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Digital photo storage: 6 ways to keep your photos safe in case of an emergency

Keep the portrait of your great-grandmother and your dad's dorky high school yearbook photo safe for future generations with one of these apps or services.

Shelby Brown Editor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
  • She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
Shelby Brown
6 min read

Do you have a plan to protect your physical photos if there's an emergency?

David T.

When a natural disaster hits and your possessions are lost or destroyed, people sometimes offer the phrase "things can be replaced" as comfort. This is true to some extent -- you can easily buy furniture, curtains and kitchen appliances again. But losing photographs? Devastating. Even more so if all you had were prints of your family's old pictures.

Scanning your prints and saving them on a computer isn't enough. If your computer crashes, or you fall victim to a virus or a nasty data breach, you can still lose them. I learned this lesson the hard way when my family's Dell took a turn for the worse in the early 2000s, and took countless pictures with it.

Portable hard drives can store your memories and they fit nicely in a bug-out bag. You also can make a photo book as a backup of your all-time favorites and store it somewhere like a fireproof safe deposit box. 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 critical. Though Facebook and other social media platforms can hold your photos, not everyone may be comfortable making them the keepers of your memories. Plus, your photos will be compressed to a lower resolution -- they won't look as good if you want to print them out.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Better yet, there are dedicated services to preserve shots, whether they're from your phone, a digital camera or that film camera you used years ago. Think of those black and white snaps of your grandparents as kids, the silly photos you took on a disposable camera and more. But before you entrust precious memories into any service, make sure to read through the terms of service. Research how the company handles photo retention and what rights you have to the photos once they're on that site. For example, Photobucket has a Bill of Rights for its users.

Here are a few different apps and services you can use to safeguard your memories for little to no cost.

Cloud photo services

Sarah Tew/CNET

Google Photos is a great resource for both 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 all the way from 2014, when I first made the transition to Android.

The backup and sync function should be on by default when you download the app, but you can also turn it on manually in your settings. Either way, you can conveniently manage your Google Photos library from your phone or desktop. Every so often, Google will ask if you want to free up space on your phone by backing up the images to your Google Account, which is accessible through Gmail, as well.

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

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

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 iCloud.com in your browser, or with the Windows iCloud app.

Like Google Photos, the iOS service automatically organizes your photos by date. However, you should know that your device's iCloud backup won't automatically save photos to iCloud Drive -- it's a separate part of iCloud. For example, when I delete a photo off my iPad, a notification pops up that the image will be deleted from iCloud Photos, as well. Apple Toolbox suggests keeping copies of stuff you don't want to be deleted in the iCloud Drive, but don't solely rely on the iCloud Drive -- archive it in multiple places, like a local hard drive for example.

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

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

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

If you subscribe to Flickr Pro for $7 a month or $60 annually, you get unlimited storage for your images. In addition, Flickr's Uploadr feature, available only to Pro members, lets you backup your content from locations like 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 you make 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 25GB for $6 a month, Intermediate stores 25,000 images or 250GB for $8 a month, and Expert has unlimited image storage for $13 a month. All the paid tiers are ad-free. In addition, you can store non-compressed original photos, so your photo quality isn't compromised with the Expert subscription.

How to digitize physical photos

Joshua Goldman/CNET

If you have a collection of old physical photos that you want to digitize, you have some options. The simplest is a scanner: If you have access to one, CNET has a handy guide that breaks down cleaning the glass, scanning multiple photos at once, and organization and editing options.

Scanning photos is typically the best way to preserve their resolution, but if you're in a pinch, you can take a photo of the physical photo with your phone. From there, you can edit and back it up as you choose. The drawback of this makeshift method is that sometimes, depending on the lighting, you'll get a reflection of your phone on the photo and light glares while trying to keep the photo flat.

Here are a couple of apps and services that can help you preserve your old physical photos, if you don't have a scanner on hand or you have a lot of photos and don't want to spend the 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 backs the scans up to the Google Photos app. The app is available for iOS and Android.

Kent German/CNET

If using an app isn't cutting it, you can turn to a professional service. ScanMyPhotos, located in Irvine, California, offers physical photo scanning, negative scanning and slide scanning. You can mail the company a box of photos to restore or the website can transfer VHS media and 8mm film to DVD to save old home-movies.

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

Other services to try

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For more on photo storage, check out 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.