Backing up your pictures

Teal - original lost forever

Teal – original lost forever

OK, it’s not a very exciting picture but it’s important to me.

The much fiddled-with and abused great grandchild of the original RAW file has been in LightRoom (LR) for a while. It was captured when digital photography was still a muddy puddle of uncertainty and confusion. In 2013 my Nikon D7000 was a shiny new and exciting thing which was used often and indiscriminately. Virtually all of the early pictures were dreadful and, with the accidental inclusion of the Teal picture,  were spring-cleaned out of existence. I thought it was lost forever.

Four years later another bout of spring cleaning led me to empty the techy graveyard which was the bottom draw of my office filing cabinet. Before dumping an old USB hard drive I decided to wipe the disc. It must have been used for backup at home, and then in my office. On the off chance I  searched for the filename (which is embossed in my memory) and there it was. Of the several hundred other images from that time, only the ones on this page were worth keeping.

It got me worried about what would happen if I lost other stuff too, what if everything was destroyed? Then I felt a bit smug because I think I’ve cracked it. Well anyway, it works for me.

What’s the risk?

If anyone is in any doubt, your pictures sit on your laptop or PC on a hard drive, magical things that allow you to save and recall massive quantities of data. They are not infallible, however, and the question is never “Will my hard drive fail?” but “When will my hard drive fail?” Actually some could last a very long time but you might not be blessed with one of those. Can data be lifted from a failed drive? Possibly, I’ve seen files recovered from a lap top after the machine had been in a fire, but it is not certain and it will always be expensive. Far better not to need International Rescue. Backing up is a much more viable option.

Picture recovered from backup

Picture recovered from backup

What backup do you need?

There are a couple of principles that help answer that question. The 3-2-1 rule suggests you should have 3 copies of everything, held in at least 2 locations, and with one immediately available. The 3 “O”s rule reminds us to have a copy online, offline and off-site. Both of these make it clear that you should have a local instant back-up and restore option in case the main drive fails. The off-site additional location protects against local disasters such as fire or theft.

How do you backup your pictures?

Many people assume that backing up your files is expensive, complicated and time consuming. Although it is important to learn some basic stuff, once it’s off and running you only need check it occasionally to ensure everything is actually working. There are various options including recordable DVDs, external hard drives, another PC or the cloud. I’ve excluded tape which was once quite common but no longer a viable option at home.

First, make sure that you know where all your pictures are stored. I’m lucky in that using LR almost since I first had a digital camera, all of my images are  in sub-directories of Pictures / lightroom. If you have them stored over a number of locations you might want to consolidate or at least keep a note of where they are. The volume of your photo-library also needs to be considered. I was shocked to discover I had around a terabyte which, until it is culled properly, needs to be secured.

Snow covered fence recovered

Snow covered fence recovered

Personal choice

For my alternative on-site backup I use a 4 TB USB hard drive. It arrived with its own backup software to manage what was backed up and when but I’ve discarded that in favour of something better – see below.

Although there are alternatives, for off-site backup the cloud is probably the most practical. You can purchase additional storage using googledrive or Microsoft One Drive, or other providers. I use another provider to synchronise my home and office PCs, and my laptop with standard work documents, but although these are accessible and easy to use, they tend to be expensive for large amounts of data.

Instead I subscribe to crashplan. If you need cloud storage you can have unlimited amounts for US$59 per year – but we’ll come back to that. You can download the software without cost and use it to manage your local backup or even share computer space across the web with a friend. The software will allow you to store your material on their machine, and vice versa, on net-connected computers. The only time you need pay a fee is if you subscribe to their unlimited cloud storage.

The daily grind – what do I have to do?

Actually, my regular input into dealing with backups is very close to zero. Once you have identified the files to be backed up and set the ball rolling there isn’t much to do. The software runs at scheduled time but suspends itself if the computer is in use so as not to compete for resources. If you have a number of household PCs for different family members you can buy an extended licence for US$149 but it is probably cheaper to have every machine backup to a single household PC and use the cheaper licence to back up from there. I check every few weeks that I can genuinely download a random folder from either the USB hard drive or the cloud and that’s about all. Am I right to feel smug?

There are other providers and this is not meant to comment on how well or badly they perform. It is purely a record of my own experience.

I want to acknowledge Chris Shepherd who gave a talk on image backup at Edmonton Camera Club last year. Most of the content has been filched unmercifully and without his input I wouldn’t be in a position of feeling quite so secure. Also, he is a blindingly good photographer – go see his website. Details of Crashplan are available here.


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