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BACK UP YOUR DATA - A WORKFLOW
By Vandit Kalia
September 2008

I have had a fairly loose approach to backing up my data, sometimes putting it off for weeks, As a result, I ended up losing 3 month worth of shots last year, including some irreplacable tiger behavioral shots. After that, I decided to get serious about my backups.... and having suffered 2 additional hard drive failures this year, am thankful that I did so. Had I been less committed to backups, I would have lost my entire image collection from the past 5 years.

In theory, backing up your images is easy - if you have Macs, plug in a couple of hard drives, run Time Machine or SuperDuper, and you are good to go. With Windows, there are many utlities which do more or less the same thing.

However, if you are a serious photographer and you have a lot of images, there are some additional considerations that you need to take into account.

For starters, it is structurally more efficient to not mix your computer data (programs, documents, bookmarks, etc.) with your images, as your image database may be several times larger than your standard computer hard drive.

Second, you will want a method that lets you back up your RAW files, your processed files and also your work-in-progress (or shoot in progress) files in a manner that is logical, consistent and easy to perform. Think about it - a typical photographer will have a master image database on external drives, images from recent shoots on his computer's hard drive, perhaps processed images on his laptop (for a last-minute submission) and more. All of this needs to be managed systematically and in an easy-to-perform manner.

That last bit is important - if backing up data starts getting complex, you are likely to put it off, which is what bit me in the rear during my first hard drive failure.

So, with that in mind, let's look at my workflow and specific backup needs and then I will cover how I back up my data.

MY REQUIREMENTS & CORE WORKFLOW

I maintain 3 separate image sets:
1. My RAW images - this is my master database
2. Converted images - these are high-res TIFF files, ready for submission
3. Low-res JPEGs, for web display and emailing - these are my initial mailings to clients, images on the web, etc.

During a trip, I usually go through the images using Photo Mechanic to delete the junk, and then import them into my Master Catalog in Lightroom, keywording them as I do so. Once in Lightroom, I process the highlight images from that trip - these are images which I feel are worth displaying, using for my portfolio or generally, worth having around for ready reference.

I initially process the images using Lightroom/CS3, and then save the images in a Converted Images folder on my laptop or desktop, under the same folder hierarchy as the RAW images. The corresponding RAW files in Lightroom are tagged to indicate that they have been processed, but I dont have any database keeping tracking of these files.

Then I down-res these into low-res versions for web display (into the format used for all the images you see on this website, for example). This is kept on my computer and also synced to my iPod and Archos players, so that I always have images to show potential clients & friends. This database is maintained on iPhoto.

My trips run anywhere from a week to over a month. While I am on the road, I also need to make sure that my data is safe: laptops can fall, hard drives can fail, bags can get stolen, etc. Then, when I come home from a trip, I now have the following new things on my latop:
- a new set of RAW images from the trip
- a new set of Converted images from the trip
- additional low-res images

So my backup solution has to not only back up all this data while I am on the road, but also sync my image databases when I return.

BACKUP ON THE ROAD

My backup solution for the road is very simple. I carry an external hard drive (80-250GB, depending on where I am going) with me, which connects to my laptop via Firewire. At the end of every day, I use Photo Mechanic to upload my images onto the laptop and copy them to the external drive. Then I work on the set of images on my laptop, deleting the junk, processing the appropriate files, etc. - this becomes my working folder, while the external drive has everything I shot (just in case I need a file).

If what I am shooting is truly irreplaceable, I add a second hard drive and make a second duplicate of my images. I rarely burn DVDs while on the road - they are fragile, hard to pack and carry and take too much time.

When I travel, the laptop and 1 or 2 external hard drives are all packed/carried separately, to provide additional redundancy.

This is the easy bit. All it requires is a couple of additional hard drives, that's it.

BACKUP AT HOME

The easiest way to back up your images is to have 2 large-capacity hard drives in a RAID1 array, where 1 drive acts as a mirror for the second. This is true, but keep in mind that this is not a truly redundant system. The failure probability of 2 linked drives (same environment, same power supply) is not truly independent. As such, I have chosen a slightly different approach to backing up my data.

First of all, I back up my computer data and my images separately. Both my Macbook and my Mac desktop have their own dedicated Time Machine hard drives, where everything is duplicated. But this is just so that I can restore my machine in case the hard drive fails.

The images are backed up separately. Borrowing from my tech/wreck diving experience ("always carry 2 backup lights"), I use 4 separate hard drives to back up my images: 2 are powered units, while 2 are portable (USB-powered) units.

One hard drive is my "Travel" database - this is a USB-powered portable hard drive containing a copy of my RAW and Converted image database that I take with me when I travel. I need to keep this with me in case I am on the road and need to send in any images to clients, editors, etc. I usually carry it wrapped in bubble-wrap in a secure part of my Lowepro bag and don't add anything to it during the trip. At the end of the trip, usually on the flight back, I transfer the RAW and the Converted images from my laptop to the Travel database.

As soon as I get home, I run SuperDuper (a great Mac app!) to create a mirror of the Travel database on the second portable hard drive. This is my Offsite copy, and only stays in my home while I am away - as soon as the copy is done, this hard drive is put away in a different physical location.

Then I connect the two poweredl hard drives, which are daisy-chained together using FireWire, to my laptop and transfer the RAW & Converted images onto these drives as well. Then I unplug and pack away my Travel database. It has served its purpose.

All subsequent work is done on one of the two powered Hard Drives, the Working Master. The second is kept unplugged all day (this is the Backup Master) and is only plugged in at the end of the day when SuperDuper mirrors one to the other. The reason I keep one unplugged is for a degree of redundancy when it comes to electricity supplies, surges, etc. Every few weeks, I also flip the Working Master and Backup Master around.

Lastly, before leaving on a trip, I pull out Travel Master and Offisite Master, and sync them fro the Working Master - this updates any new Converted Images I have added, and also any deletions I have made to the RAW images. Then I unplug both my powered masters, keep them in separate locations and off I go for my next trip.

SYNCING THE CATALOGS

This is the hardest part. Because I work, at various times, on my Macbook, my wife's Macbook or my Mac desktop, it is a real pain in the rear for my to sync all these databases. Right now, I have to admit that I don't have a very efficient method, but it works for me.

Generally, my desktop is my master. I have my latest Lightroom catalog for my RAW and Converted images, and also my latest iPhoto catalog on it, along with the low-res images. All of these are in the PICTURES folder, with the low-res images being in a LOW-RES sub-folder, further organized in same hierarchy as the RAW images.

If I am going on a road, I simply replace the Lightroom catalog on my laptop with the Lightroom catalog on my computer. Easy as that. For syncing my low-res images, I simply copy the entire LOW-RES sub-folder from my desktop to the Macbook, along with the iPhoto catalog.

When I return, I repeat the process the other way. Then the desktop takes over as the catalog master.

As a worst case, I simply delete my iPhoto catalog and re-do it. As this is a very simple catalog, simply sorted by folder, and the images are quite small, it is a very quick process to rebuild this catalog.

The main thing to watch out for is to make sure that the sanctity of the Lightroom master catalog is maintained, and I am waiting for Lightroom to make this process a little easier (perhaps 2.0 has this feature?).

CONCLUSIONS AND LAST THOUGHTS

I should clarify at this point that as of right now, each of my Masters is a 500GB hard drive. I can see it getting filled up quite soon. At that point, I will replace the 500GB drive with a 1TB or larger drive. Hard drive capacity is increasing faster than the rate at which I shoot, so atleast for the foreseeable future, I am sure that there will be a single hard drive that is large enough to hold my database. Worst case, I will put the Converted Images on a separate database.

Also, for a lot of people, 4 hard drives may be a bit too much. I agree. However, I think a simple RAID 1 architecture still has too many common failure points to be repository for a photographer's entire body of work. In fact, any 2 hard drive solution has this risk, because sometimes it takes 2 data points to identify a cause of failure.

Imagine, if you will, an electrical problem in your computer or a virus, which causes your hard drive to malfunction. Not sure what caused it, you suspect the problem lies in the hard drive. So you plug in your second drive in order to recover your data and.... ooops. The problem repeats itself. Now you have no data.

A third hard drive gives you additional backup. The moment one fails, you immediately backup - indepedently - your other drives. Then you try to access your data.

In fact, another option is to burn a DVD of your images. I am seriously considering this, especially now that Blu Ray discs have hit the market and offer 25GB+ of capacity in one disc. Read-only media provide a different type of protection and redundancy, which lowers your overall risk exposure level.

Anyway, I hope this gives you a sense of how to systematically organize and backup your data. My 2 hard drive failures I mentioned at the start of this article both happened within a week or each other, and both were due to user error (I dropped my Macbook and separately, I dropped my Travel Master). However, thanks to my backup system, I was back and running in a day or so, with no data loss.

 
     

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