Digital Photo Storage: 6 Ways to Keep Your Photos Safe in an Emergency

Do you have a plan to protect your physical photos in case of an emergency?

David T.

This story is part road trip 2020CNET’s series on how we’re preparing now for what might come next.

When a natural disaster strikes and your belongings are lost or destroyed, people sometimes offer the phrase “things can be replaced” as comfort. This is true to some extent – you can easily repurchase furniture, curtains and kitchen appliances. But losing photos? Devastating. Even more so if you only had prints of old photos of your family.

Scanning your prints and saving them to a computer is not enough. If your computer crashes, or you suffer a virus or some nasty data breach, you can still lose them. I learned that lesson the hard way when my family’s Dell broke down in the early 2000s and took countless photos with it.

Portable hard drives can store your memories and fit perfectly into a bug out bag. You can also make a photo book as a backup of your all-time favorites and store it somewhere like a fireproof safe. But a digital backup is the best way to safeguard your memories. Even if your computer is lost, you can still access a cloud-based account with your photos attached.

Choosing the right option is essential. Although Facebook and other social media platforms may hold your photos, not everyone may be comfortable using them as your memory keepers. Also, your photos will be compressed to a lower resolution – they won’t look as good if you want to print them.

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Even better, there are dedicated services to keep snaps, whether they come from your phone, digital camera, or film camera you used years ago. Think of those black and white snaps of your grandparents when they were kids, the silly photos you took with a disposable camera and more. But before entrusting precious memories to a service, be sure to read the terms of use. Research how the company handles photo retention and what rights you have to photos once they are on this site. For example, Photobucket has a Bill of Rights for its users.

Here are a few different apps and services you can use to back up your memories at little to no cost.

Cloud photo services

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Google Photos is a great resource for organizing and editing photos that requires little to no work on your part. The Google Photos app, available on iOS and Android, can back up your photos to your Gmail account. I have photos backed up since 2014 when I first made the switch to Android.

The backup and sync feature should be enabled by default when you download the app, but you can also enable it manually in your settings. Either way, you can easily manage your Google Photos library from your phone or computer. From time to time, Google will ask you if you want to free up space on your phone by saving the images to your Google account, also accessible through Gmail.

Google Photos offers a free plan with unlimited storage for photos under 16 megapixels and 1080p videos or less (however, this plan ends in June and you may need to sign up for Google’s storage subscription service, Google One). You should be able to adjust your phone’s settings, for example, if you want videos to be saved at a lower resolution and take up less storage. For context, an average photo taken on my Pixel 3 is 12.1 megapixels.

While this is a solid option for automatically uploading photos you take on your phone, you can also manually upload photos from a digital camera or those you’ve scanned to your computer.

If your media is larger, you get up to 15 GB of free space. The service has a paid version that offers 100GB for $2 per month or 1TB for $10 per month.

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Apple’s cloud-based photo service is part of the company’s larger iCloud storage system and is compatible with iPhones and Macs. To find the service, you’ll need the Photos app on Mac or iOS. On PCs, you can manage your photos and videos from in your browser or with the Windows iCloud app.

Like Google Photos, the iOS service automatically organizes your photos by date. However, you should be aware that your device’s iCloud backup will not automatically save photos to iCloud Drive – it’s a separate part of iCloud. For example, when I delete a photo from my iPad, a notification appears stating that the image will also be deleted from iCloud Photos. Apple Toolbox suggests keeping copies of items you don’t want to delete in iCloud Drive, but don’t rely solely on iCloud Drive – archive them in multiple places, such as a local hard drive for example.

iCloud is built into iOS devices and gives you 5GB for free, but for $1 per month you can upgrade to 50GB. Subsequent tiers offer 200GB for $3 per month and 2TB for $10 per month.

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Flickr, acquired by SmugMug in 2018, lets you save up to 1,000 photos on its platform for free. (It used to offer 1TB of free storage, but called it back to encourage users to sign up for its pro accounts). The app is more like a social network, as you can become part of a community of Flickr photographers. You can download it for iOS and Android.

If you subscribe to Flickr Pro for $7 per month or $60 per year, you get unlimited storage for your images. Additionally, Flickr’s Uploadr feature, available only to Pro members, allows you to back up your content from locations such as your computer, hard drives, iPhoto, and Dropbox.

Screenshot by Oscar Gutiérrez/CNET

The iconic image hosting site from the early 2000s is still around – it just looks a little different these days. After creating a Photobucket account, you can store up to 250 images for free and then choose from three different subscription plans.

Beginner stores 2,500 images or 25 GB for $6 per month, Intermediate stores 25,000 images or 250 GB for $8 per month, and Expert has unlimited image storage for $13 per month. All paid tiers are ad-free. Plus, you can store original photos uncompressed, so your photo quality won’t be compromised with the Expert subscription.

How to scan physical photos


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If you have a collection of old physical photos that you want to digitize, you have a few options. The simplest is a scanner: if you have access to one, CNET has a handy guide which breaks down clean the glassscanning multiple photos at once; and organizing and editing options.

Scanning photos is usually the best way to preserve their resolution, but if you’re in a hurry, you can take a photo of the physical photo with your phone. From there, you can edit and save it to your liking. The downside to this improvised method is that sometimes, depending on the lighting, you’ll have a reflection of your phone in the photo and slight reflections trying to keep the photo flat.

Here are some apps and services that can help you preserve your old physical photos, if you don’t have a scanner handy or if you have a lot of photos and don’t want to spend time scanning them individually.

Photoscan/Screenshot by Shelby Brown/CNET

Google’s free PhotoScan app lets you scan printed photos using your phone’s camera and save the scans to the Google Photos app. The app is available for iOS and Android.

German Kent/CNET

If using an app is not enough, you can turn to a professional service. ScanMyPhotos, located in Irvine, CA, offers physical photo scanning, negative scanning, and slide scanning. You can send the company a box of photos to restore, or the website can transfer VHS media and 8mm movies to DVD for backing up old home movies.

Depending on your photo scanning needs, the site offers different options to get the job done. If you don’t have that many photos, scans start at 8 cents each. If you get close to 2,000 photos, the $145 prepaid box is the best idea. Pack the box, ship it, and when the project is complete, you’ll receive the box with electronic copies of your scans and a book listing your photos. CNET editor Kent German tried ScanMyPhotos to digitize his photo collection and spoke positively about the service in his article.

Other services to try

To learn more about storing photos, see the best hard drives and storage devices for 2021 and the best online photo book services of 2021. For more on disaster preparedness, check out our Hacking the Apocalypse series.

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