Save the Pixels!

My wall of steel filing cabinets. These contain thousands of hanging pages holding hundreds of thousands of negatives and chromes. The temperature is held at a constant 60*F by central A/C backed up by a room air conditioner. Both are in turn backed up by a gasoline powered generator in case of a power outage; always a possibility in Florida.
My wall of steel filing cabinets. These contain thousands of hanging pages holding hundreds of thousands of negatives and chromes. The temperature is held at a constant 60*F by central A/C backed up by a room air conditioner. Both are in turn backed up by a gasoline powered generator in case of a power outage; always a possibility in Florida.

Story and photos © Jerry Ginsberg

Once Upon a Time 

As the years roll by, there is an ever diminishing percentage of photographers who spent their early years shooting and archiving film. At the risk of sounding like my pre-TV era father, back in the good old days before the advent of digital photography, we simply stored our film originals, both negatives and chromes, in an assortment of paper and plastic boxes, pages, etc. Absent the house burning down, there was little, if any, concern over losing our precious images.

In the Here and Now

Well, things have changed. With a digital archive, in the event of a catastrophic storage device failure, we daily endure the potential evaporation of our irreplaceable images. Poof! A gazillion precious pixels – gone with the wind!

How to protect our files from such a loss? The easy answer is to simply make multiple copies. Actually, not a terrible idea. But we can do better.

As the megapixel wars continue, individual files get larger and larger and our archives grow exponentially. Fortunately, storage capacity has become progressively less and less expensive. Where not so long ago, we spoke in terms of megabytes and then even gigabytes, today we blithely toss off measurements in terabytes. Next, it will inevitably be on to quadrillion-bytes. (OK – actually petabytes. Not to be confused with PETA or pita.)

But that’s not the whole picture.

In order to most efficiently safeguard our archive we need a logical and efficient strategy; one that is based upon the dual concepts of redundancy and location diversity.

To augment my own layman designed storage architecture, I have consulted a very sophisticated senior IT professional who is also a serious Nature photographer. What follows is a summary of his very thoughtful advice and the system of digital media preservation that he has developed, tested and refined over time.

If the measures described sound a little extreme, it is only because he understands only too well just how vulnerable to failure many of these devices really are.

The full menu of the suggestions offered may not be employed by everyone, but sticking as closely as possible to the outline does offer the greatest likelihood of escaping a major loss of files.

RAID Server: Network attached storage (NAS) boxes can be accessed by multiple computers on a LAN.    Most can be configured to plural levels of RAID functionality. They provide robust security,   but are neither small, nor inexpensive. Even these should be stored in different locations.
RAID Server: Network attached storage (NAS) boxes can be accessed by multiple computers on a LAN. Most can be configured to plural levels of RAID functionality. They provide robust security, but are neither small, nor inexpensive. Even these should be stored in different locations.

Backing up at Home

Always observing the twin mantras of redundancy and location diversity are the guiding lights  of a robust strategy.

One method recommended is roughly this: In addition to the drive/s in and backing up your primary computer – the one on which you edit and process your images, – keep at least two other devices holding your complete archive. The external hard drives cited are 12 TB, but that is a matter of scale. Don’t go too small or you will find yourself replacing and/or adding devices too often. Even with drives of adequate capacity you will need to replace them every few years as the spinning hard disks approach the ends of their useful lives. That may well change as Solid State Drives (SSD) eclipse traditional spinning platters, but for right now, the cost of a 12 TB SSD, if one existed, might exceed that of a new Rolls Royce.

Make it a practice to update these drives as your archive grows. Weekly or perhaps bi-weekly may be reasonable intervals depending upon the volume of your particular shooting activity and processing / editing workflow. For folks such as wedding photographers, that would mean after each event. For people making just a couple of dedicated photo trips per year, it might mean after each trip, whenever they take place.

Now, here’s the key priority….. Don’t keep these two drives together!

Continually update, rotate and store them in distinctly separate locations such as home and office or safe deposit box. For the ultimate in protection and if you really want to go that extra mile, consider using a fire retardant and waterproof safe.

Standard size external hard drive holding a 3.5” disk. These are widely available from many manufacturers in sizes from 1 to 12 Terabytes.
Standard size external hard drive holding a 3.5” disk. These are widely available from many manufacturers in sizes from 1 to 12 Terabytes.

Living as I do in the hurricane alley of South Florida, I have gone so far as to contact the manufacturer of the vault in my bank in an effort to receive their assurances that their very formidable structure is built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

To synchronize drives some folks recommend software packages from Time Machine or Syncovery. Being a bit more primitive, I simply copy and paste folders with the computer’s native OS.

Other possible methods of archiving include:

  • A RAID array in which drives are mirrored with 1:1 redundancy. These sophisticated network attached devices are larger and more costly than simple external drives. They offer the advantage of immediate replacement of a failed disk with no loss of data, but beg the question of location diversity. Having multiple servers configured for RAID 1 and finding space for them around town is not an easy task especially with bank safe deposit boxes measuring no larger than 10×10”, far too small for my servers.
  • Storing images in the fabled and very trendy cloud. While this can be a reasonable method which implicitly provides both redundancy and location safety, its drawbacks are the present cost of storing such a sizable quantity of data and the part that I find the most scary – ceding control of my images to someone else. My personal belief is that in today’s world, the cloud itself is very vulnerable to being severely compromised. I intend to avoid that particular risk.
Small and light, USB flash drives have now grown to 512 GB capacity. Easy to carry, use and mail. Small padded cases can hold at least six units for added safety.
Small and light, USB flash drives have now grown to 512 GB capacity. Easy to carry, use and mail. Small padded cases can hold at least six units for added safety.

On the Road

While our gear configurations and workflows certainly differ, making multiple copies of your images and safeguarding them while traveling is no less critical. Viewed strategically, the goal is somewhat different, however. While at home our purpose is to provide the security of a permanent archive, when traveling what we seek to accomplish is primarily to get all of our images home in good and safe order.

For this purpose some folks copy their cards to USB flash drives, while several pros I know use LaCie Rugged compact hard drives; the ones with those bright little orange rubber bumpers wrapped around their edges. Although they give the product a distinctive look, I have to wonder just how much actual shock protection they give the potentially fragile mechanism inside.

LaCie Rugged drives feature a distinctive protective rubber bumper. Several other brands offer these tiny units with capacities up to at least 5 Terabytes. Their small 2.5” diameter disks may have less longevity than their larger cousins.
LaCie Rugged drives feature a distinctive protective rubber bumper. Several other brands offer these tiny units with capacities up to at least 5 Terabytes. Their small 2.5” diameter disks may have less longevity than their larger cousins.

Like most things in life, there’s a yin and a yang to even this choice. In the case of the USB drives, we have small size, convenience and great reliability, but not big capacity. The latter may itself not be the worst thing. (Now at 512 GB, they’re getting bigger.) With their light weight, these flash drives are also an excellent choice to mail home at the end of a photo trip. If you are thorough and disciplined enough to create multiple copies of each folder of images on redundant flash drives and then mail* them to yourself from different locations, thus ensuring all-encompassing location diversity, there is little, if any, chance of arriving home without a complete set of images made on your trip. Such a process has the likelihood of circumventing problems with airport security, customs and even airline … Well, we won’t go there.

Using compact hard drives, whether of the so-called Rugged – or perhaps the not so rugged – variety, offers greater capacity with these little gems running up to 5 TB and offering lots of convenience, but less ease of mailing home due to their relatively larger size. These drives are convenient, but with hard disks just 2.5” in diameter, may offer less reliability and shorter life spans than the more traditional 3.5” disks.

Always bear in mind that traveling the country and the world carrying all copies of your images in one place inescapably carries with it the inherent risk of losing the whole enchilada under the worst of circumstances.

I have become accustomed to using both USB drives and compact hard drives at various times, largely depending upon the length of a given trip and hence, my capacity requirements. Whereas the USB flash drives have become quite economical at about $35.00 for a 256 GB unit, the compact hard drives can be had on sale for as little as $19.00 per TB!

I always keep these in after-market padded cases for a little extra impact protection.

Storage then and now.  File cabinets gave way to auxiliary portable hard drives.
Storage then and now.

Whether at home or when traveling, it’s always important to verify that all of the files on your cards are actually copied to your computer and various external devices. For this purpose, such programs as Total Commander can be helpful. As an alternative, a simple headcount of the files on your cards can be compared with those copied to the folder/s on your computer, before duplicating to the external devices of your choice, does provide a reasonable degree of assurance.

Digital photography has come a very long way since its ground-breaking introduction just a brief twenty years ago. We can certainly achieve results never before possible and now in most cases, superior to some of the finest film work of yesteryear. But with all of this progress come the several complications and drawbacks outlined above. Apparently, there is still no free lunch.

As for me, I can be found watching my favorite John Ford westerns – in nostalgic black & white.

All shot on good old film. Yes, I know: The badly needed restorations of classic films were all done with exquisite skill digitally.

Jerry Ginsberg is a multi-award winning photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras, has been awarded Artistic Residencies in several National Parks and has appeared on ABC TV advising on the National Parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America as well as UNESCO World Heritage many other fascinating sites around the world. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com, or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com