Digital Photography Workflow and Backup

The key to a successful workflow and backup is to have a streamlined process that saves both time and complete thought from maintaining file redundancy. There’s a million ways to do it, and a million not so right ways, as well. Being able to cut down on production time and simplify, in a sick kind of way, usually requires more equipment, which gets expensive. I don’t have money sitting around for a big server, and nothing but respect, but I can’t afford sets of portable SSD drives at $1500 a pop like Chase Jarvis uses in his workflow. And I don’t need to; chances are, you don’t, either.. That doesn’t mean I can’t get a really efficient workflow nailed down, but it is a perpetual evolution that takes some work to be successful.

Alright, I just finished shooting…

File management begins as soon as capturing ends. My memory cards are ejected from cameras the moment I finish a shoot, so if in the unfortunate event I’m mugged, my files are separated from my gear. I try to keep a spare, empty card in my main camera just in case there is something I want to grab on exit. CF and SD cards are stored in
a ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket case that has an awesome tether to attach to a belt or belt loop so it won’t fall completely out of your pocket. Some photogs will go as far as to not leave a shoot without downloading and backing up cards first. If that’s your priority: cool. I’ll address a solution for that later in this post.

The second I set foot in my office, camera and flash batteries go on the charger. You don’t always know when your next project will be, so prepare right away. If I have a fully charged spare on hand, I’ll drop that in the camera at that time, so I know my camera is almost ready to go.

So what do I do with all of these files?

I import files from high speed San Disk Extreme CF cards via a Lexar FireWire 800 card reader (discontinued for some absurd reason) directly into a new Aperture library on my 15! MacBook Pro. Downloading files takes a very frequent investment in time that easily adds up, so the less time consuming this process can become, the better, and that’s where fast cards and readers come in. Plus, importing to an internal hard drive is faster than importing directly to an external, and the same is true for production work. Faster cards also write quicker, clearing a camera’s buffer in less time, which is invaluable when shooting sports.


I never put a camera in the middle of the import process- USB 2.0 is much slower and requires camera battery, which you might need to conserve if your charger fails or you don’t have access to it. To create a new Aperture library at launch, simply hold down Option and click on the Aperture icon. I elect to store files directly in the Aperture library, which went against years of Adobe Bridge thinking, but it makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever had Bridge crash on you when you were renaming a finished edit of 700 images, to realize the side car files are now mismatched with your selects #fml. Aperture 3 allows the invaluable task of exporting and importing complete projects as you please, or even the original, or master, files back files out of the Aperture library. For those among us who are paranoid of a corrupt library, as a last case resort, you can right click on the actual library icon in the Finder and select “Show package contents” to manually retrieve your files. As cards are shot, they are placed face down in the holder. As they are downloaded and checked, they are placed face down, and upside down, in the holder.

Files are imported into a new project each time, that is usually cataloged by a description of the shoot, and a date if the project is recurring. Additional copyright data is appended to the files, even though the camera adds JBP to filenames, as well as my name in the copyright field. As files are importing, I create a Smart Album in Aperture, called “Finals.” This folder is set to filter any image that has 1 star rating or higher as I make my selections, and can always be made more stringent later. I also create a second folder called “Blog” that filters for green highlighted files only (Command + 4), if I know I’m going to be posting them.

Double Take

Once my memory cards downloaded into Aperture, I let the previews process as I settle in and clean my gear. Once imported, I check the cards, one at a time. I pick up my camera that now has a fully charged battery in it and quickly compare every file in camera against what is in Aperture. I do this right away when the shoot is fresh in my mind, as I remember best what I captured. Call me paranoid, but you can never be too certain. Especially when cameras reset the file count after hitting the 9,999 mark and create a new folder in the card. It’s just wise. I had a weak moment once and nearly formatted a 16GB card loaded to the brim with unique image files, post wedding, at 3:30AM, as I said, “I don’t need to check these.” Never again…

Talkin’ bout, crazy cool backups

You need redundancy. Let me repeat that. You need redundancy. Backups are immensely important no matter what system, type of hard drive, or storage solution you use. If your files do not exist at least twice, then they do not exist at all, because at some point in time, one copy is going to be lost. There are two fundamental questions to keep in mind concerning backups; how much would you be willing to pay to get your data back if you lost it? That number is what you need to compare the cost of backup equipment to, and most times, you cannot possibly put a price on the data in question. The second consideration you need to consider is, how much work is involved in backing up my data?? If it isn’t automatic, you are already damned. Backups need to have zero investment in time and effort.

Step One: Time Machine is easy. Time Machine is a software application that is built into Mac OS X 10.5 or later. This is an amazing automatic backup solution that requires any external hard drive (2x bigger than the internal) or a wireless Time Capsule. Time Machine will back up all of your data initially, and then create incremental backups every hour of the changes you have made to your system. So in theory, as you are working, you never lose more than an hour of work. The backup volume just has to be connected, and if it’s wireless, as with Time Capsule, you just have to be within range for a backup to start. This solution is so easy that if you lose your files because you didn’t back up, you almost deserve it, so please, back your stuff up! Got it?!

At this point in the process, Time Machine should already be cranking away to back up my files automatically onto an external hard drive, as they are downloaded to my internal hard drive. My MacBook Pro is very unique, in that it has two internal hard drives in it. I removed the optical drive out to add a 64GB solid state drive and have a large, fast, 500GB 7200 RPM hard disk drive to use just as a scratch, or storage, device. My working files are stored on that 500GB drive, and the software I run boots from the 64GB SSD. To be safe, Time Machine backs up both drives. As soon as a Time Machine backup is complete, I have file redundancy within my storage system.

Step Two: DroboPro

Once I know I have checked all files on my memory cards and internal hard drive, a Time Machine backup is complete, and the library transferred to my DroboPro (click here for visuals on that process), only then are cards are formatted in camera to wipe them clean. The sooner this happens, the less complicated getting ready for the next shoot will be. There are no questions on an already hectic morning before shoot concerning whether files were downloaded and/or backed up. Formatted cards are immediately returned right side up in numbered, sequential order in the case and in my cameras so I’m ready to capture again.

DroboPro. Go buy one. Or two.

There are many benefits to storing completed files on a DroboPro. The first is that it is redundant. There are 8 hard drive bays in the unit, and the data is scattered across multiple drives within the enclosure automatically, even though it only appears as one volume or drive in the Finder. I can add more drives on the fly, and should one drive fail, the device will automatically rebuild itself if there is available space, or as soon as I add another drive; this is called self healing. The enclosure is infinitely expandable, in that if I should ever decide to get an 8TB hard drive, I can add storage space one drive at a time by pulling a smaller capacity hard drive, adding the new, and the DroboPro will reallocate the data automatically while utilizing that extra space. There is even a feature to enable dual disk redundancy, so that if any two hard drives fail concurrently, all of the data is still protected. Newer models have network capabilities built in for remote access. I have two Drobo units at the moment, and while this technology is an investment, again, how much are your files worth to you?

Once finished with the post production of a shoot (a completely different animal altogether), I’m done working of of my internal hard drive. I switch Aperture libraries in the Menu Bar to open up the annual library (2011) on my DroboPro. Each annual library grows over 365 days to become terabytes in size, and that gets a little slow, but I don’t work off of that volume and I see greatly value in reviewing all of my work in yearly segments. Then I navigate to the Menu Bar to File- Import library/project. Aperture allows me to select my smaller project library and import the changes into my annual library. I have folders set up within this main library, establishing categories, and tend to keep projects organized by date within each category, (see previous link). I can then remove the original library from my internal scratch drive once I know the master library is in tact. freeing up space for future projects.

Step Three: Off Site Aperture Vaults

To go one further, each month I backup my 2011 library onto an external LaCie 2TB Rugged, and take it off site. I use an Aperture vault that backs up any changes from within the library, including new images or adjustments, from the DroboPro to the Lacie 2TB. Backing up the incremental changes is literally days faster, and safer, than than erasing or overwriting the previous backup entirely. CrashPlan is another automatic, off site backup alternative that I am considering. Any suggestions on this, please let me know in the comments below.

Backups in the Field

For backups in the field, I keep a LaCie 500GB, 7200RPM FireWire 800 external hard drive in my case at all times. This drive is durable, super light weight, small, and fast enough for me to work off of if need be. I use it primarily as a backup when traveling. I keep a small partition on it that is set up to boot Mac OS X, with Aperture and all of my Nik Plugins preinstalled on it, with a new Aperture library preconfigured. That way, if my 64GB internal hard drive fails, I can still boot from the external, use my 500GB internal scratch drive and the remainder of the space on my Lacie for backup. You can get one of these for $125, and if you think about the type of insurance that you are getting, it’s a bargain. It’s inexpensive enough to mail separately in a flat rate, USPS supplied media box back to your home or studio if you are traveling domestically and want to keep your files separate. They can take a 3 foot drop and LaCie will still cover any issues under warranty. Anything can fail, but this is a great solution to keep redundancy in the field.

Aperture 3 resources can be found here on Apple’s website, and you can download the Aperture application here. Suggestions, comments, questions, key points, please feel free to use the comments below.