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My Personal Backup Strategy

Are you Protected?

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Peter Cook

Surrey Photographer who's had a life long love affair with the British landscape, mountains and water.

seeingthelight.co.uk



I wonder how many of you carry out any sort of backup to your images? Well if you do and you're confident that your images are safe then I guess you need read no more, you can move on to another excellent article from this edition, if however you don't backup your image files then I strongly suggest you read on.

I guess talk of backups and administration can appear boring to some, or avoided because its complicated and difficult, well yes it is perhaps a bit boring, but does not have to be complicated or hard. If you choose the right tools and manage things then it can be much easier that you think.

So let me start by making one thing clear from the outset, the Hard drive in your computer is a mechanical device, it has high speed spinning disks, motors and servos, and delicate heads that move about collecting your data and one day it WILL FAIL! Yes you read that right, I can say that with certainty. However you may upgrade your computer well before that happens and the drive may be someone elses problem or it will be scrapped long before it will fail, but it you kept it in use for long enough it would fail. I know that Hard Drives are really very reliable these days but are you willing to take a gamble with your valuable images.

"Hard Drive Failures"

Google did massive research on this and found that typically 2% of drives fail per year until the they get to 10 years old. At that point 8% per year fail. Some of these failures may only affect an image here and there but they could kill your hard drive or operating system

So now you have digested that scary bit of information what can we do to protect ourselves from loss. Well as you would expect there are many ways of protecting our images from the pretty cheap to the very expensive and for this article I want to talk about the cheap to middle end, the sort of thing that most of us can afford to implement.

Now to start with Its best that you get a bit organised and keep your image files in a structured layout. In my case I keep them in a main folder called ‘Image Files’ , I then have subfolders of this called ‘Canon Raw Files’ & ‘Photoshop Work’ etc. Doing it this way means I find it easier to find what I want and it makes the backup procedure much easier.

So starting with the cheap option, you can just burn a copy of all your image files to recordable DVD’s and keep adding to each DVD as you take new photographs and start a new DVD when it gets full. Now this is better than not doing anything but it is not the best way of doing things as its quite difficult to manage and it gets complicated to keep track of changes and edits you may make to a file, but if all you want is a copy of the original RAW (or JPG) file then it works and its pretty cheap. I would however recommend burning the same data to two DVD’s thus having a duplicate DVD, as DVD discs can also fail or develop read errors.

The next option is online backup solutions, there are many of these to choose from and as I don't use any I am not going to make any recommendations but they all work along the same lines. They can however be quite costly as the free size limits can be quite small especially in relation to the amount of gigabytes image files can consume, so you will normally need to pay a monthly or yearly fee for more capacity. They usually come with software of some sort to manage what data is transferred and how often etc. This will normally run in the background so once setup you don't need to do anything. These options can be good and your data is stored well away from your computer so your data is still safe even if you have a fire or burglary but can get expensive if you need lots of capacity and if you don't have access to fast broadband the upload times can be painful. Also bear in mind that if your loose your main Hard Drive you will need to get a working Drive with operating system installed and drivers for internet access before you can get to your data. Finally, you are entrusting your data to a third party that could disappear overnight taking your data with them, so if you go this route do some research and pick a reputable company.

The final option is to do backups yourself to an external hard drive and there are many bits of software out there for this.

The final option is to do backups yourself to an external hard drive and there are many bits of software out there for this. I backup my main computer drive to an external drive with an application called Image for DOS, this is fairly easy to use I just boot my PC to a Image for DOS CD (which the software creates for you) and run the backup from there, it is also easy to restore the whole PC to a new drive should your main one fail. I have tested this and it worked fine. Now if you had a large drive in you PC and can keep all your image files there and used Image for Dos every week then this might be all you need to do but it can take a few hours to backup (depending on how much data you have) but if you leave it to run overnight that that should not be a problem.

You can also use a file sync program, I use one called GoodSync. This allows you to set up Jobs that monitor folders on your PC and when changes are made or new files appear it will automatically copy them to another drive or USB memory stick, these jobs can be set to run on a schedule or on startup or close down or when changes are made. I use this in addition to the full backup so as I make changes to files or copy new ones from my camera Goodsync just backs up these changes without any thought or intervention on my part. This fills in the gap between the backups I take and hopefully means I won't lose anything. File Sync programs like Goodsync if used alone will not make a fully recoverable backup of your system but are a good way to automatically backup your data.

You can go as far as to keep the external drive at a friends house to add to your file safety but it depends on how bad it would be for you if you lost all your images is say a fire or a burglary.

You can go as far as to keep the external drive at a friends house to add to your file safety but it depends on how bad it would be for you if you lost all your images is say a fire or a burglary.

So what do I do, well as I said I take a weekly full backup of my main computer drive with Image for Dos to an external Drive and in between backups I use GoodSync to cover new or changed Image files (as well as other important data) to another external drive. I don't go as far as keeping these backups off site but every so often I copy new RAW files to recordable DVD(s) and keep those off site at a friends so if all else fails I know I would have a copy of most of my original RAW files to go back to. Its difficult to be 100% covered but it does not take too much effort to be reasonably well protected.

I know there are other methods of protecting your data and I know there are many applications and lumps of hardware to achieve it and its impossible to cover all the options but I hope if you presently don't do anything to protect your data, you will go and look into options that suit you and your budget and do something about it. After all just have a pause and think about the effect of losing all those images!



  • John Dunne

    An interesting insight to your workflow Peter. I spent long enough in the IT Industry to see just how often Hard Disks fail to give me a healthy dose of paranoia.

    My current approach is to use Apple Aperture’s built-in vault feature. I have 2 external 2.5″ FW800 hard-drives that I rotate once a month and always have one of them off-site. This provides 100% cover should one of my Aperture libraries become corrupt or a HDD fail.

    At the beginning of this year I began to look at cloud options. As you noted they can get pretty expensive very quickly and who knows if the company providing the cloud solution will be here next year! I landed on a hybrid option where I continue with the above plan of a rotation of 2 HDD’s but also added Amazon S3 as a cloud option. However to manage costs I only backup the PSD’s of my published images /client work. Essentially I simply save the PSD from Aperture into a folder on my hard-drive and use a piece of Software called Arq (Mac) to monitor and backup the folder once an hour to my S3 account.

    I felt confident that Amazon wasn’t going anywhere soon, their 99.99999% dual site redundancy gave me all the security I needed and I was able to manage costs by only uploading my final images not the 100’s of GB of RAW images in my Aperture Libraries. So far I’ve stored around 100GB on the S3 services and it costs about €5 a month. Now that they have launched Glacier it will be even cheaper again.

    Anyway hope some folks find this alternate approach of interest.

    Cheers
    John

  • GrahamMc

    I suppose we all have different methods and time consuming they can be but i have my OS running off an SSD, then my Lightroom catalogue is directed to a 1TB SATA drive internally.
    As a backup running off one of the USB ports i have an external 300GB HDD from my old PC which is basically brand new, not a huge size but more than enough to save the JPEGS and the huge downloadable files of LR4.1 & LR4.2 updates (750mb each) just incase something there goes wrong.
    The great thing about the new range of computers is adding a 2nd/3rd SATA drive which is relatively easy and space saving.

  • Yes we will all have differing methods, and its good to let others know about them. I wanted to get photographers that don’t do anything regarding backups to start doing something about it, whatever method they might choose to use. It would be a horrible feeling to find that your drive had failed taking your images with it!

  • An important topic to cover in this digital age! Myself I use a NAS (Network Attached Storage) box connected to my PC via network cable. A NAS box contains one or more hard drives and manages the data on them automatically. For data redundancy purposes you would normally buy one with 2 or 4 or more hard drive bays and run all the disks in a mirrored RAID configuration. What this means in plain English is that you see the storage as a single storage area from your computer (e.g. a Mapped Network Drive in Windows) but when you copy your image data across to it what actually happens is that the data is automatically copied to the 2 or 4 hard discs simultaneously. If one disc fails, your data is intact on the other disk(s), and you can just pop a new one in and it’ll automatically copy your data across to the new one to get you back where you were.

    However, although this takes very easy care of hard disk redundancy, you are still storing all your data in one physical location. Ideally backup to cloud or external drive stored in a relative’s house is also necessary in case of fire or flood damage.

  • Mike Green

    A good article Peter, and all very sound advice.

    It’s interesting how comments are from people whose backup strategy is well thought through and comprehensive ;-) I’m entirely guilty here as I was about to comment on nuances and technology options you’d not covered too. As you say in your comment though, everyone’s method is different and the key thing is for those people who don’t or who haven’t thought through all the possible points of failure to *think* about backup and do *something*.

    The one, non-techy, thing I will add, however, is that I would advocate strongly that whatever people do, whatever combination of local and remote backups are used – and the options are now enormous – as much as possible (all!) should be automated and *not* require actively doing anything beyond checking it’s all working occasionally. Case in point: as you mention, the idea of physically taking a disk off-site periodically is a fine one and quite effective protection… but very, very few people ever keep that approach up rigorously. So, automate it, then ‘forget it’.

    • Yes Mike that is a good point, I am quite disciplined and personally I prefer not to leave my backup drive on and connected all the time (which means I have to manually do something) the reason for this is that, though rare, I have known drives to blow with a PC (perhaps with a power spike or surge) or more common to get infected with a virus at the same time as the main drive on the computer. So I feel a bit safer having to plug in the drive just for the time I need to do the backup of file sync.
      But its a valid point and it does depend on your personality and how disciplined you are. Each must make up their own mind on it I guess.

      • Simon Miles

        I take Mike’s point about using the automatic route but that’s not always easy when it comes to offsite backup. My rural broadband, for example, is just too slow for any kind of online backup. This means my only offsite backup option is a manual one. I can’t stress enough how essential I think the offsite backup is. It’s not just the risk of failure or fire, theft is surely what you need to consider. There’s just no way a thief is going to take your desktop computer but kindly disconnect your portable hard drive and leave it sitting on the same desk.

        My offsite backup is a portable hard drive kept hidden and away from any other valuables in my wife’s studio in a building detached from the main house on the other side of the garden. Yes I only back it up once a month at most, so it’s not as up-to-date as my primary backup (Time Machine portable hard drive for my Mac). But if my main computer and backup drive are stolen or destroyed by fire or flood, I will still have at least 98-99% of my total photographic archive on the off-site backup drive. My only other piece of advice is to periodically replace those portable hard drives. They need upgrading just as much as your main computer to minimise the risk of failure.

        • Mike Green

          How slow is too slow? I’m not at all disputing that there is a point at which it’s really not viable, but my upload speed is slow (448kbps), so it took a couple of weeks to initially backup my approx. 60GB of data. It does get ‘there’ though, eventually.

          If you’re generating multiple additional gigabytes of data per day, fair enough, on-line is not going to work (448kbps is about 4GB upload per day), but if it’s less than the above magic number then you can really just set it and forget it, as they say.

          Clearly, having files you’re actively working on being uploaded every time they’re saved is *not* a good plan ;-) My off-site, synchronised backup is into Dropbox, but it only kicks in and uploads files once I’ve not touched the machine for an hour in order to minimise repeating an upload.

          100% agree with ‘retiring’ hard drives after a certain time: they *will* eventually fail!

          • Simon Miles

            Fair enough, I guess I would get there in the end as you say. Then again, my manual backup only takes a few minutes. I usually do the offsite backup when making new prints, as this reminds me that I’ve (hopefully) added something worthwhile to my portfolio :-)

  • GrahamMc

    Interesting thread, i know of a moderator on a photography forum who has a hard wired cable from his PC, all the way through to his garage to a backup drive, just incase of a possible house fire.
    I suspect he has to go into the garage to switch on the power and then run back to the PC to do a backup, let’s hope that if his house does catch fire, the cable doesn’t act as a fuse wire and follow it back to the garage !

  • ekyndt

    Hi Peter, thank you for sharing your backup strategy. Personally I work with backups and an archive. The difference for me is that a backup is made every time I do work on my images. My archive is updated once a week, and goes offline. I use a variety of hard drives and Drobo’s to do the job, no dvd’s or cd-rom discs for me. Since there are many backup program’s it is important to know exactly what your program of choice does.
    @Mike Green, excellent advice to automate. I think I’ll really need to have a look at automating my whole backup and archive workflow.

  • John Hill

    Another great option for anyone how has a tower PC is to install a SATA Hot Swap bay (like an ICY box) in one of the 5.25″ external drives slots.

    These allow you to plug and unplug drives for backups but have the advantage that they run off SATA interface so are much faster than USB (well USB2, not tried USB3).

    So I have all my RAW/TIFF and JPEG files backed up to a 2 X 2TB drives and they are rotated so one is plugged in the machine and one is stored off site in my office desk. I then swap these once a month or so, or just after a big trip or project.

  • petebryan

    Good article, makes me glad I’m not the only person anal enough to actually do it properly. My approach is a variation on those already mentioned: all image files synched daily (and automatically) both to a second drive within my main PC, and similarly to a NAS box (as Simon mentioned above) in a different part of the house (which itself is 2 mirrored disks).

    My doomsday solution is cloud backup – Crashplan – works well; but take out the longest period you can afford because my last cloud firm (Mozy) jacked up the prices horribly after it had taken me 6 months 24/7 to upload it all (I’m not joking). That’s actually a bigger risk than them going bust IMHO!

  • ianwoolcock

    Personally I have a RAID 5 array in the machine, OS on an SSD. Two external drives one of which is always offsite. I just run a robocopy command to mirror the contents of selected folder to the externals.

    If your running windows you can also use system restore / previous versions to use the free disk space on the drive for versioning. This stores deleted and modified versions of files as point in time snapshots until the space is needed. If you have a large amount of free space and allow the machine to use a high percentage of the drive / array you can normally go back to any point for months sometimes years.

  • Its good to know that so many take it seriously, it would also be good to hear from any photographers that don’t do anything at present, and if they have now decided to change that and consider some the various suggested options. Otherwise we might think that all photographers are fully organised and always do all their background admin etc. (now that’s a thought :) )

  • improveddc

    Good article and backup is something i have recently paid attention 2 with external HDD’s to backup photos only for personal use but losing them would be a nightmare all the same.

    On a slightly different note i have recently changed the spinning mechanical HDD in my Mac Book Pro to an SSD or solid state drive and i work on recent images from that (with older images on external drives). Not only does this remove the mechanical risk factor the speed boost it gives the laptop as a whole has been brilliant and in editing photos all adjustments etc are faster than expected, removing all previous frustrations waiting for images to load. I would definitely recommend the SSD option for speed.

  • GrahamMc

    If you are running an SSD drive and worried about disk failure, here’s a great little download to check it periodically.
    It’s called SSDLife from CNETDownload – http://download.cnet.com/SSDLife-Free/3000-2086_4-75323637.html

    Mine is estimated at 9yrs 2months before an approximate replacement is due.

  • Thanks Pete. I’ve had a hard disk fail without a recent backup, and that was a great lesson. I was lucky, because all I had to do was re-scan some 5×4’s, but if I’d used digital at the time, I’d have lost a lot of images. Now I have several external hard drive backups, including one stored remotely in case of fire/burglary. So – as well as having backups, consider returning to film :-) Michael

  • Some wise words of advise on this tedious but important task. If I was to add anything:
    – I would re-iterate Mike Green about automation, let the computer do the tedious work that’s all too easy to over look when we get busy.
    – Probably more important is to routinely test the backup itself. This may be as simple as opening a file from the backup or mounting the database catalogue and external hard drive on another machine running the same software.
    – You might want to consider encrypting any portable hard drives going offsite, it’s one thing to lose the data but an all together different one if your data is misused; just make sure you protect your encryption key though.
    – Perform a backup and test before updating your image catalogue software, stuff generally happens when things change. Do another one after the update.
    – keep the backups current, especially if you’re using a database catalogue of some sort as their is no guarantee the older backups will work with newer versions of the software./ db schema.
    – IMO given the low cost of storage nowadays you can never have too many copies of your data.

  • Ian

    In the discussion of backups there’s one long-term issue that tends to get overlooked, namely, file format.

    If you are considering archiving material for several years or more then you need to pay attention to whether the file format that you’ve archived will still be readable in the future. Who can say if Photoshop CS20 will still recognise today’s PSD files or if today’s proprietry RAW formats will be supported in 2020 and beyond?

    While you implementing a backup strategy for short-term risks such as fire & theft, it seems to me to be a good idea to archive jpg versions of your library as this is probably the format that is most widely supported format and most likely to be supported long-term by multiple software vendors.

    Having jpg versions available also makes cloud-based backup more viable for those with lower budgets and slower connections.

    • Yes Ian that is a good point, I don’t know what the answer is though I for one would not be happy with JPG versions as my ultimate disaster recovery format for obvious quality reasons, though I take your point on size in relation to cloud options.
      I feel the DNG format would be a better choice and the DNG converter can pack the original RAW file in as well, which I know does double the size of the file, which does not help upload times much, which is why I prefer doing it to external hard drives.
      I do think future versions of Photoshop will more than likely support all older PSD files, though obviously I cant be 100% on that, its just my feeling.
      We can always convert to new formats if and when older ones die out or we change to a different software package, as if done promptly it should not be to much of a problem.

  • Marc

    A very interesting thread.

    I am lucky enough to have two properties, with a RAID NAS in each. I mainly work with a Macbook Pro with a 512GB SSD and a 1TB HDD (instead of the standard SuperDrive). The 1TD drive solely contains my entire LR catalog. I backup to the RAID NAS using Intego Backup Manager Pro with scheduled syncs. Once a week in our flat, and once or twice a month in our cottage when I am there.

    I have had one hard drive failure in my RAID NAS to date (in about 5 years). I hot swapped the drive and was back up and running after the automatic resync without any hassle. In comparison, I have had 4 hard drive failures of portable USB/FW hard drives from various manufacturers in the last 5 years, all within 15 months of purchase. So I would be reluctant to rely on these.

    If I was starting now, I would seriously consider a Cloud solution. OK, thee is a costs involved, but given the outlay for say a NAS with 4 drives and 1 spare as backup and replacing the drives after say 3 years is pretty costly, well outstripping the costs of a Cloud solution.

  • Joseph Grunske

    My friend’s house is subject to fire, flood, burglary, etc., as much as mine, so I store my 2nd backup hard drives in a safe deposit box at the bank. Yes, it’s a chore to make a special trip twice a month to the bank, but it’s worth it to me knowing that my images are much safer.

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