How I Backup my Aperture Library (Part 2)
Today’s guest post is by Mel Ashar. Mel is a landscape and architectural photographer based in San Francisco. His clients include architects, designers and real estate professionals around the Bay Area. You can read more about him and see Mel’s work at melashar.com, read his blog at melashar.com/blog or follow him on Twitter @melashar.
How I Backup my Aperture Library (Part 2)
by Mel Ashar
I wanted to do this in a way that didn’t require changing my life drastically, go out of my way, or regularly mail disks somewhere. Those are all easy to stop doing after a few tries and habits are very hard to change.
My wife’s parents live about 15 miles away in South San Francisco. We visit them a couple times every month for family dinners or just to drop in. Keeping a backup at their house would meet my bar for “offsite”, and wouldn’t require doing anything I wasn’t doing anyway. Now I just had to find a way to automate this offsite backup as much as possible so I wouldn’t forget to do it. For this, I once again use Time Machine, specifically a new feature that was recently introduced — multiple disk backup. Many people don’t realize this, but Time Machine can backup to two or more separate drives, each with its own state. In OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, you get all the simplicity and automation of Time Machine but with multiple drives.
I keep an inexpensive 320 GB USB drive in a drawer at the in-laws’ house. When I’m visiting them, all I have to do is turn on the MacBook and plug in the drive. Time Machine automatically does the rest while we’re enjoying dinner. No configuration, no changing settings, or UI — it just works! I do this about once a month, and the process couldn’t be easier. I thought this was one of the best new features of Mountain Lion when it came out. Here’s an article on how to set up Time Machine with multiple disks the first time.
If you have an offsite office or residence you regularly visit, this is a great way to backup with the least amount of hassle.
Now let’s talk about online, or cloud, backup.
Long before I discovered the beauty of Time Machine, I instinctively thought about backing everything up to the cloud. It just seemed like the obvious choice to store stuff on redundant data centers around the world.
Over the years, I have tried almost every online backup service including those mentioned above. I’ve used apps like Arc that backup to Amazon S3 and Glacier. Every time I read a review of a new online backup service, I evaluate its offerings and give the software a spin.
The sad truth however, is that backing up an entire library online is simply not a practical option for me today. Current bandwidth and upload speeds are insufficient to keep up with the volume of data I’m generating.
In my experience, uploading 5 GB of data can take up to 8 hours, and often longer over WiFi. Anything close to 200 GB can take weeks, and put the computer into a perpetual upload cycle if new data is generated faster than existing data is backed up. Being a one laptop kind of person, I don’t like my computer being bogged down by backup processes while I’m actively using it.
At the risk of sounding controversial, I’m going to state a personal opinion that consumer-grade backup services like Carbonite and Backblaze probably aren’t suitable for professional photographers today. They’re perfectly fine for people creating Word and Excel documents, or shooting low volume, 10 MB JPGs. But for people generating gigs of RAWs, TIFFs and PSDs every week, online backup can be an unsatisfactory experience — especially if it ties up your Aperture library or Lightroom catalog in the process.
Editor’s note: Regular readers know that I’m a huge proponent of Backblaze as a cloud backup solution. I’ve been using it for years and have recovered many files (although never an entire system) from it. I currently have 4 TB of data on Backblaze, and while my system can’t run in automatic mode anymore (there’s so much data that the regular automated scans for new files slow my system down), I manually click backup at the end of nearly every day — and certainly days I have a shoot. I do have good badnwidth (about 7 Mbps upload) but many have faster, and the compression that Backblaze uses on upload is significant. It’s very rare, even after a big shoot, that my backup is still going when I return to the studio in the morning. –Joseph
That said, I wasn’t going to give up on the benefits of online backup entirely. I wondered if there was a “hybrid” approach, where I can take advantage of a cloud service without getting stuck in an infinite upload loop. I came up with a strategy that work well, with software I already use — Dropbox.
Now, I don’t backup my entire Aperture library to Dropbox. That would surely result in the aforementioned infinite loop. Instead, I cherry pick which photos I want to back up, export them out of Aperture, and store them in a separate folder that is synced with Dropbox.
How do I pick what to back up? At the end of every shoot, after my culling and post-processing is done, I go through and assign a “5 star” rating to about 5-10% of the photos. These are usually the best photos in the project, and worthy of sharing online or showing to customers. These photos are my best work, and the bar is very high. They are the foundation for my photography business, and must be protected for decades to come.
I’ve been doing this “5 star” rating thing consistently for many years now. I don’t use the other star ratings. So a photo in my library can either be 5 stars or no stars. Using an Aperture Smart Album, I have one-click access to all my 5-star photos across all projects. About once a month, I export all the newly added 5-star photos from this Smart Album into the Dropbox folder. Dropbox then syncs the newly added files to the cloud, which usually only takes a few hours (depending on how many new photos were added). I do this when I have a reliable Ethernet connection and/or my computer is not going to be in use for a few hours. So my online backup happens at a convenient time and interval of my choosing.
What I like about this approach is I have a lot more control over what gets backed up, when it gets backed up, and my most valuable data is maintained by a billion dollar company that’s going to be around for the long haul. I could accomplish the same thing with the other services, but as long as I’m just syncing a few hundred files, I might as well use the simplicity of Dropbox.
Currently my folder of 5-star photos is about 75 GB, and I’m using Dropbox’s 100 GB annual plan ($99). So that leaves me 25 GB for non-photo documents, which is plenty of space for me. Most of my non-photo documents go into Google Drive anyway, so I’m pretty much using Dropbox just for syncing my collection of 5-star photos.
One drawback of this approach is I’m wasting space on my SSD drive by duplicating those 5-star photos outside Aperture. With a 750 GB drive, this hasn’t become an issue yet, but I’ll have to deal with this in the future. I also realize that the numbers I’ve shared are probably on the lower side, and many photographers have 2-3 times as much data as me. But as I said before, this strategy can scale several orders of magnitude (Dropbox offers 200 and 500 GB plans).
To summarize, I use Apple’s Time Machine for offline and offsite backup, and Dropbox for selective online backup (< 100 GB). While not perfect, these tools give me the most seamless, controlled and practical backup experience for now. And just like my photographic style, this strategy will evolve over time as technology and bandwidth improves.
Please use the comments below to suggest improvements and share how you backup your photos.