Commentary # 12 ~ December 2007
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Resolutions and Backing Up Into the New Year

December 2007

- by Craig Wassel

It's almost December, and I have not been a very good boy this year - or at least as good as I thought - about backing up my work. At least three times in the past 3 months I have gone to look for a photograph and struggled to find what I needed. One was a photo I had spent nearly two hours preparing for very large printing and wanted to reprint. Another was a family pic that was not terribly important but that I still wanted. The third was a stock photo a client purchased for a good amount of money; luckily that was the one I was able to locate just in time. This is doubly frustrating for someone who works very hard at staying organized.

Just in the digital format since January, I have managed to amass nearly 13,000 images. At 16 mb per RAW file, that is 208 gb of data. Those are just the ones I kept, and does not count processed .psd and .tiff files from ones I decided were worthy of the digital darkroom, nor family photographs. The total for the past 9 months probably exceeds 300gb, and the year is not over. With the Holidays upon us, I'm sure I'll probably shoot several thousand more frames before the year is up.

The decision to start backing this work up in a more disciplined and organized fashion is an easy one to make, but I found choosing just how to do that was not so easy. My previous method was to backup onto a RAID server in my house, and copy onto a portable external hard drive for easy "carry around" access. I created folders in a month_year naming convention, and saved off work accordingly. The problem is that as my work has expanded, grown, and accelerated, so has my consumption of external drives. Trying to make sure I always had two synchronized copies of everything became too difficult. Fellow photographers suggested that I just buy a 500gb or 1tb external drive and be done with it. But then what would I do when I fill that up? Further - does everybody know what is inside one of those "external" storage devices? A hard drive. It's just a drive put inside a shiny shell that has a handy USB or FireWire interface. Does everybody know how many of those hard drives will fail? The answer is - eventually - all of them. I have been unlucky enough to have fairly young drives fail, but lucky that it has never happened at a point where I was not fully backed up. I've just never been able to feel fully comfortable backing up onto a hard drive. I look at a drive as a device to run my operating system, not as a backup device.

I went from there to considering burned media. CDR's were out of the question. Somehow the notion of burning more than 280 of them to restructure my more importan work and get back to a place of "backup" comfort didn't excite me. I was seriously interested in Blu-Ray burners until I learned they are still around $1000.00. Forget that; backing up RAW files 50gb at a time is attractive, but a grand buys an awful lot of studio equipment I need. Dual layer DVD's were the next consideration, but I was surprised to find that the media still costs more than $2.00 a piece, but doesn't deliver twice the storage capacity of a standard DVD+/-R. I thought about extending the RAID array in my server (I never imagined 6 years ago that 350 gb would get filled up), but even if I did I would still have to back it up somewhere, and I would have to do that before daring to change the array.

DVD's with 4.7gb capacity were beginning to look like the most economical and safest way to go. The uncertainty is many predict the media we burn today will delaminate and decay into an un-readable state in 20 years or so. Sooner or later, though, you have to place your bet, and 4.7gb DVD's are where I am placing mine. I realized I truly do not need to have constant "anywhere" access to hundreds of gigs of my work on a regular basis, nor do I want to regularly expose an external ( or internal, for that matter) drive to the risk of droppage, theft, liquid spillage, electronic blowout, or any other kind of catastrophic loss. Besides, negatives are a far more susceptible medium, and many of great value have survived many generations given proper care.

I am anticipating that I will get some email in response to my ramblings here, so to hedge that off let me answer what some might say about managing all those images. First, someone is going to suggest that I would not have so much to backup if I shot all film. I don't think so. I do not consider myself to be a point and shoot photographer, and I don't shoot everything in site and hope to get something worth keeping. I am a search and think and imagine and shoot photographer, and I would not be pressing the shutter any less if I shot only film. So if I did, I would still be left with cataloguing at least 360 rolls of negatives per year.

Others will say, "why keep all of them?". True, maybe. I've never won a Pulitzer and probably never will, and most of those 13,000 images are quite forgettable. However, the stock photo I worked so hard to find was not a photo I worked hard for at all, nor one I even like that much. But the client liked it and was willing to pay for it, so that makes it hard to get rid of any but the very worst of what I have done.

Here's another idea someone will inevitably offer: don't shoot RAW - it's a waste of space. What humors me when I hear this is it's usually offered up by phototogs who pay close attention to detail and noise. So, here is a fun little experiment: Shoot two frames of a static scene at ISO 400, one in RAW and one in the best .jpeg your camera will deliver. Take your RAW file and export it as a .tiff, and then compare the noise in that to your .jpeg by viewing both at 100% or a little greater. Hmmmmmm. Notice anything? I predict I'll get more than a few emails about this, but there's always another commentary to write.

So after about 10 days of burning a couple of hours in the evening, I now have my files burned on DVD's, and I have a simple spreadsheet that catalogues what each contains. Those DVD's stay in a cool, dry, dark, fire resistant box, and I am betting that with only occassional use they are going to last at least until the next major breakthrough in technology allows me to archive onto a superior medium.

And to top it all off, in the process I found my last "missing" file (a 200mb .psd edit) that I had carelessly filed. This taught me that as good as I have been about saving and filing work, I need to be even better than I am about organizing my backups.

For my fellow photographers out there shooting and editing gigs of photos in the digital format, I am curious about how you go about securing your work. Let me know. I know there is always a better mousetrap.

"Photography to the amateur is recreation, to the professional it is work, and hard work too, no matter how pleasurable it may be."

~ Edward Weston ~

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" . . . The uncertainty is many predict the media we burn today will delaminate and decay into an un-readable state in 20 years or so. Sooner or later, though, you have to place your bet, and 4.7gb DVD's are where I am placing mine . . . Besides, negatives are far more susceptible medium, and many of great value have survived many generations given proper care . . ."

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