magine your entire photo collection disappearing overnight - along with all your music, letters, e-mails, addresses and phone numbers. Modern computers have internal hard drives that can store thousands of images and tunes, but they're far from perfect. Drives spin at thousands of revolutions per minute and are sensitive to bumps and tiny mechanical faults. Knock your PC by accident and before you know it, your data may be unreadable or even permanently deleted.
The nightmare of a hard disc failure came true six months ago for photographer Rod Lawton, 47. "I started working at 9am and found I couldn't access any files," says Rod. "I tried to copy the most important data to another computer but by 11am it had failed completely. Even though I knew what was happening, it didn't stay working long enough for me to do anything. I couldn't save any files at all."
Like many of us, Rod had tens of thousands of data files stored on his computer's 80Gb drive, including a huge number of photos. Unlike most of us, though, Rod had a regular routine that probably saved his business: "I back up all my work every day to a portable hard drive, so the only things I lost for good were some old admin files and correspondence. Without my daily back-up, I reckon it would have taken me a month to get my work back to where I was that morning - and imagine not getting paid for a month."
An advantage of digital photography is that you can make a pixel-perfect duplicate of photos by copying them to another device. You're already doing this when you download images from your camera to your computer. The most basic form of back-up, then, is to keep a copy of your photos on your memory card, although you'll quickly run out of space (or run up a big bill for new cards).
A more affordable alternative is to use CD or DVD discs. Most modern home computers have a recordable CD drive built-in, or you can buy an external drive (from around £60). Blank CDs cost from 10p each if you buy in bulk and store around 680Mb of data - that's enough for 250-500 images, depending on resolution. Blank DVDs are about twice the price and can store over six times as much data.
If you're a keen photographer or download a lot of music, you'll soon accumulate a pile of back-up discs: up to 115 CDs for an 80Gb hard drive, for example. Recorded discs aren't a perfect solution, however. While some manufacturers claim their discs will last decades - even as long as 100 years - research has shown discs becoming unreadable in as little as two years. To minimise deterioration, buy good quality, branded discs, label them with pens rather than labels, and store them away from heat. For ultimate security, you should back up your back-up discs every year or so.
Another option is to use a second hard drive like Rod - either installed inside your computer's case or (a slightly more expensive option) an external drive. A large (250Gb) external drive costs from £175 and comes with software that runs automatic back-ups.
If your hard drive does fail, don't panic. Around a half of drive failures are due to human error, software malfunctions or virus attacks rather than mechanical problems. Recovery software can fix some problems, and specialist companies like Data Recovery Direct (www.data-r ecovery-direct.co.uk) or Ontrack (www.ontrack.co.uk) can dismantle your drive and extract data. But these services don't come cheap, sometimes costing £500 or more.
Don't forget the most traditional way to preserve your photos: printing them out. But, there are risks here, too. All printed photos are susceptible to fading from light, temperature, humidity and pollutants in the air, but some combinations of printer, ink and paper will last longer.
Most important for longevity is that you avoid using third-party, own-brand inks. These are usually cheaper than original inks but can produce strange colours, swift fading and even possibly damage your printer. When used with their own inks and good quality photo paper, many printer companies quote fade resistance measured in decades.
Lexmark claims that its EverColor inks will last up to 200 years when in a photo album, and even without using air-tight storage, the photo papers used in most HP printers should resist fading for between 70 and 100 years. You'll further safeguard your photos (traditional 35mm and digital inkjet prints) if you store them in albums or behind glass, away from heat.
Ultimately, serious hard drive failures and completely faded prints are rare, but nothing lasts forever. Think ahead and get into the habit of backing up images that are important to you - and print out anything truly irreplaceable. Then, if the worst does happen, if your camera is stolen or your computer crashes, your digital dream won't turn into a data-loss nightmare.
THE HAMMER TEST: HOW TOUGH IS YOUR MEMORY CARD?
We all forget things occasionally but when it comes to memory cards, a case of digital amnesia could mean the loss of irreplaceable images. So just how reliable are these scraps of plastic and metal in the real world? I saved digital images on to the four main card formats - CompactFlash, Secure Digital, Memory Stick and xD-Picture Card - and put them through a photographic assault course.
As you'd hope, all survived simple drop tests from waist height, then head height on to concrete. They also sailed through being squeezed, shaken and trampled on the pavement by journalist-issue size 11s. Next up was a brief immersion in water, followed by having dirt rubbed into them and being washed again under the tap. Not a byte of data lost.
Now for the killer tests, starting with being dropped into a fresh pot of tea for a minute. Surprisingly, all still had total recall. Finally, five hefty whacks with a claw hammer on a workbench. Plastic flew, metal snapped and three of the cards gave up the ghost. But, after being bent back into shape, the plucky CompactFlash card would still record and play images. Lesson learned? Although it makes sense to keep them in protective cases, memory cards don't need kid glove treatment. But as sweet as that news might be to clumsy photographers, I suggest you stick to putting only sugar in your tea.Reuse content