Photography Armageddon

I usually try to end my posts with a question, hoping to get to know the visitors to Enthusiast Photographer and stir some conversation (with mixed success), but today the topic really demands a question or three to start out: Do you have all of your digital photos backed up? If so, what are you using? If not, why not?  (when you’re done reading, please feel free to comment! :))

During my career in the technology industry, I’ve worked in the area of PC servers, hard drives and even spent a number of years as the worldwide product manager for a disaster recovery product for PC’s, so the term “backup” has a very specific meaning for me. For most people, being “backed up” means more than having one extra copy of something. However, if you really value whatever it is you are protecting, it means you have more than one extra and at least one of the extras is located somewhere other than where your computer lives.

I think the reasons we back up are obvious – I’d be devastated if all of my photographs suddenly disappeared. Back in the days of printed photos, you had to work pretty hard to lose a photograph – unless a dog got playful, some liquid was spilled or a young child got inspired with some markers and a pair of scissors, you were generally pretty safe. Negatives provided a safe copy, and if you kept them in a nice, cool place in a fire-proof box you had pretty good protection from loss. Even better, bundle up all the negatives and put them in a safe deposit box. Done and done, as my mother-in-law would say.

The world of digital photography makes that a little more tricky. The very medium 90% of our photos use (hard drives) is mechanical and will fail at some point.  To be totally fair to the hard drive industry, hard drives fail less than people think. Very often a “dead” hard drive is actually some kind of software issue that is so complicated that it can’t be untangled, but these things spin around thousands of times a minute for hours a day (and sometimes 24 hours a day) for years, so the fact they last so long is pretty amazing. Ultimately, every hard drive is going to fail unless it is replaced beforehand, which is usually the case. We get a new PC or a bigger drive, and the old one goes out of service.

On top of that, there is theft, loss, fire, dropping, viruses, the spouse or child that didn’t know you were using that folder or whatever – there are lots of things that can make a photo disappear forever, and we tend to carry everything we have around on mobile devices more than ever before.  The name of the game is protecting yourself.

So what are the options? Let’s talk about the main types of backup:

  • Local – putting a second copy of a photo somewhere else on your hard drive. There are products that will do this automatically, or you might have a routine you use manually.
  • Second Drive – whether it is another hard drive or a thumb-drive/USB drive/memory stick
  • Optical/DVD – burning to your photos to optical media
  • NAS – network-based storage that is located somewhere in your house/office. Often this storage has “RAID”, which is when you have more than one drive and the drives back each other up in case one fails.  If you’ve seen folks talking about Drobos on photography forums, this is what they are talking about.
  • “Cloud” – I think the word “cloud” is pretty fitting because if you ask ten people what a cloud looks like, you’ll get ten different answers. The internet cloud is the same way – it means widely different things do different people. I read a pretty good article about the “cloud” on another photography blog (Mansurovs Photography) that actually inspired this post.  For today’s post, “cloud” means backing your photos up to the internet (in any of the many ways that can happen).

Each of these has negatives and positives, and I could probably have a long post on each one, but I’ll boil it down a bit in an unusual fit of brevity:  You can’t rely on any one of those methods and be truly safe.  Like so many other things, layers of protection are always better.

Ultimately, what works best for one person won’t work well for another whether it has to do with budget, personality or technology limitations – some people can’t afford a NAS, others won’t remember to do their monthly backup to DVD every month and lots of places have internet service where uploading gigabytes of photos isn’t a reliable or realistic prospec.

The point is if you want to best protection, look at the above methods, think about what you’re able to afford and what you’re likely to use.  Automatic is generally better than manual for most of us.  More than one extra is a good thing, and if you really want to be safe, you need a copy somewhere else: that can mean the cloud, a safe deposit box or your Aunt Bertha’s closet.  Whatever it means to you, get a copy of everything off-site.  The internet won’t burn down, but the likelihood that you and Aunt Bertha will have a household disaster is pretty unlikely (note: if Aunt Bertha lives next door, pick another relative).

I have a photographer friend who religiously backs up his photos to an external drive every month.  He has several very large hard drives and rotates them, always putting the latest one in a safe deposit box at the bank.  He’s diligent about it and it works for him.  Another pal uses a combination of a local NAS box with a huge amount of storage and has a particular folder on his hard drive where he puts a copies of his favorite photos, which is then backed up to the cloud using Carbonite, which is an unlimited-space cloud-backup service that costs less than $60 a year (there are similar services out there for similar money.  I actually met some of the senior folks a few years ago, and I was impressed with their company and I love the simplicity of the product.  In my book, Simple+Automatic=GOOD).  I like his system since it combines multiple local backups but also gives him back what is important to him if the worst happens.  Personally, I have a two-drive NAS that backs up all of my documents and photos.  Each drive is a mirror of the other.  Every once is a while I pull a drive out and put in another drive, which then is “rebuilt” to be a copy of the other one.  I stick the spare drive in a safe deposit box.  I do this every three months or so.

I’d be happy to give some opinions and perspective through comments on this post, but here in the net:  If you’re not doing anything about backup, do SOMETHING.  Anything is better than nothing.  Large USB hard drives that will hold vast numbers of photos start around $80.  Vastly huge ones that can hold every photo an Enthusiast Photographer will ever take can be had for under $200.  Buy a couple of whatever and you’re ahead of the game.  If you don’t want to mess with hardware, a cloud-based solution is better than nothing, and isn’t vulnerable to failure.  It can just be a little slow and some internet service providers might have an issue with gigabytes of uploads and/or downloads.  You might notice I haven’t mentioned optical.  I think optical is going the way of the dodo and floppy drive sooner than later, and frankly the capacities are limited.  I just can’t recommend optical.

If you do have a backup strategy, think about what happens if your laptop case is stolen or you have a fire in your house and consider whether you want to add another layer of protection.

It is a complicated world out there, but there are ways to make backups simple enough, and you’ll be happy when you avoid a disaster and lose those precious photographs.

I’ll end where I began:  Do you have all of your photographs backed up?

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