Photo Backup – Local Storage Options

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Looking to improve your photography storage and backup solution?  Start Here – Photo Backup Strategies

It only takes one frantic heart stopping moment when your hard drive fails to wish you’d been more prepared.  Especially if it’s at 3am after an all night editing blitz to get a client’s set finished for delivery the next day.  I’ve heard enough of these horror stories to know it can and will happen – usually at the most inopportune time.  Most of the time, a photo can only be captured once.  You only have the sunset once, you’re only standing at the right place at the right time once, the wedding only happens once.  Do-overs because you lost the photos are not the norm.  So developing a mindset that any drive you have your photos on are either in the state of ‘failing’ or ‘failed’ goes a long way to supplying the motivation to ensure a solid backup plan is in place.  Today we have more options than ever for how to quickly and seamlessly get our photos backed up to multiple locations.  This article will focus on options available for local backup – but make no mistake – I highly recommend an off site solution as well.

Rule 1 – Never delete your memory cards until you are positive that your RAW files are stored in at least two locations, on two separate physical drives.

If you’ve ready my Photo Backup Strategies article linked to above, I’m sure you’ve already had this mentioned a couple of times, but you should always ensure that memory cards do not automatically delete files when they are transferred to your computer.  Ensure that Lightroom is configured to ‘Copy’ not ‘Move’ on import if using Lightroom to transfer from your cards to catalogs, always copy, never cut/move/etc.  That’s asking for trouble.  

Rule 2 – never trust a single consumer drive to store your vital data.

I’ve had ‘customer’ grade drives last for years and years, I’ve also had drives that have died within months of purchase, and others die with little to no warning.  If you’re going to use consumer drives, please have a duplicate backup running to ensure if one goes down you won’t too.

Consumer External Drives

Take a stroll down the peripherals isle of your local Best Buy, Fry’s, or other big box electronics store (or your local Costco or Sams) and this is what you’re going to find primarily.  Drives produced by Seagate, Western Digital and others, pre-bundled with backup software and today’s fastest data connections to your PC or Mac.  They offer sizes ranging from 1 TB up to 8TB and beyond.  Today most have USB 3.0 super speed connections for quickly pushing files from your computer to the external drive.  These consumer drives come in two styles – full sized desktop drives and smaller more portable styles which utilize notebook sized hard drives.

I use a pair of these drives as my ‘first level’ of backup.  One drive is for backing up my working directories, any photos that get imported into my ‘Work in Progress’ directory immediately gets backed up through the bundled Seagate / Memeo software onto the smaller drive.  I purge and rebuild this backup on a quarterly basis or as the drive fills up of photos that were long ago deleted from projects long finished.  The second drive is a larger 4TB drive that maintains a 2-revision history of my ‘archive’ photo directories.  These are all RAW files I have decided to keep long term and the fully edited TIFF images.  The software automatically maintains the two most recent copies of each of these files – and a higher count can be chosen in settings – ensuring if I want to go back to an older saved version down the road I can do so.  Also helps ensure that any file corruption in my primary drives does not also corrupt the backup since the backup is immediate.

Portable drives are useful if you’re editing on the go, or want to backup your RAW files from a shoot while on location.  I’d still keep two copies of your finished edits on hand – either on a SD card, your laptop’s internal drive, or something.  Western Digital has a nifty Wireless drive that has an internal battery and an SD card slot that allows you to copy SD cards to the drive through an interface on your smart phone.  I hope to get some hands on experience with this option soon for on-location backups of my RAW files while on photography trips.

I would not, I repeat, I would not, trust one of these drives as the sole location for ANY of my crucial work.  I have had friends in recent months have a 6mo. old Western Digital portable drive fail – the recovery of which was quoted at over nine hundred dollars.  Find any post on almost any forum or Facebook group regarding hard drives and you’ll find plenty of people who have had plenty of drives of all makes and sizes fail.  Remember – all drives are either ‘failing’ or ‘failed’.  You just don’t know when the switch from one state to the other will occur.

Note as of Dec. 2017 – there are reports that certain Western Digital external drives are now shipping with their ‘NAS’ grade drives within their plastic cases.  I can not confirm any of these reports and this may change at any time.  If you can confirm that the reasonably priced external drive that you have contains a higher grade drive within, you’re ahead of the game, but I still won’t rely on it as a sole location.  

Seagate Backup Drive

NAS Drives in an External Enclosure

For the slightly more effort and slightly more money, you can take a large step forward from consumer grade backup solutions.  Most hard drive manufactures including HGST, Western Digital and Seagate market NAS (Network Attached Storage) and Enterprise grade drives directly through online and larger brick and mortar stores.  A quick search on Amazon, NewEgg, B&H Photo and others will find Western Digital RED, Seagate Ironwolf and HGST NAS drives of varying capacity in the standard 3.5 inch desktop drive size.  These drives cost marginally more than their consumer counterparts.  At time of writing a 4TB IronWolf drive on Amazon was $149, only $30 more than the Seagate consumer grade ‘Desktop’ drive.  The IronWolf offers a longer warranty, and a Mean-Time-Between-Failures of 1 million hours.  Many consumer drives are not marketed with any stated MTBF.  Add an external enclosure for $20-$25 and you have an external solution that should last you much longer than the consumer drive options.

Going this route will not include pre-bundled software.  Thankfully, there are a number of free options, including adding a local folder destination to a CrashPlan cloud backup client (the client is free to use, only their cloud backup storage is paid, so you could download the client and just use it for local backups to your external drives or another computer on your network).  Memeo, the software often bundled with Seagate drives has a paid version that allows for backup to any drive which I have used as well.  Putting a little time, and perhaps a little more money into finding a solid backup client that fits your needs that you can use long term will pay dividends when (not if) you ever have a primary drive to bad on you.

Consumer NAS (Network Attached Storage)

With the rise of ever more connected network solutions; having your phone, your computer, your TV, or your entire house, all one a single network, has brought with it the idea of having dedicated storage attached directly to your network instead of the computer itself. The primary advantage here is that one host computer doesn’t have to be powered on for the storage to be accessible, any device on the network can access the storage directly.  The cheapest options in NAS drives are simply more advanced versions of Consumer grade external drives with a network (wired or sometimes wireless) interface built in.  Some others such as the Western Digital My Cloud Expert EX2 Ultra house multiple drives with built in data replication via RAID solutions.

Many small NAS enclosures, including those form Western Digital, Drobo, QNAP, Synology and others come without drives, allowing the end user to choose not only the capacity, but also the quality of drives to be installed.  By now it should come a no surprise that I’m going to recommend drives with the same naming convention as the enclosure – NAS Grade.  These drives are engineered for low failure rates, 24/7 up time, but all the same, if the NAS enclosure and your budget allow, setting up the device in Raid 1 (duplication) adds an additional level of failure protection.

This is an image of an ACE-CNX enabled NAS system.

File Servers (aka, that old computer in the corner)

NAS enclosures can get kinda pricey for the full featured models with 4+ drive bays.  And often, they are exactly what is called for, so research their features if you think it would be a useful device to add to your home or studio network.  However, there’s another option as well for network accessible storage.  Having a complete computer, running Windows (or Mac OS) on the network does offer some advantages over a NAS.  First, you can hook up a monitor, keyboard and mouse to it and use it as a normal computer in another area of your home or studio (Mine is in my work room under the work bench, a small 19″ screen hooked up so I can look up information online or watch a DVD while doing a workout, etc).  Second, you might already have an old computer that has internal storage space for a pair of NAS disk drives (or just one if your storage needs are still slim).  If both your primary computer and file server machine both operate on the same OS, setting up network shares will be a simple process.  A free client such as CrashPlan (I mention it simply because that’s what I’m using, there are many other options out there as well) that can be loaded as a destination client for your main computer.  The down side is, if it’s old hardware, you might have other hardware in the computer that might be towards the end of its lifespan, full sized computers are likely going to consume more power if left on 24/7 vs a NAS enclosure.  Additionally, it will be one more computer to keep updated, and all that jazz.  I currently have my file server set to auto-wake at midnight each day, and the CrashPlan client set to backup to that destination shortly afterwards, keeping that backup at most a few hours out of date – recall that my directly connected backup drives are always on and backup changes immediately.

Internal Storage Options

If you have a desktop computer, especially a larger tower, there’s a good chance that there is at least one or two drive bays still available for internal storage.  If you are having a custom PC built, or are building it yourself, do yourself a favor and invest in good quality NAS or Enterprise grade drives for your primary storage, and consider adding a second drive set either in RAID 1, or just as a backup destination for whichever backup software client you choose to use.  Internal storage transfer speeds are going to be the fastest possible, so there will be little delay between loading a new batch of photos and when they are duplicated to a secondary location (you are waiting to erase your SD or Compact Flash cards till after the backup is complete right?)

Protecting your External Drives

There are two primary enemies of your hard drives.  Shock and shock.  The first shock is impact, or even moving it while the drive is turned on and engaged. Desktop hard drives, those most often in external hard drives that are not the ‘portable’ type, are most often not designed to handle being handled while turned on.  Set them up where they’ll be safe from being knocked over or off your desk.  My growing stack of external drives are on my desk behind my monitors, and I ensured that all were resting on their rubber feet to ensure a modest nudge from a monitor being re-positioned wouldn’t send one sliding.  The other shock is of course electricity.  The hard drives running in your computer have a massive power supply unit with banks of capacitors and finely tuned electronics to help deliver steady voltages throughout the computer, including the drives.  External drives rely on power directly from the wall, a small wall-wart AC/DC converter doing the job of supplying the DC power to the external case and drive.  Just like your computer, make sure this is at least plugged into a quality surge protector, better yet would be a UPS battery backup.  I have all of my drives plugged into a single surge protector that I have easy access to the power plug, during the spring storm season I can disconnect the power completely from the house main lines.  I have a similar setup with a USB 3.0 hub to unplug all external drives from the computer itself to ensure that the USB cable does not transmit a surge that might damage both my main and backup drives at the same time.

What’s right for you

That’s a question for you to answer.  We all have different requirements, and different levels of fault tolerance.  How much data you can afford to lose compared to the cost of a multi-tier backup solution is a question only you can answer.  Hopefully this has supplied some food for thought and a place to start your own research and decision making process.

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