Timothy Armes' blog

Life as I experience it…


Workflow and Backup for Photo – on a smaller scale….

Chase Jarvis recently produced a great video detailing his team’s approach to “Workflow and Backup for Photo + Video1.

Chase produces very high end – and high budget – photography, and this shows with the gear that the team are using. For example, the two field drives are G-Tech 256GB SSDs, and at $1200 each they’re worth significantly more that the MacBook Pro itself!

Chase knows this though, and he makes a very important statement at the end of the video when he says “everything I say here is scalable, and you need to design your backup solutions for your needs”. Storage and Backup are vital, but the workflow can be scaled up or down based on requirements and budget. There’s no single “right” solution for that’ll work for everyone, but there’ll certainly be a solution that’s right for you.

I thought it might be interesting to describe – with far less grace and without the cool little graphic doodles – the workflow that I use. I hope it’ll prove interesting for other photographers who have comparable budgets to myself. I’ll compare my workflow to Chase’s so that you can see how the key ideas are the same, even if the gear isn’t.

In the field – Key concept: backup multiple copies immediately

In the field Chase ingests his photos into Aperture using a fast firewire compact flash reader and has them copied onto two daisy-chained SSDs. The images are therefore backed up onto each SSD and (I assume) the hard drive of the computer – three copies in total. Since SSDs have no moving parts they are an ideal storage solution when travelling.

I ingest my images using Lightroom (obviously!) and have them backed up to an external 2.5″ rugged hard drive. Once that’s done I then stick my compact flash card into a NextoDi backup device. This little gadget copies the photos off the card extremely quickly and performs a hardware verification of the data. The end result is that I also have three backups.

Chase’s SSDs look fantastic, but my rugged hard drive is much cheaper. It’s also very small and light; for my work size and space are of paramount importance, especially when trying to fit everything into a rucksack. Although there’s more risk of mechanical failure with a traditional harddrive that with an SSD it’s still slight and with 3 backups I’m secure. That said, SSDs will be cheap enough to make them a no-brainer in a few years time.

Why a NextoDi rather than a second exernal hard drive on my MacBook Pro? Well, if the MacBook Pro breaks down, crashes, smashes, bursts into flames or simply runs out of power I can continue to backup my work. In fact I think that this feature is so important that I’ll undoubtedly invest in a second NextoDi in order to ensure that I can continue to back up 2 copies if the laptop fails – never be afraid to evolve your workflow.

Also worthy of note is that my external hard drive is partitioned, and a SuperDuper’d copy of the MacBook pro has been placed on one of the partitions. If the Macbook Pro’s hard drive fails I can boot from this and continue to work.

Base Camp – Key concept: back up your work in progress

Back at base camp Chase copies his field drive to a G-Tech 2TB G-Safe. A lovely piece of kit. With one copy procedure he gets two backups (thanks to the RAID setup), each of which shares a room with a different person on the team.

I think that different photographers will have different needs when it comes to making backups at base camp. Personally I use fields drives that are big enough to hold the data for the entire shoot, so I don’t need to make any further copies. Once again the idea is to travel light. For very big shoots I can certainly understand Chase’s approach however.

If working with an assistant then separating the drives is definitely worthwhile – the biggest risk being an opportunist thief.

The Studio – Key concept: backup, backup, backup.

In an environment such as Chase’s, where there’s an entire team of people working at the studio, a central server is an absolutely requirement. But many photographers, including myself, work alone from either a home studio or a small office – in this case we can limit our expenditure whilst still protecting our work.

I use a powerful Mac Pro with a 30″ NEC Spectraview as my central workstation. A fast computer is essential when working with the large files such as those generated by a 5D Mk II. In terms of data storage, it’s set up in a particular way:

  • Data is stored internally on 3 “enterprise level” 2TB hard drives in a striped RAID (very fast data transfer, but if one fails everything’s lost). I don’t physically separate RAW files from “Live work” but I do work non-destructively, so the RAWs never get modified.
  • The boot drive is an SSD and doesn’t contain any photographic data, but it does contain most other things (accounts, emails, etc).
  • A 4th internal hard drive (actually the machine’s original boot drive) is used as a Time Machine back for the boot drive. Time Machine’s great.

The 3 2TB hard drives form a single data partition, and every night this partition is SuperDuper’d to a partition on an external Drobo while I’m tucked up in bed. The same is true of the boot drive.

Note than when I get back to the studio after a shoot the images from one of the field drives are copied to the Mac Pro, but the field drives aren’t emptied until this data had been backed up over night. Typically, they aren’t emptied until the next shoot, just as an extra safeguard.

For those that are interested in maximising the performance of their Mac for photography I highly recommend reading the Mac Performance Guide by Lloyd Chambers. Chamber’s explains how he configures his data drive on a Mac Pro, and also the reasons behind the the stripped RAID that I’ve adopted.

At this stage I have my data backed up twice – once internally and once on the Drobo. This does not suffice. As Chase also states an off-site backup is an absolute necessity. You must protect your data from fire, theft, flooding or any of the other unpleasant things that might happen to you. I keep my data backed up on an external hard drive at a friends house, and I keep his at my studio.

So I’ll leave you with my last words of wisdom – “3 backups, one off site. No less.”

  1. Chase – how did you do those cool little graphic animations? []

5 Responses to “Workflow and Backup for Photo – on a smaller scale….”

  1. Yep – 3 backups is the way to go. But I wanted to ask about the Drobo. Doesn’t it use a proprietary file/storage system? If the drobo unit fails (as opposed to the hard drives in it) can you still access the data on the discs by inserting them into another casing (drobo or otherwise.)
    Because of this, I use a sonnett sata box which holds 5 separate HDs.

    • Hi Simon,

      I was sure that someone would ask that :)

      The two most common complaints about the Drobo are access speed and the proprietary aspect. Speed isn’t an issue for my nightly backups, and I decided that being able to inserts disks of different sizes was nice – I didn’t want to be hunting around for an old disk size just to get a matched pair in the event that one fail. To the best of my knowledge if the Drobo itself fails it’s just a matter of replacing it, and with 3 backups I’m still safe if I have to change system completely.

      Nevertheless I can understand your reticence; there are plenty of other standard RAID solutions on the market, it’s really the concept that’s important.


  2. Anonymous says:

    One possible alternative to the Drobo would be a small NAS-style mini pc (one of those mini-itx chassis with a 4/5-tray SATA cage) running something like FreeNAS – it supports ZFS, which gives you some Drobo-like flexibility and resilience features, and potentially a heck of a lot better performance (even over a network). I expect it would be rather more hands on though.

    You don’t mention any sort of power supply protection in your setup. Do you use a UPS? Dual conversion FTW…

    (btw I think you mean “striped RAID”…)


  3. [...] ‘ol me working on a much smaller scale?’. Well, after a bit more digging I came across this brilliant blog post from Timothy Armes which is kind of a response to Chase’s post, giving his own version on a [...]

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