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Backup vs. Sync: Do You Know the Difference?

It may sound obvious to recommend having more than one copy of your photos and important documents, but all too often those tasks fall into the “do it later” category. Today with most of our data in digital form, we have many options of apps and software programs to help simplify the process.

Two important terms to understand are backup and sync.

First, know that they aren’t interchangeable. Confusing them can mean the difference between having a secure second copy of your data or accidentally deleting everything.

So what do they mean? Let’s start with some definitions:

  • Backup: A true copy of your data, ideally kept in a separate location from the original. If you make changes to the original, your backup is still secure.
  • Sync: The same data visible elsewhere, almost always in the cloud. If you make changes to the original, they will be automatically synced (mirrored) and updated.

I have to admit, once upon a time, the changes / updates of a sync actually sounded more appealing to me. So if I made edits to a photo, wouldn’t it be better to have those automatically saved in the cloud? No, not actually. Let me show you why.

Most people use their phone as their default camera, so let’s use that for these examples.

Take a photo. You’ll see it appear in your camera roll. (Here my friend Cindy and I had a great time exploring White Sands National Park in New Mexico!)

If you use a Sync Cloud Service, you’ll also be able to view the image there.

If you use a Backup Cloud Service, you’ll also be able to view the image there. (Everything looks the same so far, I know.)


But let’s see what happens when the original photo is deleted. 

The synced photo is deleted in both places because there never was a true backup – the photo was just accessible in the sync platform as well as your camera roll, but you actually had only one photo. A sync mirrors what is done to the original, including deleting it.

If you use a backup system, however, you can delete the original with confidence, knowing that a true copy is safely backed up.

So what if something happens and all your originals are deleted?

To me, the real test of any backup system is recovering your original data. After all, that’s the point, right? You need to be able to easily access and restore your photos if you lose the originals. Unfortunately, some backups make this step incredibly difficult.

The good news is that there are many options available to ensure your photos are secure! I most frequently recommend Amazon Photos as a starting point. All of my digital organizing clients have a 3-2-1 backup plan structured to meet their specific needs and no two projects are exactly the same. Let me know – how can I help you with your photos?

Download this FREE PDF to learn more! ⬇️ Amazon Photos: Where to Start

A: Multiple backups. I always recommend following the 3-2-1 Rule: 3 copies of your data, on 2 types of media, with at least 1 offsite / in the cloud. 

If you take the majority of your photos with your phone, I think the best place to start is using Amazon Photos. I use it for my own photos and it’s FREE for Amazon Prime members, including unlimited full-resolution photo storage. Download the free PDF above to get started!

A: No, just….no.

It’s a great marketing tactic on their part, but please do not rely on any photo printing service for your photo storage. Their goal is to sell you photo products, which you are more likely to purchase if your photos are already in their system. It is a nightmare to recover your photos from Shutterfly and all your metadata (the important data like dates) is stripped when you upload your photos. Hopefully you have the originals saved elsewhere!

I write about it in more detail here: The One Place to NEVER Store Your Digital Photos

A: iCloud is a sync. You can certainly use it, but don’t count it as one of your three copies. Remember that syncs are really only one copy of your photo – essentially a mirror. Even if you have the sync featured turned off between multiple Apple devices, you only have one copy of your photo. If you delete it from the camera roll, it is gone everywhere – there is no backup.

More questions? I offer one-on-one coaching when you book a Digital Consult! We can even screen share so I can better assist you with your specific needs and I promise no question is dumb!

I’d love to help you organize your photos and design a backup system that will work for you. 

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Hi, I'm Lisa

Photos have always brought me joy and are one of my favorite mediums for storytelling. But let’s be honest, the sheer volume of digital photos we all have can be overwhelming! It’s my goal through Scissortail Digital to help you tell your stories and improve the ways you work with your photos.

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