Greg Benz Photography » Minneapolis based cityscape and landscape photographer; luminosity masking fiend

This mind-bending staircase is actually two staircases that don’t connect anywhere, but the bottom from where I took this photo. It’s absolutely stunning, and yet I think the early morning cooks who passed me in the stairwell thought nothing of it. Amazing how we can become immune to the beauty around us. I’ve always loved that about photography, it makes you stop and pause to appreciate life’s little details.

Apparently these stairs had a purpose back when George Munsing was using this building a hundred years ago to make his revolutionary “itchless” underwear. George was a successful guy, in fact the underwear king of the universe at the time. Well, rumor has it that making underwear all day in the world’s busiest factory can make some people testy. So George decided it was better not to spoil the mood of workers arriving for their shift by having them pass by the grouchy ones heading home.

Enter the Vortex

As photographers, we just want to get out shooting and look over our work.  There’s nothing sexy about a backup strategy – it takes work, it costs money, and is completely unnecessary in our ideal scenario .  But if things don’t go according to plan, it’s the best investment we ever made.  To me, it just isn’t an option not to have a fool-proof backup.  Don’t believe me?  Then listen to this 4-year old:

 


Exactly.  No one wants their pictures to go away forever.  Actually, I have several objectives in my backup strategy:  avoid failure, keep the backup current, be able to recover quickly if needed, and make sure it’s robust enough for the worst case scenario.  Meeting those objectives requires  a combination of multiple backup strategies.

 

The best defense is a good offense (avoid failure)

Having a solid backup strategy is critical, but the best scenario is to avoid ever needing to use it.  There are several steps you can take to avoid loss of your data in the first place.  I recommend using only high quality drives.  Modern SSD (solid state drives) are generally more reliable than hard drives with moving parts, and are lightning quick.  But they’re pretty pricy, so storing all your files on an SSD isn’t practical for most photographers.  But you can make cheaper spinning drives both faster and more reliable by using RAID (redundant array of independent disks) or Drobo (which achieves a similar result using a proprietary solution).

I personally use both SSD and a RAID.  The SSD is my boot and working drive, which gives me maximum speed for my work, and the RAID serves as storage for older work that I access only occasionally.  As a laptop user, an external working drive isn’t ideal.  But by using “smart previews” in Lightroom, I can do 95% of what I need to in Lightroom without even connecting the external drive!  My Pegasus R6 has six 1-terabyte drives configured in a RAID 6 configuration.  This means that I get 4TB of actual storage, the system runs super quick, and I can lose two drives without losing my data (or needing to restore from a backup drive).  It’s an awesome drive, but isn’t a fit for every budget.  RAID 10 or 5 also offer good speed and safety at a lower cost, and RAID 0 is cheaper yet (though disk speed is slower).

 

Real-time backup (keep it current)

You don’t want to lose even a day or week of work, so a real time backup is important.  OSX users have it made.  “Time machine” is practically a dream.  Just hook up a sufficiently large drive and set it to backup all your data.  For security, I have mine set to be encrypted (just like my primary drive).  I say practically because I’ve heard of a few situations where it didn’t restore when needed (apparently Drobo drives don’t always work reliably as Time Machine backup drives, and there have been reports of an Apple bug that can deselect drives when you’re data includes external drives).  But it’s generally a very robust backup that I would recommend (as part of a strategy that also includes clones, which I’ll discuss in the next section).

Having ditched Windows 6 years ago, I can’t really speak with authority on the best PC alternative.  Photog friends of mine have recommended SyncToy for Windows – they noted that it doesn’t offer multiple time points to restore, but that it does it’s job reliably.  Acronis also offers incremental backups.  Here are a few other Windows options to consider.  Please comment below if you know any Windows options that you believe stand out.

 

Bootable backup (get back to work right away)

Restoring 2+ TB of data can easily take a whole day.  If your income depends on your photography, a bootable backup is critical.  If you just have a lot of data, it’s a major convenience.  I personally use Carbon Copy Cloner to backup my Mac.  For PCs, Acronis is highly recommended.  I maintain 2-3 clones in addition to my Time Machine backup, but 1 is sufficient.  My extra clones give me a little extra peace of mine, and I keep more frequent clones in a fire safe at home.  And the older clones give me the ability to go back in time in case my more recent backups are just copies duplicates of a file that’s been corrupted, mangled, or deleted.

 

Offsite backup (be ready for the worst case scenario)

No matter how many backups you have, you can still lose them all at the same time to a fire or theft.  It’s critical to have an offsite backup.  And, unless you’re prepared to lose weeks, months, or years of work, you need to save a backup in a different location from your working files.  A clone backup is a decent option and it can cover the need for a bootable option.  But the hassle of getting the drive, performing a backup (which will take days if you have a few TB of data and a typical backup drive) and then moving it back offsite means that most people won’t do this more than every few months or even just yearly.  That can leave you with a lot of missing work if you get in a jam.  I’m a much bigger fan of backing up to “the cloud”.  It sounds nice, right?   Some cherub is personally watching over your photos.  Ok, maybe not.  But the cloud offers a safe and easy way to continuously back up your work offsite.  I personally recommend CrashPlan by Code 42.    They’re software runs reliably and quietly in the background, they offer 448 bit encryption to safeguard your data, and you can get your data back on a hard drive if needed for a quick restore.   The only scenario where I wouldn’t recommend this route would be for those with extremely slow internet.  I’ve got 5MBps on Comcast, and my backups complete in a few days even after a 100 gigabytes shoot.  For the annual price of about a month of cable, it’s critical protection for your valuable photos and great peace of mind.  They also offer their software for free if you want to backup to a friend’s computer if cost is a priority.

 

Plan B (bailout)

If you haven’t done any of the above, or if you’ve had multiple failures, you might need to consider extreme measures to recover what you can.  If your drive still functional, there are some self-help options like Disk Warrior that can try to help reconstruct lost data.  For more extreme failures, there are numerous professional services you can find on the web for more intensive intervention.  But, if you’ve followed the steps above, the chances you’ll be stuck in this scenario are extremely unlikely.

 

 

I got up at 5am to hike to Xuanwu Lake Park to shoot the Nanjing skyline with the Zifeng Tower.  In addition to getting some great photos, I was treated to an unbelievably fun Chinese experience.  There were hundreds of older Chinese out for morning exercise – Qi Gong, walking with radios strapped to their bodies, singing, “painting” Chinese characters on the sidewalk in water, and many other fascinating scenes.  While I was taking this photo, there was a local taking the same photo.  Several elderly Chinese men came up to check out our equipment, they seemed incredibly curious.  While the other photographer and I could speak to each other (I did manage to say “hi” in Mandarin), we formed something of a silent friendship, and he offered me a “Double Happiness” cigarette, though I politely declined (smoking in China seems a bit redundant to me with all the air pollution).

Golden Reflections on Nanjing

I feel bad for anyone who comes to Cinque Terre, Italy, and doesn’t hike from town to town.  The cities get mobbed with tourists during the day, but the trails are relatively quiet.  I bet 90% of the visitors come in by train, walk around the towns, and leave without seeing the most beautiful part of Cinque Terre!  The trails can be a little steep (and a little trying in a couple spots for those who are afraid of heights), but they are unbelievably gorgeous.  From these trails, you get some of the best views of the five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  And along the way are gorgeous views of the hillsides and sea, such as these vineyards outside of Corniglia (which is the only one of the five that isn’t right down on sea).

Vineyards of Cornelia

Nikon D810

The Nikon D810 is the new heavy-weight champion of the DSLR world, or at least it has the sharpest pixels and greatest dynamic range.  It’s so good, in fact, that I have to wonder how it would compare head to head with medium format cameras.  I don’t shoot medium format, but Alex Koloskov wrote a great head to head comparison of the D800e vs the Hasselblad H4D40 medium format camera (see it here).  And now Nikon has just taken things one step further with the D810!

But, as FDA (and Spiderman) said, with great power comes great responsibility.  Or, if you want your images to stand up to the D810 hype, you have to use it the right way.  Many people have given me the awkward (or backhanded) compliment, “Your camera takes great pictures!”  Well, it also takes horrible pictures if you don’t use it the right way.  I don’t know why the general public discounts the value of the person behind the camera so much, it’s not like you’d give someone a Stradivarius and assume they can play beautiful music.  If you want to make great landscape images with the D810, there are a few key things you need to do to pull out all the color and sharpness that this camera is capable of.

I recommend the following approach to get the most out of the Nikon D810 for landscapes:

  • Use electronic first curtain shutter.  This prevents shutter movement right before the image is exposed, which helps reduce an important source of vibration.  Dpreview.com has a great example showing just how much of a difference this can make on the D810.  Nikon cautions that this feature should be turned off when using tilt-shift lenses faster than 1/125 if you see uneven lighting, and disables it by default at shutter speeds of 1/2000s for any lens.  Since this feature is only active when using mirror lockup and I’m shooting at slower speeds almost always due to low ISO and moderate apertures on a tripod, I leave this feature always enabled.  Nikon has disabled this by feature default, so go to: menu, custom settings, d5 = enable.  This is the one setting that’s unique to the D810, the rest of the steps below would apply to getting optimal images out of most cameras.
  • Shoot on a tripod.  This goes for any serious landscape work, but especially if you want ultra-sharp images at high resolution.  Think of it this way, if you smear your image even 1 pixel in each direction, you’ve cut the horizontal resolution in half and you’ve cut the vertical resolution in half.  And since resolution is height times width, you’ve just turned a 36 megapixel camera into a 9 megapixel camera.
  • Use high quality lenses.  Pixels are no better than the light that hits the sensor, so make sure you’ve got a lens that can keep up with your camera.  DXO mark has published a great list of images that have tested highly with the D800e.
  • Shoot RAW, 14 bit, Adobe RGB, Lossless compressed or uncompressed.  Anything less than this and you’re giving away a lot of quality.  I’m not just talking about the ability to tweak white balance or exposure in post, but the ability to pull more out of the image even when you nail the exposure perfectly.
  • Shoot at ISO 64-100 whenever you can.  This gives you the best possible dynamic range, which is critical to seeing shadow detail, pulling color out of a bright sky, etc.  If you have to shoot at a higher ISO (especially true for moving subjects that would blur with a longer shutter speed), try to keep things as low as you can.  I’ll shoot portraits up to ISO6400 and get very good results, but I try to keep landscapes at 400 or below whenever possible.
  • Use mirror lockup or exposure delay mode.  Set the drive move to Mup and use a cable release if you want to take advantage of my next recommendation, as Nikon apparently hasn’t yet enabled electronic first curtain shutter with exposure delay mode (hopefully this will be addressed in a firmware update, as this greatly simplifies shooting HDR and the ability to skip using a cable release).
  • Use live view.  Not only does live view offer a better ability to autofocus in many situations, but you can also activate split-screen display mode (“i” button, select the bottom option).  Split-screen display allows for an ultra-level horizon (note that you can also hit the “info” button a few times to get the tilt display, which is nearly as good for horizons and gives vertical info as well).  If you find the display is too dark, you can temporarily open up your aperture (though I wish Nikon would offer some option for brightness boost without having to change the aperture).
  • Check your histograms.  The overall histogram is good, but I really prefer the RGB histogram to make sure I’m not blowing out detail in something colorful.
  • Use f/8-f/13 when possible.  There are plenty of times when I shoot more wide open to get a shallow depth of field or use a faster shutter (or minimize the impact of shooting through glass from a building).  There are also times when I shoot with a small aperture for more depth of field (though I’d try to use focus bracketing instead) or slower shutter speeds (though I try to use an ND filter or lower ISO instead).  But both of those extremes reduce the sharpness of the image, and very small apertures really bring every bit of dust on the sensor into the image.  So stick with a middle aperture whenever you can to get the sharpest possible image.
  • Don’t be afraid to read the manual.