Backing Up

I’ve seen a few posts on this subject recently, as well as some distraught people thinking they’ve lost all their data, so thought I’d note down my process which I think is fairly safe in the hope it helps someone out there.

It’s a very boring subject, but hugely important. I did this to an extent before I got serious about photography and to be honest it’s not the arty photographs I’d be most gutted to lose but my family photos. There’s also a lot of other things which aren’t sentimental but would be very annoying to lose, like the music collection in my case. I couldn’t imagine being in a situation where all my data was gone. I’m approaching this as a keen amateur though, as a professional your entire career could be based on these files and a hard drive failure without backup could mean significant loss of earnings.

There’s a couple of key points to consider in any backup system. First that all hard drives will die eventually, SSD prolongs this a lot but it will still happen one day. The other is that no backup is safe without an offsite element, if your backup is an external hard drive in the same house as your computer what happens if there’s a fire or break in – both copies can go at the same time.

Data recovery can work on some failed drives or accidentally deleted files, especially if you stop using it immediately, but it can be expensive and you’ll get no guarantees of success so not something you want to be relying on.

My main system is that everything is backed up to a Synology DS213J NAS box which sits permanently on my home network with two 3TB Western Digital Red drives set in a RAID array which means they’re constantly mirroring each other. This means in case of drive failure I just swap the dead one out and keep going, it does also mean a mistake or error would immediately copy to both drives so shouldn’t be used as your only safety net. The Synology also works as a media server for all my music/video throughout the house, a surveillance system, an auto backup of phone photos and means I can access all my files and media from anywhere with an internet connection, so easier to justify the expense than just a boring backup.

My laptop has a separate drive for OS/programs and for data which helps extend expected lifespan, the entire data drive is also regularly backed up to a 1TB external which I keep in a drawer at work as my offsite element. Storage will continue getting cheaper and you can get good quality high capacity drives for very reasonable money so there’s little excuse for not having at least one backup.

All my backing up is done with a free bit of software called FreeFileSync. Before this I used SyncToy, which seemed solid but slower and I had issues with duplication when I changed drives one time so lost a bit of faith in it. The idea of both programs is to copy whatever folders you chose to a second location, you can choose the ‘source’ and ‘destination’ folders and set rules on how it keeps them synchronised.

FreeFileSync Settings
FreeFileSync Settings

This shows my synchronisation settings, mirror basically means that any changes done on the source, or left side (my laptop) will be duplicated to the destination, or right side (backup drive). The icons give explanations when you rollover, but in short anything new on left will be copied to right, anything that’s changed in any way (even if right side is newer) will be copied left to right and anything that only exists on the right will be deleted. You can change these rules individually if you want, for example so it never deletes things from the right so you have more of a safety net from accidentally deleting files.

FreeFileSync Comparison
FreeFileSync Comparison

The way this software works is that you set as many pairs of destination and source folders as you want, you can then save this as a ‘session’ which allows you to have different settings for separate drives or media types etc. which you can see in the top left of the above screenshot where I have the external drive backup, the Synology NAS backup and the media Synology NAS backup – I keep the last two separate as media takes a lot longer to run and is done less frequently.

Once you’ve set everything up you hit the Compare button and it will check through each folder pair, find any differences and give you a list of what it’s planning to do so you can double check it’s not going to delete everything before you run it. It also gives a size of all the files needing to be copied so you can estimate how long it will take.

FreeFileSync Synchronisation
FreeFileSync Synchronisation

Happy that the comparison makes sense you hit the Synchronise button and it’ll run all the tasks, you get an estimated time remaining and all the usual progress info. I like at this stage that you can tell it to shut down the computer on completion, useful when you’re running it overnight as on initial runs it can take a good few hours.

One important thing is that this isn’t constantly running in the background keeping your files backed up, you have to remember to run it regularly. I tend to run the backup to my Synology NAS after any photo editing as it then makes it easy for me to get the photos on my phone for sharing to Instagram etc. and I try to bring the external drive home at least once a month to update the offsite backup.

This still isn’t foolproof as I could lose a months worth of data if the house burnt down just before I was going to update the external offsite drive, but I’m keeping fingers crossed that’s fairly unlikely, plus the latest month’s photos of blurry trees aren’t going to be the worst loss in that situation! The solution there is a cloud based backup, but for the amount of data a photographer has this would mean monthly subscriptions which I want to avoid.

Congratulations if you made it through what was definitely my dullest blog yet, but hopefully there’s some useful information or ideas in there which you can use to start or improve your own backup.

2 Replies to “Backing Up”

  1. Great blog and good to see backing up being promoted. My only issue with RAID style systems like Synology, Drobos etc is the possibility of a rare issue. Being able to swap out a failed drive is great. The data gets written to the new drive. However, should one of the drives in the raid array fail during the rewriting process then all data is lost. The only real safe solution is to copy the first raid array to a second one. But this is expensive for a rare possibility. A cloud solution helps but is slow for a full restore that would be required. This is why I prefer single drives, manually backed up using software like the app you are using rather than raid arrays but I do understand their many benefits, such as web access etc. We all need to decide what’s best for us. The main thing is to be backed up.

    1. Hi Doug, thanks for the reply.
      Very valid points on RAID, it protects against nothing more than drive failure and shouldn’t be relied on as your only protection, but with a server box running 24/7 even with good drives that failure will happen sooner than most. To be honest the main reason I use RAID is because there’s things only on the server which aren’t critical but would be annoying to lose (films etc..) so it offers a degree of protection for those.
      In my case if the RAID goes wrong all critical data can be copied fresh from the laptop, if the laptop dies at the same time I have the external offsite drive as a fail safe so I’m using a mix of the different methods to give me the features of the server with added security.
      It’s really a matter of managing cost, convenience and safety, a pair of externals with one kept offsite and synchronised every couple of weeks is a really good solution for little money these days.

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