Backups 101

I apologize for the lack of new content here recently.  As much as I want to get out and shoot, I’ve been busy with several other kinds of projects lately, some things that friends and I are trying to start up, a new project at the office, preparing to move to a new apartment.  So in lieu of any new photos to share, a hopefully useful tip or two around backing up your photos.

I’m often surprised by how little beginning photographers, even professionals, know about this subject.  What happens if the unthinkable occurs?  If you lose your photos, if you lose the disk that they’re on, what happens?  The computer hard disk is a frequent point of failure and if you don’t do anything until that failure occurs, a partial recovery can cost you thousands of dollars.  A full recovery may be impossible.  As an MIS professional, I learned my lesson about back-ups more than 20 years ago and I apply that lesson to the way I handle my digital assets.

Professionals working in the field generally have their laptop with them and during and after a shoot they will immediately copy the contents of their digital memory cards to the laptop.  This not only allows them to see what they’ve got on a large screen, it provides an immediate back-up for the relatively fragile memory cards.

Aside – never cheap out on memory cards.  You’ve spent hundreds, perhaps thousands on your photo equipment and you’re looking to save $10 on a memory card?  It makes no sense.  I’ve tried a few of the el cheapo memory cards from Shenzhen and I’ve never bought one that doesn’t have problems.

Once you get home, that’s where the real work begins.  Most people just copy their memory cards over to their computer’s hard disk and then delete the contents of the card.  (Note, never delete the files on the card.  Reformat the card in your camera.  It prevents file fragmentation which can slow a card down and possibly introduce other issues.)

I do that as well, but I don’t copy the files to a single disk.  I have an external hard disk – two disks actually set up as RAID 1.  RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks and there are several different levels of RAID, well explained over at Wikipedia.  It sounds expensive but it doesn’t have to be.  Almost every hard disk company is now offering external boxes with two physical disks inside that connect to your computer via USB or Firewire or eSATA.  Depending on the size of the drives in the box you get, the price can be as low as US$100.

I actually have 5 RAID boxes at home because I have a lot of data of different types that I want to protect.  I’ve got two boxes from Western Digital, one from LaCie and two from a Japanese company called Century (they just make the RAID boxes, then I buy two drives separately and put them into the drive bays, so far they’ve been quite reliable).

What this means is that every time you copy a photo (or any file really) to the drive in the box, it is simultaneously being copied to two disks.  With RAID 1, each disk acts as a mirror for the other disk.  If one disk has a problem, the file still exists on the other disk.  Basically it means you don’t have to think about backing up a file, it’s already done for you.  Besides, if you copy over files at 1 PM and you have an automated back-up running every night after you go to sleep, what happens if there’s a disk failure before the back-up runs?  Yes, with hard disks, you have to think this way.

So now you’ve got your RAID disk, each file exists twice, you’re done, right?  Not so much.

Because RAID boxes aren’t perfect.  The hardware RAID controller built into each of these boxes is also a potential point of failure.  If the controller goes, it can corrupt the file in both locations.  (It’s happened to me once.)  I’m told by people who should know that software RAID controllers are more dependable than hardware ones.

Even so, what happens if your house is robbed?  If there’s a fire?  If you have a fight with your spouse who then decides to damage what he/she thinks will hurt you the most?  That’s right, you need yet another copy of your files, stored off-site.  Today, the solution for that is The Cloud.

For this, I use a company called Backblaze.  Backblaze works on both PC and Mac by installing a small application on your computer.  It runs in the background, copying your files up to their data center, generally only working when your internet connection is otherwise idle.  It’s highly configurable, so you can exclude drives, directories or file types from the back-up.  It’s also cheap.  After a 30 day trial period, they charge just US$5 per month or $50 per year for unlimited data storage.  And they do mean unlimited – I’ve got 127 gigs backed up with them.  (Yes, it took months for the first back-up to complete.)  I think that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

So that’s what I do.  What about you?  If you have a different approach, please share it with us!

Last but not least, if you want to know how the pros do it, photographer Chase Jarvis shares his methods with us on his blog and in a YouTube video.  Few people out there have the kind of budget he’s got for this.  Even so, it’s a fascinating lesson.




  1. Luke Fisher February 28, 2011 at 2:13 am #

    I was at the studio of David MacDonald (one of the UK’s top portrait photographers) the other day. His studio has two presentation rooms, each with a computer connected to a server. In his editing room, he has three PCs each connected to the server. There is no internet connection on this network, as he is paranoid about getting his network infected. Each photo session is backed up onto CDs, one in the studio, and another offsite. There is one PC in the office that has an internet connection, so if they need to order prints offsite, the staff have to take the CD to the office to upload it.

  2. Tom Hundt March 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Re the video: What if the meteor hits on the day they bring Live Data 1 in to the office to swap with Live Data 2? They are BOTH on-site at the same time; they and the primary are destroyed; bye-bye live data. (They need a third drive in the rotation.)

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