A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Preserving Photographs

February 22 2017

by Philip Northeast

Keeping your precious memories and fleeting moments safe has always been a challenge for photography.  The digital era has not solved the problem, merely presented new challenges.

I had a stark reminder of the need for keeping storage strategies up to date when the hard disk on my photography iMac failed. I did not lose any data and the machine was restored using the Time Machine backup system after Apple quickly replaced the Solid State Drive under warranty. It does highlight the possibilities of failure of new digital technologies.


iMac computer

In photography’s early days the problem was the deterioration of chemical based original materials and the resultant prints.  The digital era promised to be immune from chemical changes due to age and storage conditions. The image is defined by numbers that will not fade or change due to chemical action. While the number will not change over time, the ability to retrieve them from a storage medium is not guaranteed.

There are two main reasons for the failure of digital storage. In an age of rapidly advancing digital technology, storage methods change as older technologies are replaced, and eventually become inoperable. The first computer program I wrote was stored on punched paper tape. Then followed a variety of cassette tape and floppy disk formats that on modern computers are unreadable, making any information stored on these mediums unusable for ordinary users.

Then there is the failure of the digital storage mediums where the promise of perpetual storage often turned out to be hollow.

The supposedly indestructible CD proved susceptible to surface scratches and delamination of the structure itself.  The second part is the disappearance of optical drives from some new computers, heralding the decline of this medium.

One of the factors against the optical drive is the ever increasing file sizes created by new digital cameras. My first DSLR created 6 Megapixel files, and several generations later my newest is up to 36Megapixel resolution.  The improvements in hard disk capacity and the transfer technology speed make this the current choice for photographers. There are many possible configurations.

Storage strategy

The recommended backup strategy has two local copies and an offsite copy.

One slight inconvenience I found that while I had a backup copy of my iMac’s hard drive it was not readily accessible. I did not want to touch the Time Machine backup until I had restored the iMac. While I did not lose data, it did cause some dislocation of my workflow because the latest versions of a couple of key files were only on the iMac. This started me thinking about my storage strategy, taking account of changes in technology.

Cloud Storage & Backup

I used this for business and text documents because of the speed restrictions imposed by slow broadband using ADSL technology over copper wires. Recently the new high-speed National Broadband Network (NBN) arrived in my street and now there is an optical fibre network connection right to the office. Optical fibre NBN provides a quantum leap in speed compared to the old copper connection. This dramatic makes storing larger files in the “cloud” a practical proposition.

There are a number of well-known cloud storage providers whose services easily integrate into the file management systems in Mac OS and Windows 10. Not surprisingly Apple and Microsoft are among the leaders in this field. Other heavyweight providers are Google and Amazon.

These differ from my longtime Carbonite backup service that is for a particular machine and automatically backs up most types of files in nominated directories.

The new cloud drives are associated with an account that is accessible via the web from any computer.  This is ideal for sharing files as well as offering an offsite backup copy of a file.   Storage plans up to 1 TB are readily available with prices in the order of $A14 -15 a month.  Amazon offers unlimited storage for less money but I haven’t tried this one. The others offer a small amount of free storage and you can buy extra capacity when needed.  Amazon offers only a thirty-day trial and requires credit card details up front even for the free trial, I declined.  Storage capacity is not the only factor but also functionality and data transfer speeds.

The paid storage capacity offers me realistic and convenient offsite storage for selected photograph and ties in with my current project of tidying up my photography collection.

Local Hard Disks

My photography collection is spread across three external 1 TB hard disks with two copies of each original on separate drives. The acquisition of a 36Megapixel DSLR means these drives are filling up rather quickly.   What are the alternatives?  The simplest answer is new larger capacity external drives. The price per Terra Byte of these drives has come down and their capacity has increased, along with faster USB and Thunderbolt ports.

hard drive

The army of connections on a stand alone 2TB hard drive

Multi-Disk Enclosure

An alternative, particularly for larger capacity, are enclosures housing multiple hard disks. These are computers in their own right, programmed to manage the data across multiple drives to provide two copies on separate drives. When one of the drives fails there is a second copy on the device. Replace the faulty drive and the software rebuilds the contents of the failed drive on the new unit.  These are basic internal bare drives that plug into slots in the enclosure. The enclosure provides the power and data connections.

hard drive enclosure

Multi disk hard drive enclosure

There are two options in this category, an enclosure directly connected to an individual computer, or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) type used by all the computers on the network.  One advantage of these systems is their flexibility in increasing storage capacity by adding drives or replacing existing drives with higher capacity units.

Another factor is the quality of the drives. Manufacturers produce hard disks in grades from light use through to heavy duty for network storage systems, and with prices to match. This reinforces the old adage, you get what you pay for. Cheaper drives are good for light use but may fail sooner than higher priced drives intended for network storage.

Hard disk that can be plugged into a multi disk enclosure

One note of caution, even though there are copies on separate disks the enclosure system itself is a single point of failure, so it is only part of the backup strategy.  So another local storage system is required for a full backup solution.

The Answer

There is no one answer for every situation apart from the principle of at least two local copies and one stored offsite.


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