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How to Back Up Your Digital Photos: Faster Connections and Larger Storage Capacities Offer More Options

By // May 2, 2014 // Posted in Hardware

Rangefinder contributor Greg Scoblete recently gave us a terrific overview of “8 Great Photo Storage Solutions” out there right now, so I thought I’d also address this all-important topic to help photographers make the right decisions on backing up their digital images.

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Thunderbolt, SATA, The Cloud, and SSD are some of the buzzwords that have been bandied about lately, but they can leave many photographers bewildered. They are newish terms that refer to different types of storage or connections to storage devices. Obviously storage is a critical requirement for photographers – just ask a photographer who has lost images for one reason or another.

Yes, we all know the importance of creating backups but, sadly, many of us don’t practice good backup habits.

Until recently, it was fairly easy to decide how to store digital images. Since file sizes were much smaller, it was practical to make backups on recordable DVDs. With a storage capacity of 4.7GB you could get the images from a shoot on one or two discs.

Nowadays, it’s common to come away from a wedding shoot with more than 30GB of image files. Burning all of these onto DVDs would be a pain largely because of the length of time it takes to burn a recordable DVD. It’s much easier to store them on an external hard drive.

Thunderbolt Drives
Fortunately, hard drives have become a commodity and they can cost under $100 for a 2TB drive, which is equivalent to about 50 DVDs. However, although an HD is far faster, speed and convenience can still be an issue. The major factor is the speed of the connection.

That’s where Thunderbolt comes in — at least if you’re using a modern Mac computer. Thunderbolt is the latest high-speed protocol for connecting external devices to a computer. Although Thunderbolt was co-developed by Apple and Intel, it is only available on a handful of non-Mac computers. The advantage of Thunderbolt over the more common USB 3.0 and SATA connections is that it can be used to connect a display as well as multiple external drives with a single port. In many ways it is a modern version of Firewire, which is still widely used by professionals in the creative fields thanks to its speed and daisy chaining capabilities. Thunderbolt, though, is up to 12 times faster than Firewire 800.

After a somewhat slow take-up there are now a growing number of Thunderbolt external drives on the market. I decided to put a handful of drives through some quick speed tests to see what works best in terms of speed and connectivity.

SSD or HD
My test computer was a MacBook Air from 2011, which includes a single Thunderbolt port. It does not have any USB 3.0 ports like the latest computers so I could not directly test the speed of that connection which is similar in speed to a Thunderbolt connection.

Anyone who is using a computer with an internal Solid State Drive (SSD), instead of a traditional mechanical spinning hard drive, will appreciate how a SSD is so much faster. I quickly proved that is also true with external drives as long as you have a fast connection like Thunderbolt or USB 3.0.

It would be easy to fill pages with technical details but I’ll try and keep it simple.

There are now several companies selling portable SSD drives. At present they cost considerably more than a hard drive model but prices are coming down. For example the Elgato Thunderbolt Drive+ costs $900 with a capacity of 512GB.

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The Akitio Neutrino with 120GB costs $250. By comparison you can buy a 500GB portable HD for about $70 with a USB 3.0 connection.

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I tested the transfer rates with a folder containing 10.54GB worth of images. It took just 58 seconds to transfer the folder from my MacBook Air to the Elgato Drive+ using the supplied Thunderbolt cable, while it took over six minutes to transfer via the USB cable through the USB 2.0 port on my computer.

If you want ultimate speed, techies will know that installing a PCIe SSD card provides the fastest transfer rate. OWC, which has been providing high tech updates to the Mac world for 35 years, offers an external Mercury Helios Thunderbolt PCIe expansion chassis that can hold several PCIe cards. I tried one with a 480GB Accelsior-E2 SSD PCIe card. It’s a costly solution as the combo costs $920 but it proved to be the fastest drive I tested as it took just 52 seconds to transfer the test folder.

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Thunderbolt Hub – Is it Worthwhile?
The quick answer to whether a Thunderbolt hub is worth investing in is yes, at least in my situation. I tried the Akitio Thunder Dock (cost $269), which connects via a Thunderbolt cable (see image at the top of this story). You can then hook up more Thunderbolt devices via a second port. There are also two USB 3.0, two SATA and a Firewire 800 port.

When I tried the Elgato Drive+, the transfer speed was identical to connecting it directly – as it should be. When I connected it via the USB 3.0 port it took a couple of seconds longer to do the transfer, making it six times faster than using the computer’s USB 2.0 port. Out of interest, I tried a generic USB 3.0 portable hard drive and it took just over three minutes to transfer the folder – 3 times as long as a SSD drive.

It’s worth noting that the newest MacBook Pro and Mac Pro have Thunderbolt 2 ports, which use the same cables and are backwardly compatible with Thunderbolt 1. The advantage is that you will be bale to transfer data even faster, allowing for real time editing of 4K video, while also connecting to an external 4K monitor.

Expandable Storage
Nowadays it does not take long to fill up a 1TB drive. You can keep buying standalone drives or you can purchase an external multi-drive case with the ability to add drives for more storage. The G-Technology GDock ev is a smart choice. I tried one with two 1TB drives, which sells for $750.

G-Technology-GDock

The beauty of this is that the individual hard drives (costing $200 each) can be removed and used as a portable USB 3.0 drive. They proved to be fast as well, taking 90 seconds to transfer the folder via the Akitio hub as a portable drive. It took the same time to transfer the folder when they were inserted in the GDock via Thunderbolt, indicating that the transfer rate was limited by the drive rather than the connection. Nonetheless it was an impressive performance.

Drobo has recently introduced a new model called the Mini (costs $330 for the bare chassis), which accepts up to four 2.5-inch SATA hard drives and has a Thunderbolt connection.

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I tried it with three WD 1TB drives and it took 100 seconds to transfer the folder, which was only ten seconds slower than the GDock. The advantage of a Drobo is that it can be set up so that if a hard drive fails or you need to replace a lower capacity one with a higher capacity drive it can be done without loosing data already stored. It’s good peace of mind but the disadvantage is that the drives cannot be read when removed from the Drobo as they use proprietary formatting.

Cloud Coverage
Everything you read nowadays talks about backing up to the Cloud. For consumers cloud storage is pretty much a no-brainer as it makes it an almost foolproof way of backing up data and images. For professionals though, the enormous amount of data makes it rather impractical due to bandwidth issues and cost. For example I started to backup my iMac using the Backblaze cloud service. It automatically began backing up in the background but when it said it would take 195 hours to transfer 600GB of data I decided against it.

There are so many cloud services that you are probably already using one or two. I use Dropbox to transfer images to clients. In my case, it’s unusual if I’m transferring more than 200MB at a time. Dropbox is free with 2GB of storage so I do not use it for long-term storage or backup.

Instead of trying to use an online cloud service to store images why not use your own personal “cloud” in your studio? I have started to use a WD MyCloud drive that contains 2TB of storage. It plugs straight into an Ethernet port on the main router and can be accessed by any computer on the local network or via Wi-Fi. Download an app from WD and you can also access files on your smart phone or iPad via Wi-Fi or your smart phone data service. It’s another way to have access to files that you may find you want when travelling as well as giving limited access to clients if needed

My Advice
By now, I hope you’re not totally confused as to what to do! If speed is not an issue, you’re fine using regular hard drives which are easily available at low prices.

However, photographers who want to save time on a shoot and value a quiet, robust drive should consider using a portable SSD drive. For triple safety, keep images on the cards you use in the camera, transfer them to your computer for editing and make quick backups onto the SSD drive. Then when you’re back in your office you can make further backups for long-term storage.

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John Rettie

John Rettie

John Rettie is a well-known photojournalist who has covered the world of cars, cameras and computers for over four decades. He has been to over 75 countries and his work has appeared in magazines around the world. When he's not traveling, pushing keys on a keyboard or a shutter button on the latest camera, he enjoys working around the yard and house at his home in Santa Barbara, California.

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