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Back-up Your Files Correctly: The Story of How I Almost Lost All My Photographs

Earlier this year, I almost lost all my images (from 2006 to 2014). I also almost all the pictures that my father had taken from 2008 to 2014. Turns out, I didn’t lose them all, but that’s only because of a happy accident.

The question I asked myself was: How could I have been so silly? But a better question was, How could I have avoided the possibility of loss altogether? And that’s what we’re doing to answer today.

Here is the short answer – what I should have done:

  1. Made multiple copies of the files on different media.
  2. Had a backup schedule, and automated it.
  3. Had at least one off-site backup in the event that all my local drives are destroyed (in a fire, theft, or natural disaster).

Analysis: What Happened to the Files

The short story: My Archive hard disk that I had set aside for all my past work failed. It needn’t have been that way, but I was silly and I’d left the drive permanently in my main desktop machine.

This meant that it was on and running every time I started up my computer. It didn’t have to be running. To keep MTBF and running hours low, I could have taken it out, and plugged it into a SATA HDD dock only when I needed the files. But I didn’t.

So it eventually failed. All Hard Disk Drives fail, given enough uptime.

I know this. I’ve known this for ages, but I didn’t act on this information. My fault entirely. Don’t repeat my mistake. I don’t intend to.

What Was on the Hard Disk, and What Should I do Next?

I had partitioned the HDD into two 500GB partitions. I was using both for archiving old images. One partition for my files, one for my father’s. Both are inaccessible now.

Since I think that this is a hardware failure, it would be folly for me to try and use software to recover the data. The longer the drive is on (ie: powered up) while it is damaged, the greater the potential damage to the data.

The only option that remains at this point, is for me to take the drive (a Seagate Barracuda 1TB) to a data recovery service. I did so, and was informed that depending on the method of recovery required, I would be charged anywhere from US$45 to US$580. This is after they charge me an initial US$10 assessment fee.

Given the value of the data, I would be sensible to pay up and try to get as much of it back as possible, so I probably will. But this isn’t how things should have gone. What should I have done instead?

The Ideal Backup Solution (one of many possibilities)

The one perfect solution for everyone just doesn’t exist. Therefore your ideal backup system would be tailored for your needs and hardware. Here is what I think that many photographers and videographers would find to be a convenient, yet comprehensive solution.

RAID + Cloud

In my ideal solution, I’d have a redundant archive to store my important data. A RAID array. This could be either:

  1. Internal – Connected to my motherboard via a dedicated RAID card, or via built-in motherboard support. Apple users, skip this – you can’t do anything with the insides of your computer.
  2. External – A dedicated RAID box connected by USB, or
  3. External NAS – NAS stands for ‘Network-Attached Storage’. It is a dedicated storage system that is independent of a computer and accessed via a network connection. NAS systems offer multiple options to use different RAID configurations, and numbers of drives.

With any of these systems in place, a failure of just one drive would be of no consequence. I’d pull out the old one, and insert a new one of similar capacity. The RAID drive would then reconstruct the data that was on the failed drive automatically. Magically (well, almost magically).

This seems like a bullet-proof solution, but it is not. RAID arrays can also fail and when they do, it can be quite dramatic.

Also, remember that RAID isn’t a backup system. It’s just a redundant data storage method. It could be used as your primary storage system or your backup. How you organise your backups is entirely up to you.

This is why an actual backup strategy is a must, with off-site backup, and multiple copies of the essential data also being a part of this strategy.

A Real Backup Strategy

Your backup strategy needs to be logical, systematic and atleast partly automated. There are simple strategies, and complex ones. Usually, organisations and individuals with valuable data are the ones whose backups strategies become complex.

Let’s look at what you can do to set up a basic framework for your backups, and if you need, how you can expand that framework.

Off-site Copies of Your Files

I start with determining which files need to be secured.

For me, these are:

  1. my financial and other important documents,
  2. my key portfolio images and videos, and finally
  3. the work that I am currently doing.

Additionally, I like to keep every single photograph that I’ve ever taken, and rarely delete a RAW file.

I make sure that my critical documents are saved online in more than one location. To me this means having a clone of my computer’s entire storage system with Backblaze Cloud Backup, and my important files in either Dropbox, or Adobe Creative Cloud files.

This is the first layer of protection.

Regular Backup Copies of Your Files

Now that your critical files are backed up off-site in an online system, we need to look at how you can make local copies of all your files, and store them on media that you can keep track of.

MacOS users are familiar with Time Machine, and it’s a pretty reasonable tool to just set up and forget about. Windows users have File History that performs a similar function, but not quite the same.

For a more robust and comprehensive solution you, may have to look at some of the other options available.

Test Whether Your System Works

Now that your automated backup solution is backing up files to a NAS drive as well as to an online service, you need to test it.

A backup solution that is un-tested in the field is one that may not work when you need it.

Pick a few files and folders, and figure out how the restore process works. Also see if the download times from the online service lives up to your expectations.

End of The Story

So, if I haven’t given my HDD for recovery, how did I not lose all my data?

It’s because I had manually made backups of many of my past files. Earlier, I used to make copies of my work on CD / DVDs, but that is no longer practical.

I’d saved most of my images on a different computer, and that’s why I didn’t lose all of my work! A stroke of luck (and just a little foresight)!

Today I have no doubt about the security of my image and video files, and that is something that every photography business owner needs.

What’s your current solution, and if you don’t have one, how do you plan to remedy the situation?

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Photo Credit: Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com from Pexels