Disaster invariably strikes when you aren't prepared - but what's the best way to ensure you never lose important data and image files?

Professional photographers are a paranoid bunch. For instance, I know one pro who goes to extremes to ensure that he never loses any work. After a day's shoot with a digital camera, he immediately uses his notebook to make not one, but two distinct copies of his original images on a pair of CD-Rs - just in case one of the discs gets damaged. Once back in the office, he copies the images from the media in the camera onto his hard disk, edits them, and then makes three CDs with the final images: one for the client, plus two backup archives to guard against catastrophes like theft, a scratched disc, or, say, attack from space aliens. Needless to say, he stores one pair of CDs (one with the original images, the other with the final edited versions) in a physically remote location from the other pair of CDs.

I'm not suggesting everyone employs such a rigorous backup scheme, many people are considerably more relaxed. But then, that's when accidents tend to happen...

However, it's clear that backing up digital work is vital. Anything from a user error, to a power surge, to a virus attack can (and will) wipe out your files. And when that happens, you don't want to lose years of precious photos in one fell swoop.

Exactly how you backup your work is up to you. There are many options out there, but they boil down to two typical methods. You can use a backup program to regularly copy your photos and other important files to another hard disk, an optical disc in a CD-RW or rewritable DVD drive, or another storage option. Or, you can manually copy (drag-&-drop) your images onto a CD or DVD at regular intervals.

Do you need backup software?

There was a time, some years back, when backup software was the most common way to save copies of your data. You needed one of these dedicated programs if you used a tape backup drive - and they offered handy automation and space-saving compression tricks to those of us who used high-capacity removable storage devices such as Zip or LS-120 drives. Unfortunately, most of these programs couldn't handle recordable CD drives, so your options were somewhat limited.

Today, the prime backup programs, Stomp's Backup MyPC (around £45) and Dantz Development's Retrospect Professional (£65 plus VAT) are capable of handling a wider range of devices, including most CD-RW and rewritable DVD drives.

But most users don't really need these high-powered packages. There are more practical ways to keep photos and other important files backed up. The backup software in Ahead Software AG's Nero 6 Ultra Edition CD/DVD burning package does the job, making a nice compromise between the traditional full and incremental dedicated backup software and the less formal drag-&-drop backup approach that suffices for most of us.

The high capacity of CDs and DVDs has made backing up photos easy. In general, there's no reason not to back up your digital images by manually copying the files onto a disc using the CD/DVD copying features in Microsoft Windows XP, Nero 6, or Roxio's Easy CD & DVD Creator 6.

A good rule of thumb: Never erase the media in your camera until you have not only copied your photos onto your hard drive but also made another redundant copies on removable media. Taking the extra steps to protect against accidental erasure or loss means you never have to say you're sorry you lost your precious photos.