After every holiday or family gathering, I become a bit reflective about the digital lives we’re leading. Very often, half of the folks at these gathering have photo or video cameras, and are going to great pains to get picture after picture. And despite promises to the contrary, I usually never see those photos again. In fact, I’ve become concerned about what happens to them at all.

Most people run Windows, and I’m not sure but I would imagine that most people use whatever software comes with Windows to handle their pictures and movies. They might also use whatever happened to come with a recent camera purchase, if they installed software off the CD. And therefore each person may have a slightly different configuration. But since most people are what I would call “novice” with their computers, when their computer inevitably fails, I would imagine that the chances are very good that they’ve lost all of their media. I consider the state of affairs on Windows to almost be a sort of “media prison,” and I don’t think most folks have much of a grasp on the situation.

It’s a little easier on a Mac, if only because there’s really only one commonly used application for managing your pictures: iPhoto. The same is true for your videos, with iMovie. The format is standard, and with iPhoto it appears as a single folder on your computer. This is so convenient it’s hard to understate, because I can move a pocket-sized hard drive from computer to computer, and keep everything with me. I can sit at any Mac in the world, and open my iPhoto library, complete with information like photo locations and which faces belong to which person. That also makes it a snap to back up.

Some people seem inclined to keep every photo they’ve ever taken on their memory card, but this can’t end much better. I just recently had a memory card fail on me, and lost a day’s worth of video. Very disappointing, but it could have been a lot worse. Although storage has gotten pretty good, I think it’s still safe to say that’s not a good way to keep your pictures.

For me, a bigger fear is just losing the media I have right now. Keeping my iPhoto library on a single hard drive is not a safe bet. You need to think about keeping a backup in at least one place, which I do. But I’m still a bit paranoid because both the hard drive and the backup are often in the same physical location, which is usually my house. So if there was a fire or even vandalism, I could well lose it all. This isn’t likely to happen to a box of old photos, which may or may not survive a fire, but are highly unlikely to be stolen.

So where does this leave me? With the same advice I give everyone: keep backups. No matter who you are, you should keep at least one full backup of your computer. I can’t recommend software for Windows because I don’t use it, but for my Mac I’ve been extremely happy with SuperDuper. There are plenty of good online solutions, though at the moment we’ve settled on DropBox because it not only backs up, but keeps several computers in sync.

Whatever method you choose, follow it well. It will save you one day, and believe me, your media is worth it.