Google Picasa: the best way to back up your photos

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The thought of losing your photos is a nightmare and I was recently reminded of the importance of keeping an up-to-date working backup when, after some distinctly odd behaviour, my c: drive went down. Thanks to the excellent Live Mesh I had current copies of all my ongoing work files distributed around my network, and online too, in case the house/office burnt down. So that just left my photos…

If anything I’m even more paranoid about losing my photo collection, so I had full backups of all my original files and I use the free Google Picasa to organise them, so it was simple to download a copy of the latest version (Picasa 3.8 has just been released). However, faced with the need to restore, it hit me that a collection is far more than just the original photos and the management software – it’s also all the organisational information that makes the photos meaningful and accessible.

Now this wasn’t an entirely new thought, and nor was its significance for backup. One of the major reasons I had switched from Photoshop Elements to Picasa for organising my images was that I had grown suspicious of Elements’ all-your-eggs-in-one-basket approach, based on a central all-important catalogue that becomes larger and larger and so more and more vulnerable, as well as harder but more important to backup. It was a point that had hit home when my father’s Elements’ catalogue became corrupted and he was left scrabbling for his most recent backup disks.

By contrast Picasa takes a much more distributed approach. Rather than laboriously tagging every image as Elements expects, for example, you can name your folder with the date, people and event and then live search on these (plus embedded metadata, image caption, description etc). The folder-based approach isn’t as precise, but it’s far quicker to apply and surprisingly effective for retrieval. Moreover, because it’s more distributed, it’s also more robust – I knew that this core folder-based organisation would be recovered with the embedded metadata.

But what about the other organisation?  Suddenly I thought about all the work that you do in Picasa: creating albums, reordering, starring and rotating images, applying non-destructive edits and managing Picasa’s brilliant face tags. Clearly this information must be handled in a central database somewhere and presumably I had now lost it.

I needn’t have worried. Picasa does indeed have a central database, but it also cleverly distributes the information it needs to rebuild its database as hidden .picasa.ini files within each folder. Each ini file is a simple text file containing unsaved information on edits, stars and even the placement and identification of faces.

It meant that all I had to do was leave Picasa on overnight and, when I came in in the morning, Picasa had recreated its database and everything was up and running  as it had been before the crash. The only sign that this was a fresh set-up was that my name tags (some 10,000 spread across around 50 people) were now unnamed.  I named the first couple manually and then spotted something about logging in to web albums, which I did, and Picasa automatically named all the rest.

Belt and Braces Backup

I was more than happy with this, but it turns out that not quite all the information is stored in the picasa.ini files as, for some reason, these don’t store data for albums or image reordering.  To back this information up you must use Picasa’s Tools > Backup Pictures command.

With its prominent Burn button I had always assumed that this was intended solely for backing up to CD/DVD and, with 70GB of images, the thought had always been too awful to contemplate compared to the simplicity of drive-to-drive backup. In fact, digging in the Help file, I discovered that it’s perfectly possible to backup drive-to-drive, you just have to create a new Backup Set and the option becomes available. Although I’ll probably still stick to distributed folders rather than centrally-managed albums, I will certainly use this approach in future as all photos in the backup set are still simply stored in their folder structure (complete with ini files), but it makes it much easier to update only new and changed files.

Also while digging in the Help file, I came across some other important information. Another of Picasa’s great advantages is that it comes with 1GB of free web space for sharing web albums; what I hadn’t realised is that Google had radically cut its price on additional storage. With 80GB now costing only $20 a year (compared to $150 previously), and the ability to automatically synchronise original and changed files directly from Picasa, I’ve signed up and plan to add a Mesh-style online backup to my local backups.

Between its distributed database handling, disk-to-disk backup and bargain online storage, Picasa really does cover all bases and offers an excellent way to keep your images organised and safe.

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