Here's a story I wrote for Better Photography magazine about data backup, essential reading for all photographers.
|Boulevard du Temple, a daguerrotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838|
The other day I watched the UK’s Antiques Roadshow (AR) on TV and was interested, as I always am, in the stream of curiosities the public bring to the show.
Of course most of the objects are little more than junk, but others quite often turn out to have high value. Occasionally the program profiles photographs. These are usually souvenirs from the Second World War, featuring images of a long lost relative posted to a far flung theatre of war. Interestingly, some of these get highly valued, especially if they have a strong connections with larger than life characters and significant historical events.
That aside, the program got me thinking, not just about the value of our personal photo collections, but also about the longevity of current photographic records.
Some prints I have seen profiled on AR have been more than a century old, a testament to the humble silver halide black-and-white print if nothing else. Amazingly some of the earliest photographic prints are still around, 175 years on, in sharp contrast with modern imaging materials which, in the last 35 years, have tended to fade faster than a Federal election promise.
To be fair, some of today’s printing technology (if you believe the specifications) can provide a permanence that’s as good as your great grandad’s black-and-white snaps from Gallipoli. But there are problems with today’s archival practices. For a start, we exist in an increasingly throw-away environment. The population is considerably more fluid than 100 years ago and the technology we use to record our lives has changed, and indeed continues to change, at an alarming rate. And to be pedantic, archival claims are estimated through simulated fading tests, not obviously from fact because we haven’t got there yet. There’s still 150 years to go before anyone can categorically claim 100% archival permanence.
Right up till the mid-nineties the way we recorded family memories hadn’t changed much in nearly 150 years. A camera was used to expose and create a negative on film which was then processed and printed on paper. In 1994 it all began to change as digital cameras became commercially viable and, by the turn of the century, digital was an increasingly significant player in the familial recording process.
If you remember, the advent of the digicam was the death knell of the high street photo printing lab. All those Soul Pattinson chemists offering fast, cheap film processing and printing. And don’t forget all those Agfa, Konica and Fuji high street businesses either – they all disappeared too. In effect, the process of printing photos that we’d been used to for 150 years, stopped dead almost overnight.
|Remember the Apple QuickTake? The start of the digital camera revolution. |
It had a tiny 0.3 Mp resolution. And only recorded black-and-white!
Consequently readers might notice a bit of a gap in their collective photo memories starting around this time. Computers and storage options then were somewhat flakey. Photos were lost, floppy disks corrupted, computers malfunctioned, and once personal technology ramped up sufficiently, devices began changing faster than most of us could keep up.
Against the odds I still have quite a few photos from those early digital days only because they were printed. I doubt if I could locate any of my original files from 2000, and I am sure many readers would be in the same situation.
Even today, because ordinary photographers don’t practice efficient backup, a great deal of our photo memories will have already been lost permanently. This might be down to carelessness, poor understanding of the technology, or even worse, inefficient or non-existent backup practices. This can only produce a wider memory gap as the evidence for our memories, our photos, become scarcer compared to only two decades ago.
I make a point of asking my photo students about their archiving strategies. Almost everyone admits they do minimal backups which is cause for concern because once lost, that data is irretrievable.
With film, if the negatives were lost we could always recover something by scanning from the print. But now the majority of us merely download images onto a PC then, maybe, just maybe, a few upload to Facebook, a few might print, and a few might save images somewhere else. None of this is good practice if we want to pass on images of our lives to kids, and grandkids.
The biggest fly in the archival ointment has be the mobile phone. Everyone has one and, because it travels with us, it has become the go-to device for recording memories. The obvious problem with the mobile is that its small, highly portable and eminently replaceable! Mobiles are also so easily lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair.
How many people do you know who regularly download pictures from their mobile to a safer and more useful place? The answer is probably ‘very few’, despite the streaming cloud.
Which brings me back to the Antiques Roadshow. In another 50 years, I suspect that those precious black-and-white photos taken on some bleak Anzac Campaign will still be trotted out for appraisal by the program’s experts. But where will those photographs be of sons, husbands, fathers, daughters and relatives who contributed to your family’s history only 30, 40 or 50 years ago? While Antiques Roadshow will undoubtedly endure, I doubt you’ll ever see a member of the public displaying their ‘historic’ photo memories on a laptop!
Backup and Archival Strategies
Years ago I wrote an article about backing up computer files using archival quality CDs and DVDs. In those days, a mere 10 or 12 years ago, the best technology was the archival DVD. You can pack more than 4Gb of images onto one of these bad boys and it would last 100+ years, though of course, the DVD reader might not last quite that long. Gold, archival DVDs are still available and a worthy, if somewhat slow method of backing up data, although, from what I have read recently, those brands that genuinely produce error-free and archival permanence are getting harder to find.
If you still use this kind of media as a backup you’ll have to agree it’s a slow way to work. While hard drives and external backup drives have increasingly-fast operating speeds, the DVD is now almost a thing of the past.
3, 2, 1 Go!
Regardless of what you are trying to archive, IT professionals recommend a 3-2-1 backup strategy. What this means is having three copies of your data, preferably saved onto two different kinds of media, with one of those copies ideally stored offsite from where you do the bulk of your work. This could be on a portable hard drive in your garage, at your mother-in-law’s house or, for the suitably paranoid, in a bank vault.
While I agree entirely with this strategy, there are a few problems involved, not least the cost of buying a triple backup system that’s fast enough, reliable enough, and big enough to handle our increasingly large digital media production. As all photographers know, the volume of pictures we shoot is ever-increasing.
One way to surmount this is to calculate the quantity of photos shot over the past few years, then estimate how much space you’ll need in five, ten, or even 20 years.
Then double that for the capacity of drive you should consider buying. Bear in mind though – it makes absolutely no sense to back up material that is technically or aesthetically substandard. It makes sense to edit carefully first before you back up. That way you will dramatically reduce the required storage space.
One thing that’s getting cheaper is digital storage, especially in the competitive desktop computer market. These days you can buy a 3Tb drive for $160, a 4Tb for $200 and a 5Tb for $300. That’s about 50cents per gigabyte – relatively inexpensive.
But are these desktop drives reliable?
One of the most comprehensive hard drive reviews you can find comes from one of the world’s largest cloud backup companies, Backblaze. It uses around 42,000 hard drives in its backup systems, including disks from Hitachi, Seagate, Toshiba and Western Digital. It publishes stats on the reliability of these units in its business for anyone to view. Those that have the highest failure rates are, surprisingly, (some) Seagate drives, most notably a 3Tb model. Those with the best figures include drives from Hitachi (now called HGST) which have impressively low failure rates, especially when compared to Seagate, WD and Toshiba. These stats are somewhat skewed because the drives are arranged in RAID units and run continuously. Check it out here: https://www.backblaze.com/blog/best-hard-drive/
What you can take away from this research is that, though some products have high fail rates, another model from the same manufacturer can be far superior in its performance. For example Backblaze notes a massive difference between Seagate’s 3Tb and 4Tb models it uses. Also consider that a true backup can be a disc that is filled with your valuable work, then stored, unconnected, thus reducing wear and tear on the unit.
If you have the option, specify exactly which type of drive you’d like to have installed in a new PC computer – for example the Hitachi Deskstar 5K3000 that Backblaze assesses as having only a tiny 0.79% failure rate (compared to the Seagate Barracuda 7200 that showed between 19 and 35% failure rates).
Another way to judge what is good or not is to ask your installer which model is least returned due to failure. If you are a Mac user, you are pretty much stuck with what Apple dictates it’s going to install in its standard configurations. (For the adventurous, you can quite easily expand and update what is packed into an Apple device using reliable third party drives from vendors like www.macfixit.com.au).
That said, you can move up to external storage. Buy yourself one or even two backup drives depending how close to the 3, 2, 1, rule you’d like to stick.
But what if your drive fails? OK, check the company’s warranty closely. Buy one that has the best warranty – this should cover physical replacement if it fails but of course, it does not cover the ones and zeros recorded on to it.
One sensible option is to buy a RAID drive, effectively a top of the range desktop unit containing not one, but two individual drives. (RAID means ‘redundant array of independent disks’). RAID drives can contain more drives, depending on your budget, and can easily be set up in several different (performance) configurations (see box on RAID Drives.
One final thought on hard drives might be to use a hard drive dock. This is a device like a giant iPod dock that allows you to hot-swap ordinary inexpensive off-the-shelf SATA hard drives when needed. You only need one power source and one dock.
RAID 0 – this records 50% of your data onto one drive and 50% to the other, thus significantly speeding up the read/write performance. But there’s no redundancy – which means if one of the two drives fails, you lose everything because, if you are only left with half the data saved, it will make no sense. RAID 0’s benefit is speed.
RAID 1 – this mode saves the same data to both disks – so you have a mirrored set of data. No speed increase but if one drive fails, you have a duplicate set on the second drive. Ideal for backup.
RAID 5 – Requires a unit with three drives because though it still only saves the data twice, it has a third set of data, that’s smaller, recorded onto all three disks. This can then be used to rebuild/recover the data if one of the drives fails. So you get some speed benefit while having a recoverable backup should one drive fail at the expense of around 30% less capacity.
JBOD – this is not a RAID configuration but is often used by RAID controllers to represent two disk units as exactly that; two drives. JBOD stands for ‘just a bunch of disks’ so offers no redundancy, nor does it offer speed benefits. It just allows, for example, two 2Tb drives in one box to appear on the PC/Mac desktop as two entirely separate drives.
You can buy a desktop 4Tb RAID unit for as little as $600. It includes an internal RAID controller which is a good thing because, without this, the computer’s CPU would have to do the job, which places undue strain on resources and slows performance. If one drive goes bad you can actually pull it out and slot-in a replacement in about a minute. And although I have never tried it, it is possible to upscale the capacity by removing both drives and replacing them with two higher capacity drives if needed.
Solid State Drives
Although I’d not necessarily recommend SSDs for archiving work, because of their cost, prices are dropping quickly. The SSD is probably the most significant thing to have happened to computers in the last 20 years. An SSD hard drive has no moving parts so can stand a certain amount of roughness, consumes little power, doesn’t overheat and, best of all, has incredibly fast read/write times. At the moment they cost a bit more than three times the price of an equivalent off-the-shelf SATA hard drive.
Save in the Cloud
Another option to consider when archiving your digital memories is to use the Cloud. The Cloud can be used for data backup (as with a company like Backblaze) or for data storage with companies such as Dropbox, SugarSync, and OneDrive. The difference is that backup is just that. You put your data into a cloud warehouse and leave it there, only accessing it if your earth-based data is compromised.
Cloud storage is similar but, as you’ll probably know, companies like Dropbox promote the ability to exchange your data with others, from multiple access points. That’s an attractive marketing point. While Dropbox uses 256-bit ‘military grade’ encryption and many other security features I can’t even begin to understand, it’s not going to be quite as secure as data backup options simply because you can open it up to other individuals.
But it is still pretty watertight.
Backblaze is more for corporate data. It charges nothing to upload up to 10Gb of data. You can download up to 1Gb of data for free per day – anything over that will cost US50cents per Gb after that.
SugarSync charges US$7.50 for 100Gb data
Dropbox charges nothing for 2Gb of data, and AU$13 pcm for 1Tb (but the company offers 500Mb of additional storage for getting a friend referral, up to a total of 16Gb free storage).
Apple iCloud Drive offers 5Gb for free, but 20Gb for US0.99c pcm.
Box offers 10Gb free (with a single file upload limit of 250Mb)
Copy offers 15Gb for free (with no maximum file size limit)
Amazon offers 5Gb of free storage
Google Drive offers 15Gb storage - but this includes all Google services so if you have a lot of backed-up emails with large attachments, this will reduce your total capacity.
Besides the massive amount of money spent on preventing security breaches with these cloud-based storage companies, you’ll also appreciate that you are very unlikely to suffer loss through virus, malware, or malpractice, as you might in a home office situation. These companies prosper entirely because they offer a far higher level of security and competence than any single consumer can apply to their own personal data storage plan.
My main gripe with cloud storage is that it’s not as immediate as a local drive, especially if that local drive is RAID or USB 3.0, or both.
Upload, Store, Share and ‘Like’
Uploading to cloud storage sites is all good and well but there are also masses of options when it comes to sharing your work across the globe using one of the ubiquitous social media sites like Facebook or Flickr. While many might upload low resolution images (because it’s quicker), full resolution uploads can be just as useful when you consider the amount of free bandwidth on offer. These sites not only provide a safe place to back up your best work, they also offer a range of organisational tools like albums and collections, and provide sophisticated sharing opportunities so you not only store but you can also advertise your work to the world.
Facebook is probably the largest sharing site on the planet but, because it’s just that, a sharing site, it also involves being exposed to the great unwashed public, and that can be counterproductive, especially for creative photographers. Still, it offers unlimited uploads so what’s not to like?
Yahoo’s Flickr offers a free one terabyte of online storage – that’s a lot of images. You can also upload 1Gb video files – but you can onely view them in three-minute snippets. Upgrading to 2Tb will cost a whopping US$500 per year.
Irista is a photo sharing site created by Canon in 2014 – it offers 15Gb free storage with relatively inexpensive expansion options should you need 50 or 100Gb on top of the free stuff.
500px is a classy site profiling excellent work by photographers and artists – I think its members tend to be more creative and professional than those seen on Flickr but then file uploads on the free account are limited to 20 a week – but with an unlimited amount over time (i.e. +1,000 a year).
Behance is an Adobe project that profiles the creative portfolios of artists, illustrators and some photographers – with the idea that it’s a launchpad for creatives looking for work. Behance links in with Adobe’s Creative Cloud services which includes subscriptions to your favourite Adobe apps, plus access to stock images and full integration with a wide range of creative software tools that can only work via the Cloud. It permits upload of images, videos and audio files.
Some Social Connections
If you agree with the 3, 2, 1, proposal bite the bullet and invest in multiple desktop hard drives as part of your backup system. But there’s still a flaw in the design: what about saving data in a different format?
For me, one of the most enjoyable solutions is to print my images. This can either take the form of a digital picture book - in which your best photos are added to a coffee table style publication. These are printed using a colour lithographic press guaranteeing a good degree of archival permanence.
Plus, you have the added bonus of being able to display your images instantly. On the coffee table. None of this, “hang on a moment, I’ll fire up my computer, and look for those images that I took last year while on holiday…” sort of scenario. Very few families have their photo collections loaded front and centre on the computer in an environment that’s conducive to show off. The coffee table book, a printed calendar, inkjet prints, and even posters, all printed on archival materials, are excellent solutions to that backup dilemma while providing a real WOW! response.
While there are many good consumer photo book printing companies around, not all use permanent inks. Some of the faster and cheaper services, notably those offered in-store ready almost while you wait, are printed using colour laser printers. These are neither very accurate when it comes to colour fidelity, nor are they even close to being archival.
If you want to make a book you’ll have to first download the free proprietary software, add your pictures, arrange the pages, then upload to that company’s print service. The whole process takes quite a long time and might cost upwards of $100 depending on book size and number of pages, but I think you’ll find the effort rewarding. Photo books are a fantastic way to profile and preserve your best work. Check the info here for recommended local and overseas book companies.
Recommended Photo Book Companies
Momento - www.momento.com.au
Album Works - www.albumworks.com.au
Clickonprint - www.clickonprint.com.au
Blurb - www.blurb.com
In a world flooded with cheap inkjet printers (and expensive inks) you might be forgiven in thinking that traditional photo printing is dead. It’s not, and interestingly, companies like Kodak and Fuji are still producing silver halide photo enlargement papers like (Kodak) Endura, which has an archival permanence rating of 100++ years.
This is both an inexpensive way to print (no costly inks to buy), the perfect medium with which to frame pictures, it’s archival, it looks great, and gets your work noticed. You can expect to pay in the region of $35 for a 20x30 inch poster printed on this superb archival paper. Get printing!
Archival Photo Printing
Please note: This is a summary profiling some, but I’m sure not all of the options available for archiving photographic images. All prices and specifications were correct at the time of writing but, because of the fluid nature of this topic, details might change. Always check first online for the latest pricing.