8 Principles for Backing Up Your Photographs


Digital photographs are both easy to lose and easy to back up. I follow these principles when designing or changing my backup process.


:: 1. Something completely unexpected will happen.
In the real world, the future is unpredictable. Don't believe you can imagine all the ways you could lose your files, because you cannot.

Further, you could not accurately estimate the chances of losing your files by one means or another, even if you knew what those means were.

The only defense against unpredictable disasters is diverse redundancy (Principle 4), such that whatever happens will probably not happen to all copies.


:: 2. Perfect security is impossible.
You can, however, arrange that only the most improbable sets of circumstances will result in lost data. Suppose you could calculate the odds of 2 events, like a fire and a tornado, at 1/10000 each. The probability of both occurring would be 1/1,000,000,000. Even though we cannot know the odds of either one precisely, the principle still applies: if the only way your files could get destroyed is if two improbable events happened simultaneously, that's good enough.

The primary way to make sure one event doesn't destroy all your data is with diverse redundancy (Principle 4).


:: 3. Always have some form of accessible backup at every step.
Having your files in only one place as you work is like dangling by a thread over a hole in the footbridge. Yes, it could hold. Or not. Because you can't predict what will happen, have a second copy of your files during each and every step, from capture to output to, you know, fame and fortune.

Some cameras accept 2 memory cards, and can write the original data to both. This gives you a backup immediately, albeit without much diversity. Still, if one card goes bad, or you drop it into your breakfast, or you somehow erase the card while ingesting the photos to the computer, having the second one saves your bacon.

Another great way to create a quick backup is to shoot 2 frames of the same setup. If one gets corrupted somehow, you have the other. Maybe shoot the second one slightly wider, so you can change your mind about the crop later.

Good thing I took more than one frame.

I hesitate to mention it, but under certain circumstances you can recover original RAW files from the memory card even after it has been formatted or erased. Programs like ImageRescue will scour the card for files, give them new names, and let you copy them to a folder. Do not consider this a form of backup. It only works if the lost images have not been overwritten by newer images, and there's no guarantee it will work at all. Just so you know.

Lightroom and Adobe's Photo Downloader let you specify where to save instant copies of the files as they come in. This is terrific protection against an unpredictable disaster between ingesting the files and properly backing them up. The copies location need not be gargantuan. It can be erased and reused at some moment when you have 2 more backups of all your photos elsewhere.

We patch our operating systems all the time, add software, install updates and so forth. During those times you want a backup somewhere other than on the same hard drive as your operating system. If you have room for a second hard drive in your computer, don't keep any photography image files on the OS hard drive at all. Just in case.

What about a backup during the backup process? Yes, that could go unpredictably pear-shaped and corrupt your files. Have a second backup safely tucked away while backups are going on. Really.


:: 4. Diverse redundancy and also redundant diversity.
No one can predict what disaster will befall your files, but not many disasters affect all media in all places at once. Even a nuclear detonation over your city would probably not erase magnetic media further than 50 miles, although it could change your priorities in life.

By building redundancy and diversity into your backup plan, you vastly reduce the chances of losing all copies. A backup plan with redundancy means you have multiple copies. Diversity in your plan means a single event cannot affect all copies. Spread out your backups to avoid single points of failure.

You have redundant, diverse backups if your files are duplicated in more than one geographical location. A fire could destroy everything at home, but not the backups you keep elsewhere. A slightly less secure but more practical form of diverse redundancy is keeping one backup near the computer and another on a hard drive in a media safe at the other end of the house.

One popular form of offsite backup is via software that uploads a copy of your flies to a server somewhere far away. This is great, but you also need diversity in who you trust to protect your files. Will those guys one day forget to pay their power bill? You can provisionally trust the online backup company, but keep another backup at home, just in case.


:: 5. Make recovery time proportional to likelihood of disaster.
Backup methods vary in how easily you can recover the data. It would take a long time to get back all the files from an online backup, but you'd only need to do that if everything else went very, very wrong. On the other hand, if you accidentally delete a file while working, it'd be great to just grab it off the backup drive sitting on your desk. If you're like me, you mistakenly delete a file more often than the house blows up.

I don't fall into the river that often, so I'll rely on memory card forensics to recover the photographs I took that day. If you're prone to falling into the river, you'll want to use a different backup method.

This principle is more about convenience than anything, but backups have to be convenient, or they won't work for you (Principle 8).


:: 6. Maintain technological compatibility as you go.
Outdated media that you can't read anymore are useless. If you still have photos on floppies or zip drive disks, now might be a good time to copy them to a hard drive or CD, if you still have a computer with the appropriate drive. Not long ago the DVD seemed the ultimate storage medium, but then along came the Blu-Ray disc. And remember HD DVD? I hope you don't have photo files on one of those.

RAW file formats are camera-specific and all different, which means they will cause somebody a headache in the future when software no longer can read them. The solution to this, it seems, is the DNG. Adobe created the DNG format and made it open source. It's free for all camera makers and software companies to use, which probably means it won't go obsolete anytime soon.

Converting your RAW files to DNG as you pull them into the computer will make them readable much longer into the future (assuming I can predict such things, and you should assume I cannot).


:: 7. Back up everything.
We tend to think of backups in terms of originals. Adobe does, with the option to make immediate copies of the RAW files on ingest. But you put a LOT of work into processing those images, making output files, building collections and sorting them. Back all of that up too!

A backup of the hard drive containing your applications and app data will accomplish part of the task, and backing up your photo files will do the rest.


:: 8. Make it as automatic as possible.
Manually doing backups is so boring you won't do them. This is why you need an automatic way to back everything up. On the Mac, TimeMachine could be a good way to go. Or if you swap out backup drives, try Carbon Copy Cloner and the competing programs. On a PC, use the built-in Backup program or something like Acronis TrueImage. Back everything up once or twice a day. The machine does the work, so why not?

Each time you change the backup type or schedule, be sure to test it on a file you can throw away. Add something disposable to the drive you back up, then do a backup, then delete it from the original and see if you can recover it from the backup. Yes, it's boring, but you need confidence in your methods.


:: Conclusion
The only thing I know for sure is that sh*t happens, but it usually happens in one spot at a time. Therefore diverse redundancy is your friend.

I'd love to hear about your clever ways to thwart Murphy's Law. Contact me

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