Photo Backup: When Disaster Strikes

Creative Commons License photo credit: rust.bucket

Nobody plans on having a catastrophic disaster. These things happen sometimes, and they can cause a huge loss of personal items including your photo archives. Sometimes you can avert disaster, while other times you just have to be prepared for the worst. As we slip into this series of articles, here are some things to think about when planning for the unexpected.



Hard Drive
Creative Commons License photo credit: Gil De Los Santos

This one should be the most obvious. We keep our photos on a hard drive so we can access them and work on them. Hard drives spin around in circles and have a little arm that moves to read the data. Mechanical device equals potential for failure. Not only that, but most of us have encountered a hard drive failure or some other issue at some point in time. Older hard drives are at higher risk, but that’s not to say that your brand new disk can’t crap out in an instant.


Keep your work backed up! That’s what this series of articles is all about. You need to have duplicates of your photos in the event that your main working hard drive fails. It’s also recommended that you update your hardware every couple of years. Don’t get a new computer and just keep using the same old hard drive to save $100.


Creative Commons License photo credit: twenty_questions

Computer viruses are more common than real viruses. These things can do all sorts of bad stuff to your computer and your files if you’re not careful. Get the wrong bug and you could lose all of your files in one fell swoop. Are you connected to the Internet? Yeah, you are. Enough said.


Again, keep your work backed up! But in addition to that, you need to keep your computer healthy and bug-free. Use an anti-virus software to protect yourself from all the bad stuff out there. Don’t want to spend the money on the software? Check out the Google Pack and get a free virus scan software. Don’t be dumb, just do it.


Creative Commons License photo credit: mxlanderos

We’re all human — just admit it. And thus, we’re all prone to accidents. Transferring files to a new hard drive, setting user permissions, attempting backups, hardware upgrades, spilled drinks, etc, are all feasible way to lose vast amounts of digital information stored on your computer. Plus, if you’re like me and you have multiple users on the same computer (wife, kids, guests, etc.), you run the risk of other people screwing up your photos.


Not to sound redundant, but keep your work backed up! Aside from that, be aware of the risks you’re taking when transferring large amounts of digital information or upgrading hardware. Always COPY & PASTE rather than CUT & PASTE if you’re moving everything to a new hard drive. If you have multiple users, you might even consider blocking their access from your valuable photos — set their permissions to read-only. There’s nothing worse than a 5-yr-old deleting most of your photos — you can’t even get mad at them!


Finding Earth
Creative Commons License photo credit: Leorex

Computers are finicky little things when it comes to power requirements. One minute you’re working away on your computer during a thunderstorm, the next minute you’re computer gets totally zapped by lightning. But electrical storms aren’t the only things that can cause power surges — I guarantee that an issue at your local power plant won’t be a scheduled event.


Yeah, duh… keep your work backed up. But you should also be powering your computer via a surge protector. These handy little contraptions prevent power surges and power outages from killing your computer and every photo sacred to you. Don’t skimp on this one, go for the surge protector with battery backup so you have time to save your stuff and shut ‘er down in the event that you lose electricity. It’s also wise to just stay off the computer during big electrical storms… watch a movie instead.


Santiago Wildfire
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kevin Labianco

Nobody plans on their house being burned down or a tornado ripping it from the foundation, but these things happen… and often without much warning. Natural disasters can be devastating, and their effect on your photo archive is no exception. It’s a scary thing to hear that you must evacuate your home, but it’s even scarier to realize that you can’t take much of your life with you.


Backups can be destroyed too, so a good backup strategy is key. If you find yourself face-to-face with a natural disaster, you may or may not have the opportunity to grab your photos. In the event that you don’t, offsite backups may be your only saviour.


steal in a wheel
Creative Commons License photo credit: volvidejapon

Being robbed sucks. I’ve had things stolen from me, but I’m lucky that my photos haven’t been the target. If your home is robbed, computers are often whisked away because they contain so many pricey little parts boxed up into a handy little package. What really sucks is that this is the kind of thing that happens with absolutely no warning.


Um… backups. But being smart about your backups is also important. Offsite backups are a good way to thwart robbers from leaving you high-and-dry. A safe is also a good option — as long as it’s bolted to the floor. Other than that, keep your doors locked!

8 thoughts on “Photo Backup: When Disaster Strikes

  1. Pingback: Photo Backup: It’ll Cost You

  2. Lisa

    I’m going to have nightmares tonight, I just know it. Thanks, Brian. :p

    Seriously though, always a good reminder. I think we mentioned it on the blog before about how there was a fire near our building. The first thing I yelled out was for Jeff to dismantle his hard drive. Not an easy task in an emergency, that one. Sometimes I feel like I’m a paranoid nut with all the backing up now (it gets more complicated every month, we keep adding backups to backups), but hey, you never really know. It’s cliche but better safe than sorry.

  3. Spencer

    Backups… I had a micro disaster strike just last night. I was preparing a photo for publication. I use Aperture as my photo library / darkroom program, and I use Gimp for detail editing. I decided I needed to edit the photo in Gimp to get the look I wanted. When you edit with an external application, Aperture makes a new version of the photo for Gimp to work on. It did that. But then, for a technical reason, Gimp wouldn’t start. I fixed the problem, and asked Aperture to edit the photo in Gimp again. For some reason, it made yet another copy. (I think this is because I had both the original and the new version selected, so I was really asking to edit both.) Now I had my “original” and two copies.

    I really didn’t need 3 versions, so I decided to delete one of them. Except… I really still had all 3 images selected when I chose to delete. And right after I hit the “Yes I really want to do this” (OK) button, I realized what I had done. All 3, including my original, were gone. Aperture had asked me twice whether I really wanted to do that, and I had said “yes” both times. And they were really gone. I thought maybe they were in the trash, but no. Gone!

    All was not totally lost. I couldn’t get my original back right away, because my backup disk was at work, and I was at home. The two editing copies were still open in Gimp, so I could save them back to the hard drive, finish my editing, and publish the photo.

    When I got to work this morning, I fired up “Time Machine” (Apple’s absolutely awesome backup program), navigated to the original, and restored it. Disaster averted.

    Aside: Time Machine is a well-designed backup system. It’s painless to use — it backs up automatically, several times a day, keeping “hourly backups for 24 hours, daily backups for a month, weekly backups until the backup disk is full.” Restoring is also easy. You get a stack of “finder” windows, one for each available backup. You can easily move back and forth in time, and navigate through the folders of your hard drive to find the file or folder you want to restore. Then you just click “restore” and it is brought back to your hard drive.

    For off-site backup, I use MozyBackup. It is an online backup that, again, works behind the scenes, and automatically to keep an encrypted copy of selected folders on my hard drive. You can backup 2GB for free — I elected to pay about $60/computer/year for unlimited storage. The backups are accessible from anywhere on the internet, or through a client running on the computer being backed up. Between the Time Machine immediate backup, and Mozy, I have very few worries about losing my photos.

  4. Raymond

    I worked many years in PC support and the #1 reason for data loss I observed was user-error. e.g. someone just hit the delete key by accident.

    That’s why backups need to be organised to protect against this form of error just as much as the burn-house-down type of disaster. Sure those are much worse, but you may (hopefully will) go your whole life without one. But a deleted file by accident — they happen all the time.

    Hence it is absolutely vital that your backups go back far enough in time — either via a system like TimeMachine that Spencer mentions — or simply by keeping old generations of your media.

    The worse thing is to find out that you deleted a file by accident yesterday, and an overnight backup routine has already removed it from your “backup”! To avoid this I have multiple backups that rotate so I can go back a day, a week, a month and so on. And occasionally I take out a “year end” disk that is kept forever.

  5. Ken

    Re: uniterruptible power supply

    Our house has lightning protection – ten lightning rods at various points on the roof, a professionally designed and installed system, designed by an MIT PhD electrical engineer. He did the lightning protection on the Capitol, and on the Washington Monument when it was being renovated.

    Anyway, the house took a huge, direct lightning hit on June 10. The lightning protection did exactly what it was supposed to do – prevent physical damage to the house. However, the massive discharge still induced enough current in the various conductors in the house to cause $4,000 in damage to electronic equipment, including the main computer in the house, despite being on a UPS.

    In fact, the UPS probably did prevent the computer being damaged by a power surge on the power cable, but that’s not what killed it – what killed it was overvoltage coming in through the Ethernet cable, which we did not have protected.

    Moral of the story is – either make sure you have surge protection on your network cables as well, or do as I did with the Mac Pro that replaced the old machine – use wireless networking only!

  6. Cody Redmon

    Very timely post, Brian. I just lost (to a mechanical failure) a 500GB backup drive with over 75,000 images on it. Luckily for me it was just that…a back up. Bottom line on this is that if people don’t heed your advice, well, best of luck to them on not being devastated if something were to go wrong…

  7. Chris

    A great reminder that we all too often forgot to backup what we might consider some of our most valuable possessions. Last week I had a computer scare and realized I had never backed up thousands of photographs from recent trips to Greece, China, Mexico, and Colombia. After I fixed the issue and thankfully nothing was lost, I picked up a 250GB Western Digital Passport external hard drive, for just over a hundred bucks. Given the low cost of security – everyone should do this.

  8. Pingback: How Big is Your Photo Collection?

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