Information Superhighway
Creative Commons License photo credit: nickwheeleroz

After posting the Photo Backup: DVD and Photo Backup on DVD: Love or Hate articles, we had a lot of reader comments and discussion about this medium. I realize many of the readers don’t check on the comments section days or weeks after the article is published, so I wanted to follow up the two articles with some new thoughts and insights on DVD backups.

FOLLOW THIS SERIES OF ARTICLES!
TOC — PHOTO BACKUP GUIDE
BACK — PHOTO BACKUP ON DVD: LOVE OR HATE?
NEXT — ONLINE SERVICES

I would also encourage you to read through the comments in each of these articles. They are filled with stories on both sides of the line — users who have had nothing but problems with DVDs, and those who use them currently.

INTEGRITY OF DATA

The problem with any digital storage media is that it has a relatively short lifespan. Hard drives and DVDs alike, won’t last forever. DVDs seem to have a wide range of results when it comes to data integrity. You could potentially burn a disc and have the data be bad right from the start. Or you could burn a good copy and have the data go bad after a very short time (on the order of a year or two). You could also have discs that are 10 years old and still working fine.

The point is that you shouldn’t expect DVDs (or any other storage media) to last forever. Construction, quality, materials, formats, process, handling, storage, and temperature all have an effect on the integrity of your data. I’ll cover a few tips on ensuring good data at the end of this article.

DVD FORMAT WARS

Several people brought up some good points about the various DVD formats. I had stated that the “R” (record once) discs are best to use because they’re inexpensive and you won’t run the risk of overwriting data.

It turns out that “R” discs are less archival than other formats due to their construction. These “R” discs use an organic dye that reacts with the laser. The dye can break down over time and cause data to be lost.

The “RW” discs, on the other hand, use a metal alloy as the recording medium rather than an organic dye. The material is more robust and it gives the disc a better chance of retaining data over longer periods of time.

The “RAM” discs are also good candidates for archiving photos. Their construction is similar to the “RW” discs (metal alloy rather than a dye) and they have built-in error control and a defect management system (don’t ask me how though).

TIPS FOR DVD BACKUPS

Regardless of which format you decide to use, there are a few things you can do to increase the life expectancy of your DVD backups.

  • BUY HIGH QUALITY DISCS
    Like many things out there, you get what you pay for. Higher priced discs generally have better construction than the bargain discs. I personally use Sony discs, and I’ve never had a problem with them in over 5 years of use.
  • BURN AT LESS THAN FULL SPEED
    I don’t know if this one is myth or fact, but I’ve always burned at half of the fastest setting on the drive and/or media. I’ve heard that writing at super-speed can give you a poor burn, but I don’t know how much truth there is to this. I typically use 8X for my DVDs even though my drive and discs are capable of 16X.
  • STORE DISCS PROPERLY
    Once you burn the disc, put it away and leave it alone. Get a sleeve book or use jewel cases — you don’t want your discs sliding around and getting scratched up. Also be sure to store them in a relatively cool dry place. Heat and humidity accelerate the aging process on most materials.
  • REPLACE OLDER DISCS
    If you aren’t using archive quality discs, you might consider replacing old ones after five years (which is why it’s good to indicate the burn date on the disc). If you’re really confident or if you want to risk it, you might be able to push it out to ten years. RW and RAM discs might last a bit longer, but I’d still replace these after around ten years. Regardless, it’s a good idea to check on your older discs every few months to see if everything is still there.
  • DON’T USE AS YOUR ONLY BACKUP
    No matter what you’re using for a backup solution, only having one backup is risky. I would suggest to keep at least two backups, one of which should be off-site. I use DVDs as my secondary backup and I keep them off-site. My primary is an external hard drive that I keep in a fireproof safe on-site.

What other tips or suggestions do you have for backing up on DVD? And I promise, this is the last one on DVD backups.

11 responses


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If at all possible, label DVD’s on the very center (usually clear plastic) ring. Sure, marker makers can claim their markers are acid free and won’t harm discs, but who really knows for sure? Label discs with a number and keep a list of which images/clients are on each numbered disc.

In addition to cool, dry storage. Start collecting those Silica Gel humidity absorption packs that come packaged with everything electronic. Get some locking kitchen bags in gallon sizes and store your discs in there with a few Silica Gel packs.

Can’t agree enough with off-site storage. Ask a family member or friend you trust in another town if you can store the discs there. Don’t just give them to Aunt Rita next door, what if a flood, hurricane, tornado takes out both houses?!? Prepare for the worst so that if something does happen you’ll be prepared no matter what.

-John

November 20, 2008 11:42 pm

Awesome tips John! I agree that writing on the disc should probably be avoided. Though DVD discs have a plastic cover top and bottom (unlike some CDs), so it may not be a big deal — but who’s willing to test that one out?

November 21, 2008 12:47 am

All the advantages that you pointed out of using DVDs as backup are all good, and after reading the earlier two posts (and this one) on this topic I was starting to lean towards using DVDs. But it all changed today after I read an articleThe Digital Dark Age

November 21, 2008 6:20 am

Delkin Gold DVDs have an archival life of 100yrs. These are more expensive at about $3.00 a piece for the real keepers and other very important information it is worth the price.

The key with backup solutions is that all modes will fail. Even those you would carve in rock will eventually fail. The solution as mentioned previous here is to have multiple types that will protect you not only form the media failure, but electrical (lightning) or fire.

Niels Henriksen

November 21, 2008 9:16 am

For normal DVDs, even a 5 year “safe” period is too much. I’ve had DVDs fail on me (gladly not photo backups) just after 2. And I second John Milleker’s tip: if you have to write on the DVD (I prefer to do it on the case) use markers that were made for it and only on the central ring. Some chemicals on the normal markers are really nasty for the polymers.
In any case, with the price of external HDs going down and down, this is my preferred method. A weekly backup to an external HD and a monthly backup to an external HD to be taken off-site.

November 22, 2008 3:43 am

In fact, I made another copy to CD. Reason: A scratch on a DVD causes more data loss than on a CD based on the same scratch size. In addition, with Smugmug, I have an online backup of my photos, though not for RAW files.

November 25, 2008 2:36 am

I personally think the best rule of thumb is to write at least one copy onto dvd, but preferably two (so you don’t have to touch one) and then onto a standalone hard drive or RAID system. The more backups you make the safer you are. But with the like s of digital Railroad going under i’m still unsure about the whole online archive thing.

As to writing on your dvd’s … acid free markers specifically for writing on discs is my personal choice, disc labels can get jammed in slot drives if your not careful! Also buy the best discs you can afford as Niels said above, they’re still fairly cheap and are far superior to regular dvd’s with a much longer shelf life.

November 30, 2008 6:39 pm


Yep. It’s always a good idea to have a back up disc for your pics.

December 27, 2008 1:53 am

Yeah, backup photos on dvds. Good news is that today dvds are so cheap. You can probably buy a spindle of 50dvds (4.8gb capacity) for like 10 bucks. With that many dvds, might as well back up all your important work. If you want to save money, consider dvd rewriteables so you can overwrite old photos that you no need.

February 6, 2009 4:37 am

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