Bit rot, computer malfunctions and corrupted hard drives. What do these (however unlikely) scenarios have in common? If you don’t have a secure photo storage plan, these events spell out your greatest nightmare: lost photos!
Whether you’re at home scanning negative slides or on the Canadian Rockies shooting a wide mountainscape, a proper backup plan for your photography business will ensure your photos are safe for decades to come.
Without a photo storage plan, a simple SD or hard disk (HDD) failure can mean losing crucial photos for your photography business; A stolen laptop may revert you back to the stone age. Whether you’re a professional photographer or amateur, it is my goal in writing this post to imbue terms like ‘off-site backup‘ and ‘redundancy‘ into your repertoire of knowledge. Although I introduced the concepts of proper photo storage techniques in my previous post where I discussed Scanning My Family’s Film Archive, this new post offers a more comprehensive description of my 3-step photo storage plan.
On This Page
- Background | The Film Shoe-box
- Are you treating digital files like film negatives by stuffing them in your closet?
- Theory | The ‘Elevator Analogy’
- What do elevators and excellent photo storage techniques have in common?
- My 3-Step Photo Archive Solution
Background | The Film Shoe-box
Before the days of digital photos, film negatives were often stored in bins or shoe-boxes, hopefully hidden away from dust and excessive temperatures, possibly in a fireproof box. These are the precautions my parents took with our family’s film archive, a collection of three boxes sealed in a closet.
While I was scanning over 4000 of these photos, I realized that my tactics for storing digital photos closely resembled this antiquated method. Before adopting my 3-step backup plan, I would simply dump my files from my SD cards to an external hard drive and keep it unplugged safely in my office. Concerned that I was at risk of losing hours and years of data at the whim of a single Western Digital hard disk, I began researching other photo storage solutions. This post represents the conclusions of my research and my experience setting up automated local and cloud backups of my data.
Photo Storage Theory | The Elevator Analogy
To illustrate the measures I have taken to improve my own photo archive, I’ve created ‘The Elevator Analogy‘ as a visual aid. This analogy offers a comparison between the mechanical safeties in an elevator and the precautions we can apply to our photo archives. I use this comparison because, despite what you may see in Hollywood movie scenes, elevators are safe mechanical instruments. They’re safe because they have (at least) three forms of safety measures which prevent the elevator from free falling from the top floor to the basement: steel cables, brakes, and counterweights.
3 Steps to Building a Robust Photo Archive
My 3-Step Process to creating a solid photography backup solution uses this elevator analogy to create a robust strategy for defending photo data. As illustrated above, there are three concepts to my plan, including:
- Purchasing Quality Components (at regular intervals)
- Using Backup Software – Checksum & Auto Backups
- Maintaining Multiple Redundancies (Local Backups, Off-Site Backups, and Cloud Storage)
Step One: Purchase Quality Components
Like elevators aren’t made with plastic cables and clasps, your backup solution shouldn’t include sub par components. Though refurbished and knockoff brands offer a cheap solution, they are not a strong long-term option.
Invest in your photo archive! Trust me, you don’t want to lose data just because you saved a few bucks buying your SD card on Wish.com. Buy name brand Lexar, Samsung, and Sony from an authorized re-seller. Although a hard drive’s failure rate is somewhere between 1% to 5% across the first 5 years (according to BackBlaze), a quality hard drive is worth the extra money.
Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
Your main components in photo archiving are the hard disks, as they are the primary forms of data storage at this time. Although Lexar and Sony have began developing robust film storage options, I haven’t investigated these enough to start using. For photo archiving, I recommend a large capacity Toshiba, Seagate or Hitachi HDD with at least 128MB cache and 7200rpm. These features will decrease chances of data corruption and increase the speed of file transfers. The Seagate Baracuda series has been known to serve fast and reliable data storage, but has also had issues in the past with high failure rates in 2014 (See Full Article Here) Always Google your specific HDD before buying!
Here’s a chart from BackBlaze’s Data Centre detailing hard drive failure rates of over 100,000 HDDs.
Thinking of using a RAID Box to set up quick and easy data redundancy? Think again. Learn what RAID really means and why it isn’t a true backup solution.
Can I use a flash drive or a Solid State Drive (SSD) for my photo archive?
Storing data on an SSD, SD card, or flash drive is still a relatively new enterprise and as such there is little information on how long data stored on these mediums will last. According to Dell, data stored on these mediums could last between 3 months to 10 years. Even though it would be aesthetically pleasing to store your entire photo archive between your fingers, it isn’t the most practical.
“How long an SSD can store data without power depends on a number of factors including the number of write cycles that have been used, the type of flash memory used in the drive, the storage conditions and so on. A white paper produced by Dell in 2011 (PDF link) stated that it could be as little as three months to as much as 10 years.” Andy Betts @ MakeUseOf.com
Although SSDs and some flash drives boast faster transfer speeds than traditional hard disks, an HDD with a large cache and a high RPM is still able to transfer and store small photos speedily enough for your photo archive.
When buying quality components for your photo archive, remember to always use a surge protector for your electronics. This is the easiest way to protect your data (and electronics generally) from harm. Make sure your surge protector has a clamping voltage of less than 400V, an energy absorption rate of 400 joules or more, and a response time of less than one nanosecond How Stuff Works .com
Step Two: Utilize Software for Efficient and Scheduled Backups
There are a plethora of options when it comes to backup software: free, opensource, pay once or subscription based. Rather than outline all these options I am going to simply show you what I have used.
File/Folder Organization Software
When importing my new photos from my camera, I use Nikon ViewNX to sort and rename my files. For my purposes, I simply have them cataloged in folders marked by years and months with a three digit suffix appended to the file name of each photo.
Your photography business may have specific needs and may require a different sorting procedure, but this works for me!
Find an application that works for you. The key to a strong organization method is consistency!
For setting up an auto backup schedule I use FreeFileSync, an open source program that allows me to schedule mirrored backups between drives. It automatically recognizes the new files and adds them to the backup drives. How easy is that!
MSP 360 is also an excellent program for backing up your photo archive and also works with Amazon’s S3 Glacier Cloud Storage. More information available on my Amazon S3 Glacier Tutorial.
Although scheduled backups between drives are important, we can’t forget one thing: data decay. Although we can’t really PREVENT bit decay, we can use our backups to prevent them from wrecking all our images.
Bit Rot – What is data decay?
In computer systems, matter has two binary states (1 or 0). If any digit is removed or replaced throughout the entire series (a 10MB photo contains 80 million instances of 1 or 0), the photo will output something different than the original (see comparison below). This phenomenon is especially common when transferring files from one storage device to another. The best way to prevent against bit rot is to use software that creates checksum files on your photos (meta data) and schedule monthly checks to ensure there has been no hidden alterations to your data in any of your copies.
To combat the data decay illustrated above, I use FileVerifier++ to create a list of the MD5 hashes from all the images in my backup directory. Once collected, FileVerifier++ compares the current MD5 hashes to the original photo’s MD5 hash.
To create the checksum file, first use this command line with FileVerifier++ in your photo archive directory:
fvc -c -a MD5 -f MD5SUM -r C:\Your\Directory\Here\ -o Hashed.txt
To verify the files, use this command line:
fvc -a MD5 -f MD5SUM -x Hashed.txt
If there are any discrepancies, the program will prompt me to replace the corrupted file with one from a local backup. Because this is an extremely rare occurrence, it is safe to complete these checks every few months. If you are setting up a backup drive for the first time, complete a checksum immediately after transferring your photos.
Step Three: Have at Least Three Copies of Your Photos
So you understand the need for quality components and you understand how to use software to schedule your backups and prevent data decay. Great! But how many copies do you need?
Borrowing from Ken Watson, we can use what is called the “Rule of Three”, stating that “there should be 3 full sets of your photos, on three different storage devices, with one set stored off-site.”
1. Working Copy
Although some might imagine that their Macbook Pro is invincible, the data recorded on its hard drives are not. Whether this is through random system errors (bit decay) or an accidental deletion of an important file, a working copy must NEVER be your only file.
“But my computer is in a safe location and I’m not going to accidentally delete my files.”~ No Serious Photographer Ever 🙂
2. Local Backup
A local backup is the closest to the antiquated method of film negatives in shoe-boxes. I have set up my backup solution to include a monthly backup to my two local hard disks which I place in a secure spot… somewhere secret.
My local hard disks are held inside a double HDD case, a convenient and aesthetically appealing option (Terramaster Box). This box allows me to easily hold both of my backup hard drives and connect to multiple computers at once. However, some would suggest having two entirely separate local backups. This is because, in the event of the entire HDD box failing, both HDDs could be harmed. This is a risk I am willing to take but it doesn’t mean you have to!
A local backup should never leave your house or studio! Unless the building is burning or your data is in a thief’s hands, your local backup stays put! Instead, use a USB 3.0 flash drive or SD card to share your photos outside your office or home.
Should I use Raid for my local backup?
When I first set up my local backup, I did so using RAID 1. For those who are unfamiliar with RAID terms, RAID 1 simply clones data from one hard disk to another. This is done so that if one hard drive fails you can plug a new hard drive in and your data will still be safe. I thought that RAID 1 would provide a secure local backup because it offered a simple redundancy, a backup. While RAID 1 does offer a single redundancy, it should not be considered a backup. If the array gets corrupted (especially if you’re using a RAID box) or if I accidentally delete a file, the data is gone forever. Thus, not a turn-key backup solution. A true backup needs to be a disassociated from your original copy in a secure location.
When I realized this problem, I switched the RAID 1 array to a single disk array and now have my hard disk’s photo directories mirrored using FreeFileSync. This way I still have a redundancy (like RAID 1), but I can use the extra space on each hard drive if I want to temporarily store other material besides my photo archive. If a hard drive fails, I simply have to replace that hard drive and mirror my photo archive onto the new HDD. Also, I don’t have to wait for the other hard drive to rebuild as my data is still usable on the other.
3. Off-Site Backup
To prevent against the worst mishaps like theft and natural disasters, it is imperative to add an off-site backup to your photo storage solution. In years prior to the proliferation of cloud computing, the standard means of obtaining off-site storage may have included storing an external hard drive at a trusted friends house or in a bank’s safety deposit box.
While these are still great options and should be strongly considered, nowadays we have another option: Cloud storage.
Cloud storage gives us the option to set up auto backups of our files online. Our files are automatically sorted on file servers that guarantee redundancies for all of your data. Most cloud storage companies offer these services at relatively inexpensive rates to start but the prices scale up rather quickly.
Rather than detailing the many differences between all the service providers available, I will simply review my experience using Amazon Cloud Services.
I use Amazon Glacier storage to maintain my semi annual backups to the cloud because of its simplicity and extremely low monthly rates. Before sending the files to Amazon, I place six months of photos in an encrypted zip archive using 7Zip (what is 7Zip?). I do this not only because it guarantees a more reliable transfer than thousands of individual files, but because it also ensures my photos are safe from prying eyes. Especially in an age where multinational organizations often overstep their bounds when it comes to personal privacy, it is imperative that I secure my data before uploading it online.
Is Amazon Glacier expensive? Amazon Glacier storage costs me about $3 a month for over 1TB of data storage. Furthermore, it is easily expandable based on my needs and is served by a reputable data company that guarantees redundancies in their servers.
My Photo Storage Workflow
3-Step Photo Storage Checklist
Set up your photo archive today by following these 3 steps!
- Buy Quality Components
Start your photo backup plan using quality hard disks in computers protected with proper surge protectors.
- Use Backup Software Effectively
Use backup software like FreeFileSync, Nikon ViewNX, and FileVerifier++ to protect your photos from data decay, theft, and natural disaster.
- Use local and off-site backups (including Cloud storage)
Using a cloud platform like Amazon Glacier, upload encrypted archives of your photos to ensure the security of your data.
- Relax and Enjoy
Rest easy knowing that your photos are safe for decades to come.
And that’s it! These three steps should get you well on your way to creating a robust photo storage solution! I really hope this has been insightful for you, let me know in the comments what your experience and recommendations are!
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