Sometimes the boring stuff we face as digital photographers is really important. Backing up all of our master photo files is one of those “must do” tasks. Backups take time. Backups aren’t fun. Backups can save our a**.
I touched on backups over a year ago in my Digital Condoms post. It’s time to return to the subject. Like the previous post, this one is motivated by a friend’s hard drive crash catastrophe. She hadn’t backed up any of her photos for the year and lost everything. A data recovery company like DriveSavers might have been able to retrieve her files but that’s an expensive option for an amateur photographer. It’s expensive for those of us who make our living from photography, too.
Backups are like an insurance policy, something you hope you never need. Unfortunately, the time you need a backup the most is often when you realize you got lazy about making them.
Some photographers take what I’d call a “belt and suspenders” approach to backups, insisting that you need three copies of every file. Those are the working copy on your primary computer, an on-site backup, and an off-site backup. That’s certainly an ideal approach that protects against a hard drive crash, a fire or theft in your office, and damage to one of your two backup disks. You can’t go wrong with that approach.
Yet many people find having multiple backups intimidating and challenging to maintain. For them, a certain level of security can be had with a single backup to protect against a hard drive crash or accidental file deletion.
The fastest, easiest, and most cost-effective backup for most photographers is to use one or more external hard drives in conjunction with backup software. I’m currently using a set of Western Digital My Book Essential USB external drives. They come with backup software, but I’ve chosen a different tool.
I use a program called ViceVersa Pro to manage my backup process. I’ve deliberately chosen not to have a completely automated backup process because I’m a control freak and want to know what’s happening and when. That also puts the onus on me to backup my files regularly.
My photo files are on multiple internal hard drives, organized into directories by year. Obviously, I don’t need to update the backups for my 2007 photos as often as for the new work I create in 2012. However, when I create derivative files those do need to be backed up. Adobe Lightroom updates the sidecar .xmp whenever I make changes to captions or keywords or process an image in the develop module. I want my backups to reflect those changes, too.
In my system, each year’s photos are on a separate external backup drive. I only plug the drive in when I’m ready to update the backup. That way my backup drives see very little use and wear. They should last for a long time. Just how long? I don’t know.
How often should a drive backup be updated? Every day there are changes to the files.
There are other backup options, including DVDs and online storage. Backing up to DVD has the advantage of being pretty permanent. You can’t accidentally delete a file from a DVD, but there are questions about how many years they’ll remain readable. Cloud, or online backups, store your files offsite on some other company’s hard drives. It’s the ultimate protection against fire, theft, or local natural disaster. But when you have multiple terabytes of data it gets expensive in a hurry. It might make sense to use online backup for your business files but I haven’t gone that route myself.
Data professionals spend a lot of time developing strong and reliable backup procedures. I’ve merely touched the surface of the topic. Peter Krough’s book, The DAM Book: Digital Asset Management for Photographers, goes into more detail.
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Whatever you do, protect your assets. Backup your photo files regularly. Something is better than nothing. You don’t want to be like Karen and lose everything you photograph this year.