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Pro Studio Basics

16. Backing Up Digital Files (And Why It's So Important!)

The following advice is specific to Australia. Most Western countries have similar structures and the broad principles are similar. However, you should consult your own advisers for specific information. 

Peter Krogh, the author of The DAM Book: Digital Asset Management, says there are two types of people in the world: those who have experienced a hard drive failure and those who are going to.

Hard disk failures are inevitable, so having a solution is something you must set up as a priority.

The Downside


If you're a photographer, you use a computer. And if you use a computer, at some stage in your life, your hard disk is going to stop working. Sometimes a failed hard disk can be repaired, sometimes it cannot. But if you're a professional photographer and your failed hard disk has three or four unrecoverable client jobs on it, what are you going to do?

Think about it this way. You've just shot 100 gigabytes of images over a week and are hoping to invoice your client $20,000.  The shoot is over, you've transferred the photos to your computer's hard disk and edited the files. You've also re-used your compact flash cards, so there is only one copy of the shoot in existence.

And the hard disk fails.

Everything is lost. Nothing can be recovered. What will you tell your client? What will you do? To start, you will probably re-shoot the job for your client at no charge. Let's hope you can still meet the deadline and your client doesn't sue you for loss of business or meeting its deadlines.

The re-shoot could be expensive if you have to re-hire the talent, stylist, make-up artist, the studio and the equipment. Maybe your client has to attend as well, so this won't be a secret re-shoot. And don't forget paying a second lot of location fees or travel costs to get there?

Even if your client pays you for the job once, you will have paid your costs twice, not to mention the fact you've spent an extra week of your life which can't be billed to anyone.

And what about the three or four other jobs which aren't finished either? What will you do when one of these clients wants a further copy of a file you have now lost? How do you think your clients will view your future relationships?

The external ramifications for your studio can be horrendous. So can the internal ones.

Once you purchase the new hard disk or have the computer repaired, how easy will it be to reload the operating system and software? Chances are it will take you at least a day to get it all up and running - assuming you can find the original CDs and DVDs and the respective passwords and registration codes. It's a nightmare!

A computer hard disk crash is painful, but with the proper back-ups in place, it need be nothing more than a 10 minute inconvenience. With a back-up, you can simply transfer your existing programs and data back into position and continue working.

Setting Up A System

The reader is referred to Peter Krogh's book and website (www.theDAMbook.com) for full details, but here's a brief overview of what is required.

When you create image files, they are transferred from your camera to a working computer. It is at this stage (and certainly before you delete your files from your memory cards) that you need to make a back-up of your files. It is not a job you should put off for a few days because, basically, you can't afford to lose your work.

In the IT industry, it is accepted practice to have three back-up copies of your data. This is in addition to the data on your working computer.
The data should be backed up to at least two different media types, and the recommended media at present are DVDs and hard disks.

A simple back-up regime might be to download your images onto the working computer, then transfer a copy of the complete job to two, separate hard disks (no point putting them into different folders on the same hard disk because if the hard disk fails, all folders are gone). The third copy is transferred to DVD.

A good idea is to have one of the hard disks in an external casing so it can be taken off-site. If your home or studio burns down, your back-up procedures are useless if all your back-up copies are in the one location.

Leave a back-up copy at another location and make sure you take these back-ups off-site on a regular basis. You might need to double up on the off-site disks so you can rotate them between locations.

So, very shortly after the shoot is finished, you have four copies of the images. You now have some safety. What happens next?

Derivative Files

Most photographers don't use or work on all of the photos they shoot. A smaller percentage is opened and adjusted for client viewing and use. These changed files can be called ‘derivative' files.

You could spend several hours or several days working on these files. This is also a big investment in time so when the work is finished, further back-ups are required.

Peter Krogh recommends breaking up your backups into ‘archive' and ‘derivative' files.


The ‘archive' files are 100% of the images you took at the shoot. They may have been renamed and quickly adjusted, but have no major editing applied.

The ‘derivative' files, in comparison, have had major adjustments and editing and are smaller in quantity.

Once you have made a back-up set of your archive files, it is not sensible to add derivative files to the ‘archive' backups at a later stage. It is better to have a second set of backup folders or hard disks that hold your derivative files.

Peter Krogh also recommends a ‘bucket' system which is a series of sequentially numbered folders.

Each folder holds up to around 4.4 gigabytes of information (because this is what will comfortably fit onto a DVD). When a folder is full, it can be burnt to DVD (so there could be a few days when you only have two back-up copies on hard disk, until there is sufficient data to fill a DVD).
The same folders are also transferred to the respective back-up disks.


You will probably run two bucket systems, one for your archive files, the second for your derivative files.

If you're just starting out, you may not have a huge library of files, but this will change in a few years and so it is best to start now. In fact, no matter who you are, if you don't have a good back-up system in place, NOW is the time to make it happen.

For information on digital asset management and Peter Krogh's book, visit www.theDAMbook.com.

Also visit www.UPDIG.org for details on presenting digital files to clients. 

The information in this article is general in nature and should not replace personal advice given by your own legal and financial advisers.

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