Backing up your data is a must. Since image files are the lifeblood of any photographer's business it only makes sense to invest in a backup solution that protects the business' most important assets.
Q: What kind of solution is the best?
A: It depends!
For a commercial photographer who maintains a library of images that can be sold for stock, licensed, etc., a backup solution has to be about as bulletproof as possible. On the other hand, a wedding or portrait photographer is unlikely to do any work on a finished session from two years ago and would only need to keep the finished jpegs and album design files from a client job. If they want to be a little more thorough they could keep the RAW files and Lightroom catalogs.
Keep in mind that the cost of any solution increases exponentially with the amount of complexity involved. So if you want a mirrored system that includes offsite backup, RAID servers (never just one), and the ability to restore in a few hours -- you're talking serious dough.
Over this post and a follow up I'll outline what I think is a solid, cost-effective, and reliable solution for wedding and portrait photographers.
First I'd like to offer the tenets of my backup strategy:
- Figure out what you need
- Redundancy is not a bad word
- Storage is cheap.
- Duplication is key.
- Complexity is the enemy.
- Keep your data moving.
- Take it off site.
- It's cheaper to buy a lot of drives than to recover one
- Test your backups
Figure out what you need
Answering some basic questions about your business will shape your backup strategy and help you prioritize your efforts:
What kind of photographer are you?
How likely are you to use the images again for licensing or sale?
What is the data retention policy for your business?
What is the retention policy in your contract?
What is your shooting format (RAW, Jpeg, DNG)?
What is your output format (Jpeg, PSD, Tiff)?
Redundancy is not a bad word
The desire of any good backup system is to be redundant. You want to have your data in a pristine state in multiple locations, preferably on site and some off site.
Storage is cheap
Hard drives are ridiculously large, very reliable, and incredibly cheap. There is no excuse that you can make for not having backups. Hard drives and physical media (DVD, Blu-ray, Flash drives) are getting cheaper, smaller, and more dense all the time. As of January 2010 it's possible to get a 2 terabyte (2 x 1000 gigabytes) drive for less than $200. Blu-ray discs are about $30 for a 50 GB per disc, which is easily enough space to back up a single job or RAW files. This low cost leads to my next tenet...
Duplication is key
I don't think I know anyone who hasn't had a hard drive fail or accidentally deleted an important file, so having a *relatively current* backup of important things is a must. These aren't the old days, where you tucked the film negatives into protective sleeves and put them in a file cabinet. In the digital age there is no quality loss from making copies of your files, so buy multiple hard drives and make copies of those important files! It's a great way to guard against catastrophic data loss. Adding in Blu-ray discs or traditional DVDs is a great way to diversify the duplication process for even more redundancy.
Complexity is the enemy
You may or may not have heard the phrase "RAID is NOT a backup" (It's worth a Google search) That argument about RAID notwithstanding, the important point is that most photographers are not IT people with years of experience working in data centers, troubleshooting hardware issues, and restoring mission-critical data from failures. In general,dealing with proprietary RAID controller cards, striping, configurations, and the like is almost guaranteed to end badly. Software RAID is also a bad idea from a performance and reliability standpoint.
If you're a wedding or portrait photographer it's unlikely that you're dealing with large databases or massive single files. Image files just need to be catalogued decently (so you can find the images you're looking for if you have to restore) and stored in multiple places (redundancy). Keeping it simple may mean having more drives but it also means you'll have a much better chance of having the files you need when that day comes.
Keep your data moving
When new technology comes out and hits a reasonable price, like the newer hard drives or Blu-ray discs, it's a good idea to move your old backup data into the new format. That way you've moved your data to a newer location, effectively increasing redundancy and the life expectancy of that data.
Take it off site
Off site backup just means not in one physical location. It doesn't need to be at some data center or in "the cloud" necessarily. If you can afford to do the Enterprise-class off site backup and your needs are heavy duty, then by all means go for it. At the same time the combination of large RAW file sizes and the bandwidth limitations of even broadband internet limit the effectiveness of going off site over the Internet.
If you have a studio separate from your home then it can be as simple as just having copies of your data at your home. If you run a home-based studio then simply storing a stack of hard drives in a safe location, say your in-laws or a friend's house, can be an effective solution. There's also the option of safe deposit boxes at your bank as well.
It's cheaper to buy a lot of drives than to recover one
The question is: Pay now or pay later?
If you don't have a backup strategy it's likely you'll pay quite a bit at one time when things do go wrong. The high cost of data recovery services is a reality you should be able to avoid (most of the time) with a good backup strategy. I've seen the cost of restoring one drive of client files be over $2,000 -- and that was for a drive that the company couldn't fully restore.
And then there's the awful possibility of litigation for losing important client files if they haven't yet been delivered.
For $2,000 a photographer could easily purchase a bunch of large hard drives, protective cases, a Blu-ray burner, a stack of Blu-ray discs, and DVDs. Considering the value of your data it's foolish to trust a single hard drive or single disc when there is no downside to having additional copies of your work saved in multiple locations.
Test your backups
A backup is only good if it can actually be used. Even though it's a boring exercise it's absolutely crucial to test your backups to make sure they actually work.
It's worth it to simulate a disaster scenario every few months (or at least once a year) to ensure all that backing up is actually effective.
Damon is the technical (and bag-carrying) assistant to Agnes Lopez, a commercial and wedding photographer who works primarily in Ponte Vedra Beach and Amelia Island, Florida. When he isn't standing still as a lighting test dummy, setting up a c-stand, or holding a reflector, Damon works as an IT Business Analyst, where he gets to solve technical problems on a daily basis.