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Outback Photo Handbook: Backup & Archiving

Backup for Photographers: Protecting Against Threats

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article series by Marc Rochkind and Uwe Steinmueller

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Last updated 5/22/2008

Protecting Against Threats

This series of articles is about backup, but, as we said in Part 1, backup doesn't prevent destruction of data. It only allows you to recover the data once the destruction has occurred. No matter how thorough your backup, it still makes sense to reduce the likelihood of damage occurring; restoring is always a chore, and you still have to replace the damaged or stolen equipment. Think of protection as reducing the probability of a restore, rather than reducing the need for backup.

In the Camera and in the Field

Digital images are at their greatest risk from the moment of exposure until you've had a chance to make your first backup. That's because there's only one copy, the card containing that copy is still being written to with additional images, and, even after it's out of the camera, it's out in field where it can be lost, stolen, shocked, crushed, or soaked. Here are some protective things you can do in the field:

  • Always format the card in the camera, not in your computer, for several reasons:
    1. It ensures maximum compatibility between the initial state of the card and what the camera's firmware expects when it writes, since that same firmware is doing the formatting. You never know whether the OS and camera manufacturers have exactly the same interpretation of what the file system on the card should look like. (The file system used on cards, called FAT, isn't the native file system for any modern computer.)
    2. Computers get into weird states sometimes, but cameras always start from the same state when they're turned on (booted).
    3. The card reader attached to your computer can go bad, resulting in improper formatting. The camera's card reader can go bad, too, but in that case formatting won't be the only problem—writes will fail, too. Why add another variable to the mix?
    4. Every camera manufacturer recommends formatting in the camera.
  • Format the card, don't just erase the images, so any inconsistencies in the card's file system will be eliminated. Every card then starts out in a fixed initial state.
  • Format all of your cards prior to the shoot, never during the shoot. That way the worse thing that will happen if you put the wrong card in is that you'll be surprised that there's no more space available. You won't format over a card by mistake.
  • If the shoot is going to use multiple cards, store the full cards in a case, and put that case in a safe place. A good choice is the Gepe Card Safe Extreme, which is waterproof, dustproof, protects against static electricity, and floats.
  • Depending on the shoot, you may want to put a just-used card into a digital wallet (e.g., Epson, Jobo, Wolverine, Sanho) for immediate backup, and then from there to the case when the next card is full. Or, if mobility isn't an issue, you can ingest the card right away into a laptop or even a nearby desktop. The idea is that the sooner you can make a backup, the better. (OK, this is about backup, not protection, but it seems worth mentioning here.)

Note by Uwe: We always have enough cards for a days shoot. Right now we can shoot 32 GB with the cards in our Canon 1Ds3. This will last for likely most days we shoot. In the evening we copy the cards to our notebook computer and 2 USB-drive backup disks. These backup disks are always in our bags. If the notebook gets stolen out of the hotel we still have the backups.

  • Don't use a GPS-tagging device that writes onto a card containing images you've just shot. Remember, there's no backup yet, so writing onto the card is very dangerous. Instead, use a camera that does GPS tagging as it shoots, or do the tagging during ingestion (after backup), as Marc's ImageIngester does.
  • The newest high-end DSLRs. such as the Canon Mk III series and the Nikon D3, can write each image to two cards, which is a great idea. They can also copy a card, but that seems a little dangerous in the field, as the wrong card could be overwritten by mistake.

Note by Uwe: We use a Canon 1Ds Mark III but still don't use in camera backup. In our experience good CF cards are very reliable. Good means: cards by the main card manufacturers.

  • There are claims that some cards, such as the Hoodman RAW cards, are more reliable than mass-marketed cards such as those from SanDisk, Lexar, and Kingston, but those claims come from the manufacturers, and we can't say whether they're true. You'll have to make up your own mind. At least buy from a well-known supplier to minimize the chance that you'll get a counterfeit card. (You're probably less likely to get stung by a counterfeit Hoodman than a counterfeit SanDisk, but that's only a guess.)
  • When you're traveling with a laptop, never let go of it. Marc takes his into restaurants and while he's eating he sits on the shoulder strap. (Probably a good idea for cameras, too.) If you have to leave your laptop in an office, use a cable to attach it to the desk. This will at least delay a thief for a minute or two, and maybe he or she will decide that's too long.

Note by Uwe: We leave the notebook computer in the hotel but have backup disks in our camera bags. The camera bags are nearly always with us.

Back in the Office

Some protective measures you can take in the office are:
  • Connect your computers and external drives to a surge protector. The good ones cost a few hundred dollars. Cheap ones are better than nothing, but it makes no sense to protect $5,000 worth of equipment with a $29 power strip. (Marc did get lucky with a cheap strip once.)
  • Build a shelf under your desk and put external drives there rather than on the desk, so that a thief won't notice them. (If you put them directly on the floor they'll be knocked about by the cleaning staff.) If you put them in a drawer, make sure there's enough ventilation. Network-Attached Storage (NAS) devices are especially useful here because you can put them far away from your desk.
  • Don't work in an apartment or condo, especially if it's not sprinklered. In Marc's town there's a fire in a condo or apartment about once a year. A recent one was started by a cigar left in a planter on a deck, with some firewood and four 20-pound propane tanks nearby. It destroyed 36 units. The newspaper didn't report how many computers, external drives, optical disks, and USB drives were melted, burned, or soaked from fire hoses.
  • If your home or office is sprinklered, make sure your computer, or at least your external drives, are covered so they don't get wet.
  • If you're going to keep offline media or devices on-premises, keep them in a fireproof media safe. These aren't ordinary office safes, not even ordinary fireproof safes, but special safes designed for tapes and CDs/DVDs. Marc uses them for hard drives, too. He has both a Sentry Model 1710 and a 6720. One is in the basement and one is right next to his computer so it's easy to access. An on-premises safe doesn't replace off-site storage, but it's better than keeping media and devices loose on your desk.

Note by Uwe: We have a second office and keep all data mirrored there. This also can show if data are corrupted (or Lightroom Catalogs) because we work in both locations. Both locations are in Silicon Valley. This means a tragic earthquake could hit both offices at once. But then we may worry more about our life than some image data. Still some online backup solutions start to look interesting.

As we said, even if you do all of the above, it doesn't allow you to get away without backups. It just lessens the chance that you'll need them.

Sounds like we are getting neurotic, right? True, but if you care about your images you sometimes should be overly careful.

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Marc Rochkind is the creator of ImageIngester

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