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Expendables in the Digital Age: Back-up Drives

January 23, 2013
Young Icelandic Horses

© jmillerphoto.com – Young Icelandic Horses

One of the greatest things about the digital photography revolution has been that we don’t spend a lot of money of expendables.  In the days of film we spent a ton on the raw film and the processing.  When I was younger and my budget was incredibly tight, I had to consciously decide how much money I had that I could devote to film and then how long was it going to be before I could pay to get that film processed.  This was not a trivial matter when I was in Iceland because by American standards film was expensive and processing that film was ridiculously expensive.

This high cost of expendables drove me eventually to digital.  When I sat down and thought about it, I figured that in less than a normal year’s shooting that my Canon 10D would be paid for in the film I didn’t have to buy and processing I didn’t have to pay for after the fact.  As I shot almost 3700 images during my last couple of years living there, that number proved itself to be true–the 110 rolls of film in itself almost paid for the camera, not to mention the cost to get those images processed.

There was one more expendable when it came to shooting film.  If you were serious about keeping your images safe, you took care of your negatives or transparencies after you got them home.  Because I shot mostly print film, this meant negative strips that I had to keep safe from humidity, light, heat, and physical damage.  I did this with plastic binder sheets and binders.  Each roll of 36-exposure film would take two binder sheets.  After a while the standard run-of-the-mill binder designed for paper wasn’t getting the job done.  Eventually I bought the sealed hard plastic binders that were made with these sheets in mind.  But as the roll counts got bigger and bigger I knew that eventually I was going to have to get a file cabinet devoted to the rolls of film and swap out the binder sheets for the hanging sheets that sat so nicely in the binders.  The negatives and proof shots of the really good images got separated and put into a safe deposit box for long-term safe keeping.

As I discussed earlier, modern dSLR’s do not have expendables to speak of.  Certainly there are batteries, but they are almost exclusively rechargeable and the cost in commercial power to charge up one of these batteries is literally just pennies for a charge that lasts for months.

And while there are no negatives or transparencies to deal with, leaving images on the hard drive is really a bad idea.  A best practice would be to move the image from the hard drive onto some form of storage media in reasonably quick order and then at least every year or so you should do a full image back-up of the everything you do and store it someplace other than with your current backups.

I’ve gone from my little Olympus D-220L (which pre-dated my return to film photography) on which I could back up a full day of shooting on just a small stack of floppy disks.  And that was, in itself, a pretty cheap expendable.  Maybe a couple of dollars.

Today’s expendable is instead the external hard drive.  With my 60D, the only suitable back-up medium is one of these drives.  My Monday shoot at Pedernales Falls State Park would have been a 4 DVD-R backup by itself.   And DVD-R’s are far from something that will last forever.  So it is an external USB hard drive that is my first layer of image preservation.  I’m guessing I could get away with a small stack of thumb drives for my keeper images, but instead I use another non-powered external hard drive for my annual off-site storage of images.

My long time readers are probably thinking, “But Jim, you’ve said all of this before.  Is there a point to this or were just scrounging for a topic to talk about so you recycled an old one?”

No, there is a point to this.  I had to pay for an expendable this week.

This past November, when I did my off-site backup, I nearly filled a 1 Tb hard drive with raw and processed images.  So it was no surprise that after this weekend’s shooting I had filled my 1 Tb external hard drive with nothing but raw images.  I contemplated a few stop-gap ways that I could resolve this problem.  Move the older digital images onto another drive, perhaps.  But that would only give me a couple more months of freedom before I had to do something else.

So instead, I invested about $150 in a new 3 Tb drive.  At my current pace that should last me for 3-4 years with my current camera.  If you translate what I was paying to get film developed in the 90’s in Iceland (without taking inflation into account) that would be about 7 rolls of film purchased and developed.  And all things considered, I’m willing to pay for that kind of an expendable.

About the Image:
This image of a pair of Icelandic horses was made with my Canon 10D.  Wonderful camera.  Technical specs was that 10D with 300mm f/4 L IS lens, ISO 100, 1/350th at f/4, hand held.

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