Years to Create and Moments to Lose
I think most people are familiar with the old adage “Murphy’s Law” that is usually stated as: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong….and at the worst possible moment.”
In my opinion, Murphy was an optimist.
The control panel that easily illustrates the status of my offsite backups.
Think of all of the time and energy, not to mention the emotional attachment, which you have invested in your photography. With a few simple tools and precautions it’s easier than ever to avoid the risk of losing all those images. Data protection, business continuity, disaster recovery, or whatever you want to call it, used to require an intensive, costly and regular commitment. Frankly, it used to be about as much fun as eating my vegetables when I was a kid. I knew it was good for me, but I didn’t like it. Thankfully, the task is now much more palatable.
The “Backup” Song
Okay, “song” is stretching it, but if putting it to music will help you remember – then do it. The key to an effective disaster protection / risk mitigation strategy can be summarized as follows.
The goal is to get to the position where you always have uncorrupted, duplicate images stored on separate media as soon and as far from one another as possible.
Even if you don’t read any further, let that be your guiding principle throughout the image life cycle – from capture to archive.
Begin in the Field with Card and Camera Level Mitigation
Ideally, protecting your images should begin in the field the moment you capture an image.
Card-Level – Single Memory Card Cameras
If your camera has only a single memory card, the fact is that you are more vulnerable while in the field. However, you can still take a few actions to minimize the possibility of loss. Single card camera users should develop the habit of using the “lock” feature if one exists on your camera. Locking the images protects them against accidental deletion.
Also, and this is true for everyone (single and dual memory card camera users alike), don’t completely fill the card. Write errors are much more common as free space decreases. These errors may corrupt ALL the images, not just the most recent. So, I always leave a little space on my card and switch to a new one when I’m at about 85% of a card’s capacity.
Card-Level – Dual Memory Card Cameras
If your camera has dual memory cards you are in a better starting position than if it only has one since this process begins immediately.
For dual memory card cameras, be sure to set the card function up so that the same image is written to each card. The default setting is often “overflow” – meaning the second card becomes additional capacity rather than a backup. This should be changed. Yes, you will need more memory cards because two 16 GB cards, for instance, won’t give you 32 GB of storage under this situation but rather only 16 GB. But, if a card fails for whatever reason you will have a complete backup of all of your images on the second card. (Important Side Note: Some cameras, even when set up to record duplicate images to both cards, will still write video files to only one card).
If you have taken these precautions, then you are better protected against card-level disasters (e.g. failure of the card). But, you are still exposed to the risk of losing images at the camera level (i.e. you lose the camera with both cards in it, drop it in the water or over a cliff). So, the next step is to have separate primary and backup images exist outside of the camera. For dual card cameras, simply store your cards separately and in different places until you have the opportunity to upload them. For example, if your camera has one SD card and one CF card, you can store the SD card in its own protective case in your camera bag while your CF card is stored in another case in your luggage, or somewhere else in the car. Single card camera users can take advantage of technology and transfer copies (via card-reader, wired or wireless technology) to a mobile device, external hard drive or computer.
I use Pelican dust and waterproof memory card cases to store my cards. This shows my SD card storage (CF cards are in another case) where I can quickly see which are unused and which are used (card is reversed).
Personally, as soon as I fill the cards (I have dual card cameras) I place them into separate dust and waterproof cases and store them in different bags. I place used cards face-down in the case so I can quickly see which are used and which are not. This helps me avoid inadvertently re-using a card and overwriting its data (been there, done that).
I just keep using new cards until I return to my office to upload them to my desktop computer. If I am in the field for an extended time, I will simultaneously transfer my images to two external hard drives (primary and backup) using a notebook computer. I don’t erase/reformat any cards until I am confident that both copies are uncorrupted. These hard drives are then stored as far from one another as possible while I am travelling. Of course, there are a number of variations to this approach: transfer to dual external hard drives; transfer to an external hard drive and the internal notebook drive; or keep two card copies and just keep using new ones. However you achieve it, just remember that the goal is to always have two uncorrupted copies as soon and as far away from one another as possible.
Primary and Backup hard drives that I use when I am in the field for an extended period and need to reuse memory cards.
Continue the Backup Philosophy Back Home
Once you are back at your desktop computer (assuming that the notebook computer you may have used in the field isn’t your primary editing machine), it is time to copy those photos onto it. At this point, your exposure to loss becomes less obvious but just as real. Why? Because our instinct is to erase the cards and prepare them for reuse as soon as they are imported onto our desktop computer – especially if you know that the desktop has backup. The key question is: “When are your desktop-residing images backed-up?” Until that backup occurs, you will have only one image (the one on the computer) if you delete/reformat your card too soon after import. So, you must at least wait until the scheduled backup is completed – and even better – until a restore of that backup has been tested.
Remember the guiding mantra: Duplicate images at all times…
Once your images are located on your desktop, or primary editing machine, you really only have two choices: backup locally (onsite) or backup remotely (offsite) – of course, you can also do both.
Machine-Level or Local (onsite) Protection
Machine-level backups usually consist of backing-up onto an external drive. Ideally, you use at least two external hard drives and swap them prior to each backup. There are many types of backup processes that go beyond the scope of this article, but if you are interested you can explore the additional concepts of differential, incremental and full backups. Each type has its own pluses and minuses.
External hard drives used for locally stored backups before being circulated offsite (yes, there is a Backup “C” at offsite location).
There is an abundance of free or inexpensive backup software out there to do this automatically. The latest Windows software even ships with its own backup programs. I strongly encourage automated solutions for two reasons:
- Automated programs remove one huge point-of-failure in the backup process – “us.” Being human, we are generally not very disciplined when it comes to initiating manual backups on a regular basis.
- The process is identical every time. The backup software won’t do it the correct way one time and then inadvertently copy the files in the wrong direction the next time (thereby overwriting newer files with older ones). Trust me. This was a personal and painful lesson-learned.
Even backing up to an external hard drive though easily leaves you susceptible to data loss since the image data is still onsite. What if there is a flood or fire where your computer is? Unless you have stored one of the backup copies offsite, you can still lose everything.
So, to achieve true local (offsite) backup, you must store the second drive somewhere else that is safe and secure and it should never be located in the same place as your primary computer (i.e. Backup Drive “A” gets moved offsite, before Backup Drive “B” returns).
Now it is getting more difficult again isn’t it? And, to make matters worse, we have reintroduced those unreliable humans into the backup equation again.
Enter “The Cloud.”
Automated Local (offsite) and Regional-Level Protection
Thanks to the increasing availability and decreasing cost of technology there are some very simple options available to individuals that previously only large businesses could afford. It also allows us to leapfrog along the backup solution spectrum by skipping the local, onsite solution described above (external hard drive strategy) and going straight to automated backups into the cloud.
The best solutions are essentially “setup and forgot” ones. I say “essentially” because once you install and set them up you should still periodically check them to make sure they are still doing their thing correctly. I also highly recommend testing the recovery from time-to-time as well to validate the solution.
The challenge we face as photographers is that we have unusually large amounts of data compared to the average user (I have almost 5 terabytes). So, what we need is a solution where the provider doesn’t limit, or base its cost upon, the amount of data we store.
Photographers tend to have greater than average storage needs due to the size of photos relative to other files (Thank You, Mr. D800!)
Fortunately, there are many from which to choose. There are also many sites out there that review and evaluate these providers. My favorite review site is: www.thetop10bestonlinebackup.com. There are many articles, blogs and forums and other resources on these sites as well. I’ll state up front that I chose Backblaze as my solution (I have no financial, or otherwise, interest in the company and am neither promoting it nor endorsing it). I have used it for over two years now, successfully restored files from it, and chose it primarily because of the cost and the fact that Backblaze was one of the first to offer true “unlimited” storage.
Choosing an Online Backup Solution Provider
Here are some of the factors that I took into consideration when I selected my provider:
Amount of Storage: As I said, Backblaze was a pioneer in this category with truly unlimited storage. The other well-known companies at the time charged based upon the amount of storage. One provider, Carbonite, stated that they had “unlimited” storage but didn’t clearly advertise that they discouraged large data users. Buried in their website, Carbonite stated that once a user reached 200 GB the upload speed was regulated downward – dramatically, I might add. They reduced it to 5% of the original speed and, in my opinion, their top speed at the time wasn’t very impressive either at 2 megabits per second (my most recent upload went at 16 megabits per second on Backblaze).
Carbonite Upload Speed Policy taken directly from their website.
Upload Speed: The faster it gets into the cloud, the quicker I can reformat and reuse the memory cards. It will also shorten the initial upload when you first sign-on. You want it to take days not weeks or months. The best allows you to regulate your upload speed so you can adjust it to accommodate your other internet activities. I’ll let Backblaze hog bandwidth to expedite uploads unless it begins to interfere with my ability to stream “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” episodes from Netflix.
Preferences panel showing my recent upload speed and upload throttle status.
Cost/Value: This varies, but I like the flat rate model. Many of these are only around $5 per month per computer.
Recovery File Speed / Delivery: How do you recover the data when you need it? Do they ship you a zipped file on a hard drive? How fast? Can you log onto the service and just “download”? Is it easy to recover a file? Be sure to test this if you are taking advantage of any “free trial period” offers.
External Drives Capability: Some, like Carbonite, don’t allow external drives until you reach more costly plans. They backup information only on your internal computer drives. Before I upgraded my systems, I had a lot of storage on external drives (in fact they were my largest) and I wanted these to be included in whatever solution I chose.
Security (Information): The best services give you multiple options and increasing levels of security from which to choose. I like those that encrypt the information (to the level I chose) before it ever leaves my machine.
Security (Virus): It’s one thing to need to recover a file because an elephant sat on my computer. It’s another if the damage is caused by a virus. So, find out about “versioning.” If you have a corrupted local file does it immediately overwrite the uncorrupted version backed up in the cloud (synchronous)? Or, do you have some time to respond (asynchronous)? Is there more than one version of the file available and how long do locally deleted files remain available for recovery from the cloud?
Ease: This was less important to me on the front end though it is nice to have a simple interface to set up and monitor the status of your backups. More important to me, though, was to make sure the backend (recovery process) was simple.
Cool Features: Does it support mobile devices and multiple platforms? This may or may not be important to you, but maybe the ability to access the files from any computer, with any operating system, and from anywhere is.
There are many more ways to evaluate the services and you should concentrate on those that are important to you. Having said that, with the low cost, ease and availability of these services there is no reason any of us should ever lose our precious images again. So, get out there and start eating your vegetables because it’s the right thing to do.
~ Tom Gaitley
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