Backup Strategies for the Wedding Photographer

Here are some exciting news. I have been invited to contribute an article for an upcoming digital wedding photography book. As some of you may know and I am half computer geek and half wedding photographer 🙂

Here is the article that I wrote with a brief introduction and a few edits from the editor:

Juan Carlos Torres
is a digital wedding photographer living in Corvallis, Oregon. He works part time as a systems administrator and part time on his wedding photography business. He and his wife Sandra currently shoot 30-40 weddings per year. Like Juan Carlos, many of the finest digital photographers come from a long background of working with computers. While it may be true that our stereotypical ideas of computer geeks and artists are so different that it hardly seems possible they could be contained in one person, in the digital photography business, the two are not only compatible, they actually create a wildly successful combination. Mix in a little business experience and you?ve got a top level photography business. The following advice comes from one of the few people with this rare combination of skills.

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Digital wedding photography presents special challenges for the wedding photographer. The risk of losing the precious wedding moments of a couple brings nightmares and anxiety to most photographers. As a professional wedding photographer and a certified computer systems administrator I will offer some recommendations about the best way to protect digital wedding images.

Format your cards
Start by formatting the flash cards and/or micro drives in the camera that you will use to take the photos. Even when it is possible to format the flash cards in your computer using a flash card reader it can lead to compatibility issues and data loss. Although flash cards are very resistant to abuse it is always better to play it safe by keeping them away from shock, heat, and magnetic sources. Once you return from the wedding, download the images to your computer and create backups to CD and/or DVD. In our studio we create two DVD copies of the files and we also copy them to two different hard drives on different computers. One of the DVD copies is stored at a different location to protect against fire and theft.

RAID Systems
RAID stands for ?Redundant Array of Independent Disks.? The term ?redundant array? means that there are several hard disks that basically function as if they were one, and each of them contains the exact same information as the others. When you use your computer, all you will see is one hard drive for a RAID system. The fact that there are multiple disks containing exactly the same data offers a great deal of fault protection. If, (or when) one drive dies, the data is still there on the other drives. There are several levels of RAID and each of them offers different levels of data protection. I am going to discuss the most common types of RAID systems that will be of benefit to wedding photographers who wish to create a failure proof bakup system.
Level 1 RAID: Mirroring and Duplexing: requires two drives and the data is written (mirror) on the two drives simultaneously. If one of the drives fails the data can be recovered from the good drive.
Level 5 RAID: Block Interleaved Distributed Parity. This is one of the most common and solid implementations of RAID. It requires a minimum of 3 drives and allows the data to be written across all of the drives simultaneously. If one drive fails you simply replace the failed drive and the RAID is automatically rebuilt.
Most operating systems allow you to build some form of RAID however, this is not recomended because if the operating system fails, you also lose the RAID setup, which makes it much more difficult to recover the information. The recommended method of creating a RAID system is to purchase a RAID controller card. You simply plug the controller card in to one of the empty slots inside your computer using no more tools than a screwdriver. Then you plug in the cables from the new controller card to the hard drives. The RAID controller card comes with software that will walk you through a very simple setup process the next time you start your computer. Simply follow the directions and it will set up your system in the RAID style of your choice.

Tape Bakup
Tape backup offers a very solid way of backing up your files and operating system. It has been around for a long time and has proved to be the most reliable form of backup. Tapes are very portable and make the storage at outside locations very convenient. Tape backups require a backup program what makes scheduling backups and automating the process easy.

Offsite FTP Backups
FTP stands for File Transfer Protocall and it is basically a way of sending data from one computer, over the Internet, to another computer. This sort of a system can also be set up to be automated using various computer programs. At a set time interval, or continuously, the computer that holds the original data connects through the Internet to a another computer and uploads the files. The main disadvantage is that this creates a lot of Internet traffic and in the case of wedding photographers that store gigabytes of images, the transfer time can become prohibitive.

Make a drive image
Drive mirroring basically means that you can use a program such as Norton Ghost, Acronis or Drive Image to make an exact copy or ?mirror image? of all of the contents of your hard drive. The process can be done manually or automated. The data image can be done on DVD, CD, to another hard drive or across the network to another computer. Some programs allow incremental backups where initially you create a full backup and after that only the files that have been changed since the last backup, are backed up. One of the advantages of drive mirroring is that it allows the backup of the operating system files along with the data. In the case of a computer crash you can replace the failed drive run a disaster recovery CD or floppy and restore your computer to a working state in a matter of minutes.

File synchronization
File synchronization programs have been around for a long time. They allow you to have a real time copy of the data in two places simultaneously. The idea is that if you change a file on the master computer, the corresponding file on the remote computer also changes. This keep the two sets updated so that they are always identical. The synchronization can be set to happen at a specific time or in real time.

External hard drives
With the price of hard drives dropping every day, they present a great alternative for backups. Units equipped with USB or Firewire ports are the most recommended because they are portable enough to be taken offsite. You can either buy ready to use units or you can buy an enclosure that holds several drives and populate it with hard drives yourself. Some of the ready to use units come with basic backup programs that allow one touch backup of specified directories or complete hard drives.

Drive Trays
Computers can be easily equipped with internal hard drive trays that allow for the easy removal of hard drives which can then be stored away from the computer for safety. The advantage over portable USB or Firewire is that internal hard drives use a faster connection to the computer.

Backup to disk
With the drop in hard drive prices, backing up to disk has become commonplace as a replacement to tape backups. A server or an external drive unit attached to the computer is set up with several disks and the backup software is scheduled to backup the files to a different disk every day of the week. The advange here is that there is no tape library to manage and the process can be totally automated. In addition the process is much faster than with tape.

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As you can see there are many options for file backups with different levels of reliability, automation and price. Ideally, the wedding photographer will use a combination of the above backup strategies. Relying on a single strategy can be fatal to your wedding files, your business and professional reputation.

Scheduling frequent backups is a must. With the data volume that the typical wedding photographer deals in these days, a couple of days without backups can create a big liability in the event of a disaster.

Keeping a backup copy at a remote location is also a must to protect against fire and theft. It doesn’t matter how many copies of your data you have, if all of them reside at the same location they are potentially exposed to the same level of risk.

Some photographers have found that for weddings more than a couple of years old it is wise to give a copy of all the files to the client. Of course this makes the client happy and the photographer gets an extra backup. It is also recommended that you take the utmost precautions at your place of business including an alarm system and that you physically secure your computers with antitheft cables and that you keep all the backup media in a safe.

A surge protector is also a good idea to protect your computer equipment and the data from surges in electrical power. Electrical surges can damage computer equipment by burning its wires or gradually over time wearing down the device?s internal components and even wipe out any saved data.

In addition to the above strategies the wedding photographer must have liability and disaster recovery insurance. To some the above guidelines may seem paranoid. However, wedding day memories are too precious to be lost and if you ask any bride, I?m sure they will all appreciate a little paranoia in this particular area.

Portland Oregon Wedding Photographer

Juan Carlos
Thank you for this article. I am in the middle of a corrupt hard drive fiasco?thought I was being smart in backing everything up only to find that some of my disks are not readable.

I learned a lot from this article and plan to revise my policy.

I appreciate you sharing your wisdom.


  • 12/6/2005 - 1:58 pm

    Alex Schoenfeldt - I’ve been banging my head against these backup issues for months. I create 1 to 6 GB a weekend with weddings, and it just gets so expensive. I have a 120 BG internal drive on my computer that I use to hold the most recent work, and this gets copied onto two external 250 BG hard drives. As needed I burn DVD’s of the weddings on the internal drive and send them offsite, so I always have three copies. Have you figured out any way to keep this regime less expensive. Yes, the external hard drives are cheaper and cheaper, but $200 here and $200 there and after a while you are talking real money!

  • 1/12/2006 - 2:34 am

    Todd Finlo - Thank you for this article. I am in the middle of a corupt hard drive fiasco…thought I was being smart in backing everything up only to find that some of my disks are not readable.

    I learned a lot from this article and plan to revise my policy.

    I appreciate you sharing your wisdom.


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