(Just to clarify, I spent several years working in the data storage business, and have a pretty good understanding of the technology - but I am not an expert. I am a user, not an engineer. So, this little article is coming from a users' point of view and will hopefully help you get your photos backed up and secured. I don't like to get too technical because I just want to know the simple stuff! Plus, I prefer to spend my time taking and processing photos, not studying the latest trends in storage technology - although I do study it some!)
Backing up your computer data, especially your photos, is an incredibly important but often overlooked task. It is a task. You generally have to “do” something, and it can take a while. But each of your photos is an original - a one-of-a-kind - and therefore cannot be reproduced. So saving them is vitally important, right? Right....
Think about the alternative. You take photos and dump them onto your hard drive, but never back them up so you do not have another digital copy somewhere. Then, something happens and your hard drive crashes (they do crash, because they have moving parts which can break). Your digital files are lost forever - most likely. You can never get them back, and more specifically you cannot reproduce them. Things are never the same again, even the same scene in the same weather looks different each time. Your child never gives the camera that same look again, or you don’t have plans to return to Europe again any time soon (plus it will look different next time). The photos are gone. G-O-N-E. Adios. You could end up like this guy:
With the widespread adoption of digital cameras, and specifically DSLRs, more folks are starting to find that they are accumulating a LOT of pictures on their computers. And what makes it more challenging is that as people upgrade from their starter camera to a nice point & shoot and then to a full DSLR, they are getting more and more megapixels, which means bigger and bigger file sizes for each picture. Then, you really get into post-processing and decide to start shooting in RAW format (or RAW + JPEG) so that you capture more detail and data on each shot, and the file sizes grow again. Finally, you start dabbling in HDR photography and then you are shooting 5-7 exposures for each final picture that you produce. Next thing you know, this whole digital photography thing can consume you, or at least consume your hard drive.
So, what do you do about it? How do you best accomplish the task of ensuring that you have safe, secure copies of your photos? Like anything, there are a lot of ways to back up your photos, and if you talk to 5 photographers you will probably get 5 answers about how best to get it done. And that is okay, because everyone has their own way of doing this, and usually finds a method that they are comfortable with. Here are the most common methods:
- USB flash drive (aka thumb drive)
- External hard drive
- RAID system
I think CD or DVD copies are the most popular, or at least they used to be. I know I still have a lot of old CDs in my vault that have old pictures on them, and I need to get them off of the CDs and onto a hard drive. Why? Here is something you should know: CDs don’t last forever. The estimated lifespan of a CD/DVD I have seen listed (on the web) from 5 years to 100 years, but in reality I don’t think anyone knows. And by the way, CD technology hasn’t been around 100 years yet to test that theory anyways. Also, these are sensitive to light, heat and UV exposure, so be careful where you put them. Lastly, it is a hassle if you want to view or edit photos that are on a CD, but not on your hard drive (or external drive). It is just way easier to have them online already. My opinion? It is much easier to store photos on a hard drive of some sort. Read on...
USB FLASH DRIVES
USB flash drives are so cool in my opinion and I think they are incredibly useful for a lot of reasons. However, they just don’t have enough capacity to handle a bunch of photos. I definitely use them to transfer images, because it is quick and easy, but for long term storage you are much better off with an external hard drive of some sort which has a large amount of capacity. These are just handy for those situations when you need to move something quick from one computer to another, or take a few files with you on the road. I have one in my backpack and take it everywhere. You never know when you will need it!
EXTERNAL HARD DRIVES, aka DAS (Direct Attached Storage)
External hard drives are becoming more and more popular, and colorful! You can find all colors, brands and sizes in your local Best Buy or wherever you like to buy this techie stuff. They are easy to use and hook up to your computer via a USB port. They are truly plug and play. You plug it in and your computer recognizes it as an additional hard drive. You drag and drop or copy files to it. You are done. It really is that easy and I am a big fan of these devices. They have the added benefit of being (mostly) portable. Some can fit in your shirt pocket. Take them on that long vacation and back up your photos on the beach (just don’t let a wave hit them, unless it is from IOSafe which you can read more about below)!
There are a lot of brands to choose from, and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the choices. My basic rule is to stick with the top brand names - sort of like anything else, you can’t really go wrong that way. Here are things to consider:
- Brand - stay with the top names such as Western Digital, Seagate, or Iomega - all of these are great brands and well-known products. I have personally used a Western Digital Passport drive and find it easy, relatively inexpensive, and very portable!
- Capacity - without a doubt, buy the biggest drive you can possibly afford, because if you are taking a lot of pictures, you will fill it up a lot quicker than you expect
- Environmental conditions - if you are concerned about completely safeguarding your drive and the data on it, consider IOSafe which makes a wonderful external hard drive which is fireproof and waterproof! Learn more here: www.iosafe.com. You can read my review of this product here.
Another common name for this type of storage is DAS, which stands for Direct Attached Storage. As the name implies, it attaches directly to a system as opposed to a NAS (defined below) which acts as a device on a network. Most DAS drives connect via USB port, which exist on every computer these days. Some also utilize other connections such as Firewire and SATA, both of which offer quicker transfer speeds than USB but are less common.
RAID SYSTEMS, aka NAS (Network Attached Storage)
RAID systems are the final stop for someone who has a LOT of files to back up and wants to ensure they have the utmost in redundancy. I would usually only recommend a RAID device for someone with at least 1TB of data to back up. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (or in some cases people use the word Independent in place of Inexpensive). Either way, it is a group of drives, sometimes 2 but more often a group of 4, that act essentially like one really big drive, and some of them can be shared on a network so all users can back up to them. If it is network-ready, you will normally find it listed as a NAS drive (Network Attached Storage). They are intelligent and the software that powers them allows them to do some great things for you. The primary thing that RAID gives you is full redundancy, if set up properly. There are different levels of RAID, and it can get pretty complicated, so I will focus on the 2 levels that you are most likely to be interested in: RAID 1 and RAID 5.
RAID 1 is useful when you have just 2 drives, and is also called “mirroring”. That is a great description for it, because essentially what happens is that your data is written to drive 1 and another copy, or a mirror, is written to drive 2. So, if a drive fails, you still have a copy on the other drive.
RAID 5 gets a little more complicated and in the interest of simplicity I will leave out a lot of techie background. This RAID level is useful when you have 4 drives in your array. RAID 5 is beneficial because you can have 1 of the 4 drives fail, and your data is still safe because it is spread across all 4 drives. That is a very simple explanation of RAID 5 but it makes the key point: if you lose a drive, you do not lose your data.
The downside (if you can call it that) to a RAID system is that it is usually a bit larger and therefore not really portable, and due to it being a much more intelligent device they can get fairly expensive. Also, they tend to get a little more complicated in terms of administration.
There are a lot of brands to choose from in this category, but I would recommend that you take a good look at Netgear ReadyNAS and the Drobo from Data Robotics. I have deep experience with both and must say they are fantastic products that you will really enjoy using.
The ReadyNAS is a true NAS device (fully networkable) and comes in a couple of options, either a 2 drive ReadyNAS Duo or the larger 4 drive ReadyNAS NV+. They both have a lot of features, too many to list, but if you want to learn more see this website: www.readynas.com. With this product, you will need to have a basic understanding of how to set up RAID and how to manage it. It is not complicated, but will require some involvement on your part. Because the Duo is a 2 drive system, you can only do RAID 1 on it (not RAID 5). The NV+, having a capacity of 4 drives, allows RAID 5 as an option.
The Drobo is an interesting and inventive solution. It is really cool and the photographic community has really embraced the product. It is easy to use and that is the top selling point. You don't have to learn RAID - you can just focus on taking and processing photos and let Drobo do the hard stuff! All you do is plug in drives, and it will handle all the redundancy functions for you, automatically. If you lose a drive, your data is still protected. It begins as a DAS device but you have the option to add network capability so it can become a NAS later if needed. It also has a built in capacity meter, so it will alert you as you start to reach capacity. At that point, you simply remove the smallest drive (it tells you which is the smallest) and replace it with a bigger drive. Everything else (reconfigurations, setting up redundancy again, etc is handled for you automatically!). You can read more here: www.drobo.com.
Anyways, this is certainly not a comprehensive collection of storage options, but rather some thoughts on popular options and ones that I have direct experience with. Hopefully this helps and if you have any questions then please drop me a line. Thanks!