The best part about digital photography is the fact that it no longer costs a fortune in film and processing to take the thousands of images you need to experiment and learn the art of photography. A few years ago I took a cruise down south and spent over $1000 on pro slide film and processing. For that amount now, you can buy a decent SLR camera with two lenses, a few cards and take as many pictures as you want!
The sad fact of digital imaging that most people forget (until it happens to you) is that with one computer hard drive crash you can lose years upon years of precious memories.
You need a backup plan.
With all the nice aspects of digital photography, the one benefit of negatives and slides is you could throw them in a drawer and forget about them....until your kids find them years later and make fun you.
Currently the most economical method for backing up large amounts of data is an external hard drive, which costs roughly $100 for terabyte of space. Burnable DVD's and CD's are okay if you are a casual shooter, just get in the habit of burning two copies, in case one fails (go ahead, get one wet or leave it in the sun and see what I am talking about, they are not a very permanent media!).
Hard drives being relatively cheap, I always make sure I always have two copies of everything from the moment I transfer my files to the computer.
I have dual hard drive system in the computer that automatically make copies of themselves (or RAID for the computer geeks in the crowd). I will go through everything and make sure to delete obvious mistakes and bad photos, as there is no need to keep them, let alone letting them take up space in your backup system.
I tend to sort and name all photos in folders by date and there are some great software packages out there for managing your images and cutting out the amount of time you actually have to sit in front of a screen (Adobe Photoshop Lightroom being my personal fav, but that's for another column....).
Once a month, or when the drives are getting full, I move everything off the main computer as multiple copies on separate external drives. If you have a safety deposit box, consider storing a copy of everything offsite. In the event of fire or flooding you will still have your images. Even if you don't have a safety deposit, consider teaming up with another photographer and store you backups at each others houses.
Get your head in the clouds
Another interesting idea that is becoming popular lately is “cloud” or internet storage of your files. You upload your data to the internet, pay someone and let them worry about backing up your data. Let them buy the big fancy storage arrays and spend some more time shooting. There a few different services, Amazon S3, Smugmug and Carbonite to name a few. Some even let you specify a folder and the service will automatically scan that folder and backup any new data that you have added. If having your photos on someone else's machine doesn't bother you, this might be a good option, especially for offsite backup.
Go big or go home
If you shoot a lot of photos and videos, you are going to want to upgrade pretty quickly from just standard one terabyte external drives, each with a connection cord and power supply to something larger, but maybe not as large as owning your own server. Enter Drobo.
Drobo is an external enclosure that hold multiple external drives (four or more) in one sleek looking unit. It automatically makes duplicate copies of all your data across multiple drives, so that if one fails, you simply pop in a new drive and you are good to go. If you fill up the Drobo, you simply swap out one or more drives with a larger drive and you automatically have more space. It doesn't help you much if you want to have an offsite backup, but it is a pretty powerful all in one backup solution.
As with all technology, all the above solutions will probably be outdated in a year or two, so you have to make sure to keep up with new technology as it emerges and migrate your data forward. Don't think your whole image collection could end up useless? Two words: Eight Tracks.