See also Backups in the Field
Hard drives are mechanical. Eventually they all die.
Companies like Drive Savers will cheerfully charge you thousands of dollars to attempt recovery of what you should have backed up yourself. They do good work, as shown by all the accolades from movie stars who don't know any better. Having to use DriveSavers is like having to call AAA when you run out of gas. I wouldn't want to be on Drive Savers' accolade page any more than I'd want to be on the news for running out of gas stuck on a railroad crossing. If you backup yor work you'll never need Drive Savers.
I live in San Diego where the wildfires of October 2003 came within two miles of my home. Thankfully my files were sitting safely on FireWire hard drives in another county. Others weren't so lucky, even if they had backups at home. The fires burned so hot that they melted things that usually survive. Even Drive Savers can't rescue a completely melted hard drive.
You must keep your backups far enough away from your computer that any major calamity won't strike both locations.
No one expects a wildfire to start in the mountains, travel 50 miles, jump the 10-lane I-15 freeway and come right to your home. This happened while I was up working in Hollywood, two hours away. It's critical to have regular backups so your data is already safe when a tsunami, tornado, fire, sink hole, flood, hurricane or just plain stupidity happens.
The good people of New Orleans had plenty of warning about Hurricane Katrina, but it hit much harder than anyone expected. Nature doesn't share it's calendar with us. Even if you are home you won't have the time to start backing up when the firemen are evacuating your neighborhood. Backing up all this data usually takes a couple of hours, so I start the backup and go to bed.
Hard drive failures usually happen instantly to me. I always work under the presumption that at any instant I could lose everything on which I'm working unless it's copied someplace else. For instance, I won't erase a memory card after I load it into my Mac until I've copied it to a CD or another external hard drive.
I'm fanatical about backups. I've put over 8 years of my life into this website and it's just a bunch of files. Ditto for digital photos. If your photos aren't backed up somewhere else you'll eventually lose them all. Unfortunately, with the general public just starting digital these past few years, people are just starting to learn how they can lose three years of irreplaceable baby and childhood pictures when a hard drive finally dies.
I was lucky in the fires, but even if I wasn't my files would have been safe. This is a huge advantage to digital over film. My film, except for the good stuff in my safe deposit box, would have been toast.
Some paranoids like me also keep scans of our best film images along with our data.
My backups are exact duplicates of my drive. In case of problem I swap them and all my applications, data, settings, accounts etc. are exactly where I left them. I couldn't care less about losing the original drive.
Backup Drives are Expendable
Here's the good news: once you have your backups in place it doesn't matter if any of them, or even the original, are damaged or stolen. So long as you don't lose them all the same time you can always copy from one to the other.
Feel free to use crappy drives for backup. So what if it dies? Throw it away and replace it. There's no problem so long as they don't all die at the same time.
Likewise, so what if someone steals your backup drive at your office or out of your car? Your data is still safe at home. You might lose an old hard drive, but not your data.
Do Your Boss a Favor
Keep a backup of all your office and work data at home. When your office computer dies you'll be up working as soon as you can get your backups from home, while everyone else is crying over all the projects and work they lost.
Few companies have a decent backup plan that really works, even if they pay good money for it. I worked for a multi-billion dollar corporation that was smart enough to keep daily remote internet backups of all our laptop drives. When I had a dead drive the most recent back up only had data at least several days old. They had no explanation. Of course a few-day-old backup means it missed most of what I had been doing that week.
My personal daily backup saved us. Ha ha!
Some companies are afraid to make perfectly legitimate complete backup copies. Why? Because the computer department guys misunderstand copyrights and have nothing to gain personally by backing up your programs as well as your data, but fear that they personally might get in trouble for making backups of software programs. Because of this, many corporate backups are pretty useless. I backup everything, including all my programs, so in case of failure I'm back up immediately, saving me from having to re-install applications and settings and passwords and etc. that would take me a week.
When recovering data be very careful not to leave both the backups and the computer to which you copy them unattended in the same place. Your data is very vulnerable if you have everything in one place while restoring.
HOW - TO
I make an exact copy of my computer's hard drive every week. I copy it to a portable hard drive like the one I got here. I can run directly from my exact copy as if it was my original computer exactly as I left it. There's no need to piddle with backup software to get going again since the copy is exactly what you already had.
I use two external drives. I use a different one each week.
After I make my copy I carry the backup to a remote location. I pick up the previous week's backup and bring it back for my next backup.
This way I have my most recent backup someplace else, and the older backup drive ready for my next backup.
If you work in an office a few miles or more from home it's perfect to alternate between these, especially since you're already commuting. You also could use a friend's home or just about anyplace, so long as it's far enough away that any major calamity, like Hurricane Katrina, can't wipe out both locations. If our local nuclear plant blows it will render all of the western USA uninhabitable for the next 1,000 years, so I have my files stored in the Eastern USA, too.
You also must have two separate backup drives in case both the backup and original are destroyed by your own stupidity or other calamity in the process of making a backup. I've never done this, but it's probably easy to click a wrong button and backup the 2-week-old version onto your current drive! Back in Windows days I actually had both drives corrupt themselves in the process of copying them! Thankfully my previous week's backup drive was safe and sound.
I use Super Duper! to create an exact bootable clone copy of my drive. In Super Duper that means choose "Backup - all files." In Windows I used to use Norton Ghost. Either one copies everything bit-for-bit, so if your drive dies you just pop in the backup, or copy it to a new replacement. The backup is just like any other disc so you can copy individual files or folders in case of personal stupidity. I use this when I accidentally delete or otherwise screw up a file.
I got my 500GB FireWire drives here. They require an AC adaptor and power cord. I also use smaller capacity drives like these LaCie which run off the computer's own power through the data cable. The tiny drives are easier to use and also will run on anyone else's computer without having to find the AC adaptor, but more expensive per bit and have less capacity than the larger drives.
Personally I prefer Firewire. On Windows computers you may have to settle for USB 2.0. USB 2.0 has the same burst rate promoted in the ads as Firewire, but it can't maintain those data rates continuously as Firewire does. If all you have is USB 2.0 don't worry, you'll be fine. Every Mac for the past 5 years has had Firewire. Avoid the old USB 1.1 since it's very slow. Just get drives that work with whatever connections your computer has. It's easy to add Firewire or USB 2.0 to desktop Windows computers with a $20 card like this here. I got one of those for my wife's PC and it works fine.
S.M.A.R.T. Hard Drive Monitoring
Modern hard drives have a system called S.M.A.R.T. which automatically monitors its health. On Mac you can see this in Disc Utilities at the bottom. It's either Verified (black) or bad (red).
This is great, except that modern computers still aren't smart enough to warn you automatically when S.M.A.R.T. goes bad. You have to check it manually. This is stupid!
When my hard drive was dying I didn't realize that I had been backing up corrupt data for the previous few weeks. If I was smart enough to have been checking S.M.A.R.T. I probably would have known.
The way around this is a freeware program called SMARTReporter which checks the status every hour or so and puts a green icon on my menu bar. If it starts to fail that icon turns red and warns me, as I would have preferred in the first place.
That's why I do this site: so you can learn by my mistakes! Laugh all you want, but all my data was fine. It was other application files which went screwy, so I just reinstalled them on my new drive. When my drive died I knew by the crunching sound it made and the fact that my computer stopped responding.
Each month I also burn two sets of CDs of all my the photos I've made that month. This way I always can go back in case I want to erase old images from my hard drive, or if an image becomes corrupted on my hard drive and I don't realize until years later. This may have happened in my recent hard drive crash, but no big deal if it did because I can just pull the files off the CDs.
Also there have been cases where I deleted a page from this website by accident and didn't realize it till months later. Of course those files were long gone from my hard drives, but were on the CDs I make of this site. No big deal, I grabbed a CD from a few months back and got the lost page.
I store these CDs in two separate locations in case of fire.
I use two different brands of blank CDs, since no one really knows which will last longer. One of these are ordinary blank CDs (I like these here) and one are expensive genuine MAM-A metallic gold CDs that cost about a dollar each here. They are actually made in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA, and use Mitsui Chemical's patented dyes. You'll pay more, but can also get them straight from MAM-A and read more about them here.
For basic CDs I prefer the made-in-Japan Taiyo Yuden here since I think they're better than the name brands made in Taiwan. Taiyo Yuden supposedly invented the CD-R and still makes them in Japan with proper quality control.
Each of these is also resold under more popular brand names. I don't use these since they cost more and I know less about who really made them. Taiyo Yuden is more of a name brand in CD-Rs than names like Maxell who simply relable other people's CD-R blanks.
For basic CDs feel free to get the cheapest ones on sale at the office supply store. I have a pro friend who gets his best results with the cheapest disks, but has problems with the better ones. This is why I suggest using two different brands at the same time.
I don't use DVDs even though they would be more convenient. DVDs are less suited for archival use because:
1.) There are still so many standards (DVD+R, DVD-R, etc etc.) that I'm not going to gamble which one will still be readable 10 years from today.
2.) CDs were designed for audio (not computers) in the late 1970s and just happen to have paranoid levels of error correction and redundancy. Drill a small hole in a CD and it still plays! DVDs were developed for video (not computers), and we decided not to go to such extraordinary levels of error correction and redundancy so we could squeeze in more video playing time instead. We got away with this because video is less sensitive to a few white or black pixels than audio is to a full-scale tick. Unfortunately for computer use this means that data is more likely to be corrupted with uncorrectable errors, making your backup unplayable. Worse is that each bit is so much smaller, meaning any bit of dirt or scratch is more likely to damage your data than on a CD. Thus I'm gambling that CDs are more likely to be playable than DVDs in the near and far future.
Pioneer claims DVDs are more durable than CDs as you can read here. Honestly I don't know.
I will use DVDs when I just have a lot to back up at once and don't intend to depend on them years down the road.
I'm too stupid to figure out, or trust, any of the many fancy backup programs. In the past when I've used them I only found out later that the backups recorded weren't playable when I needed them, and half the time you needed the software which you just lost in order to play them back.
Many people love Dantz Retrospect and Apple's Backup 3. I'd use them, except that I'm willing to do things the hard way instead. I use brute force to copy everything bit-for-bit. Dantz Retrospect sells by itself and is included free with many external hard drives. Apple's Backup 3 comes with a .Mac membership subscription. Most external drives come with some sort of free backup software. I ignore these.
I use Super Duper! to create an exact bootable clone copy of my drive. In Windows I used Norton Ghost. Either one copies everything bit-for-bit, so if your drive dies you just pop in the backup or copy it to a new replacement. The backup is just like any other disc so you can copy individual files or folders in case of personal stupidity. I use this when I accidentally delete or otherwise screw up a file.
Super Duper! copies my entire drive in about an hour and a half. Apple's Backup 3 took over three hours in a few stages to do the same thing, and then that backup needs to be read through Apple's software to be used. The Super Duper! clone works like any other drive.
Super Duper! is smart enough to allow "smart updates," which only copy what's changed. These only take about 20 minutes each week. Other backup software usually allows the same time savings on subsequent backups.
I even can boot (run) another computer directly from my copies of hard drives. If one computer has a dead hard drive I still can run it from the copy, as well as replace the dead drive and copy everything back to it and be right where I left off.
Of course you can just copy one drive to the next using your copy commands. I used to do that, however you won't get a bit-for-bit copy and will probably miss some of the various hidden files needed if you ever intend to operate your computer directly from that backup. You'll get all your photos and files, just not necessarily have a drive from which you can boot and run.
Super Duper! also can back up just the system and leave your data alone. That's the "Sandbox" settings. This is for people who review software and might screw up their system trying something, and want to be able to get back to their system as it was a week ago but not lose any new work they've created since then. I don't do this; I'm not smart enough.
If you have an exact copy on an external drive you can run your (or anyone else's) computer directly from that external drive, at least on Apple computers.
If your Mac's internal hard drive smokes, just restart with the backup clone drive attached while holding down the OPTION key . You'll get a screen showing one or two drives from which you may choose to start. They will probably have the same name since of course your copy is a copy, so click the one on the right and then the right arrow and your Mac will now be running directly from the copy!
Running from the copy in case of calamity you can also see your computer's internal drive and see if you can read anything. If it's dead you can turn off your Mac, install a new drive, and use the same procedure to restart from your external copy.
Your backup drive of course has your copy of Super Duper! or Norton Ghost (Windows) on it because it's a copy of your original drive. It's trivial to use that software to copy your backup onto the blank new drive you just installed.
You're done. Restart your computer and you're exactly where you left off!
I'd LOVE an online backup like Apple's .Mac to which I already subscribe. An online backup is almost always located someplace you're not, and can be accessed anyplace. I have to drive to my offsite backup locations and swap drives by hand each week.
The problem is that we photographers collect about 10 GB or more every year in photos. Along with my existing film scans I backup about 300 GB each week.
The problem with online backups is that you pay by the GB, and the account sizes I feel like affording are too small for my photo archive. .Mac only gives you one or two GB. Some people hack free Gmail or Yahoo mail accounts, which still only give a gig or two. This works for a few GB to store your friends' addresses, but is useless to backup your archive.
If you find an affordable system in the 100 GB range I'd love to know about it. .Mac costs $99 a year for 1 GB and $149 a year for 2 GB, for instance.
With all this paranoia on my part you'd think I think I'm pretty smart.
I realize that whatever has come to bite me in life is something that never dawned on me.
No matter how hard and often I back up there is always the possibility of something unforeseen (or one stupid move on my part ) that could screw everything up. be careful!
So Where Do I Keep All My Photos?
My 12" laptop can't store everything I've shot my entire life.
I keep about a year's work on my laptop. I keep the rest on my desk on a third external firewire drive like the ones mentioned above. I plug it into my laptop if I need those files. I backup this drive along with my laptop.
Of course I also keep a set of CDs of all my work in several locations as mentioned.
See also Backups in the Field