Five steps to ensure you never lose an image
STEP 1: IMMEDIATELY AFTER SHOOTING
When your card is full or the day's shoot is over—whichever comes first-back up everything right away. If you're traveling, take a laptop or one of the many handheld devices designed for backing up images (see the article "Toolbox: Photo & Multimedia Viewers" on our website for a look at these types of devices). If you'll be shooting again before you get home, don't write over your card with new images. Travel with enough cards to keep all your images on the cards; otherwise, your first backup won't be a backup at all.
Don't put off downloading your images to your primary computer. Do it as soon as you can. At this point, you'll have three copies of each image: the original capture on your memory card, the duplicate you made in the field and the copy you downloaded to your computer. Check them all to be sure you've downloaded everything and that the files are okay before you clear your memory card.
STEP 3: ARCHIVING
Ideally, you already have some system for backing up all of the data on your computer, including your photos. This may be to an external hard drive or to an alternate internal drive if you have more than one installed in your computer. Once your photos have been backed up again to this drive, you can safely remove the copy on your portable device or laptop.
STEP 4: BACK UP YOUR BACKUP
If you've followed the above steps, you now have two copies of every image file: one on your primary computer and one on an external or additional drive. This is good, but magnetic drives can fail, so burn another copy of each image to an optical disc like a CD or DVD. Label it for easy reference and put it in a safe place, preferably in another location—at work, or at least in another room. That way if there's a fire, flood or other unexpected emergency, you won't be worried about losing your files. Also note that the life of optical discs is uncertain, and they can be easily scratched, so once a year or so, set aside a weekend afternoon to create new backups on new discs.
STEP 5: BACK UP ONLINE
There are many web-based services that will sell you server space by the gigabyte for online storage of your files. These services are generally inexpensive, and are especially good for our purposes, for two reasons. First, your files are stored off-site, so a catastrophe at home won't affect your backups (and you have access to your files anywhere you can find a computer and Internet connection). Secondly, these services do their own backups of your files to protect against their own exposure to hardware failure.
FINAL THOUGHT: FILE FORMATS
If you're a RAW shooter, you're probably working with a proprietary format, unless your camera is one that supports Adobe's DNG format. While we can be fairly confident that major manufacturers like Canon and Nikon will continue to support their proprietary formats for years and years to come, it's not a bad idea to have a copy of your most important images in more than one format. You might opt to convert and save a copy as an Adobe DNG, which lets you retain the flexibility of RAW, or you might save a copy as a TIFF. Either way, it's reassuring to know that your images aren't locked down in a proprietary file.