Having made the transition from Windows to OSX as my primary machine, I (almost) couldn't be happier... except...
July 23, 2011 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I feel like this must be a tremendously stupid question: what's the best way to backup my photos on my mac?

((apologies in advance if this has been discussed and answered, i can't find anything that addresses my specific concern which tells me i either don't know how to look for it or its blindingly simple to everyone but me.))

I cannot for the life of me figure out how osx handles photos - or other files for that matter - and how best to make backups of important things. To be honest, I've never been good at making backups on any platform; I've kindof found catastrophic drive failures freeing in a "fresh start" sort of way. But since all our family pictures are on this machine, I'm getting nervous. I know there is Time Machine and I have an external drive to do system backups (which i have never actually done, natch). But honestly, I don't know that I necessarily WANT every stupid thing on the machine to be preserved in case of a catastrophic failure.

And there really is every stupid thing. Every pdf I ever clicked on to look at one thing, every picture I ever cropped or fiddled with has multiple copies archived somewhere. On a 180GB harddrive I have less than 40 gigs free. That's... kind of ridiculous isn't it? And no, I don't really have that much media.

But that's a different issue altogether isn't it? As near as I can tell, you just need to periodically track down bloat and manually clean that up... which seems woefully inefficient in what is otherwise a brilliantly user-friendly operating system.

I guess my question is 2 part: (a) What's the most efficient way to back up just the critical things (photos, music, maybe browser settings?) and (b) how can I better manage the way OSX manages... stuff. And the keeping of stuff. And specifically the not getting rid of stuff.
posted by lilnublet to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm pretty sure you can instruct Time Machine to back up only specific folders (for example, /Users/yourusername/Pictures) - but even if not, external storage is cheap, and the nice thing with a full Time Machine backup is that when your computer's hard drive fails catastrophically, you can restore from your latest Time Machine backup and have everything just the way you left it... re-downloading, re-installing, and re-configuring all of your other software can be a pain in the neck.

There are also services like Mozy, which are perhaps a little pricier than an equivalent hard drive, but offer the added peace of mind of off-site storage.
posted by usonian at 11:45 AM on July 23, 2011

You can use Time Machine back up but exclude certain folders. Click on Time Machine in the menubar, then Time Machine Preferences, then Options and choose which folders you want to exclude. I don't think there's a way to choose to only back up certain folders though.

There are also programs that will automatically manage your folders: E.g. you tell it to watch a certain folder and if you haven't done anything with a file in that folder in a week, delete the file. Or if the file is a photo, automatically send it to iPhoto, or whatever. A well-known one is Hazel. I haven't used it, but I can see the appeal.
posted by brentajones at 11:47 AM on July 23, 2011

Ok, this is the hardest part about moving to the Mac:

The Mac knows all… it doesn't want you to think about files in terms of a file system; it wants its programs (like iPhoto and iTunes) to be your primary interface for handling your files, and for you to use the 'Music,' 'Photos,' etc., sidebars in other programs (Mail, Safari) to find them.

What this means practically for your questions:

(a) The most efficient way to back things up is Time Machine. It really is. It's a really good way to get incremental backups… use it.

Short of that, a simple clone. Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper!

(b) For the most part, you can't.

If you want to manually go about it, almost all files you're looking for exist, [offhand you're looking for bookmarks.plist in the ~/Safari folder, your iPhoto Library in Pictures, and iTunes Music in Music] but don't look. Give in.*

About bloat on your own HD: iPhoto in particular does keep duplicate copies when you edit, as well as a preview JPG if you import in RAW – there is at least one app which cuts back on this at the expense of being able to go back to your original files. There are only a few other things I can think of: the Downloads folder (by default in the Dock, always at ~/Downloads) defaults to keeping everything. I've seen users' computers with thousands of items there. Move things you're keeping, delete things you're not. Also, if you're using Mail.app, it'll download all of your mail and attachments. Less significantly, all browsers keep a cache and history, and Flash keeps its own. Safari also keeps previews of all pages which can grow a bit. But on my not–recently–cleaned machine, all of that is ≤1gb

*I was a Mac salesperson for a while, and I've had this conversation probably hundreds of times. I know this is can be tough for someone coming over from Windows, and it took me a few years myself. Give in.
posted by mhz at 12:16 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get a NAS, like the WD MyBook Live or World Edition (not referrer link, I just have one of the latter and it works suitably well).

Either schedule a nightly full backup to it, or manually copy over what your really care about (depends how often your file change).

True story - I actually interviewed at a Mac-oriented company that used an XServe (not actually in a rack, just sitting on a table) with six MyBook World Editions piled on top of it in a cute little pyramid as their primary storage. I would NOT recommend that to anyone sane, but for a home backup solution, they work admirably.
posted by pla at 12:25 PM on July 23, 2011

And there really is every stupid thing... every picture I ever cropped or fiddled with has multiple copies archived somewhere. On a 180GB harddrive I have less than 40 gigs free. That's... kind of ridiculous isn't it? And no, I don't really have that much media.

Actually, that's a feature. Many people wish to preserve the original and alterations to photos so they can go back to the original if they make a destructive change (color to b&w, cropping, etc). This also allows iPhoto to have a "revert to original" feature.

A key difference between Macs and Windows is Macs tend to have the apps or the OS itself worry about the documents/photos/music/etc where Windows puts that onto the user. Many switchers will hate that iPhoto or iTunes manages their music and photo databases because they're not used to having it done for them. I was that way too before I switched. Now it is one thing I needn't worry about. With this week's release of Lion, it is clear that Apple is moving even deeper into this territory with its restore and versioning of documents.

Time Machine is more than just a protection from a drive failure and I recommend you do a backup in case your drive fails. After backing up the complete hard drive to something you can transfer to a new Mac, recover from a failure, etc. It will only backup files than have changed. You add one photo to your library in that hour? It only updates that rather than writing your whole library again.

The idea of Time Machine, as the name implies, is to be able to go back to another point and recover a specific file. Like one you might have deleted by mistake. Or a way earlier draft of a document you're working on. If you use Mail.app, you can go back to your inbox and see files you may have deleted from the server. Time Machine does backups hourly of changes to your system, then weekly and finally monthly rollups until the external drive is full. Then it will delete older versions to make room for new backups. It is really badass that if your drive gets hosed, you can restore it back to the way things were at the most an hour before it died. If you haven't had a drive fail on you, you will some day.

To answer your questions:

I guess my question is 2 part: (a) What's the most efficient way to back up just the critical things (photos, music, maybe browser settings?)

Assuming you use iPhoto, the Photos are in the Pictures folder. In Pictures you'll find a special folder the looks like an app icon that when you ctrl-click you can "see folder contents" and find more folders with the actual files. You should not just go in and delete files (which is why Apple uses the special folder icon) because the database manages the files and if something is missing it will screw things up. From a backup perspective just copying the that iPhoto Library is all you need to do.

iTunes works the same way for music.

You'd probably want to backup your "Documents" folder as well because that is where your user saved spreadsheets, etc should be stored.

As far as browser settings, this would probably be somewhere in the the ~/Library/ folder for whatever browser.

But to me, it is just easier to let go and let Time Machine manage all that.

and (b) how can I better manage the way OSX manages... stuff. And the keeping of stuff. And specifically the not getting rid of stuff.

If you don't want the Mac keeping incremental copies of files, etc then you must stop using iTunes or iPhoto. But really, stop thinking of it as bloat.

One last thing...
Every pdf I ever clicked on to look at one thing

I didn't understand this. Are you talking about PDFs you downloaded or as attachments in emails? If you use Mail.app for email, it will keep your file attachments along with the text until the email is deleted. And if you delete the file, you have to empty the delete items mailbox for it actually to go away.

If it is downloaded files, are you cleaning out your downloads folder occasionally? By default Safari, Firefox and Chrome will put all the downloads into /Users/username/Downloads and they (along with every file you download from the internet) until you delete them. If you don't have a lot of media on your computer and you're running out of space, a lot of the "bloat" isn't iterations of photos in iPhoto, but you may not be deleting files as you're downloading them.

You might want to check out this thread to help you find out where the bloat actually is coming from.
posted by birdherder at 12:39 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have a 180 GB hard drive, using Time Machine with a 1TB external drive (less than $100) will back up your computer... for longer than the lifetime of your computer. Time Machine only backs up your user files, not the OS. I was in a similar situation, with a nearly full 200 GB hard drive - I backed up to a 1 TB external drive regularly for two years, and I didn't break past 200 GB on the external drive. I even set aside 200GB on the external for a Super Duper bootable partition.

Space is so cheap nowadays, especially with 3.5" external hard drives, that you might be overthinking this. For backups, your priority should be having _any_ backup system, even a suboptimal one, that gets regularly used. Anything you do to make that more complicated (custom scripts, detailed separation of "critical" and "non-critical" backups, etc.) make it less likely that the backup will be available and up to date when you need it. By that time it's too late.
posted by meowzilla at 12:53 PM on July 23, 2011

Everything that is specific to you can be found in /Users/username. Applications and other things are stored elsewhere. I strongly recommend that you use Time Machine to back up your entire machine. $50 gets you a 500GB USB drive. Keep it off-site, no sense in having your backups stored next to your computer when your apartment gets robbed/burns down. It will keep incremental backups that you can restore selectively from (want the spreadsheet from three weeks ago before you deleted that important data?) or bare metal restore from (if your computer completely dies and you end up with a shiny new one, this will keep all your programs, all of your settings, all of your documents, all of your photos, etc).

Once you've started doing that, you can start worrying about more complex backup strategies such as one TM backup and one CCC backup for 0 down time back-up-and-running-100% functionality.

TM comes with OS X, it's free, it's set it and forget it, so I'm not sure why this is an issue. The entire point of it is so you can stop worrying if you have everything. Would you rather run Windows, write a batch script to backup certain directories with robocopy/xcopy, hope that you've got everything (oh, wait, what do you mean that new statistics package I installed last week keeps the custom calculations stored in C:\Program Files\NameOfStatProg\CustomCalc\ ? I had no idea it stuck data there, now it's gone forever) and then schedule it to run at certain times and then prune it manually when your backup disk gets full?

The only reason I can see worrying about where in some directory structure an MP3 is saved is if I always navigated my MP3 collection by using some sort of file browser (Finder/Explorer). I find it much easier to rely on a program that is metadata aware so I can browse by artist, genre, release year, etc. Same for my photos, I see no reason to keep track of hundreds of folders when I can tell LightRoom to show me all photos I've tagged with "Euro Trip 2010".

If you really really want to manage this manually because you don't trust Apple to do it for you and you think it's worth the time, then I recommend rsync and some clever bash, which is what I do use on my Linux boxes.
posted by Brian Puccio at 12:58 PM on July 23, 2011

meowzilla: Time Machine only backs up your user files, not the OS.

This is not true. By default Time Machine makes a copy of your hard drive. Apps, OS files, user files, etc. The reason your Time Machine drive hasn't gotten full is because after the very first sync when it copied everything, the incremental syncs have gotten smaller and are rolled up on a weekly/monthly basis after that. It is incredibly efficient at what it backs up so it doesn't take a lot of space in those incremental backups.
posted by birdherder at 1:37 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use time machine, but once a year or so I export all my photos to another external drive as well.
posted by tomswift at 3:17 PM on July 23, 2011

how can I better manage the way OSX manages... stuff. And the keeping of stuff. And specifically the not getting rid of stuff.
It sounds like you need your own set of behaviors, and the lack of them isn't your computer's fault.

So when you download something, by default it goes into the Downloads folder. IMO, this should be treated as a holding pen for stuff you haven't gotten around to dealing with yet. Anything that stays there for more than, oh, a month or two can probably be nuked.

I treat the desktop as a place where I keep stuff that I need ready access to for a short while. It would probably be smarter if I had that stuff filed away more permanently and kept aliases on the desktop.

Beyond that is the other parts of your user folder—like Documents, Pictures, Movies, etc. This is where stuff should really get filed.

When I've got a directory full of mystery files, I find the most efficient way to scan it is to make open a window in the Finder onto it, make it big as possible, and set the View to Cover Flow. That produces a pretty usable preview of the contents (though it can take a few seconds for some previews to render). Then I just scroll through and get rid of what I don't want.

Photos always go into iPhoto, with meticulous metadata (titles, tags, description) so that I have a fighting chance of finding them again. I'll delete junky photos after I've taken a bunch before I bother with the tagging though. Likewise any MP3s that I have of course acquired legitimately—they all go into iTunes, and if they happen to be mis-tagged, I fix them up. If you have a large number of PDFs, there are PDF-management apps.

For work documents, I have a directory hierarchy and nomenclature standard for. Personal documents I'm looser on, but I mostly file by project or interest and always make sure they have useful keywords somewhere (in the file, the title, the "get info" box) so that I can search them out again..
posted by adamrice at 4:47 PM on July 23, 2011

a. Time Machine. Looks like everyone covered that.
b. I use a free program just called Resize! to batch shrink my photos to keep them from taking up so much space right from the beginning. I don't need huge photos.


+Did you know that iPhoto has a different trash can than the computer trash? When you delete photos, they go in that trash, and if you are in iPhoto and hit empty trash, all it does is move them to the computer trash can. So you will still need to empty the computer trash can every once in a while.

+Use a program like AppCleaner (free!) to make sure that when you delete an application, it's ALL gone.

+Open the downloads folder in your dock. Now scroll to the bottom, click "Open in Finder". Look through your downloads and delete everything you KNOW you will not need again. Repeat as necessary.

+If you aren't familiar with .dmg files, downloads are a bit different on a mac, by the way. Once an app has been moved into your Application folder, you don't need to keep the disk image (.dmg).

+You can also use (free again!) Onyx or Titanium to help clean up your system.

I usually donate a bit when I find a program that I like, like AppCleaner, but you'll want to check and see if my suggestions work for you.
posted by misha at 6:42 PM on July 23, 2011

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