How to Ensure Your Images Are Safe

How would you feel if you lost all of your most precious images? Here's how you can stop that happening.

| General Photography
Words and images by Robin Whalley -

If you are like the majority of photographers I would bet money that you have spent a small fortune over the years, purchasing the best equipment you can afford and spent yet more money on image editing software. You will have invested hours of precious time capturing great images, often in uncomfortable situations and then spent yet more time editing your work to share with others. So let me ask you, how would you feel if you lost all of your most precious images? I don’t mean a file or two; I mean everything. All your investment of time and hard work gone in a flash. Well that’s what almost happened to me a short time back, despite all my preventative measures. Here is my story and what you can do to stop it happening to you. Oh yes, the pictures here are examples of some of the images I would have lost.

 How to Ensure Your Images Are Safe: Image was featured in Landscape Photographer of the Year Exhibition
This image was included in the first Landscape Photographer of the Year Exhibition and would have been lost.

The story begins with me using my computer (a Windows based PC) for a couple of hours of image processing when I decided to take a break for some refreshments. When I returned there was an error massage displayed on the computers screen warning of a virus infection and asking did I want to remove the virus. This looked a little suspect to me as my anti-virus software should have automatically cleaned any viruses without warning me in a pop-up window. I decided rather than click the OK button I would close the window using the X in the top right of the dialog box. I clicked the X to close the window and my display filling with hundreds more Pop-up Windows, which was followed by my PC rebooting. My mind was racing trying to make sense of what had happened. There was also a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach as I realised I had significant virus infection. All I could do is wait for my PC to restart to see how severe the damage was.

When the PC restarted I found myself victim of a rather nasty “vundo” virus which would restart Windows Explorer every 10 seconds rendering my computer virtually useless. All this was despite having up to date, real time virus protection (which was clearly making no attempts to prevent the ongoing attack). All attempts to scan the PC and remove the virus were blocked and it seemed to be downloading more viruses all the time.

I did eventually remove all the viruses but it took almost a week of continual scanning using a number of different tools and hours spent on web forums (using my wife’s PC) gathering expertise and assistance. When I finally regained control of my PC, I wanted to check my valuable images hadn’t been damaged but that’s when misfortune struck again and my computers hard disk failed. I can only put it down to all the virus scanning that had gone on for the past week or seriously bad luck. My PC was however completely dead and I found myself out shopping for a replacement.

 How to Ensure Your Images Are Safe: Sunrise
Possibly one of the most perfect sunrises I have every enjoyed and one which would have been a distant memory now.

With a new PC back home I went to work copying images from my backup hard drive and felt confident everything would soon be back to normal. I was about half way through this operation when the backup hard drive started to make a strange whirring sound, faltered then died. I couldn’t believe this run of bad luck, but that’s often what happens when one thing goes wrong, it’s like a dominoes effect. At this point I will cut the story short and let you know that I eventually recovered everything back from a combination of DVD’s, hardware swaps and specialist data recovery software. Now, let’s look at how you can avoid some of my problems.

You no doubt have a workflow to help you process your images quickly and efficiently, however does this deal with the storage, retrieval and protection of valuable images? You need to invest time and perhaps a little money developing and implementing a strategy to manage your assets. The more images you have the more important this becomes.

 How to Ensure Your Images Are Safe: Sunset
Another spectacular sunset that would have been lost, not to mention the investment of time and money in travelling to this location.

Consider first your computer system and its protection. The main threats here come from malware (viruses in the main) and hardware failure. You need to protect against both of these.

First and often overlook question, is your hardware plugged directly into the mains power or via a surge protector? Recently I have been experiencing a number of mains spikes where I live and whilst my computer equipment was plugged into a surge protector my router wasn’t and had to be replaced. I should have learned my lesson because this is the second time this has happened to me. Surge protectors are cheap, effective and I would say essential for computer equipment.

Next ensure you have a reliable, up to date ant-virus programme installed and set to protect your computer at all times. This applies whether you have a PC or a Mac (it’s a fallacy that Macs don’t get viruses). There are lots of paid for packages on the market but there are also some very good free alternatives such as Microsoft Security Essentials. Whatever option you choose however ensure you run a full scan of your computer each week with updated virus signatures. You also need to check the software is not set to ignore certain “harmless” file types as a default. This is often the case and was one of my mistakes.

If you use the Internet, and let’s face it who doesn’t, make sure your router is set up securely with its hardware firewall enabled. You should also have a software firewall running on your computer and set to warn you when a programme tries to gain access from the Internet. Equally important, it should also warn you when a programme tries to access the internet from your computer and allow you to decide if it can have access or not. Some forms of malware can sit on your computer waiting for months before trying to gain access to the internet to download other viruses. If your firewall is set to make automatic decisions about which programmes to give access to, it can easily make mistakes or be fooled. Being able to make the decision yourself is much better.

 How to Ensure Your Images Are Safe: Blackpool
Had I lost this image I would have missed out on a prize trip to Paris.

Having implemented your Anti Virus strategy to ensure your computer is free from malware and implemented a firewall to prevent unauthorised access to your machine, you can move on to consider the storage of files i.e. your digital images.

Your computer will come with one or more hard drives which you can organise to make them more a more efficient store. My computer has two physical hard drives; one where the applications are loaded and the other where I keep the files I am currently processing. I used to keep my image archive on this second hard drive but it simply grew too large and slowed down my computer significantly.

A strategy you can adopt to better organise files and improve performance is to partition a large physical drive into a number of smaller logical drives. Whilst you still only have one physical drive each partition looks like a separate drive on the computer. I have partitioned one of my 500 GB drives to create a 50 GB a 450 GB logical drive. The 450 GB drive is used to hold work I am processing and the 50 GB drive is used for the Photoshop Scratch disk. This helps Photoshop perform better and prevents it from fragmenting my working drive (something it does very well and which hurts performance).
Whether you decide to store your images on your computer or not will depend on the number you have. I would suggest that no matter where you store them you also need a backup hard drive. There are a number of options depending on budget and volume of files. These range from a simple external hard drive plugged in to a USB or FireWire port, through to a RAID array (a set of hard disks that all mirror each other so that if one fails you don’t lose any work).

My own solution is a Drobo storage device which is similar to RAID but I feel is more flexible. This allows me to easily swap hard drives in and out as I need to expand my storage. It also protects against drive failure in a similar way to RAID. My current configuration gives me 2TB of protect storage but space is running low so I will soon be purchasing a couple of 2TB drives to add to it and remove two of the smaller drives. These smaller drives will then be installed into external hard drive cases and used to provide a 2nd line of backup storage which can be moved off site when full. Having suffered multiple hard disk failures in the past I strongly recommend you have your image archive duplicated onto two separate hard drives.

 How to Ensure Your Images Are Safe: Landscape from Argentina
This image was captured on a trip to Argentina and would have been a costly loss.

My final step, once I have processed and keyworded my images, is to store the digital negatives onto DVD as well as my Drobo. I group my files into batches of 4GB and then burn these to 2 sets of DVD’s. One DVD I keep at home in another part of the house and the other goes off site.

If you are wondering how I organise my images into 4GB batches without losing images, I will explain that in a later article. I should also warn you that many DVD’s have quite a short life expectancy and need checking each year once they are 3 years old. Consider replacing them after 5 years and always store them in a dark, dry location at room temperature as they will help prevent them from degrading.
A recent development you might like to consider is storage on the internet although you will need to ensure this is secure. The drawback at present is the slow upload speed and relatively high price of storage.

If you have followed my recommendation to this point you should have your hardware set up, clean and ready to start organising your images. Hopefully you will never experience a problem on the scale that I did but if you do, you should be able to recover from it with a little work.

Take a look at Managing Your Assets Part 2.

Words and images by Robin Whalley -

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