Archiving and Backing up your DSLR images for Posterity

When I ask most amateur photographers how they are backing up their images from their DSLR, they all say they are saving them to the hard drive of their computer. When I say “no really what is your backup solution?” they get all glossy eyed and look at me like I just asked them to offer up their first born for sacrifice to the camera gods. If your backup is just copying your images to your Hard drive then you might as well delete them from the camera right now and save yourself the grief of losing them later. Keep reading if you want to keep your images forever.

5604716549_35615fe9abThe Good ol Days
In the ‘Good Ol Days’ Just about every picture you took got developed and then put in either a picture album or a box.  This was a solid hard copy that if taken care of lasted for many years. As you can see from the scans at the left this is not a very good long term solution for poorly managed photo collections. Images deteriorate over time and if your not lucky enough to preserver the negatives, then that picture is gone forever. Even then negatives can deteriorate just as bad or worse than photo paper does over time.

Preserving old Photos
If your like me you have been scanning those old photos into your computer for future generations to enjoy. But what are you doing with them after you scan them? Saving them to your hard drive?If that is all your doing, stop scanning now, because the odds of anyone but you ever seeing those images is pretty slim.  Computers, and their hard drives fail all the time, losing all the data stored on them. A single hard drive is not a safe storage solution.
Those who have, and those who will
I know two kinds of computer users. Those who have had a catastrophic hard drive failure, and those that are going to have one. A catastrophic failure is when the hard disk inside your computer tower fails to the point that none of the data stored on it is recoverable. It literally, in many cases, disintegrates and tears itself apart.  Now there are companies that will attempt to recover your precious data, but it will cost you a small fortune.

Storage Devices
You have a pretty large selection of storage devices to choose from. But what are their pros and cons?

  • Hard Drive – The spinning Hard drive in your computer tower has a reliable life of approximately 4 to 5 years. After that your living on borrowed time. So if that hard disk suddenly decides to pass on to PC heaven, are your images going to be safe? Probably not if your not doing SONY DSCusing a good backup system.
  • Cd-Rom – A one time recordable CD-ROM is a common backup solution I hear a lot. With roughly 700Mb of storage though in todays high resolution world it is not gong to store very many images.  That aside, a CD-ROM if not stored correctly can start to degrade in as little as 2 years. Even if stored correctly your not going to get more than 10 years before your precious images have suffered a lot of degradation.
  • DVD-ROM – Next up is the CD on steroids, also know as a DVD-ROM. This disc actually holds a fair amount of data, to the tune of 4.7gb for a DVD5 format. But this too has the same basic degradation problems as the CD-ROM does.
  • External Hard Drive – This is the first good step into a solid backup solution. Having a piece of software in place that nightly backs up your images, or your hold computer, to an external hard disk gives you insurance against a failure of the main disk drive in your computer. External hard drives suffer from a different problem than the CD or DVD degradation issue. If you copy all your images to an external HD and then throw it on a shelf, forget about it for 5 years, you have about a 50/50 shot of the drive working when you goto use it. Not using a hard drive is sometimes more harmful than running it constantly. The grease in the bearing will dry out and prevent the drive from spinning up, essentially losing your precious data. So to preserve them these need to be spun up at least every couple months to makes sure they will save your data.
  • NAS (Network Accessible Storage) – These devices have been commonplace in the business environment
    for years, but are just now becoming affordable on the home front. A NAS is a device that usually has multiple hard disk drives setup in a RAID array that mirrors its content across all the drives. What this does is when a HD drive fails, you pull it out and the other drives repopulate the lost data back on to the disk. This is an amazing way to keep live backups and not have to worry as much about the drive failing. Raid arrays can be used in your PC too, but are not real cost affective for most users. Barracuda, Buffalo and Drobo are a couple of reputable names out there. These devices are alos convenient in that they have built in Network ports to allow access to your data from the internal LAN as well as the Internet if you set it and your Firewall up to allow it.
  • Cloud Storage – This recent development in the Internet world (not really, but it appears it is) is a way of using the server storage space of someone else to keep your data safe. There are varying levels and prices out there for just about everyone’s needs, and has become affordable for everyone here lately.  Sites such as Dropbox, Carbonite, JustCloud, LiveDrive to name a few.  Most charge a flat monthly or annual fee for a limited or unlimited amount of storage space. What you must keep in mind that it can take a LONG time to upload that first batch of pictures from your computer. So make sure your picking the right  solution. Also be wary of free starter plans. They draw you in for a no charge storage solution for a couple of years, you get it built up, then they nail you for hundreds of dollars per year to keep using the site.
  • Paid Backup Services – These are actually companies that will come in and manage your backup solution for you. They setup your backups, they put a NAS device on your network to do the backups to, upload it automatically to the cloud for offsite storage and then they come in every two weeks and swap out the NAS storage with an offsite one.

The Power of 3
No I’m not talking about the 3 witches from the FOX TV series. The power of 3 is a rule that should be given to every Digital camera owner the day  they buy their first camera. Your image should ALWAYS, let me repeat this ALWAYS  reside in NO LESS than 3 locations. Notice I did not say on 3 devices, I said 3 locations. If you have 3500 images backed up on 3 devices, say your PC, a NAS device, and several DVDs, and your house burns to the ground, how many images do you have now? You got it, you have exactly ZERO images left. That firesafe you have in the basement, may or may not preserve your digital images, there is no guarantee on that. As a photographer that has been through a house fire where we lost everything, trust me when I tell you to do this. I had undeveloped rolls of film on top of a dresser. They made a  nice melted center piece after that, and all the images on them were lost. In today’s Digital age this can be avoided.

RAVpower 2 in 1 power + backup

Where does it Start? Backing up your images starts while your in the field taking your images. You must have a way to get the images from your SD or CF card to another device right away. With the technology today you can do this in a number of different ways. In the past I always had a laptop handy that I could drop my SD card into and backup the images to it. I would then immediately copy them to a small external hard drive, which at the end of a trip I would box up and ship home to myself. I could put the laptop in my luggage and my camera is Always carry on. So I would have my images in 3 locations, even before I did my regular backup scheme. It is not unusual for luggage to be lost or for some unruly person to steal your camera gear. So protect your images even before they get to your PC, especially if your getting paid to take the images. It is not a good feeling to get done with a job and lose all your hard work because you didn’t back it up enough. Now I recommend you carry a device
similar to the RAVPower® RP-WD01 Wireless WiFi-Disk & Built-in 3000mAh Li-Polymer Power Bank. This is a really handy tool to have when your out an about.

Backing up at Home
OK, so your back from your trip and all your image sources arrived home safely. Now your workflow or editing process begins. The first thing you need to do is get your images onto your PC and indexed by whatever software your using. I prefer Lightroom® but whatever you have is fine. Once I copy my images into my Photo folder, they are immediately added to my daily backup that occurs after hours to my Buffalo 2Tb NAS device on the network. This in turn is backed up to my 500Gb DropBox account in the Cloud. I also leave my images on my sd cards until I am sure it is backed up to all these locations. Then, and only then, do I format my cards. Now if my math is correct I at this point still have my images on the external HD, My NAS, MY PC, and in the Dropbox account online. So that is 4 devices, but only 2 locations. Not good enough yet.  I need to get my images to another location ,another Cloud storage solution or something as simple as having two external USB drives that you rotate out. I have two 1Tb USB drives that I swap out every couple of weeks, depending on how many images I have taken. One goes into my Safety Deposit box, while the other is backing up the images from  my PC. I am going to have to upgrade these drives pretty soon, because 1tb is almost not large enough. I continually shoot in RAW and JPEG so it eats a lot of storage space.

So is this enough?
The solutions outlined here are a compilation of backup solutions from some of the worlds best photographers. I liked some of their ideas and didn’t like others. But this gives you a solid solution that will definitely help you preserve your digital art for generations to come to enjoy. One additional step I would like to proposed to all photographers is that is you really like and image, Print it out. Nothing preserves an image more than being appreciated by the naked eye.

Back it up and Keep Shooting STR8!


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Is an amateur photographer and writer who enjoys sharing information with others. "Technical information sharing is a critical part of helping everyone become a better photographer. If you don't know it, you can't do it!" From Film to Digital, photography has changed a lot, but the idea of learning hasn't.

One comment on “Archiving and Backing up your DSLR images for Posterity

  1. smarty says:

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