The Photographer’s Workflow – Essential reading by Gavin Gough

My decision to become a photographer followed a lot of soul-searching, as my regular readers know well. I didn’t feel satisfied in my earlier career, but for a long time didn’t have clarity on what I should do instead. I had a checklist of things that I wanted from my new career, which you’ll find in one of my earliest journal pieces, So I decided to become a photographer…. #6 on this list is the one I’ve found hardest to achieve: “It should not involve constant computer usage”. I can confidently place a tick by all the other ten requirements on this list now that I’m a photographer, yet I still spend the bulk of my time in this career staring at a computer because there are so many tasks to complete after the pressing of the shutter button on my camera before an image is ready for my client.

So for me, Gavin Gough’s new eBook, The Photographer’s Workflow, was just the ticket. ‘Workflow’ doesn’t exactly sound like the most inspiring subject for a 130-page book, but Gavin has clearly spent considerable time making his creation a pleasure to read. It’s full of his compelling and uplifting imagery, step-by-step idiot-proof instructions illustrated with screenshots from Adobe Lightroom 4 and exercises to help you practise the time-saving and efficiency-gaining things you’re learning. And it’s more than just an eBook: in the package you’ll also get links to a number of free online video tutorials, 65 Lightroom 4 development presets to help give your processing a more consistent linear structure and a series of Lightroom ‘smart collections’ that pretty much copy-paste Gavin’s years of experience in building a step-by-step workflow for managing his digital photographs right into your own copy of Lightroom. That’s quite a privilege! All for only $30.

gavin gough photographers workflow cascade The Photographers Workflow   Essential reading by Gavin Gough

If this is something that interests you, chances are you’re a photographer, whether professional, aspiring professional or amateur. As a photographer, I think the chances are also good that you’re more of a visual person than someone who’s keen to read a lot of text. So rather than me continuing to wax lyrical about what this book has to offer, here’s a great little video that Gavin himself has put together:

Happy Diwali 2012 from India

Here’s a quick (somewhat belated) Diwali postcard for you from India!

india happy diwali 2012 26240 Happy Diwali 2012 from India

Happy Diwali 2012!

 

No, this is not bad Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator work. This is the handiwork of Arthur deFreslon (see his spooky face on the right?) and his keyring torch! It was shot at f/16, 30 sec, 200 ISO. A very happy Diwali from India to all of you.

Trials and tribulations of image backup, Part II – Say NO to Backblaze!

Recently, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of online backup. Today, I feel duty-bound to give some more strongly-worded advice on this. But if you don’t have the time to read what follows, then I think the following graphic pretty much says it all:

backblaze liability Trials and tribulations of image backup, Part II   Say NO to Backblaze!

If you thought Backblaze was a great solution for online external hard drive backups, PLEASE think again.

What I mean to show with this graphic is that Backblaze offer a service that they say will guarantee one peace of mind about the security of one’s data, yet the reality couldn’t be further from this ‘guarantee’. The images of the computer, the first arrow and the Backblaze vault are theirs. If one opens the Backblaze panel on one’s system, this is what it shows, together with figures that show the amount of data they’ve backed up. I have added the second arrow and the external hard drive in flames. This is because, on 10th September 2012, I opened my Backblaze panel to find that the several hundreds of gigabytes of data – the RAW files of all my precious images – were no longer showing as backed up. In place of the previous number was a rather small yet conspicuous zero. And that zero remained.

Zero

I’ve been through this ‘zero thing’ before with Backblaze. I knew that when an external hard drive is removed, Backblaze registers the data as – in effect – deleted. I understood what they’d told me (and what I’d read on their site) clearly enough: one must plug in one’s external hard drive(s) at least once every 30 days after the application detects that the drive was unplugged to ensure that the data remains backed up. After re-plugging in one’s external drive, Backblaze will see the data it had earmarked as deleted (but not yet irreversibly junked) and ‘deduplicate’. So I waited for this ‘deduplication’ to happen.

It was to be a long wait. And, guess what? It never happened. Their best practices section says to “run Backblaze continuously for five hours once every two weeks”, especially after re-attaching an external drive. Well, firstly, there has never been a time when Backblaze has not been running on my laptop; and, secondly, I left it running continuously not just for five hours, not even for ‘only’ 24 hours (as customer support had suggested), but for several days after starting my system up and seeing that zero. To no avail.

Take your money, and go!

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned in the comments section that I was in touch with Backblaze’s head developer, the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of the company. Brian Wilson is a very nice man, I must admit. But he had no solution to my problem. In fact, he urged me again and again to accept a full refund and to leave Backblaze! That’s not really an optimal solution, after having spent 10 months backing up using his application, to the point that my backup was 99% complete. He said the only alternative was that I could re-push all my data.

Ok, so I’d been pushing all this data gradually over ten months using what most Americans would now regard as ultra slow Internet connections, as I’ve been in countries of the Global South (formerly known as the ‘developing world’). Backblaze, or a service like it, may not be the best solution for people like me, who need to guarantee their clients that their large files are safe while they’re on the move. Mr Wilson kept pointing to the best practices statement that “Backblaze should be able to complete your initial backup in 30 days. If your initial backup is estimated to take longer, then Backblaze may not be the best solution for you”. However, at this stage, my broadband speed was no longer even relevant, as the backup had pretty much been completed. The relevant fact was this: Backblaze thought I had 0 bytes of data. That’s all. Simple. So what could they do about it?

Apparently, nothing. “You must re-push”, he told me again and again. Yes, they had all my RAW files in their data centre (or did they?! I’ll come to that in just a moment), but after 30 days had elapsed, these would be ‘securely’ deleted. If I suffered data loss locally during those 30 days, I could recover my files. After that, they would be gone forever. Re-installing Backblaze was not a solution (I tried it multiple times). The application had clearly malfunctioned, and the greatest technical mind at the company could offer me no answer. He sent me a list of four possible causes for what had happened, and I know for a fact that none of the first three of these had occurred in my case. The fourth, however, seems like a possibility: “Something [could have] triggered a Backblaze bug where it executed the code that normally runs only when a drive has been unplugged for 30 days”.

Blasé

As a company that’s accepted the responsibility of playing custodian of thousands (tens of thousands? Hundreds? More?!) of people’s precious data, I must say that the man at the top when it comes to all things technical is exceedingly blasé about what this responsibility means. He thought that offering my money back and just walking away from the mess his company had potentially left me in was ‘generous’. In fact, let’s look at the precise wording of what he said:

In all honestly it felt generous to me. Your backup used up disk space in our datacenter for 10 months, we will just absorb that cost to make this right. The drives use up electricity we paid for, we pay security guards, all of that we will simply absorb to make this right. You used datacenter bandwidth we just lost money on to make this right. We have interacted by email with you quite extensively, paying each employee that exchanged emails with you a wage, again, all this cost absorbed by Backblaze. And in addition to all of that cost, we will simply give you back all your money you have ever paid to Backblaze to make this utterly financially free to you. FREE!!

I could write a whole essay in response to this paragraph, but I don’t think I need to. Suffice it to say, as I pointed out, that if they offered telephone support then all of the voluminous communication that both sides spent many hours (days?) on could have been saved with one phone call. Mr Wilson told me that offering this would ‘bankrupt’ the company. I suggested they offer it as a premium service. He wasn’t interested.

Ultimately, the point where anything could have been done (30 days after ‘the incident’) passed and Backblaze’s mirror of my external drive’s data was gone forever. It is of course decent to give a refund under circumstances like these. But under circumstances like these, where all the images I’ve ever shot professionally are suddenly rendered vulnerable, it is also decent to go the extra mile. Backblaze were least interested in stepping up to the mark.

Moving forward

So what now? Well, I’ve done a fresh round of research and found what seems like a decent alternative. I’ve started to re-push, not to the imbeciles at Backblaze but to the seemingly responsible and professional folk at CrashPlan. In addition to replying to e-mails over the weekend (unlike Backblaze), they DO offer phone support, and they don’t seem to fear these things bankrupting them. Indeed, they don’t feel they need to charge more for such service; their offering actually costs less than Backblaze’s.

And what about external hard drives for Mac users? (Carbonite, as I mentioned in my previous post, offer an excellent service, but Mac users cannot back their external drives up to them.) Again, CrashPlan seem to talk sense. “Could you tell me how long this external drive can be unplugged before Crashplan regards the data as deleted?”, I asked them, with memories of the Backblaze madness still so fresh in my mind. The reply: “The external drive can be unplugged as long as you want and the data will never be removed. CrashPlan will maintain the backup as long as you have an active subscription”. Now isn’t that so much more sensible? Compare it to what Backblaze’s CTO told me about the system he himself designed:

There exists a trade off whether [sic.] Backblaze should pounce on any hard drive that is plugged in and scan it as quickly as possible (the behavior that would have helped you), or have Backblaze VERY SLOWLY figure out 30 minutes after the hard drive is plugged in that it needs to be scanned, then SLOWLY index the drive over a 2 – 3 hour period (this behavior dramatically helps lower the impact of Backblaze on your system). After this 30 minutes and 2 – 3 hours, then Backblaze needs to transmit a few files it finds, and then 4 hours [sic.] of transmitting at VERY VERY MOST, Backblaze transmits the “status” to the datacenter which says your hard drive was plugged in.

Wow.

Of course, only time will tell whether CrashPlan is as good as it’s looked during the first few weeks I’ve been trialling it. I am at least far more hopeful and relaxed about my data than I used to be with Backblaze. So far, almost all of 2012′s images have been backed up to the CrashPlan data centre, and – as I always did – I have everything I’ve ever shot additionally backed up on another huge external drive that I try to keep separately (though that’s not always possible as I’m on the road so often, which is why online backup is so essential to me).

For those who live in the US or Australia (and, soon, Europe), it’s even possible to seed one’s backup to CrashPlan. This means that one pays a bit extra and they’ll send an external drive to copy all one’s data to and send back to them. Naturally, this is a whole lot quicker and will not eat into your bandwidth, nor encroach upon your Internet provider’s fair usage policy. Again, no hint that this sensible service will make the company bankrupt!

Oh Backblaze, what an all-round disappointment you’ve proven. When I first started with you, I tweeted that you were a globally mobile photographer’s dream. Now, I hope that no such photographer will ever make the mistake of choosing your so-called ‘service’ again, at least not until you correct the serious flaws with your product and also stop being so cynical towards your customers.

Photography mentoring service for budding visual storytellers

“The time has come”, the Walrus said, “to talk of many things”. Not of shoes and ships and sealing wax in my case, nor even of cabbages and kings. Rather, it’s time to tell you about my new eMentoring service. If you’re a budding photographer and you’d like to develop and hone your visual storytelling skills, now’s the time to get in touch with me.

visual storytelling training Photography mentoring service for budding visual storytellers

Are you keen to develop your visual storytelling skills?

I first wrote about my intention to offer this service back in December, and the intention was for Robin Wyatt Vision’s Facebook page to act as the conduit. I had wanted to launch at the point where the page crossed 1,000 fans, but if truth be known, I wasn’t ready at that time. In the past month, however, I’ve been delighted to see a rise in my Facebook fan base of more than 50%, and clicking through to the ‘About’ sections of these new fans’ personal pages shows that many are amateur photographers and aspiring professionals. So it’s really time to get cracking with this, I feel.

Who’s this for? How do I register interest?

To begin with, I’m opening this service up to just a handful of people from the countries of the Global South (today’s supposedly politically correct term for the ‘Developing World’, though the most up-to-date term for this seems to change more frequently than I change the lens on my camera). I’m particularly interested in hearing from people who use their camera (or would like to) to help small non-profits in their home countries to communicate visually. As the first stage will be pretty experimental, I’ll be offering it for FREE.

If you’re interested, the first criteria is that you need to be a fan of the Robin Wyatt Vision Facebook page. Clicking this link will set you along the way. After that, you need to drop me a message via the messaging section on the page. Simply tell me that you’re interested in eMentoring, and give me some insight into who you are, where you’re currently at with your photography and how you would like to develop it.

Are we a good fit?

As I mentioned, I’ll start by offering this to just a few people. It won’t be on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. Rather, I’m keen to select those of you for whom I see a ‘good fit’ with what I do and what I stand for in photography. If you know something about me, you’ll know what this means! If you don’t then you can start by reading the ‘About‘ section of this website and some of my journal posts to see whether what I’m about makes sense to you.

The other very important thing to note is that the emphasis in our eMentoring sessions will be more on developing your storytelling skills and less on the technical side of photography. There’s so much already out there on the latter, and with more being added to YouTube etc. every day, you don’t even need to take formal classes or guidance from an individual photographer. Of course, we’ll delve into such matters where they come up, but what I’m most interested in doing is guiding you in developing your vision and your ability to move people with your images without resorting to exorbitantly priced equipment.

So if this sounds like it could be for you, get in touch.

Trials and tribulations of image backup

Today, I thought I’d share some of my experiences with image backup. It’s not been an easy journey, I can tell you!

Vault Trials and tribulations of image backup

Safely backing up one’s images seems like common sense, right?

As many of us know from bitter experience, mishaps happen. Internal hard drives get fried, laptops get stolen (or left on the bus!) and external hard drives fail. Quite apart from the fact that it would be devastating for me personally to lose all my images – years of work and an almighty investment of love as well as money – I need to be able to assure my clients that what they’ve commissioned is safe in my hands.

I frequently shoot over a thousand images in an assignment, and every single one is typically around 30 Mb in size as I shoot in RAW format. No laptop’s hard drive can hold this much data, so I store my original images on 1 Tb and 1.5 Tb external hard drives. Every image is copied to a similar external drive for safekeeping. I’m globally mobile, however, so simply keeping a copy of everything on an external hard drive is not enough. If I’m carrying the external drive holding my original images in one bag and the external drive holding my backups in another, there is still the possibility that I might get mugged and lose the lot.

Enter online backup

To begin with, I used Carbonite to back up everything on my laptop’s hard drive to the company’s state-of-the-art data centres that are guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The programme would operate silently in the background, detecting any small change to my files and ensuring that it was reflected in the backup. If I suffered a loss of any kind, I could retrieve my files any time via download.

That was great… until I became a photographer! With all those RAW files, I outgrew my laptop’s internal hard drive in no time at all. At the time, only Mozy offered to back up external hard drives, but they charged a fortune for it (I just checked again: they still do). Then, late in 2011, I discovered Backblaze. For around US$ 50/year, they will back up everything. Yes, including external hard drives. And they’ll even courier very large recoveries for a small fee (unlike Carbonite). What a relief!

Or so I thought. I was not allowing for the fact that I would frequently be travelling in places where my Internet speed would be slower than a snail’s pace. Sadly, even today, there are places where one must endure upload at half of the speed (sometimes less) of what we were getting via dialup connections in the UK back in 1995. In fact, I seem to be in such places most of the time! So here I am, nine moths after first installing Backblaze, and my initial backup is only just nearing completion. Every time I’m somewhere where I get fast Internet access, I leave my machine on 24 hours a day to let the backup process continue. In fact, I even select places to stay on the basis of the Internet speed available to me. None of this is Backblaze’s fault, of course. They do not throttle uploads (though one can choose to do so oneself via the programme’s preferences panel).

Telephone support

So, on the face of it, it would seem that Backblaze is an excellent solution for photographers living anywhere where there they can be sure of a fast upload speed. Well… not necessarily. There have been times when things have gone wrong, and I’ve found Backblaze maddening to say the least. The biggest headache is the fact that they offer only e-mail support from their offices that work according to US Pacific time. If I’m in India, that’s when I’m asleep, meaning that an e-mail sent one day will get a reply only once I’ve gone to bed. So a troubleshooting session that involves five of my e-mails and five of theirs in the thread takes two working weeks!

One issue I’ve experienced more than once is that after unplugging my external drive, Backblaze does not always ‘see’ its contents again after the drive is plugged back in. It typically takes some time for this to happen anyway, and the company says that the data remains stored with them for up to 30 days, even if it doesn’t show up in the Backblaze panel on one’s computer. But I have experienced instances of the programme not seeing the data again at all. This leads to a troubleshooting session over e-mail (with admittedly very nice people) that takes literally weeks to complete. When I’ve had this particular problem, I’ve twice spent around two weeks in e-mail exchanges and troubleshooting procedures that take up to an hour of my time to work on each day until the problem gets rectified.

I’ve asked to speak to the troubleshooting team on the phone, but each time I’ve been told that “As we provide a completely unlimited online backup service for just $50/year, we do all of our customer support via email, not phone. We also find that email is a better tool for most issues since we can send links, screenshots, email addresses, etc”. The fact that this is standard text that gets repeated verbatim each time I make the suggestion implies that I’m not the only customer who wants it! I have suggested that they could introduce an option of costlier unlimited backup with telephone support, but this has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears.

So now what?!

Continuing to think it through, I wondered whether I might be able to return to Carbonite, since they now offer external drive backups in their unlimited plans. I had experience of their phone support previously, and found it excellent. If need be, the operator could give me a small programme to install that would enable him to take remote control of my computer for that session only in order to do whatever’s necessary. It really was hassle-free, and the US$ 50 over and above what Backblaze charges seemed worth it for this support alone. However, when I checked again just now (as I’ve been scrapping with Backblaze again for the the past couple of weeks), I found that external hard drive backups are not available to Mac users. Which, like most creative professionals, I am. Dammit.

At the end of all this, I’m afraid I can’t really suggest fellow photographers a definitive solution (beyond lobbying Backblaze to offer telephone support, or Carbonite to facilitate external drive backups for Mac users!). I’ll update this post if I hear of one. For now, I’m glad that I at least have about 90% of my images backed up at my friend’s office… though I can’t say that it’s a ‘state-of-the-art data centre that’s guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week’.