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Backup Strategies

This is an article I never quite intended to write, but I’ve spoken to so many photographers who don’t have reliable backup strategies that I feel it needs to be covered.  I’ve just experienced a drive failure (see previous article) so it’s good time to share some strategies and thought starters for your own backup strategy if you need one.

Backing up data, and doing it properly is clearly important, as photographers we tend to have a LOT of photographs stored digitally and it’s only a matter of time before a drive fails or a virus strikes.  A hard drive can fail at any time and not all failures are related to wear so don’t be fooled into thinking a new drive wont fail, they do, some data suggests 20% will fail within the first four years.

Firstly, it’s a good idea to separate your data and system disks.  Your data (photo’s, documents etc) should be on a separate disk to your operating system because they both have very different functions and call for different  backup strategies.

Being prepared for multiple scenario’s is the way to go, which should include some form of off-site backup, for me that’s an external drive left at another location every so often.  But ‘every so often’ isn’t a well defined period of time, it needs to be for backups to become truly reliable.  If a hard drive goes down you can survive with a recent backup stored locally.  If you suffer fire or floods chances are that the backup has gone down too.  If a virus strikes, it can take out all connected drives with it.   What happens if you delete a folder accidentally and don’t realise until later?

Multiple backups are needed and at different points in time, you need to find timing that suits you, daily backups stored on-site and off-site would be an ideal world scenario, in addition to periodic snapshots.  In this ideal world the backups would be magically created without any effort, and everything would would be made of chocolate, but unfortunately we have to live with the reality around us….Still, there’s some automation available that can help make things easier.

Original Photographs

As soon as possible I’ll create as second copy of photographs after they’re captured.  When I’m travelling they’re copied onto an external hard drive via the laptop at the end of each day, and then both copies are kept well separated.  There are devices that can achieve this without requiring a computer to speed things up.  The full memory cards are stored safely away until I return to the studio and they can be copied onto the main computer.  I’ll use the cards themselves for this purpose rather than the backup just to make sure everything has been captured and to minimise the risk of bad data.  During the import, Lightroom makes an automated duplicate to an external drive, I call these backups ‘digital negatives’, if all else fails I still have original copies to fall back on.  All of this requires minimal effort and expense compared to the travel itself so it’s well worth taking these extra steps.

Another consideration with memory cards is to ensure they’re correctly formatted, it’s best to format cards in the camera to avoid issues later on.  Don’t simply delete the images on the computer then continue shooting, make sure each card is formatted in the camera before use.  Nikon SLR’s have shortcut buttons for this – look for the red ‘format’ buttons and read your manual.

Raw converters such as Lightroom or Capture One have another advantage which I’d never considered until recently when my drive crashed.  They use catalogs to record information on every single photo that’s been added, so if those photo’s go missing, they’ll know.  Lightroom places little question marks over folders that are missing, so at a glance it’s possible to find out what’s lost and what isn’t.  Lightroom also has an option to find all missing photos, a massive help when it comes to finding and fixing lost data.  If I end up losing files, as a last resort they can be copied over manually from my ‘digital negatives’ drive and Lightroom can re-apply all the edits and ratings that have been stored in the catalog, it may be a little tedious but it’s possible.

Software options

These options are for PC users, there may be different solutions for Mac.  I’ve used ‘Allway Sync’ for many years and it’s great for data backups.  Backups can be scheduled, and there’s an option to begin backup when an external drive is inserted, so before switching off your computer for the day, insert the external drive and off it goes.  ‘ToDo’ is a similar option.  To backup your system disk, ‘Aomei’ is one I’ve been using and ‘Macrium’ is a another option.  My local computer tech recommended ‘Macrium’ because it can restore the system image onto a different computer after a failure without too much hassle, but I’ve used Aomei successfully in the past as well.

External backup drives

External hard drives are effective and simple. Being external they can be disconnected from the system when not required to reduce risk of contamination, and are easily collected in an emergency.  By connecting them to the computer, backups can be automatically triggered so it doesn’t have to take much effort, and of course they can easily be stored off-site to further safeguard data, and off-site storage is essential for a reliable strategy.

Internal backup drives

Internal backups can be made to a separate internal hard drive.  The advantage is they’re always connected so backups can be regularly scheduled without needing the discipline of connecting an external drive.  However internal drives aren’t as easy to collect in a hurry because they’re buried in the computer, and a power supply malfunction in can bring them down along with your main data disk, so this isn’t the best option as a primary backup strategy, but if your main hard drive fails it could just save you, especially if  you’ve set up a daily automated backup strategy.

Network storage

There are many network based options out there, a NAS is like a mini computer attached to your network that can act as a backup space, but you could also use another computer for the same function.  A NAS usually contains multiple hard drives for larger capacity and comes with other functions built in.  Data transfers can be slower than an external drive but on the plus side they can be located in a different part of the building to reduce risks.  External drives are typically connected by USB which have a shorter working distance than network cables.

Offline storage

In this option you would store data externally over an internet connection, I really have no experience with this solution, I have too much data for this to be cost efficient, but it could suit you.

RAID

Drive failure can be protected by a mirrored RAID setup.  Instead of using one hard drive, RAID uses two (or multiple) drives that both contain the same information and act as a single drive, if one fails the other will contain the data….at least in theory.  There are software and hardware based RAID systems, software based systems come with a higher risk of failure and are better avoided.  Your computer may already have the RAID capability built in, but I believe a true hardware based raid is almost a mini computer of its own.

My recent experience was the failure of a RAID system in my computer which I thought was hardware based but that wasn’t strictly true, when one of the drives failed it affected the other and much of the data was lost.  Fortunately the combination of a 4 month old backup and the recovered data covers almost everything I need.  In the future I’ll ditch the ‘fake’ RAID and use an automated daily backup to an internal drive, in addition to an improved external backup strategy.

IMPLEMENT A BACKUP STRATEGY

Hopefully you can gain some new ideas from all this backup talk and never have to learn the hard way…..now off you go and IMPLEMENT A BACKUP STRATEGY!