Photo Backups are Boring

That’s right. Photo backups are boring. Every single photographer on the planet would rather spend their cash on a new lens than a stack of hard drives, but can you risk not having one?

Many years ago, my old boss came to work one morning with a thunderous face. To be honest this happened quite a lot but I could tell this morning was different. When I asked him what was the matter he told me his backup drive had died the night before. The drive held at least 10 years of family photographs – holidays, first day at school, Christmas dinners, the lot, gone in an instant. I thought to myself – “but that’s just the backup disk so what’s the problem?”. A backup is a copy of source data on a separate disk. Ideally at a different location just in case of theft, flood or fire. That’s a nice easy, logical way to think of it. That’s not how my old boss thought of it. He had heard external drives referred to as “Backup Disks” and had assumed his photographs were somehow safer on the “Backup” than on the disk residing in his laptop. All hard drives fail eventually. It is most definitely a when rather than an if. Backup disks for your precious photos are no different. If you are very lucky you may get a warning that hardware is about to fail but let’s assume that’s not going to be the case. One day you have access to your photographs, the next day you won’t. That extra £50 on a spare disk won’t seem that expensive at exactly the moment of realisation that your photos are gone. The time it would have taken to sort a backup routine will also be minuscule compared to the hours of torment you’ll get from your other half, kids, parents or friends every time it comes up in conversation that YOU lost “all those photos”.

People are generally a bit more clued up these days but at the time it was less of a stretch to understand his point of view. In the early 2000s not that many people would feel that an extra hard drive was a decent investment given the price of hardware back then. It was considered a luxury that most people would avoid because of cost but more importantly, because they had probably never had a hard drive fail catastrophically. I’m not talking about the odd file going corrupt or slow disk access. I’m talking about full on hardware failure that would cost more money than your car, to get your precious data recovered. It would have been an impractically complicated fix but even worse, most decent data recovery establishments charge by the Gigabyte for the recovery itself. Yep, that’s right – the more of your data they recover for you, the more you will get charged.

So let’s go back to my earlier statement; a backup is a copy of source data on a separate disk. How many times have you heard a story of somebody losing a phone and losing all their photos because they hadn’t bothered setting up iCloud or Google Backup & Sync. The IT industry has a great one liner that sums this up. One copy is none, two copies is one. It’s the same issue right there. Think of the phone as disk one. That is your one and only copy. That data is still written to solid state memory that forms the hard drive on the device. If that phone gets lost, stolen or dropped down the toilet,  that one single copy of data is gone. Where is the second disk? Where is the copy? It’s easier than ever to get this setup on a relatively new smart phone. You can be backing up automatically in a few clicks and all your data gets cloned to the cloud. Although “The Cloud” sounds super approachable and is a marketeers dream for dumbing down tech speak, it actually just means somebody else’s computer. When you backup your iPhone to “The Cloud”, your data is floating off to a disk array in a data centre somewhere else. This works incredibly well because it’s fire and forget stuff. Once that backup routine is triggered, you can forget about it. I think that’s the single most important factor of any practical and consistent photo data backup. If it takes any kind of human intervention or physical task that you have to remember to do to keep data backing up, just assume that you’ll make that happen for a month maximum before something more important needs doing like taking the bins out or feeding the cat – you can always do that backup next week instead right? Think back to my old boss.

After many years of data backup and archival experience we think we’ve got photo backup nailed. I don’t know if I could say wether personal, family photos are more important than paid work for a client. They would both present equally uncomfortable conversations if you’d have to tell the recipient that the photos from that unique, never to be repeated event have vanished into oblivion. So to avoid that scenario, let’s work a bit smarter. Here is a rundown of best practice to avoid ever having that conversation:

  • Most pro level cameras have twin card slots. You can be shooting and backing up immediately by writing a live copy to the second card on the fly. Don’t skimp on the quality of the cards. Wether it be Compact Flash, C-Fast, SD or XQD. Get decent quality cards from a reputable retailer. Fakes do exist and usually fail just when you don’t want them to.
  • As soon as is practical, dump off the contents of the cards to your editing rig. Don’t wipe the cards just yet. That way if anything goes wrong on the edit you have the freedom to dump off another copy at a later date.
  • The main edit computer creates a daily local backup to a multi-terabyte local network disk array. So this is copy 3 already.
  • The final step. The entire disk array gets copied to the cloud. Edits are registered and transferred every minute so that data is copied almost in realtime. Copy 4 nailed. In some ways this final copy is the single most important purely because it’s held at a different physical location to the others. This is doomsday scenario prevention. If your main location gets, burned down, flooded or your PC and cameras get burgled, this is the one and the only one that will save the day.

The above guidelines are admittedly quite heavy duty stuff for the casual photographer but for paid work I’d argue it’s an absolute given. To be paid to provide photographs it is your responsibility to guarantee those images are available after the event. One copy on one disk will not cut it. One copy is NEVER a backup.

December 5th, 2018|News, Photographer Equipment|