: phone, computer, tablet, whatever. If you value privacy, you can password-protect your entire SmugMug site, or just certain folders on it, whatever you prefer; you can be as visible or invisible as you want. This flexibility makes it so easy for you to get your backups done safely. Best of all, family and friends can order prints directly from your site at SmugMug, they don't need to download or transfer anything. In particular, the older generations in your extended family will appreciate this simplicity, since they're both the most likely to value and purchase physical prints, yet also the most likely to have difficulty with more complicated technology. Even the lowest plan level at SmugMug gets you all of the features I mentioned here.
- Flickr - a good second choice behind SmugMug. The Flickr Pro paid plans provide the desired features I talked above before, with one drawback: privacy options are a little more complicated to understand. If you are not careful, you could accidentally allow anyone else out there the option to blog your photos online, and to allow the Yahoo engine or other apps with Flickr access to search your photos. I want to point out that Flickr does have decent privacy options; they're just not as intuitive to use as those at SmugMug. If that isn't an issue for you though, it's worth looking at Flickr.
- iCloud - if you have an iPhone, then you could backup your photos on iCloud. The downside is that you can store other things on your iCloud account too (files, videos, etc) and you probably have a lot more things in there than you know. It can therefore be frustrating to keep figuring out what items you want to show grandma and what you don't. The other downside is that you only get 5G of storage for free, which is really not very much space at all for family photos. The storage limits for paid plans are pretty decent, but unlike SmugMug you don't get unlimited storage in iCloud, even with a paid iCloud storage plan.
- Google Photos - if you have an Android phone, then you can backup your photos on Google Photos. You get 15G of storage for free, and after that you have to pay. Similarly to iCloud it's not quite as easy as you think to organize privacy options such that your family members see the photos you want them to. Google Photos is a good option but since free storage is low, you'll wind up having to pay for extra storage. Most families have a lot more than 15G of photos to backup! My recommendation is that if you'd need to pay anyway, you may as well get a plan tailored to what you want, instead of Google Photos.
- pCloud - although it's a general file storage service designed for all types of files, you can use pCloud solely for your photo backups. You can backup from any device. You get 10G storage for free and after that you have to pay. You have very good privacy options as far as sharing goes; you can share particular folders with others if you wish by emailing them a download link. The downside is that pCloud was never created specifically just for photos, so it's definitely not as convenient to use as photo-oriented services. If you have some not-so-tech-savvy people in your extended family, this may not be the best option for you.
Backup strategies for peace of mind
It's a great idea to just backup your photos as you go. That way you never have to worry about a damaged phone after a trip. If you're traveling, no insurance payout can get your precious photos back if your phone gets stolen (or your digital camera or laptop).
Water and weather damage is something few people think about, yet it's all too easy for something liquid and damaging to get spilled on our electronics. If you're backing up as you go, then you have peace of mind no matter what happens.
SmugMug actually does a great job with peace of mind by having an app you can use on any connected device; it'll let you upload immediately so you never have to worry.
Wrapping it up
There are several different options to backup photos that I described above. These photo backup services all have different pros and cons. They are all reputable and reliable, although SmugMug is my top recommendation, simply because it is the most fully-featured and very easy to use. It also has unlimited storage, which sets head and shoulders above others. You're busy and you don't need to be worrying where you are on your storage limits, like you would with some other options. SmugMug was built and designed by photographers (not by engineers, like most of the other services), so even the lowest-level plan at SmugMug includes unlimited storage of high-resolution images. The ability for friends and family to order prints directly from your site (still on the lowest plan level!) will also save you a lot of time; no need to email Grandma photos and hope she can figure out how to get them printed. If you want to give SmugMug a test drive, they're offering you a 14-day free trial here.
A year's subscription to any photo sharing service is typically less than the cost of an external hard drive, which you'd need anyway if you were planning on doing your photo backups yourself. And the peace of mind is worth it.