Most people take reasonable precautions when engaging in activities that are potentially unsafe or harmful, like wearing seat belts in a car or even washing your hands before eating. The benefits of these basic procedures are easy to understand which is one reason these practices are so widely adopted. But things look quite different where our digital lives are concerned; in other words, a backup strategy.
Every mobile phone, laptop, and personal computer stores your photos, documents, and other data on either a small memory chip or a spinning hard drive and it is not uncommon for these to fail. In fact, due to the nature of how hard drives (which are still by far the most common method of storing data) operate, they are guaranteed to wear out over time. It’s just a question of when. Anyone even remotely concerned with making sure their digital files are safe and accessible one, five, 10, or even hundreds of years from now needs to have a solid backup strategy in case the unthinkable happens.
One problem with creating a backup strategy is that it can seem so complex and convoluted it’s difficult to even know where to begin. From clouds to closets to safe deposit boxes, the world of data backup has so many options it’s enough to make your head spin. I’m going to explore three common options in this article, but before I get too far I want to remind you of the words of Carl von Clausewitz who said, “The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.”
Don’t get so caught up with finding the ideal backup strategy that you don’t do anything at all. The important lesson, no matter which method you use, is to create copies of your data – especially your photographs – so you can still get them if something bad happens.
One of the best ways to approach backing up your data is the 3-2-1 strategy:
- 3: Have three copies of your data.
- 2: Keep them in two separate places.
- 1: At least one must be offsite.
This might seem like a lot of hassle, but it’s similar to most things in life that require small behavioral changes. Once you get over the initial setup of utilizing a backup strategy it becomes a habit or better yet, a completely transparent activity that just happens in the background. As someone who has lost data, and has had friends and family lose thousands of photos thanks to computer failures and hard drive corruption, I can confidently say that it is well worth your time to back up your data. It won’t save your physical life, but it could save your digital life.
Option #1 – External hard drives
Inside nearly every personal computer is a spinning hard drive that rotates at a mind-numbing speed of 5400-7200 rotations per minute, every day, for as long as the computer exists. Over time, hard drives have proven themselves to be simple cost-effective vessels for storing massive amounts of data. However, their mechanical nature makes them not only prone to failure but quite expensive and time-consuming to recover your files and photos if something does happen.
Because of these caveats, one of the simplest methods of backing up your data is to use software to make a clone of your hard drive onto – you guessed it – another hard drive. This duplicates everything on your computer so you can instantly access it in the case of an emergency. Thanks to the relatively inexpensive nature of external hard drives and backup software (which is often bundled with hard drives) the process is mostly painless.
Mostly, that is, until it comes time to actually recover your data. In my experience, this method of file backup is best when your entire computer dies and you need to start from scratch, at which point a clone of your hard drive can be used to create an exact copy on a new computer. I have had to do this a few times with excellent results, and except for re-registering some serial numbers with Adobe I was up and running again in no time.
However, if you accidentally delete some data, such as an entire folder of images, and need to recover just those specific things from your backup it can be tricky depending on the software solution you are using. Apple’s Time Machine, for example, is designed to facilitate the easy recovery of an entire computer’s worth of data but many people (myself included) have found themselves more than a little frustrated when restoring individual files or folders. Microsoft includes software called Backup and Restore which will do the same thing for Windows users. Either one of these is a great solution if you want a simple way of making sure all the data on your computer is saved and stored in the event of a complete hard drive failure.
One significant benefit of both Time Machine and Windows Backup and Restore is that they run automatically in the background so you never have to think about it once you set them up. However, one drawback is that because they only backup to external hard drives, if you lose data to a catastrophic event such as a fire or flood, chances are your backup drive will be toast also. For that reason I like to keep a second backup hard drive at the office where I work and switch the hard drives out every Monday. That way even if my house explodes in a freak meteorite incident everything but the very latest files and photos will still be available on my backup drive at work.
If you really want to go the extra mile with an external hard-drive-based backup plan, you can set yourself up with a multi-drive solution where all your data is copied to not only one, but several hard disks at the same time. This is called a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Drives) system and while it’s more costly than a single drive solution, it’s virtually guaranteed to protect against data loss. If one of the drives in a RAID array fails you can usually just swap it out with a fresh drive and continue backing everything up.
Finally, if you are going to use external backups it’s important to keep them encrypted so prying eyes or thieving scoundrels can’t peek at your data. Time Machine lets you do this with the click of a mouse, and Windows has an option to do this as well using a setting called BitLocker. This adds a huge layer of security to your backups while taking almost no effort on your part. I highly recommend doing this.
Hard drives are so cheap these days that it’s hard to go wrong with this type of solution. If your backup drive ever goes belly-up you can buy another one for the price of a few movie tickets. I recommend buying a drive that is double the capacity of your computer’s internal hard drive which means you can restore old copies of files long after they have been deleted from your computer.
Option #2 – Save your data to the cloud
If you don’t want to bother with the hassle of setting up an external hard drive, encrypting your data, and switching out drives every week or every month, another good option is to go with a cloud-based backup service like CrashPlan, BackBlaze, or Carbonite. These companies offer paid plans that backup all the data on your computer, or just a portion that you specify, to their own servers automatically. In terms of convenience, these services are hard to beat since they require almost no interaction from you after the initial setup.
One of the downsides is the price, as they require a recurring monthly or yearly fee which, though usually not too expensive, can add up over time. They also make the act of restoring all your data, such as in the event of a fire or flood, more difficult than just hooking up a spare hard drive with a full copy of everything. Thankfully many cloud-based services will actually mail you a hard drive with a full copy of your data on it for an additional fee if you really need to do a full restore of your entire computer. You also have the option of logging into your account from a web browser and selectively downloading individual files or folders, which can be useful if you just need to retrieve specific items and not restore your entire computer.
One of the major drawbacks of cloud-based backup options involves actually getting your data to them in the first place. While broadband internet access is becoming increasingly common around the world, upload speeds still lag far behind download speeds. According to BackBlaze, a typical home internet connection will let you upload 2GB to 4GB per day, which means it could take several months to backup your entire hard drive! If you shoot in RAW and are constantly filling up your memory cards, you might find cloud-based backup services to be quite limiting unless you have a very fast internet connection!
Other cloud-based options are available that specifically address the needs of photographers. Google Photos allows unlimited storage for JPG pictures up to 16 megapixels, and Amazon allows unlimited photo storage for Prime members. Flickr, that longtime stalwart of online photo sharing, gives users 1TB (Terabyte, or 1024 GB) of storage for free. Services like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Apple’s iCloud offer paid plans that allow you to backup massive amounts of photos and other data for a fee while also syncing them across your devices.
Shop around for the best cloud option for your needs
If you are thinking about using a cloud-based solution I would encourage you to investigate some options and see what you think would work best for your needs. I have used CrashPlan, BackBlaze, and Carbonite, as well as solutions like Arq which store your data on the Amazon cloud. Each of these has its own strengths and weaknesses and because of that, it is difficult to recommend a single cloud-based solution as every individual has their own needs.
All of them are good, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them if you currently don’t have a backup solution in place. I also like to caution people that when you utilize free services like Google Photos or Flickr it’s a good idea to review their Terms of Service so you know exactly what information and personal data you are giving up in exchange for the free use of their storage.
Option #3 – DVDs and Blu-Rays
Longtime computer users might fondly remember the days when CD-ROM drives first entered the scene. In those heady days of the mid-1990s the idea of putting as much data as you could fit on an entire 500MB hard drive onto one single CD was basically a computing miracle, and as CD drives became more prevalent they also became a good way to backup data such as documents and photos.
However as digital cameras rose to prominence in the early 2000s it became painfully obvious that backing up data to CDs and, subsequently, DVDs was too slow and cumbersome to be a good solution. Burning the discs took time, and getting files off them could be a chore especially as more and more computers abandoned these types of disc drives altogether.
So why in the world would this type of solution even be considered as part of a balanced backup strategy in 2017?
Cost and drawbacks
The answer to this question is mostly related to cost. Blank discs are cheap, and even if your computer doesn’t have a disc burner you can buy an external one for about $50-100. CDs hold about 600 MB of data, or enough for your vacation photos if you shot on medium-quality JPG. DVDs hold about 4.5 GB of data or a couple months of pictures (if you shoot RAW this will be more limited). Blu-Ray discs hold about 25GB of data or enough for an entire year’s worth of JPG images which make them very well suited for long-term image backup. Even if you already use a hard drive or cloud solution, it’s still a good idea to make regular backups of your pictures to some type of physical disc that you can then store in a safe deposit box or even mail to a trusted friend or family member.
One of the notable downsides to disc-based backups is that this media is prone to the same harsh realities of time as any hard drive. Sooner or later all discs that you create at home will fail due to a concept known as “bit rot” which is when the layer of dye inside a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray that actually contains your data deteriorates over time. It might be a few years or 50 years, but it’s almost certainly going to happen to every disc you burn.
Thankfully some drives are capable of burning a special format of Blu-Ray called M-Disc which is supposed to keep your data safe for hundreds of years. Even though the actual discs are a little more expensive it could be well worth it to make sure your images aren’t lost to dust and decay over the years.
When adding a disc-based component to your backup strategy I recommend making it part of an annual ritual instead of something you do monthly or weekly. Get a Blu-Ray burner so you can store all your pictures from the whole year and make the process of burning a disc and taking it to a safe deposit box an annual tradition. It might seem silly at first, but it could really save your digital life if you ever need it.
The great challenge with backing up your digital images is that all methods have their positive and negative aspects, no one single solution is best. And very few things in life are truly permanent, so even if you physically print your pictures they will eventually fade and will also be susceptible to mold, moisture, or physical damage.
Any digital backup option is better than none at all. If you leave your photos on your computer or phone without duplicates then you are at risk of putting all your eggs in one basket which is almost certainly guaranteed to fail. The solution, then, is to do something to make sure your pictures don’t meet a premature digital demise. It could be a second hard drive, a cloud-based solution, making a Blu-Ray disk, using a combination of all three, or another method I didn’t even mention.
My father still has a hard drive sitting in his closet filled with thousands of images he may never see again. The disk failed years ago and was not backed up. The same thing has happened to many photographers around the world. Don’t let it happen to you.
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What about you? What solution do you use to make sure your pictures are backed up and ready to access if you need them? There are hosts of other solutions I didn’t address in this article and I’m sure other DPS readers would like to know what ideas you have and what works for you. Please share in the comments below.