The case for thinking ahead

Here comes a tale of woe, good readers, and a cautionary one that should give Aperture users pause for thought along with a very good argument for referencing files rather than managing them.

How large is your Aperture library? 50GB? 100GB? 350GB? I’ve heard of libraries of 1TB and greater, with owners happily gloating over their massive collections. However, as I am about to reveal, libraries of such size can be a curse.

Here’s what happened.

My iMac, following a software update, became unstable. In trying to solve the problem by returning to an earlier version of the software via Time Machine, a power failure interrupted the procedure and the iMac became unbootable. All the data was intact, but I couldn’t boot the machine past the grey screen with the Apple logo.

To whichever question you are determined to post in the forum that starts with “Did you try...?” the answer is yes, so please don’t ask that question.

I gave up and sent the machine to my fixit guy. Sometimes, you just have to seek professional help. I write this on the family’s MacBook while harbouring a strong desire that my iMac has a failed component and the warranty will cover its replacement.

At times like this, users are well-advised to switch into damage control mode. If you can get access to any data not yet backed up on the hard drive, your first task is to make a copy of it. As I was able to tether the MacBook to the iMac booted into FireWire Target Disk Mode, this was exactly what I set out to do.

Here’s the problem. My Aperture library was 350GB. Just two new projects, about 20GB of images, had been imported into the library since I last backed up the library contents. Yet because those two projects hadn’t been exported as part of my usual back-up procedure, I was stuck with copying the whole of the 350GB library to an external drive for the sake of saving 20GB. Not an easy task, because not one of my external drives had 350GB to spare, so some shunting of data was necessary.

It was also a time-consuming task, even over FireWire 800. This is especially frustrating because the only reason my library had blown out to such a size was because I’d recently imported a few old projects looking for some images for a web site gallery.

Just so you know, my usual workflow is to import a set of photos into a project, complete the edit, and then export the project to an external drive. This makes it easy to recover the project at a later date. No, I don’t use Aperture’s vault back-up — it’s horribly slow and wraps the whole library into a single entity that is unwieldy and hogs a lot of space on a hard drive. Also, I exclude my Aperture library from my Time Machine backups.

Usually, my Aperture library is about 60-100GB, comprising current projects that are backed up as I go. I am methodical when it comes to managing my photos — or like to think so — but, as this sad scenario shows, it is possible that an unfortunate series of events can stymie even well-organised workflows.

If you’re an Aperture user, the question I want you to ask yourself is this: “How do I avoid this kind of horror scenario?” I’ll help you out a bit by pointing out two of my mistakes.

The first should be pretty obvious — before you go approving any software updates, make sure your back-up plan is up to date. The other mistake I made was bringing in so many projects looking for a few good pics. Much, much better would be maintaining a separate library comprising the very best shots from each project, a library of portfolio images, ready to go whenever I need them.

I must get on to that when my iMac comes back.

Some users will probably suggest a couple of other mistakes and I would expect among these would be my choice of managing files by storing them in the Aperture library rather than referencing them and storing them elsewhere. A desirable “elsewhere” would be on external hard drives but even better would be a Drobo, an external storage system that is expandable with hot-swappable drives and has automated data protection features. A Drobo is on my list of must-have hardware, but it’s fighting for top spot with a $3000 lens and a $6000 camera body, neither of which I can afford just now, and even in the face of this most recent disaster the Drobo is losing the tussle.

So what I want you to take away from this is this: Is your library back-up procedure coherent, consistent and easy to recover from? Have you considered the pros and cons of using referenced files instead of managed files? And is your external storage up to the task of responding to a disaster such as the one I endured this week? Bear in mind that when it comes to external storage that it’s not how much you have now but how much you’ll need in the near future that you should be accounting for.

Just something to think about.

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