It's late at night and a thunderstorm is rolling through your town. A lightning strike on the lamp post in the front yard sends a surge through the electrical grid, racing through the wiring in your house. The crash of thunder rocks the place and the lights go out. After a few minutes, the lights come back on. Everything seems to be ok, and as the storm passes, you begin to survey the damage. Most of the major appliances start up without a glitch... then you press the power button on your computer. The pit in your stomach gets larger and larger as a familiar boot-up process has given way to a lone blinking cursor. Your computer and everything on it has been fried by a hundred-million volts of nature's wrath.
So, this isn't just a "what could happen" example of why the subject matter in this article is critical. This happened to me while I was at home from college one summer evening at my parents house back in the late 90's. Yes, the computer was on a surge protector. What they don't tell you is that a direct lightning strike to the house's electrical system can cook even the best power strip, and that spike will find it's way right to the computer and the precious data on your hard drive.
Luckily, I learned my lesson early in life. As a photographer, I'm known for being extra paranoid when it comes to my backup strategy. Back in college, I lost a few term papers - today my family memories, and my clients' memories are in my care.
I'm going to give you an overview of what I do, step by step, when it comes to saving the digital photos I take. I'm not suggesting this strategy is great for everyone, but it works for me - and I'm confident that I won't be loosing photos anytime in near future. After I discuss my strategy, I'll mention a few brief details about the different options available for backing up photos that I use, and list their pros and cons. Long articles have been written about each and every backup method discussed here. You can consider this blog entry a Cliff's Notes version.
Towner Jones Photography's Backup Procedure:
1) Photograph an event
Believe it or not, this is actually one of the most vulnerable moments for your digital pictures. For the majority of folks, it is at this stage that there only exists a single copy of the digital file. Make sure to use reliable memory for your camera, and take care to keep in clean, dry, and away from static electricity or magnets. We're blessed to have Nikon's D3 which incorporates dual memory cards to automatically backup each picture we take. It's actually one of the major selling points of the camera in my opinion.
2) Use Lightroom to import the pictures to the local hard drive, making sure to "Copy" the pictures, not "Move" the pictures to the drive. This ensures that the photos remain on the media card from the camera until more copies can be made. For those of you keeping track there's now two copies of my files in existence. The backup has begun.
3) A little magic happens during the previous step. My computer is set up with dual internal hard drives, in a configuration known as RAID 1 (more about that later) which essentially mirrors all information placed on one hard drive onto the other. So actually, when I copied the photos to computer from my memory card, it actually made additional copies. If one of the two hard drives in the computer ever fails, all of its data is mirrored verbatim on the other. Number of copies now in existence: 3
4) Using Microsoft's SyncToy (we've discussed that before, and we'll discuss it again briefly below) each night all the photos on the internal hard drives gets copied to an external hard drive. Number of copies now in existence: 4
5) The next day, after confirming that the external HD has gotten the photos from the shoot, I format the camera memory cards. Number of copies: 3 (that's the only time you'll see the number go down, unless I choose to delete a photo altogether)
6) I can now do my edits, organize the photos, whatever floats my boat. The nice thing about the mirrored hard drives is that all of these modifications are redundantly being duplicated in real-time. Each evening, the modifications made during the day get synchronized to the external drives. So most of the time, I'm always working 3 backups deep. That is until I take my obsession a couple steps further.
7) The first of each month, I open up my fire-proof computer media safe, and I pull out another external hard drive. This drive then gets synchronized with everything on the other external hard drive. We're now talking about 4 copies of each photo again, and we've now added the element of fire protection to the backup scheme.
8) Finally, as if that wasn't crazy enough, every six months or so, I'll burn a stack of DVDs containing a sampling of my favorite photos and take it to my parents house for "off-site" storage. One more copy for good measure, and the added element of off-site storage to round out the protection strategy.
It may sound crazy, but I sleep better at night knowing that it would take a major catastrophe (meteor impact, nuclear war, etc.) to wipe out all the copies of my pictures. Hopefully, that helps my clients rest a little easier as well.
With my strategy spelled out in detail above, let's talk about the pros and cons of each of the major components, so that you can choose the ones that make the most sense for you.
Redundant Internal Hard Drives
Having multiple hard drives in your computer is probably the cheapest way to back up your data. (I've seen internal hard drives as cheap as 10-cents (US) a gigabyte.) It does, however, require the most amount of technical know how to set up, as it requires you to pop the lid off your computer and do the install. One the drive is in the machine you then have a couple options.
Copy and Paste
You can simply add the additional hard drive as a separate storage location on the computer, and copy and paste your photos to the extra storage. This is manually intensive, and will require you keep track of what is copied where. Many new computer support another option, called RAID, which is a little more attractive.
RAID stands for "Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks" and is a hardware and software option on many computers which allows multiple hard drives to work in some pretty neat ways. For all of the RAID options, check out Wikipedia, but the one we're most interested in here is mirroring. Mirroring sets up two hard drives on your machine to appear as one. Whatever is done with the files on the first drive is "mirrored" on the second drive. This makes it a very convenient backup strategy as your photos (and all of your manipulations of them) is backed up in real-time. Here's a couple important caveats. First, RAID only protects against hardware failures... not stupidity. If you "accidentally" delete a file on the primary drive, it will be deleted on the backup drive as well. For this reason, many people suggest RAID only be a part of your data protection solution and not your ONLY data protection solution. Second, it not the most convenient in the event of an actual hard drive failure. Sure all your data is there on the second drive, but you will need to crack the cover and do some hardware repairs in the guts of your computer when the time comes.
External Hard drives
These, in my opinion, are the coolest things since sliced bread. (Yes, I'm a nerd) A few years back when these things started hitting the market, I had no idea how much I'd fall in love with them. An external hard drive is the exact same drive we talked about above, but instead of being in your computer, it comes in a handy-dandy little case, and sits next to your computer on your desk. The price of these guys continues to plummet, with capacity available at about 15-30 cents (US) per gigabyte. You can use them in the same way as internal drives (some even support RAID!!) but their USB, FireWire, or Ethernet connections to your computer make them mobile.
It's here I'll mention one of my favorite little PC applications made available (for free) by the folks at Microsoft. SyncToy, allows to to schedule and automate synchronizations of data between folders and drives on your PC. It is this application that makes my nightly backups of my internal drives to my external drives quick and easy. I've discussed this in detail in a couple other blog entries, so check them out here and here.
DVD (Archival grade)
I mentioned that I burn a DVD here and there as part of my backup plan. The reason is simply time. Recordable DVD's has dropped in price and a comparable to hard drives from a cost per gigabyte perspective. However, now that an average wedding shoot nets 20+ gigs of photos, burning DVD backups just takes too long. For a few shots here and there, these are still EXCELLENT media for making copies of your pictures. Lab tests have shown them to last for many years when stored properly, with "Archival Grade" media purportedly expected to last up to 100 years. You'll notice I don't mention recordable CD's anywhere... it's because at 700MB there just too small for the large amounts of data generated by modern DSLRs. (I wish I had a time machine where I could go back a decade and tell myself that CD-Rs were going to be too small for anything... oh how technology amazes me!)
So that sums up the very basics of the technology involved in my backup process. Hopefully you found it informative enough for you to make some next steps in developing your own scheme. However, we're not quite done, before we finish, let's talk about physical storage.
So you've taken all these great steps to protect your photos. You've got a zillion copies on a bunch of different media types... but then, God forbid, your house burns down. If you ask people when one thing they'd save from a house fire (after loved ones, of course) the majority of folks respond with "photos" - keep that in mind when developing your protection strategy.
I get no kickbacks from these guys, but I love my Sentry fire-proof media safe. It's tiny, easy to access, and it stores my external hard-drive and DVDs like a champ. Check out Sentry's lineup, and pick out one that works for you.
One last thing. Really, really bad stuff does sometime happen. When it comes to things like floods and tornados, even a good safe won't necessarily save your precious pictures. For these cases, off-site storage is a great solution. There's a bunch of companies out there that will be happy to charge you an arm and a leg to save your pictures to their servers, or send them your DVDs for safe-keeping in their vaults. Save your money and find friends and family out of town that will set up a "back-up photo exchange" - in the event of catastrophe, you'll be thankful you did.
Alright gang, that's my sermon on backups. I'll close with this last thought....
No matter what your strategy, it is CRITICAL that you backup your photos!
Computers are man-made objects and as such, they do not last forever. Back in the old film days, it took fire, wind or water to destroy your pictures. In today's digital world, they are MUCH MUCH more vulnerable. For that reason, it is imperative that you take measures to protect them.
I'll be happy to field as many questions as I can about your own backup scheme. Feel free to comment here on the blog (to benefit everybody) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time. All the best, Rob