The holiday backup strategy

The final months of year represent some of the most abundant photo opportunities of the year, from Halloween costumes and flaming pumpkins to family get-togethers, Christmas lights and New Year’s Eve parties. It’s a busy time and you could end up with thousands of new photos added to your collection. With that, if you haven’t worked out a data backup strategy for your photos then now is the perfect to put one in place. Not only is it coming up on the New Year and time to start fresh, but with all the post-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas sales there are plenty of hardware bargains to be had. You should have no problem putting an effective backup strategy together for around $250. Not a bad price to pay for some of those “priceless” moments.

Here is the setup I have as far as hardware goes. I have 2, 500GB External Western Digital My Book drives connected to my machine. One drive is the primary drive for my pictures and the other is an identical backup of it. If you have the space for it inside of your computer you could actually buy two internal drives and set them up to mirror each other. Whenever you write data to one, it’s automatically written to the other. Since my machine is a Dell and there isn’t much space inside the case itself I have gone with two external drives. (External drives cannot be mirrored in Windows). 500GB drives can be had for about $99 a piece these days. They are always going on sale so you should be able to get them on the cheap. I’ve even seen the 1TB external drives hit the $150 price point so be on the lookout.

The WD MyBooks are good because they go into sleep mode when the computer goes to sleep. They don’t just sit there running all the time. They are quiet and there is no setup, just plug them and you’re ready to use them. If you’re using Windows you may want to convert to NTFS for the smaller cluster size and security.

When I download my photos from the camera I always put them on the same drive. This is my primary external drive. Once they are on the drive I delete them off the card and go through them to see which pictures I want to keep and which ones need to go. This part is personal preference. Some people back up the images as soon as they hit the drive and don’t delete them off the card until they are backed up. It’s certainly not a bad idea so go with what works best for you.

Once I have my keepers I sync them over to the other external drive. Now there is a big difference between software that backs up your system and synchronization software. Most backup software is known as imaging or cloning software. It takes a snapshot of your drive and makes and image of it. This includes everything on drive from the operating system to the applications to the data files. It can back up the data in a proprietary image file or it can clone all the data to a new hard drive so that both drives contain exactly the same information. Some common examples would be Norton Ghost, True Image and O&O DiskImage. They are excellent for system backups but the fact they store the image in a secondary file format doesn’t lend itself to viewing those files. The image file would be similar to putting all your photos into a massive zip on your secondary drive.

I use O&O DiskImage for my system backups. It backs up the entire system on a schedule and store the 40GB images to yet another hard drive of mine. DiskImage is also great if you are replacing your current system drive. You can make a duplicate of the drive, swap them around and when you reboot your new drive will have all the same programs as the old drive. A huge timesaver in that respect.

While imaging is great when working with your operating system, for my photos I prefer to sync the data, which is simply an automated file copy where the files on the source drive are copied over to the destination drive. This is great for actual data such as photos since the file exists in both places in its native format. There are programs that will sync as soon as new files are detected in the folder or on the drive they monitor, other can be set to run on a schedule or they can all be kicked off manually. Two of the best sync programs I’ve worked with are SyncBackSE and SecondCopy. Both have very to use interfaces which let you specify whether to copy the entire drive, specific folder or specific files. I actually sync the entire drive every time. Since most of the files change it only copies across the new ones which doesn’t take very long. However, if I have worked with any of my previous photos in any of the other folders it will copy those across as well. This way I’m assured anything new gets duplicated. And since all the files remain in their native format such as JPG I can view them at any time. If the drive were to crash I wouldn’t need any special software or need to go through some special install, I can simply get a new drive and copy all the data to the new drive. For my photos I find the sync software to be much more manageable. The two apps listed above only cost $30 and once you configure them, they will keep your drives backed up with almost no effort at all.

You can also choose to exclude files from the sync. On my main drive I have all the DxO corrected files, but I don’t copy these across. I don’t see a reason to. I can always recreate that file in a matter of seconds by using DxO again so I save space on my backup drive by not including these “temporary” files.

If your work files are in another location than your photo storage drive such as “My Documents” you can include that directory in the sync. Apps like Lightroom, PaintShop Pro and others default to “My Documents” or the “My Pictures” subdirectory. If you don’t want to go through the process of recreating your work make sure you grab those directories and workspace files.

As an alternative method, you can easily backup your data to DVD. The cost of DVDs is only a few cents per disc these days so it’s very affordable to make an additional copy of your work “just in case”. Although Windows has CD/DVD burning software built in, I prefer Nero DVD burning software. In many cases you get a free copy when you buy a new DVD burner. If not, you can buy the latest copy for around $80 at . It probably has more features than you will ever use, but its Nero Express is great for beginners and the Burning Rom has additional features should you need them. With today’s DVD burners it takes about 6-8 minutes to write a full DVD worth of information (4.7GB) which should be plenty of room for your more casual holiday parties.

None of this actually takes into account an “offsite” copy of your data. Basically, with this method your data is secure in case of hardware failure, but it doesn’t protect you from greater disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes or fire. For that you would need to send you data offsite. This is becoming a new frontier for many online services where you pay a monthly fee and backup your data to a remote server. You pay by the gigabyte and your data is locked until you need it. I haven’t really looked into this because the price has always been too high. But based on the information I’m seeing from different companies, I believe there will be a lot of competition in the offline storage arena in next 6 months to a year. I’m sure availability will increase and prices will decrease.

You could always buy a large hosting account with plenty of storage and upload the files to their servers.

Don’t forget places like Webshots and Flickr where you can upload your images. It’s not perfect, but better than nothing.

At this point I would probably be more inclined to burn my images to DVD and give them to a friend to hold on to.

When all is said and done, you can easily get two external drives and a synchronization tool to make sure you have at least one backup of your important photos. Depending on how many photos you actually have, 500GB should easily fit your needs. If you need more the 1TB drives are readily available and the prices are dropping, especially for Christmas. SyncBackSE and SecondCopy are my personal favorites and you should have your first backup running 10 minutes after you get started. I’ve used about half of my 500GB drive so far, but less on my backup drive since I’m not bringing over those processed files. But since these are external drives, if I need more space I just get another drive, plug it in and start transferring to that. No need to pull the machine apart or any other hardware changes.

There lot’s of bargains out there, so if you aren’t backing up your data to a secondary drive, it’s time to kick off the New Year with an effective backup strategy.

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