Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

How to protect your photos against a catastrophe

Garage Remnants, Bastrop Fire - Bastrop, Texas

Garage Remnants, Bastrop Fire – Bastrop, Texas

Is your photo library protected against catastrophe? I thought I had a pretty good backup strategy until that terrible day a year ago. Labor Day weekend 2011, after the hottest summer on record in Texas, a fire broke out in Bastrop county, just east of Austin. The fire raged for a month and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes. The worst wildfire in Texas history. I remember that day. Driving down a highway in Austin, to the West I saw a large plume of smoke and to the East an even larger bank of smoke from Bastrop. The record heat and drought ignited wild fires throughout Texas. On that windy day, there were multiple wildfires raging in the Austin area.

Tragically, my friend lost her home and almost everything in that Bastrop fire. The story could have been worse. Luckily there was no loss of life. Her family, her horses and pets got out safely. She also had portable backups of her photographs which she was able to save. I took these photographs of my friend’s place when I went out there to help her clean up. The photos are used with her permission so that I can make a point. You may not be able to save everything when a catastrophe happens but your digital files can be safe.

I’ve always been very good about my photo backups. I use Apple’s Aperture 3 software and I have two backup vaults on two external drives. I also have a backup on a portable USB drive which I store offsite. But I realized that there were holes in my backup strategy, and the tragic Bastrop fire brought them to light. Here are 5 tips to protect your digital photo library.

House Remnants, Bastrop Fire - Bastrop, Texas

House Remnants, Bastrop Fire – Bastrop, Texas

1. Make at least 1 copy of your photo library on an external drive, the more copies the better. If possible, use an automated process to continuously backup your photo library.

2. I you don’t have an automated process, have a good manual process that ensures backup. This is what I do. I make sure that I have 3 copies of a photograph before I erase my CF and SD cards. I have two external drives connected to my Macintosh and I use Aperture 3’s vault system to back up my Photo library to both drives.

3. RAID systems and Drobos may work fine but I don’t use them. I prefer multiple separate external drives. Each drive is a separate, independent entity. If one drive happens to go bad, I have a 2nd completely separate backup drive. The potential issue with multiple drive RAID system is if there is a glitch in the drive interface, all of your data on the multiple drives may be at risk. Also if you use a proprietary backup solution, what happens if that company goes out of business? If I need to get my data out of the building, carrying a single external drive is a lot easier than carrying a big RAID box full of multiple drives.

4. Have offsite backup. I also use a small, portable USB drive for backup and keep it offsite. Offsite means anywhere out of your house or office. Bring the drive to a friend’s house in another part of town. Keep it in a safety deposit box. Put it any place safe, separate from where your main photo library is located. The downside with this solution? If you shoot a lot of photographs like I do, your offsite back is never complete. Suppose you copy and move your library offsite religiously once a week. You can still end up loosing a week’s worth of images. And let’s be honest. Most people will find it difficult to use this offsite method on a consistent basis. Inevitably your once a week schedule may start slipping. At least mine did.

5. Have an automated offsite backup. This is the change I made to my backup strategy after the Bastrop fire. I now have an automated cloud based backup solution. There are many services out there. Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan, Mozy and a bunch more. If you have a large library, it will take you a while to upload all your files and you do need a fast internet connection. After a bit of research I decided to use CrashPlan. I’ve been using them for year now with good results. Within the last year, I have updated a failed drive and moved to a new computer. I was able to successfully reconnect my new computer and new drive to my cloud based Crashplan backup. I’m now up to 900GB of storage in the cloud.

Neighbor's House, Bastrop Fire - Bastrop, Texas

Neighbor’s House, Bastrop Fire – Bastrop, Texas

So there you have it. My backup strategy for my precious photographs. Is it completely bullet proof? Probably not. But I do have multiple redundant backups updated in a consistent and automatic process. And my friend in Bastrop? She has rebuilt her home and getting settled in her new life. While she might have lost most of her physical possessions, at least she has her photographs which she can cherish.

Please make sure to click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure details.

4 responses

  1. Oddlly, I wrote a post on this same subject today. I lost everything to the “ILoveYou” virus in May 2000. I lost every single jpg on my hard drive, and I didn’t have backups, except for a few odds and ends burned on CD. It was a painful and unforgettable lesson. I am unlikely to make the same mistake again. I am thinking of buying some off-premise storage space … just in case!

    September 3, 2012 at 11:51 pm

  2. For family stuff, print 2 sets of photos at the walmart or the costco and give them away. For the family stuff, I usually use a service called Winkflash.com and the 4×6 prints are 6 cents apiece. If you can’t spend 10 bucks on your family once in awhile, there’s something wrong with you ;-)

    While the future is the cloud and storage or archiving services, I’m still not 100% trusting of them. Case in point Digital Railroad of a couple of years ago. And there will be more that go away. Rotating a drive offsite still works for me for the majority of things. At least I get to see my brother on a regular basis. We do the drive swap “as needed”. Sometimes it’s every two weeks, sometimes it’s 3 days.

    RAIDs – a friend of mine lost EVERYTHING last summer. He’s still licking his wounds after that.

    I also have extra memory cards here, they’re so cheap now. I have a little plastic box where I put in the spent ones and I’ll just let them hang there for a little while if I do a critical shoot. I just have them lined up so I know which is oldest, then I use the oldest ones as I need them. Learned this the hard way when I had a computer crash and the files had not been backed up yet. Some more cheap insurance as I rarely use anything over 8GB.

    September 4, 2012 at 2:12 pm

  3. I totally agree in redundancy. I have two external HD backups plus one that I keep offsite, as well.

    September 8, 2012 at 7:20 am

  4. John M

    I use a combination of external hard drives, one local and another offsite. For the external drives I use FreeFile Sync. I’m actually considering encrypting the external drives as they do contain personal info such as SSN’s. I also use CrashPlan to backup to the cloud. CrashPlan gives you a lot of options in that it also allows you to backup to your other computers or a friends computer over the internet. I find if you don’t have an automatic process your backups don’t get done.

    October 2, 2012 at 7:43 pm

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