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Back up to the bumper, baby

July 21st, 2010  |  Published in Featured, Shoot  |  7 Comments

by Andree Kehn

Once upon a time, in what feels like another lifetime, my house burned to the ground. I had my camera and a half a bag of clean laundry in my car, but other than that I lost everything. My college portfolio, the actual film-negatives from my sister’s wedding, all the photos I had shot in my lifetime. All gone. If we’re ever drinking a beer together and you want to hear how stupid one person can be, I’ll bend your ear.

But for now, realize that everything I do regarding backing up my client’s work, I do with the aim of having my business survive another house fire, a burglary or lightning strike.

Backing up files is ridiculously important but still one of those geeky things I don’t want to spend any more brain power on than necessary. I wanted to set my system up so I could establish a back up routine and then forget about it.

Here’s how I keep track of my images from the moment they are shot until they are stored.

I shoot onto individually numbered cards so I can keep track of the cards without popping them into a computer. I write my name and cell phone number on each card, to maximize the chances the images will be reunited with me in the remote yet horrifying prospect that my cards are separated from me before they are backed up.

My first priority is to make a copy of all of the images and physically separate it from the originals. If I am working with my trusted assistant, she will download my compact flash cards onto a small portable drive while we are still at the wedding. I use an old 80 gig Lacie drive with the awesome orange bumpers. I think of it as a really big thumb drive.

My assistant wears a very uncool fanny pack and the shot cards stay in the pack unless they are in the card reader. I impressed upon her early in her career that if the venue went up in flames, all I wanted to do was run over and grab her, confident that the cards were strapped to her body. She’s my niece; so a little drama makes for great comedy.

She knows no matter how many conflicting things I am yelling at her to do, or what I am asking her to balance on her head, that her A1 most-important-job-in-the-universe is to protect those cards. She never ever leaves them unattended. She’s quite a bit calmer than me, so this is pretty easy for her. ☺

Each card gets downloaded into its own numbered folder on the drive that corresponds to the number written on the surface of the card. Later on, when I am reviewing the images, if there ends up being some corruption of the files, this step makes it easy for me to isolate the problem card and re-import or attempt image recovery.

Eventually, you will have a corrupt card on your hands. It’s nerve wracking, but I use Photo Rescue, image recovery software, and, knock on wood, I have always been able to save corrupted images.

My primary goal is to never have every copy of my work in a single physical location (see photo one). As soon as I can, I make a copy and separate them. If my assistant has backed up to the portable drive while we are on location, then that copy stays in the glove box of my car when we stop to eat or sleep on the way home. The cards stay on me. Yes, the instant we walk out of the venue, my assistant hands the dorky fanny pack back to me. With great sigh of relief.

If I haven’t brought my assistant with me, when I get to the office, I download the images to my computer and walk the compact flash cards back out to my car, where they stay until I have made an off-site back-up of at least all of the RAW files. Otherwise, I just download the portable drive to my desktop computer.

I do my actual work on the internal drives of my Mac Pro desktop (tower) and back up to a tower of back-up drives. All four drives on my Mac Pro are mirrored to an identical set of drives in the Burly enclosure system.

A lot people use RAID, as a part of their back-up regime, but I can’t wrap my head around it. I need to understand my back-up system in order to be comfortable with it. I simply copy everything from my working drives to another set of drives. Then copy them again.

I back up my work with Super Duper, which is “Smart Update” software. If you’ve only done minor changes to your files, the backup is very fast. You can schedule the updates to happen automatically, or choose to manually back up at your discretion.

It’s very simple. Select the drive you want to copy and then select the drive you want to copy it to. I name my drives so the copies all start with the same letter. It’s one less thing to confuse myself with. :)

After the job, all my RAW files get burned to DVDs, marked with a media safe pen with the date of the shoot and the clients name. I then store the discs on a spindle by year. (Each job contains up to a dozen dvds worth of RAW images.) There is some debate as to the wisdom of piling dvds on a spindle as a storage solution, but my plans are to never access these dvds again. This is the ultimate oh-my-god all three drives failed at once scenario.

On the drives, I archive all of the “Good” Raw images, finished-for-client jpgs, album layouts, the lightroom catalogue and a folder of high-res “favorites” that I use for blogging, giving to vendors, entering in contests and for updating my website. After I deliver the work to the client, I rarely go back to any other folder than this favorites folder.

I organize my files the same way for every job. I have a folder with the client’s name and inside that folder is a folder for every different type of file I create such as Keepers, Rejects, Album, etc. To stay consistent and speed things up, I have an empty master version of this folder that I use as a template. I copy and rename it with the wedding date and my clients’ names. Then I drag the Raw files to this folder.

Before I format my compact flash cards, I take the back-up drives out of their Burly enclosure system and bring them to my friends house (the “off-site location”) where I have a third set of mirrored drives just sitting on a shelf, waiting for me. I bring the off-site drives back to the office and run my back-up software to bring this final copy up to date. There is now a copy of the clients files in two different locations, and I am free to retrieve the cards from the glovebox of my car and format them for reuse.

This process keeps a total of three mirrored copies of all of my data in two separate locations. I back up my operating system and applications the same way.

It’s boring and dry to think about, but getting a system that runs smoothly will take a huge load off of your mind.

I would love to hear how some of the rest of you back your data up!

About Andree

Andree Kehn has written 38 post in this blog.

Andree is a fun Bethel Maine Wedding Photographer, who specializes in contemporary photojournalism. She eats shoots and leaves.



  1. PhotoGirl says:

    July 21st, 2010 at 12:22 pm (#)

    Well! This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me, given that I just had a potentially catastrophic hard drive failure. (Images all recovered, at great expense, I might add. You should also tell your readers to make sure that their insurance is paid up! This is the one thing I NEVER forget to do.) That said, reading all of the above makes my head spin. Perhaps I shall go back to film. :)

  2. Andree says:

    July 21st, 2010 at 1:47 pm (#)

    Thanks PhotoGirl. :)

    Don’t go back to film!!! ***gasp!!!***

    Let me know if I can clear up any questions you have. I work on a Mac, but all of the concepts can easily be transferred to a PC platform as well. Let me know if I can be of any help!


  3. Peter Lanoie says:

    July 24th, 2010 at 6:44 am (#)


    RAID is about availability and performance, not backup. If you have a raid system on a computer and delete a file or it gets corrupt it stays that way there is no backup. The most common and simplest form is raid 0 which is a pair of mirrored disks. This prevents loss of data if you loose one of the disks. You install a replacement disk and the system rebuilds the mirror. The other forms are more complicated. But the important point is that raid is not a true backup solution. It’s sounds like you have yourself covered.

    I keep all my personally created files (photos, financials, documents) on a NAS appliance which has raid mirroring. Then I backup to a physical USB drive that lives in a fireproof safe. I periodically burn files to DVDs which also live in the safe. I then also put copies on my office computer (via FTP). I use BeyondCompare (for pc/Linux, not sure about Mac) as my “backup” utility. My backups are really just file copies. BC handles the “diffing” to figure out what needs copying.

  4. Jon Fischer says:

    August 3rd, 2010 at 8:03 am (#)

    Brain hurts.
    ….well, beyond that..
    Thanks dray for this.
    You switch ALL of your backup drives with the off site drives? You had described this system to me before and I thought you switched just one. Why do you swap all?

    Do you really do that swap after every job?

    Thanks for sharing this!


  5. Chris Bennett says:

    August 3rd, 2010 at 9:56 am (#)

    Raid 0 is actually striping, not mirroring, and provides 0 redundancy.
    Simple mirroring, as you Describe is Raid 1, and that’s when raid begins to perform in some redundant fashion.

  6. Andree says:

    August 3rd, 2010 at 10:47 am (#)

    I switch all of the drives the have been updated in the past week.

    I have three active drives: The first for my operating system (in my case OSX, in yours, Vista) and applications. If I make any changes to my applications or hard drive (preferences, new music in iTunes) then these changes are kept up to date.

    A second drives holds all of my current-year files for weddings.

    A third holds current year non-wedding work, administrative information and a folder full of desktop-type information.

    I keep trading drives as long as I am updating information on them. After all of my client’s albums are done for a particular year, I access those files only for portfolio purposes. At that point, I stop trading drives back and forth.

    I keep my off-site copies at my designer/friend’s house, so dropping by his house once a week is no hardship. This summer, my home and office are in separate locations, so I keep the off-site back-ups in my home.

  7. Alicia says:

    August 5th, 2010 at 6:48 pm (#)

    Because of you dray, whenever I leave the house I ask myself “are ALL the files in my house backed off site or in the clients possession?”

    I live in a townhouse… I worry daily that someone else is going to burn down my house.

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