What to Do With Digital Storage That's Collecting Dust

What to Do With Digital Storage That's Collecting Dust

How many of you have old memory cards, USB sticks, or even hard drives lay around doing nothing? Of those that answered yes, how many of you still haven't worked out a decent backup strategy for your images? Here's a quick and free solution to securely encrypt that unused storage so when a disaster strikes your most important work isn't lost forever.

I know we would all much prefer to be doing actual photography or maybe watching cat videos on YouTube, but you really need to stop putting off your data backup strategy. Most experts suggest having a 3–2–1 backup system in place to best protect your digital files. The 3–2–1 means you should have three backups of your data, on two different types of media, one of those being off-site. Hands up, who has already this? Even if you said yes how many are relying on some sort of cloud-based storage system as their only "off-site" option?  

If cloud-based storage is working for you then great. Personally, I have a problem with depending on such storage providers because they all in some shape or form have the potential for security breaches, data loss, or annoying outages. In addition to this, the companies you are trusting with your precious data can at any moment decide they want to move the goalposts in regards to what they offer. This could possibly leave you with a hole in your backup system which wouldn't be great. For all those reasons, instead of relying on the cloud I prefer to have a copy of my data physically stored on an encrypted drive and kept offsite.

For those that have no real backup plan in place regarding your data then you really need to do something immediately. This is where all those old memory cards, USB sticks, and hard drives you have at the back of a draw can be made use of to get your best work off your computer and stored somewhere safe. This article is not intended as a foolproof guide to backing up your entire digital life but more an accessible solution that gives an extra level of protection for those with a plan and a great starting point for those that have no backup strategy in place at all. So before we start the first thing that needs to be worked out is what are your most important images. I'm talking about the best of the best here. I'd class myself as quite a prolific photographer over the years and equally a big hoarder of images. Even so, if I'm honest with myself the number of pictures which I'd class as my best of the best is less than 100 in total. I have a folder on my desktop which is reserved for just this and if you can get into the same habit it will make backing up these most important files much easier in the future.

Finding Something to Store Your Data On

Once you have your best images worked out and placed in one handy folder it's time to find something to physically store it on. A lot of us will have obsolete computers, USB sticks, or memory cards laying around doing nothing. Within five minutes of looking, I found a handful of old SD cards which may not be the fastest or biggest in capacity but are perfectly fine for what we need. Alternatively, if you have any old laptops or desktop computers collecting dust then why not consider taking out the hard drives and using them? Just make sure everything on there is backed up first before you wipe them. If you do go down this route you can invest in a hard drive docking station which will allow you to make use of those internal drives incredibly easily.

Time to Encrypt the Drives

This step is optional but as some of you may be mailing these renewed drives out to loved ones it may be a good idea to not leave things open for the world to see. For those like me on a Mac here's how to encrypt folders on OSX.

1. Open up Disk Utility.

2. Click on File > New > Disk Image From Folder.

3. Select the folder you will be encrypting and then click Image.

4. Choose "read/write" if you plan on adding to the folder at a later date and pick either "128-bit AES encryption" or "256-bit AES encryption".

5. Type in a password of your choice and make sure you don't forget it or you'll never see your files again!

6. You are now encrypted. A password-protected .dmg file has been created based on the folder you selected earlier. Now it's time to move that encrypted disk image to your memory storage of choice.

Whenever you want to access the contents it's just a matter of double-clicking on the icon and entering the password you typed earlier to mount the disk image. After that, you will be able to see inside the original folder. The beauty of this method is once it is mounted you can add additional files to the folder and they will also be encrypted.

I also think it's a good idea to add an unencrypted text file with some contact details on it alongside this .dmg file. That way if the storage device ever goes missing the text file could help return the drive to its rightful owner. I also used this backup process to store the entire collection of my great grandfather's photographic slides. In that instance, the text file left on the SD card not only has my contact details on it but also a clue to what the password is that only my family members would be able to work out.

For those not on a Mac here's how to encrypt folders on Windows machines.

Finding an Off-Site Location for Your Most Treasured Images

Hopefully, you now have your best images securely moved onto a storage device and you're ready to move them off-site. This could be your studio, place of work, or even a loved one's house. The most important thing is that this copy of your pictures is not in the same location as your other backups. If you have stored your pictures on storage with no moving parts then you could consider mailing it out to someone.

I recently made an additional backup of some important work on an encrypted hard drive I wasn't using and left it in the glove compartment of my car for a few weeks until I managed to visit my parent's house to store it. That might sound crazy but at least it was away from my other backups should the worse happen at home.

So there you have it, a quick and secure way to backup your images with memory storage you just had at home collecting dust. As I mentioned earlier this is not a foolproof guide to backing up your entire digital life, if you do want some more information on the best ways to do that then this article is a great starting point. My real intention for writing this was to provide readers with an accessible solution that the majority of people could do right away. Even if you don't have any spare memory cards at hand a USB stick could be purchased and mailed out to someone for very little cost and effort. It's better to do something regarding data backup than nothing at all and for all those who don't have anything in place, you really have no excuse to at least back up your very best images. Go do it now!

Do any of you use these backup techniques? What do you use as your off-site backup option? I'd love to hear what strategies you have in place, let me know in the comments below.

Paul Parker's picture

Paul Parker is a commercial and fine art photographer. On the rare occasion he's not doing photography he loves being outdoors, people watching, and writing awkward "About Me" statements on websites...

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pretty useless, especially if you're not a MAC user

How so? This article applies equally to Windows users.

Thanks for your comment Wes, it's appreciated.

Hello Heiko, the article links to how to encrypt files with a windows machine. Just in case you missed it the link is:


As I mentioned above the article was meant to be inspirational and motivational for those who have no data backup in place.

I think you missed this important point. OS is not relevant...

As far as encryption goes I would recommend a more open program like VeraCrypt. It is top notch and works across all computing platforms. For example, you can encrypt a container file on a Mac and read it on a Windows machine.

Thanks for the recommendation Stephen, I'm going to investigate this right now...

One of the best offsite storage locations is a bank or credit union safe deposit box. Here's why: 1) No one else has access except the people on the ownership of the box. (for me that's myself and my wife), 2) The building is designed for protection from of course theft but also fire and flooding. 3) I'm sure you have other important documents that could use protection. 4) It is usually dirt cheap. I think I pay $35 a year. 5) I'm not mailing something or relying on someone else. For example look at the flooding in Houston. What if you stored your backups at a friend's house that was also flooded? Or Puerto Rico where so many homes were damaged. Banks and Credit Union vaults are built F'ing strong.

I also have my bootable hard drive backup for my computer stored in the box. Every month I back up the computer hard drive, drive the hard drive to the bank (going there anyway), drop off the backup drive and pick up the previous month's drive that was stored there. Say hi to the nice people at the bank and pickup some candy from the candy jar they have there. The drive is only plugged in to the computer during the backup. For day to day backup I use a drive that is always hooked up to run Time Machine.

Hey Douglas, what a great idea about the safe deposit box. This is something I'm going to look into actually.

My only issue with it is the fact that if I die then my loved ones may very well not be able to get access to the contents of the box. I'm sure these places must have things in place for that.

Thanks for your comment

Great article. It is something that you need to get on top of before shooting volume gets too high.

My system is really simple.

Shoot tethered to card + "location drive" which lives in my bag
Card copy via Lightroom to studio drive that auto uploads to cloud
Get home and do the same to my home drive from the card.

So I have

Studio Drive
Home Drive

Location drive which is never relied upon.

Sounds like a good system Scott, it's crazy how many pro photographers I know that still don't have this stuff in place...

Great advice Paul, I have a drawer full of thumb drives doing nothing at all. I was just yesterday thinking about trashing them or giving them away. Problem is they are too small for modern use so a 'best of' picture archive is a great use for them!

Thanks, Robert, it's great to hear those old USB sticks may be put to good use.

Much better than going into landfill and giving you an extra level of backup too.