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Outback Photo Handbook: Backup & Archiving

Backup for Photographers: Planning for Backup and Restoring

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article series by Marc Rochkind and Uwe Steinmueller

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Last updated 6/9/2008

Planning for Backup and Restoring

In Part 1 of this series we listed the six categories of threats that can destroy your data: User Error, Equipment Failure, Surge, Disappearance, Office Destruction, and Regional Disaster. Before acquiring and installing hardware and software for backup, which are the subjects of the next two articles, you'll want to develop a plan for backup and restoring so you can ensure that you're covered against all six.

Convenience vs. Independence

A backup only works if it's independent of the original data, and multiple backups are effective only if they're independent of each other. Generally, the more convenient a back up method is, the less independence you get. So, you'll need a combination of methods: One or two that are convenient but provide just enough independence to protect against the most common threats, and one or two that are inconvenient but which provide complete independence.

For example, using a background backup utility like Apple's new Time Machine is convenient, but since the backup drive has to be within WiFi range and plugged in to power, it doesn't provide enough independence to protect against Surge, Office Destruction, or Regional Disaster. Those threats are much less common than User Error, Equipment Failure, and Disappearance, so running Time Machine is a great idea. It's just not the only idea.

For protection against surge, all you need to do is back up to an external disk (probably not with Time Machine) that you can unplug and, for good measure, put into a fireproof media safe. Store that drive in a neighbor's house and you'll protect against Office Destuction as well. Take to your mother's house 25 miles away and you're protected against most Regional Disasters. Copy your irreplaceable files, such as photos, to online storage such as Amazon's S3 and you're even more completely protected.

In the field during a shoot, you have more important things to do (photography!) than to deal with backup, so it has to be even more convenient than it does in the office. You have fewer choices in equipment, too. The last thing you want is for your concern about the six threats to interfere with your workflow. For example, you'll want to think carefully about whether the space, weight, recharging requirements, and extra effort needed to use a digital wallet are really worth it. If it compromises your photography, it isn't. Of course, you have more options when you're shooting landscapes or interiors than you do when you're shooting weddings, sports, or breaking news.

You Need a Backup Plan

The way we arrived at the combination of methods in the previous section was to list the six types of threats, list the available backup methods, and then pair them up to ensure that we were covered. The more backup methods available and the more you know about them, the more effectively you can come up with something you can live with. If your plan is too inconvenient, you'll find you're not using it, and then you won't be protected.

As we'll explain in future articles, neither Windows (even Vista) nor Mac OS X comes with sufficient backup software, so you'll need to buy a third-party utility.

You'll have to spend some money, mostly for software and external drives. The software will cost less than $100, a couple of 120GB drives for your most important data will cost about $100 each, and each 500GB drive will cost less than $150. Amazon's S3 service is really cheap, only a few dollars a month. So, for about $500, a little planning work on your part, and a slight change to your work habits you can get almost 100% protection from all six threats.

The worst mistake is to assume that some exotic piece of equipment is a complete solution. (Readers of these articles won't think that, of course.) Recently, someone on a digital photography forum said that he had lost a day's shoot because his portable external backup disk failed, so he solved the problem by replacing the drive with a portable drive-mirroring device. In fact, the drive that failed wasn't a backup (independent copy) at all—as soon as he erased the card, it became the un-backed-up primary copy. His new portable mirror is a slight improvement that probably protects against an actual drive failure, but it doesn't protect against failure of the drive controller or power supply, against physical damage or loss, against surge when it's plugged in, or against user error. Had he followed our approach, he would have added a true backup instead of trying to make the single drive more reliable. Also, at today's prices, it's usually unnecessary to erase a card during a single-day's shooting.

Uwe's strategy in the field: We assume on most trips to be in a hotel at night. This way we ensure to have enough memory cards to get through a day (right now we carry at least 40-50GB cards are in our bags). In the evening we copy the images to our travel Mac and then also backup to two USB powered disks. These two disks stay in our camera bags and and are not left in the hotel.

You Need a Restore Plan

It's a safe bet that very few people who do a backup have ever tried a restore to see if the backup worked. And, it's not hard to see why: Restoring a complete system is pretty disruptive, and if it doesn't work you will have just wiped out a perfectly good system. To test a restore, you have to put another hard drive in the system so you can safely overwrite it, or wait until you have a new computer. (Marc has a Windows desktop with six drive bays with handy slide-out trays, so it's very easy for him to pop in a new drive to test a restore while the primary drive is safely out of the the computer. But his desktop is very unusual, and it's more common today to see computers getting smaller and even more closed up.)

Even without actually doing a complete restore, you should spot-check the backup to ensure that your files are really there. Backup software that won't let you do this, such as Vista's Complete PC Backup, should be avoided.

Your restore plan also has to include a way to replace damaged hardware. If you live near computer stores and they're open when you need them, you might be able to just go out buy what you need when you need it. But if not, and time-to-restore is important, you'll have to have replacement equipment on hand. The equipment really has to be available—if the replacement hard drive has data on it, you won't be able to use it without destroying that data.

After a restore, make sure you don't start running without a backup. For example, suppose you keep a complete, bootable copy of your primary drive on an external drive. If the primary drive fails, you can boot from the external drive, which gets you up and running immediately, losing only a few hours of work. But, if you run that way, you no longer have your backup, since the backup drive has become the primary and the old primary is dead. Instead, you should immediately clone the backup to a replacement primary drive or, if that's not feasible, clone the backup to a second external drive.

In the next article we'll look at backup hardware, and then in the one after that at backup software.

Backup Overview


Marc Rochkind is the creator of ImageIngester

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