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Learn From Sandy: Back Those Photos Up

Published: November 09, 2012
Tips to safely secure your family photos forever.
By Jefferson Graham,, USA TODAY

The images were striking. Homes on the East Coast washed away by Superstorm Sandy. People in tears, clutching faded photographs, among their only remaining possessions.

If that doesn’t move you to get serious about safekeeping your lifetime of memories, what will? The digital era offers tools never imaginable before — including one-click access to a lifetime of family photos.

Here is a primer on how to back up your photos and save them online, where they can live forever and be accessible in good times and bad.


The first step for those old wedding and childhood analog photos is to scan them and save them to a digital format. Most printers come with scanners these days, starting as low as $100, so that’s an easy but incredibly time-consuming step.

Two faster solutions:, a California-based retailer, offers a $245 flat fee to scan up to 2,000 photos. You buy a prepaid mailer box at its website, fill it with your photos, and get a DVD (and your photos) with scans of all your images.

If $245 is too much, consider stopping into your local FedEx Office location and check out the Sony PictureStation kiosk. For $5, you can do self-service scans of up to 100 photos on a CD. (Expect it to take about an hour, as you slip photos in and out of the scanner, but it does move quicker than doing it at home.)

Storing the photos

With your scans in place, import the photos into your computer, and back them up.

You could make multiple copies of the disks and spread them to loved ones. Or you could opt for external hard drives (around $100 for 1 terabyte) or ($10-$20) thumb drives instead, and add your photo and video collection from your computer.

“The key is not to keep (the backups) in the house,” says Mitch Goldstone, the president of, which scans an average of 250,000 pictures daily. “Get them off site, at a friend’s or relative’s house, in a safety deposit box.”

Online photo services

The easiest way to get your photos offsite is by using an online photo service — saving them to the cloud.

You can choose a pure photo site or cloud storage — which lets you add music and other documents.

If you want to view and share photos, a photo site is your best bet. But throwing every photograph you’ve ever taken onto Facebook, the most popular photo-sharing site, would only annoy all your friends and make the photos hard to retrieve. Facebook lowers the resolution of your photos, making this the poorest choice for backup.

Online photo services SmugMug and Phanfare, for a price, offer unlimited backup and full-resolution downloads, without ads for photo gifts. They also let you organize photos by categories (Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer vacation in Maine) and download the complete gallery.

SmugMug starts at $40 a year to upload unlimited photos; $60 if videos are included. Phanfare starts at $99 yearly for unlimited backup and full-resolution downloads. (Fine-print ads tout $29 yearly Phanfare subscriptions, but that’s for low-res images.)

Online backup

If you have more than just photos, and need lots of space, look at a pure online backup service, like Carbonite or CrashPlan.

Carbonite, which owns Phanfare, backs up 300 million files daily. Once you sign up, it starts to pick up everything you have on your hard drive. It’s easy, especially if you use Windows computers. But for $59 a year, it only updates additions to your photo collection on your computer’s main C hard drive. For Carbonite to also grab photos from an external hard drive, you’ll have to pay $99. And if you use Apple computers, Carbonite won’t back up your external hard drive unless you pay the $225 annual business rate.

Competing cloud backup site CrashPlan costs $49.99 yearly, and it doesn’t care whether your data is on the C drive or an external hard drive. It picks up data from both, without you having to pay extra.

Cloud storage

For folks who don’t need automatic backup, but instead want to take a more active approach, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive let you manually store files online, share and instantly access them. All offer free options — 2 GB of free storage for Dropbox, 5 GB for Google, and 7 GB for SkyDrive. But you’ll want more. Dropbox is $99 yearly for 100 GB. Google charges $30 yearly for 25 GB or $60 for 100 GB. And SkyDrive is $10 yearly for another 20 GB of storage or $50 for 100 GB.

There are desktop uploaders and mobile apps to make the transfer and access process quicker.

Bottom line

The hard drive or flash drive option is the cheapest and easiest, but not the safest. Drives can fail. Online services are more expensive, but more secure. With more of us switching back and forth between our computers, phones, and tablets, such services are the best way to get access to our data from wherever we are.

(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.