Am I Paranoid Enough? Photographer Frets About Protecting His Work

I am a photographer. I have been a photographer for over thirty years, and since I started using digital devices over 15 years ago I have amassed a large collection of digital imagery, both stills and video. My Lightroom catalogue runs to over 300,000 raw images, with a considerable amount of video to add to that. All in all, I’m dealing with about 6TB of data.

This large collection of bits and bytes represents years of work and it’s valuable. I earn a fair proportion of my living supplying images to books publishers, ad agencies and so on. This means two things: #1: I need to be able to find stuff easily, and, most importantly, #2: my stuff needs to be diligently guarded against any sort of data loss.

So, to quote David Foster Wallace, “Yes, I’m paranoid, but am I paranoid enough?”

Let’s call it “concern” or “professionalism,” paranoia does sound a bit too harsh don’t you think? But you get the picture; I need to make sure that my business would survive in the event of some sort of disaster and that means taking particular care of #2 above – Serious Data Protection (SDP).

I know of other photographers who don’t take this as seriously as they should, they see it as an added expense that they can do without and proceed to store their image collections on a single external drive, or, worse, the computer’s internal system drive. I see a robust data storage system as an essential component of a photography business, or even hobby. It might not be as sexy as buying a new lens but investing in a well thought out, genuinely secure storage system might will be the best money you ever spent.

To be as safe as possible I follow my Three Commandments of data storage:

SDP Commandment the First: Thou Shalt always have more than one copy of everything. Not for a single moment, once the images are copied from the camera cards, should there be less than two copies stored somewhere.

SDP Commandment the Second: Thou Shalt store a third copy offsite. Two copies in your office is totally fine – until your studio burns down.

SDP Commandment the Third: Thou Shalt use more than one media type. Future proof yourself, as much as is possible anyway, by using both hard drives and optical disks (Blu-Ray disks in my case).

Much of my work is done in the field; I shoot a lot of location work, travel and documentary mostly. Once I have finished a shoot the images will have been copied off my card cards onto two portable external hard drives (Lightroom can copy files to two places at once) so there are two copies of my images as soon as possible – satisfying my First Commandment. I sometimes even leave images on the SD cards if I have enough capacity for the entire shoot.

I do some basic metadata editing in the field (my memory for places is fresh at that point) and then I make sure this metadata is written back to the original files. My Leica cameras shoot DNG files natively so I can take advantage of the DNG format to safely embed the metadata into each file – Lightroom takes care of this for me.

It sounds like a chore I know (and it is) but, if you keep on top of it and try to complete each days basic editing each evening, it will take a surprisingly short time. The problems start when you let things slip and the backlog of metadata editing becomes progressively more onerous.

Once back in the office I simply “Import” these images into my Master Catalog just like I would do from memory cards. Any editing I have done in the field shows up automatically and it’s a simple familiar process, no need to overthink it.

Now, to satisfy my paranoid, sorry, concern about data safety, I mirror this entire drive to an array of four IronWolf Pro 10TB hard drivesOne of the keys to the First Commandment, as applied to my main hard drive in the office, is using a fast reliable hard disk storage system of some kind. Therein lies a slight dilemma – fast or safe? No single hard drive can be both at the same time. I use two different hard drive set ups so I can access files quickly from one with the copies being stored on a second more secure, but slower, hard drive.

To be more specific I have nice big fast hard drive connected directly to my iMac with USB 3 or Thunderbolt. This is where my image collection lives and my Lightroom catalog works with these images directly.

Now, to satisfy my paranoid, sorry, concern about data safety, I mirror this entire drive to an array of four IronWolf Pro 10TB hard drives mounted in a NAS box. Overkill? I think not when you consider that the security of my images is paramount.

The array is set up in a RAID5 configuration, something only available in the mid to high end range of NAS boxes (mine is a Synology DS1517+). What this means is that the data is distributed across all four drives but in a way that uses one drive’s capacity to error check as it operates. Four 10TB drives gives me space for about 40TB of data. If one drive fails it can be swapped out without turning off the unit, known as hot-swapping. There is enough capacity to store a copy of all my image files and, on different internal volumes, I can store Time Machine system backups of each of the three Macs in my office.

As an aside, RAID5 also gives you good performance – it’s a network drive so speed is limited by standard 1GbE networks but I get about 110MB/s which is close to as fast as such a network is capable of.

IronWolf Pro NAS hard driveHere’s the coolest part though. The new IronWolf Pro drives from Seagate include their Rescue data recovery plans. Say for example my studio experiences natural disasters like fire or flood, any mechanical or accidental damage to my NAS and even damage from power surges. It will have a very disruptive effect on my work. Through Seagate’s Rescue data recovery plans, their technicians will grab the damaged drive, examine it in their labs and professionally extract the data. With a successful retrieval, they then save data to a new IronWolf Pro of the same size which they send back to you.

If you have ever looked into hardware data recovery you might have found out that it’s seriously expensive, so to include it with each drive for the first two years says to me the Seagate are so confident in the reliability of their drives that they can offer this service as part of the purchase price of the unit.

Considered all together, this moderates my concern. I am following my three Serious Data Commandments, I am using the most reliable hard drives I can afford and as a further safeguard I have a two year data recovery warranty for my images.

That’s about as safe as you can get.

Nick Rains’s newest book Aerial Australia is in shops now. His photos appear in: Australian Geographic, RM Williams Outback Magazine, Hardie Grant Books, Better Photography Magazine, Australian Photography Magazine, Pat Callinan’s 4×4 Magazine, Artique Calendars, and many other books and publications.




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