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Photo backup routine for photographers

I am currently studying photography at Nordic School of Photography. In one of the first lectures we went through the photo backup routine by one of the teachers and why every photographer should have one. I don´t think most people realise how fragile a harddrive can be. And also the people who have not experienced a harddrive crash, don´t know the pain of loosing your files. Just imagine loosing all of our pictures from the time you bought your pc or camera. Everything…horrible.

Based on the lecture, common sense from computer science classes and a blog from Scott Hanselman on his computer backup strategy, I have now developed a backup workflow that I thought I could share.

First lets get out of the way what is not a backup. Having all of your  files on a memory card in our camera, not a backup. Having all our files on our laptop, not a backup. RAID in a computer, not a backup. Copying the files so you have it in two different folders on the same harddrive, not a backup. Using time machine to create backup/image of your mac, not a backup. All of these fails the requisites that Scott mentions in his blog post.

Requisites for the backup routine

  1. 3 copies of anything you care about.
  2. 2 different formats
  3. 1 off site backup

My backup routine is a variation of this one. It can easily be extended to satisfy all of the requirements above. It trusts outside backup services a bit more, which in my case is CrashPlan. That is the major downside of my backup routine, but CrashPlan…I trust you.

So lets go through a photo shoot and the general workflow the pictures go through.

1) The shoot
When you shoot you should always mirror the RAW files to two memory cards. Most modern DSLR have two memory card slots, one for Compact Flash and one for SD. After the shoot take one out and keep it as separate as possible from the camera and the other card. What if the camera gets stolen for example? You now only have 2 copies of the pictures but I don´t see any way you can avoid it. I guess you could bring a portable harddrive that have a memory card interface. One of these for example, and quickly transfer the files to it But that is being a bit to paranoid.

If I do tethering shooting I capture the pictures directly to an external harddrive in the same way that I import the pictures from a memory card to an external harddrive. That brings us to the second step in the workflow: getting the pictures from memory cards to a harddrive and keeping them organised.

2) Home from shoot
When I am home from shooting pictures. I use Adobe Bridge Photo Downloader to download the pictures to an external portable hardrive. I use a variant of the LaCie Rugged series. One example is this one. There are several ways to keep a structure of our images when downloading. I personally prefer a combination of folders for themes and dates. Currently it looks something like this:

  • PortableLacie
    • PictureArchive
      • Learning
      • NSoP
        • One folder for each of the subjects I am taking
          • YYYYMMDD
      • Portfolio
        • Conserts
          • YYYYMMDD
          • YYYYMMDD
        • Street
          • YYYYMMDD
        • Landscape
        • Silhouette
      • Print
        • YYYYMMDD
      • Street
        • YYYYMMDD
      • Studio
      • …and so on…

There should not take more than a couple of steps to find a picture or shoot that you are looking for.

You can make Adobe Bridge Photo Downloader delete the files from the memory card you are transferring from during the transfer itself. I don´t do this. I wait to format the memory cards until I have made a final backup to crashPlan as we will see in step 4. I do however use the tools ability to automatically convert the RAW files into Adobe´s DNG format to make sure that Photoshop will support my files for years to come. Also once the files are on my external harddrive I go through them and label them with a star or not depending on if I want to keep it or not. All files that don´t have a star gets deleted from the harddrive and are in the end, when the memory cards are formated, completely gone.

The reason for the american date format is to keep the folders sorted correctly ascending.

3) Backup to “big external harddrive”
Now the files are at 3 locations: two memory cards and the LACIE rugged portable harddrive. Time to backup the last one and free up some memory cards. I use the excellent sync tool Carbon Copy Cloner. I have set it up so that it automatically syncs the portable hardrive to the more stationary big harddrive, from now one called harddrive2, every time I plugin in both of them. I have also set it up that for newer versions of the files it keeps a copy of the old one in a folder named with the date of the old file. In that way I keep a record of files I change and can always go back to previous versions. Carbon Copy Cloner also never deletes any files that are only present on the harddrive2in the sync.

Carbon Copy Cloner
Settings windows for Carbon Copy Cloner

4) CrashPlan backup
Harddrive2 is then automatically backed up to crashPlan. You can choose which folders that CrashPlan should backup. This is also the reason for having a root folder the harddrives: it makes it so much easier to tell sync tools and CrashPlan to backup your entire picture archive. Every 15min the CrashPlan client scans for changes to the harddrive2 and backs it up into the cloud.

CrashPlan sync window
CrashPlan sync window

5) Cleanup
When crashPlan has backed up my harddrive2 I can safely format the memory cards.

Improvements
As I previously said, this method relies heavily on CrashPlan. One should always simulate a disk crash by trying to restore files. In this case from CrashPlan I have had some problems from time to time. You can not restore files during sync with the cloud. No big deal but the CrashPlan could have given me a better warning. Also if you don´t have your external harddrive connected to the computer when CrashPlan it marks the files as deleted. Support told me that the default setting is to never delete files that are marked as deleted. Eh, makes sense? There is an option to show “deleted files” and once that was checked I could see and retrieve all of my files. CrashPlan also has a free iPhone app where you can also download files to the phone. I have my entire picture library wherever I go, great.

Once I plugged in my harddrive2 again CrashPlan made a scan and all was well and good. DO NOT set CrashPlan to delete files. The correct setting is depicted below.

CrashPlan Delete Settings
CrashPlan Delete Settings

Another area of improvement is that my two harddrives are at the same location. In case of a fire and a bug in CrashPlan my data is gone. This problem can be solved by once a month or every other week do a sync to a third harddrive by using Carbon Copy Cloner. That harddrive could be placed in a security box for example.

CrashPlan have several encryption options. I use the crashPlan account pasword to encrypt my data with a 448-bit key. The key is hashed and keept in the backup. Admins of CrashPlan can look at my files if they absolutely want to. I can change the password whitout syncing the files again to crashPlan cloud. You also have the option to encrypt the files with a custom key. If you loose the key you loose the data. One area of improvement would then be to encrypt the files with a private key and keep it stored in 1Password or something similar.

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