Some thoughts on storage and backups

What are your images worth to you? And by worth I don’t necessarily mean in a financial sense; how would you feel if your primary hard drive toasted itself and you lost most or all of your images today? What would you do? Personal and family images would be be irrecoverable and gone forever. Your stock library would suddenly cease to exist. No more portfolios. Images that you hadn’t finished editing and obviously not yet delivered to clients…imagine having to ask for a re-shoot.

Clearly, backup is important. Very important. Currently, the weakest link is in the camera at the time of capture: most cameras only have a single card slot, which means only one copy of the image at any one time. Even those that have dual card slots and allow parallel writing (best configured to mirror to give optimal flexibility) create issues when browsing, deleting and otherwise managing files in camera – it isn’t seamless or intuitive, and the limitations of a button driven graphical UI make file handling less straightforward and easy that on a PC. And even if you mirror your files to both cards, if your camera happens to suffer say impact damage or a moisture-induced short, you can probably say goodbye to both cards. Incremental backup to a PC on site either via an Eye-Fi card, WLAN or tethering is an option, but can be time consuming and downright impractical if you’re a photojournalist.

My current workflow is still subject to this limitation:
– I shoot as normal, and backup to a computer as soon as I’m done with the shoot.
– I won’t format the cards until everything is backed up, which means that I have two copies of the files at any time (and yes, I have a lot of cards – SD: 3x32GB, 5x16GB, various odds and ends; CF: 2x16GB, 3x8GB, 3x4GB – it’s a lot considering I’m only dealing with 14MB per RAW file on my sole CF camera (D700).)
– At incremental stages – usually every hour or so when editing – I’ll run a time machine backup of my working machine’s drive, which gives me a third copy of the original files, and a second copy of the edited files.
– Hard drives are kept disconnected from the computer and power supply to prevent any accidental data corruption due to surges, odd software glitches etc.
– Once I’m done with the processing and editing, I make duplicate backups of all files onto a pair of hard drives.
– Time machine the main editing machine again – now I’ve got four copies of the finished files, and five copies of the original files. Still with me?
– I don’t keep the original files on my main editing machine because of space limitations, but I do keep the finished files.
– Now I can format the cards from the shoot – this leaves me with four copies of finished files, and two copies of the originals.
– You want to maximize redundancy and failure-proofing with your backups, so keeping one full set of files off-site is a good idea. It’s also nice because you can easily access your work if you’re not in the office. Both of the backup hard drives and the time machine drive I currently use are 1TB portables; they require no external power supply and are small enough to go anywhere. One stays in my bag, which is almost always with me.
– There’s yet another copy of my portfolio files and critical image files on my travel machine (a Macbook Air) and iPad, making six sets for critical files. I’m fairly confident with this setup that I’ll be able to find an image if I need to, even if two or more drives fail. (And that’s not counting the drives that I’ve archived, which I’ll touch on in a minute.)

Now you’re probably wondering what happens if my backup solutions run out of space – after all, these days 1TB isn’t that much, and the minute you touch video work (a whole new kettle of fish) then the storage requirements multiply exponentially.

Fortunately, the pace of file size increases has also roughly matched then pace of both increases in storage density and processing speed (score one for Moore’s Law). I double the size of the replacement drives I buy – usually one every year and a half to two years or so – and find that gives me enough breathing room. When the new drives are in, I’ll make a fresh copy of all the files (NOT using a cloning tool, because that can also clone over any errors and bad sectors the old drive has – negating some of the advantage of fresh drives) onto my new, larger drives.

I recently had my time machine drive fail; that, culminated with a general lack of space (only 50GB left and plenty of those enormous D800 raw files) made me upgrade to one of these array thingies. I’ve got a WD MyBoook Studio II 6TB array, which is set to RAID 1 (mirroring) and partitioned into a 1TB block for my time machine backups, and a 2TB block for storage. Firewire 800 is thankfully supported, which makes moving huge files around quite painless. I’ll probably add one of the new WD portable 2TB Firewire/ USB3 drives to replace my portable 1TB so I can keep an offsite backup of my work on me (and a handy archive) wherever I go.

Backup is something everybody needs to think about seriously, today. Tomorrow may well be too late – there have been several occasions where I’m glad I was running multiple backups; unluckily I had a Maxtor primary drive and a Maxtor backup drive fail within a day of each other – leaving me with just a single (fortunately non-Maxtor, those things are a disaster) drive. If you can’t afford to lose your images, don’t put it off! MT