Importance of backups

One of the challenges of working with digital images is that there is considerable computer knowledge required. Not only do you need to understand how to process your images for maximum effect, but there is also a need to know how to organize and store your images. One of the most important strategies is having an effective backup plan. Hard drives are easily the most common component to fail in a computer, and thus there is a clear need for having a proper backup.

My strategy is to keep my master files on my desktop’s hard drive. Every night a script runs and makes an incremental backup of my photos, which results in having a mirrored copy on a dedicated file server. By using an incremental backup the time required to backup is drastically cut down, as it only needs to copy over the changes. Having just one form of backup is not enough. Offsite backup needs to be considered for maximum effectiveness, as it’s quite possible to have something drastic happen that could compromise keeping backups onsite (fire, theft, lightning strikes…). To guard against these possibilities, I keep an external hard drive at a relative’s house, which is updated every few weeks with any new files.  It’s also important to spin up any backup external hard drive every so often, to ensure their mechanical components are running smoothly; it won’t do you any good to have an offsite backup if that drive then dies.

Recently I lost my main photo hard drive (Seagate 1500GB 7200.11 model) to a failure. I had gone out for an evening of photographing ducks, and came home with about 15GB of images. I uploaded these to my computer and then left for a few hours. When I arrived home, my computer was giving me a black screen. I performed a hard reboot, and once the computer started up again, it was clear there was a hard drive issue, with loud clicks coming from the computer and large delays in hard drive detection when booting the computer. I mistakenly thought this was due to my main hard drive, and spent too much time copying off all the data from it. Only later did I realize that the delays were actually because my photo drive was not able to be mounted because there were issues communicating with it. By now, that drive was no longer accessible, and it was not possible to simply copy off the files. I tried various techniques, and what eventually worked was to freeze the drive overnight in a ziplock bag in the freezer, which helps to shrink the bearings and give some extra access time. I was able to copy the data off at the low-level with dd_rescue to the replacement drive, and then mount and fix file system errors. However, I wasn’t able to see all of my files, and even after using photorec to recover files that were hidden, it was clear that I had lost that evening’s shoot. Fortunately the file server had a backup of everything else, and I didn’t lose anything beyond that evening’s photos. As a result of this, I know make a point of immediately running an incremental backup from my computer to the file server as soon as I upload new photos. As unlikely as it was, a hard drive failure between the time of photo upload and the nightly backup happened, and hopefully this step will prevent the loss of files in the future.

One comment

  1. Diondi Tan

    Greg, unfortunately you found out the fact that the 7200.11 1.5TB models are unreliable drives. 🙁 There’s been a lot of issues with these particular models throughout the computer-modification areas, and people generally steer clear of the 7200.11 series entirely.

    I agree completely with you, but since I’m an amateur photographer with one paid job to my credit, I do not back-up as seriously as you do. My set-up consists of a mirrored pair of 1.5TB drives (Western Digital Green series) and a remote backup 2TB network drive, which acts an an impromptu file server for my home network. I can’t justify an off-site backup, but I do put my finished work onto my Flickr in full JPEG resolution, so at least that’s there.

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