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Photography Backup Process

Oh, the devastating scenario of loosing all or even some of your hard work!  I don’t know what I would do if I were to loose all of my pictures and documents.  However, it is a necessary evil when being so dependent upon personal computers (PCs).  As an aspiring photographer, you would think that I would be on top of backing up and protecting my images.  Nope.  I neglected this incredibly important workflow step for far too long.  Thus, I spent a good deal of time in early 2012 researching various processes of backing up your data to find a method that works best for me.  The most important requirements for me were, ease of integration into existing workflow, cost and 100% protection of my files.  I finally settled on one pretty common, simple, reliable backup process that will guarantee file security without breaking the bank.  This article shares my current backup process at home, my backup process in the field and verification plan for verifying the integrity of my data for years to come.

My goal is to ensure that I am protected from loosing my important pictures and documents, as it would be impossible for me to replace them.  So how do I implement a process that is reliable, simple and equally important, affordable?  Let’s discuss what I already had available to start off with:
  • My laptop running Windows 7 64-bit
  • (1) 2TB networked Western Digital external hard drive
  • Read/Write DVDs, which I was burning my original JPEG + RAW files to.

Not a bad setup, had I been using it properly.  I could easily make a simple backup from my laptop to the external hard drive on a routine basis (riskily I wasn’t even doing this).  Using both the (1) external hard drive and DVDs, they would give me potentially (2) layers of backup protection.  However, I was not addressing my operating system backup, nor was I even copying the same files to the external hard drive that I was to the DVDs.  Yes, I know I was setting myself up for failure and I knew it.  Researching both what others are doing and what the recommended ‘best practices’ are, I found one process from American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) that I felt could be manipulated to fit into my workflow and utilizing my existing equipment.

The one consistent recommendation I found was that everyone should practice a backup process with at least (3) layers of protection.  The most common instantiation of this is:

  • (2) External Hard Drives
    • (1) External Hard Drive for local backup
    • (1) External Hard Drive for offsite storage
  • (1) Disc copy (DVD or Blu-Ray)

Made sense to me.  So, all I needed was an extra external hard drive to implement the infrastructure to support a reliable backup process.  I ended up buying a 2TB Western Digital USB 3.0 External Hard Drive so that I could back it up locally and have the option to put it in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe for offsite storage.

Now that I have the (3) layer backup protection hardware infrastructure implemented, how do I make it work in practice?  This is easier said than done because of the variables that I had, which were the fact that I am using a laptop so it’s not always home, no backup software chosen, I was undecided on what exactly to backup, and I had different external hard drive interfaces (1) network drive and (1) USB drive.  Since I travel with my laptop half the time, a regular scheduled backup isn’t really practical.  So, I required software that permits me to schedule backups to both the network and USB external hard drives either on a regular schedule or manually.

I asked Tom Bourdon, a fantastic professional travel photographer, about his travel photography backup process and he uses SyncToy from Microsoft.  ASMP recommended SyncBack for PC users and ChronoSync for Mac users.  Reviewing them, I felt SyncToy (FREE) worked better for my simple process.  Although I am a PC user, ChronoSync is operationally similar to SyncToy.  So, the backup concepts presented herein are synonymous for Windows and Mac users.

Using SyncToy, I created folder pairs to backup specific folders from my laptop to the target external hard drives.  Folder pairs, set as ‘echo’, are used to generate exact copies of my laptop folders on the external hard drives.  This is used for my Working folder, which contains my plethora of images to be edited, and specific folders from my laptop Users folder.  In addition, a ‘contribute‘ folder pair, which only appends files, is used to copy my laptop Transferred folder to an archive folder on the external drives.  The Transferred folder contains finished images that are archived to DVD(s) before removal from my laptop, thus continually maintaining (3) layers of protection.  Presently for offsite storage, the archived DVD(s) are stored in a local fireproof safe; however a safety deposit box or online storage is very effective for addressing this requirement.  The below Figure depicts SyncToy and the folder pairs utilized either individually or all at once.

The Microsoft SyncToy software with the folder pairs used

The Microsoft SyncToy software with the folder pairs used

In addition to SyncToy, I use Windows Backup and Restore (In Windows 7 for under Control Panel -> System and Security -> Backup and Restore) capability for backing up my System Image should my Operating System (OS) experience major problems.  The entire backup process implemented is shown in the below Figure.

This describes the backup process performed at my home office for my System Image, User Files and both Working and Archived Pictures.

Equally important is having a process for backing up your images in the field and verifying the integrity of your images years in the future.  On travel, I use a 160GB HyperDrive COLORSPACE UDMA from B&H Photo and Video for backing up my CompactFlash cards.  It can perform some integrity checks as part of the backup process, in addition to quickly downloading your pictures.  As a nicety, you can view your photos as they are downloaded or after they are downloaded on its mediocre screen.  A very handy device for backing up in the field.  My only complaint is that it does not backup video files, only pictures files (RAW, DNG, TIFF, JPG, etc.).  Not that I shoot a lot of video, but that would be useful as I do use video to capture moments.

Finally, how do you verify the integrity of your files for years to come?  If you shoot RAW and convert them to Digital Negatives (DNG), then all you have to do is convert your DNG files through Adobe’s DNG Converter (FREE) and it will automatically check to ensure the integrity of the file by checking that no bits have changed.  The reason for this is that DNG files, besides being 0-20% smaller than proprietary RAW files, it also stores an MD5 hash for the raw image contained in the DNG.  The MD5 algorithm can also be used for validating the integrity of all of your other files and/or folders full of files.  I settled on the MD5 Checksum Verifier utility from FlashPlayerPro ($15) because this program can quickly generate a separate MD5 hash file for an individual file or an entire folder full of files that I can keep with the files and folders.  In addition, you can then at some later date recheck the file(s) for comparison against the MD5 hash stored for verification that nothing has been modified in the file(s).  Because my working pictures are, well, being worked I only use this on my archive pictures.

With a few external hard drives and some free software, you can easily have a reliable, simple backup solution at your home office.  In the field, it can be a bit more costly but there are some very effective solutions such as using your laptop and external hard drives.  Then for future verification, a simple MD5 hash checker and DNG converter works out great for validating the integrity of your backup files.  Here are a few references to assist you.  Hope this helps saves you from loosing your data in the future.

A revision of this article was published in the Mile High Wildlife Photography Club (MHWPC) May 2013 newsletter.
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