Photo Backup: DVD

Information Superhighway
Creative Commons License photo credit: nickwheeleroz

I hope you’re all not getting too tired of this backup stuff — I promise, we’re winding down soon. This article deals with a form of photo backup that people either love or hate: the DVD.


After this article, we’ll hit on one last form of backup. Then we’ll talk about software, strategy, and general advice. So stay tuned!


The DVD, or more specifically the Recordable DVD, is basically a plastic disc with some other stuff in/on it. DVD’s are optical discs, so there are actual pits and bumps in the media (or variations in dye color) that make up the data (kinda like a record, but different). But regardless of their anatomy and inner workings, I think most of us are familiar with the DVD. To backup on DVD, you’ll need a DVD recorder and the blank writable discs.

As technology advances, so do the formats and capacities of the DVD. The most common disc is the single layer DVD with a capacity of 4.7GB. These discs come in various flavors, such as DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. There’s really no difference between the – (dash) and the + (plus) variations, other than the fact that some recorders are built for one or the other (but there are also multi-format recorders out there). The RW indicator just means that the disc is rewritable, and I would caution against using such discs for backing up photos. DVD-RAM is another rewritable format, so I’d stay away from it for backups (though they do have a very long shelf life). You can expect to find DVD-R and DVD+R discs for about $0.30 per disc when purchased in bulk.

Then we have Dual Layer technology, with a capacity of 8.5GB. And again, we have the -R and +R variations. The downside to these discs is that they cost more money per GB. You can expect to pay about $0.90 per disc when purchased in bulk.

And now we have Blu-ray… the latest format for optical discs. These are way new in comparison to the older formats, so they’re not widely used yet. But the capacity is quite amazing at 25GB for single layer discs and 50GB for dual layer discs. The major downside to Blu-ray is the cost. You can expect to pay about $10 per disc, and good luck finding them in bulk.

OK, so you have a lot of options. My point here is that you need to be aware of which hardware you already have (because most new computers come standard with a DVD recorder). Don’t buy DVD+R if you have a DVD-R recorder — it won’t work. And don’t buy dual layer discs if you only have a single layer recorder — it won’t work either.


I think I’ve said this a couple of times, but I’ll say it again: Don’t use rewritable discs for backing up your photos! Two reasons — they’re more expensive, and they have the potential to be overwritten or erased. The whole idea behind using a DVD to backup is that it’s cheap and permanent (well… sort of). They’re cheap enough that you can recopy the data every 5 or 10 years to new discs, and they’re permanent enough that you don’t have to worry about erasing them by accident.

If you have a DVD recorder, you should also have some software that goes with it. The backup process for DVDs is a bit more manual and labor-intensive than other methods we’ve discussed, but it’s not terrible. Most software now is just drag, drop, and hit a button.

If you decide to use DVDs to backup your photos, you’ll have to decide when those backups will take place. Some photographers like to immediately backup to DVD after the photos hit the hard drive. Others, like myself, just do a DVD backup every week or every month. Either way is fine, just as long as you’re fine with it.

Some photographers also like to use archival quality DVDs for backing up their photos. These can run about $2.50 per disc and they claim to be good for 100 years. Personally, I just use regular discs (but not the uber-cheap ones) and I write the recording date on them (along with the photos contained) — I figure I’ll re-copy them to fresh discs every 5 or 10 years just to be safe. Plus, as capacities go up and prices come down, I can condense my DVD archive as the years go by.

Girl power
Creative Commons License photo credit: aeter


As I mentioned above, DVDs are cheap and (mostly) permanent. At $0.30 per single layer disc, you’re paying about $.06 per GB. For a 500GB hard drive to be economically equivalent, you’d have to find one on sale for $32. So anybody who says they don’t use DVDs because of the cost is full of it. You don’t have to use the archival quality discs — regular ones are better than nothing at all. But if you want to invest in the expensive stuff, go for it.

And as I also mentioned above, the data recorded to a DVD (not a rewritable DVD though) is permanent. You can’t erase it by accident. You can’t overwrite it by accident. You simply burn it and stick it in a binder or a case and stow it away somewhere. I like to keep mine offsite — it’s easy just to bring new discs to the location and add them to the stash. No back and forth business.


Effervescing Elephants
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dude Crush

The main downside to a DVD is how fragile they can be. The discs are prone to scratches and dings that could ruin all the data (especially the really cheap no-name brands). It’s best to not handle them any more than is necessary. Get a binder, throw them in the sleeves, and don’t take them out unless you need them. Or put them in jewel cases and leave them on the shelf (though this adds considerable cost per disc). Along the same topic of fragility, DVDs will age and go bad after some number of years.

Another issue with the DVD is the capacity. Unless you have a large budget, you’ll likely be using the old 4.7GB discs. You could potentially be splitting up a single photo shoot across multiple discs. If you’re prone to taking a lot of photos like that, you might consider dual layer discs just for the convenience. And once you have a large collection of DVDs, they take up quite a bit of space in comparison to a hard drive (another reason I like the binders or books).

And the last weakness isn’t so much with the DVD, but the person using the DVD backup method. You have to remember to actually do it. You can’t rely on your fancy automated software to pick up a disc, put it in your computer, and make an up-to-date backup. You’ve got to have a schedule, and you’ve got to stick to it.


If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a fan of the DVD backup. I would recommend this method to all photographers. It makes for a great primary or secondary backup solution and it’s dirt cheap.

Sure, it’s not as automated as some other methods and it can even be a little tedious, but burning a couple DVDs each week or month is certainly less stressful than losing all your photos in the event of a catastrophe.


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24 thoughts on “Photo Backup: DVD

  1. Dennis

    Problem with DVDs: You never know how long they will last! Some DVDs last 5 years, some 10 (under rapid aging conditions), but there are none lasting 50 or 100 years (like e.g. Kodak claims).

    I suggest you reread some facts about DVDs, one of them being they do not last long and you NEVER know when they fail. If you back up to DVDs you need to check for errors and if a certain degree is reached, dump the DVD and re-burn.

    The best way for backups is still the good ol’ hard drive. Maybe go external and save that drive in a magnetic safe zone.

  2. MIke Simons

    DVDs can work, but if you shop around, your argument about “External hard drives are still too expensive” can’t hold water.

    I’m the proud – and recent – owner of twin 1TB external hard drives from Western Digital available at for about $71 each. By your math, $32 would be needed for a 500GB to convince you; I can get 1TB for just over that, AND I don’t have to wrestle with babysitting discs and shuffling through the tedium of an out-to-optical backup, AND I can use my automated software. I’ve used DVDs in the past; for my money, its a horrible waste of time.

    When one ExHD gets full, it goes to my fireproof safe, and I buy another. No problems!

  3. Derek Kennedy

    I tried to get some photos off of dvd’s that I burned a couple years ago – not the ‘uber’ cheap ones either and I had troubles reading the disks.

    External HD is the only way I will go. I’ve never had a problem getting photos from a ExHD, nor have I had (so far) a HD fail. They are getting larger and cheaper all the time as well.

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  5. Derek

    I’ve got both now, external HD and offsite DVD backups. What I’m curious about is life span of harddrives. I’ve read some accounts that if not used for a long time the bearings on a HD spindle will dry out. I dunno if that is FUD or not. Given prices of harddrives lately, I’m probably more inclined to use them.

    Heck, at a recent software conference they gave out stuff on hard drives in lieu of the usual bundle of DVD’s.

  6. Kristi

    I use DVDs and I also use an external HD. DVDs have lasted longer than my external HD. . . . (smile) Also, with regard to ‘how many years they last’ – I started out putting them on CDs. When DVDs came out, I transferred everything to DVDs. When dl DVDs came out – I transferred again. Now that blueray is out I will begin transferring to blueray sometime in the next year or so. So, there is no issue on ‘how many years they last.’ Technology keeps changing – and so do I. (smile)

  7. davew

    How do we determine how long the DVD will last? I have DVD movies from 96 that still plays without any problem, is there a different spec with movie vs images/data?

    I would think they are all bits on the DVD.

    I typically would read the DVDs right after I perform the backup, just to make sure I can read them. Also, I have encountered situation where the same DVD can be read by my burner, but not by my read only DVD drive in my PC, maybe it has something to do with the + – ??

    Hard drives have come down in price, and have been fairly reliable in recent years, but still a mechanical device. Also, because it is read/write device, extra precaution might be necessary so you don’t over write the data by mistake. Or, like what I did recently, tried to install Ubuntu and lost my primary image drive. Good thing I did a back up right before my own mistake, but it does show how vulnerable a read/write device can be.

  8. Derek

    Commercial Movie DVD’s are mastered differently that writable DVD’s. The longevity issue with writable media is the dye that is used. When you “burn” the disc, you are writing information on that dye, which could potentially breakdown over time, rendering the disc un-readable.

  9. Captain Obvious

    Actually, if you use anything OTHER than RW discs, you’re gonna lose your backups to bit-rot:

    The RW discs are written in the crystalization in METAL, which is stable, unless heated sufficiently
    ( the “blanking” process for -RW discs is using the laser to anneal the metal )

    The R discs are written in organic-dye, which breaks down, especially once “burned”.

    I’ve lost lots of backups to R discs, but never to RW discs, except due to scratches ( I’ve gotten fully-intact files back from CD-RW discs from when they were first available, years later, but even the Kodak discs of the R type fail, with time — 100 years? if _never burned_, maybe… )

    As for HDs needing to keep their bearings lubed, yeah, with fluid-bearings one might expect the fluid to drain out:
    just fire ’em up, & run your OSs equivalent to “scandisk” or “fsck” ( FileSystem ChecK ) on it every season/3-months, and you should be good.

    As for RAID, ZFS is better ( RAID6 should now be the norm, as double-drive failure is more likely in a looong-rebuild that the 1TB drives require… )

    Whatever, if you prefer breaks-down-organic-dye to doesn’t-break-down-metallic-crystallization, go for it, but don’t complain if it turns out that metal is more permanent.

    Also, stick to Plextor for your backup-drives, and you won’t have the damn read-problems and reliability-problems you get with the cheaper brands.

    No I’m not related to ’em, but am replacing my “Pioneer” drive with a Plextor, at the end of the month.
    ( due to its flakyness — unable to read reliably, only burns reliably when slowed down, maybe it’s dying early, but it cost me 20x in work what I paid for it, so I’m Not Happy With It right now )

    I’ve owned many drives, through the years, and the Plextors are the only ones that are *predictable* and reliable, every time, and if I burn it on a Plextor, and that drive dies, then the next ( different model ) Plextor I get is GOING to read the backups correctly.

    Which can’t be guaranteed for any other brand I’ve tried ( been about 10-12 years for Toshiba, though, and never tried a Hitachi, so can’t comment on them )

  10. Brian Auer Post author

    Ah yes… Captain Obvious is correct. Something that I had overlooked. The RW discs use a phase change metal alloy rather than an organic dye. I would expect the data to be more robust on these discs, but you have to balance that with cost and the possibility of overwriting or erasing data if you’re a clutz.

    The other thing I’m curious about is if you can “finalize” an RW disc so that it becomes readable on a wider array of hardware (if that’s even necessary). With R discs, you basically just need a DVD-ROM to recover the data. Can you do the same with an RW disc?

    So, Thank you Captain Obvious!

  11. Matt

    You skip the DVD-RAM’s although ‘they have a very long shelf life’. Shouldn’t that be sufficient reason to use only them? Wikipedia states “DVD-RAM is considered a highly reliable format, as the discs have built-in error control and a defect management system.” That makes the ‘read after write’ obsolete.

    Another advantage is, that one can just copy files directly to the DVD-RAM without using any burning software. There also is no need to finalize the disk once it’s full.

    Disadvantages are higher cost and the need for drives that are able to read DVD-RAMs. The majority of the actual ones do.

    So, as you might guess by now, I love backing up to DVD-RAMs 😉 Of course this is my last backup instance for storing the photos off-site. At home they also are stored on different RAID-1 discs.

  12. Brian Auer Post author

    Yeah, I kinda did skip right over it… but mostly because the format isn’t as common as the others. Prior to your comment, I’ve never actually known anybody to use DVD-RAM.

  13. Air Jordans

    I understand your point in backing up with DVDs. I do this seldomly, but I would only do it as a 3rd and 4th backup platform. CDs can get damages easily, and they dont last longer then a decade.

  14. Victor

    I have been working with digital image archives for well over 15 years. DVD is one of the most unreliable methods of backup due to media longevity. The manufacturing process is flawed with QC problems, cheap coating materials and poor substrate material. This tends to have a severe consequence when looking at a DVD 10 years out. We used name-brand “gold” or “Archival” DVD’s of several different brands to no real success. I have over 1500 DVD’s in my archive, which at last archive compile, 7% of the data was unusable. I know 7% seems small, but for an image archive to lose 7% of its data is pretty severe. luckily our DAT backups from 1997 proved more reliable, albeit slow.
    I recommend RAID systems based on your particular needs (Cheapo -to-expensive are out there) with 2 secondary backups. Currently we use DAT for legacy data (dual redundancy), Offsite NAS, and in-house SAN.

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  16. sori

    this method is way too slow for me. I much prefer to use external HD or even just a USB drive to back up my files and photos and such.

  17. Fluefiske

    i have to agree with sori. This process takes to much time. When i am backing up data, it is usually a considerable amount of data. And i just have the time to sit and wait for a slow DVD burning process… But i enjoyed the discussion anyway. 🙂


    Now I’m thoroughly confused!! Obviously the jury is still out on the best way to back up photos! So what is a person to do?

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