Photo Backup Strategies

In General, General - Tips and Tricks, Learning Center by jfischer2 Comments

There are two ways to learn – by first hand experience, and by learning from other’s experience.  And while in some situations learning things second-hand doesn’t always sink in quickly enough, in other cases simply seeing the fallout is plenty to motivate one to be proactive.  Thankfully, on this particular topic, I’ve been lucky and have learned from the unfortunate misfortunes of friends and fellow photographers.  Simply put, in the world of digital photography, one can never have your photos in too many (secure) locations.

Additionally, you can never get your photos in more than one place too soon.  This is why some high-end professional cameras actually come with dual card slots, immediate backup right there in the camera.  However, for most of us though, the backup plan starts the moment we pop the card out of the camera and into our computer.  Over the past few months I have reviewed and greatly improved my own backup plan to ensure the safety of the images I have spent so much time and effort to collect over the years.  In hopes that some of you will be able to avoid the loss of cherished memories or client work, I now share the resulting backup plan with you.

The Threats

There are two primary was for your images to be lost to you.  One is equipment failure, the other is equipment loss.

Equipment failure happens, and in the case of hard drives, the usual media the bulk of your photos will be stored, it can happen at alarming rates.  Check out this article by published Q3 of 2015: What Can 49,056 Hard Drives Tell Us? Hard Drive Reliability Stats for Q3 2015.  On average, over the 3 year study period, nearly 5% of the drives failed.  For some classes and manufactures of drives, that number was SIGNIFICANTLY higher (and has caused serious black eyes for certain manufactures by in large).  On the other hand, personal experience has two drives of very different age from a major manufacture dying in the last 6 months, one drive was less than 6 months old!  Not all drive failure is down to bad drives, other causes can be environmental in nature.  External drives that get knocked around, power surges during electrical storms, the list goes on.  Simply put, if your data is on one drive, it’s a ticking time bomb that will eventually go off.

Equipment loss, ie, it grows legs and walks off or burned to a crisp, or submerged in a flood, blown away in a tornado, etc.  Unless you do all your editing from inside the fault at Fort Knox, there is a possibility that your equipment will eventually be lost.  Those who edit on-the-go via laptop and external drives at coffee shops between shoots, or such as one recent horror story I recently heard of where a photographer’s studio was broken into and over 10 years of work stolen on various drives from his studio.  While the chance of this type of loss is significantly lower than equipment failure, if your data is in one place, there’s a chance that location could be compromised by theft, flood, fire, etc.

The last way photos can commonly be lost is simply by human error – deleting the photos from a single location.  If you’ve ready my Lightroom Import and Organization tutorial, I’ve already covered some of my import process to help ensure that doesn’t happen (again).

The Plan (at home or studio)

The majority of the timeline when something can happen to your photos is after you get done with the shoot or the trip, and you’ve got the photos safely home.  You might have been on the road for 10 days, but those photos are sitting on your hard drive for 10 years or more.  The plan for home or studio should ensure your photos are safe secure for the long haul.

Step 1 – buy good drives.

Consumer grade drives are built to a price point.  A low price point.   If you bought your computer from a major computer manufacture, it’s almost certain you have a consumer grade drive.  If you built your own PC, then you know what’s in it, and there’s a reasonable chance you didn’t shell out 30-50% or more over the consumer grade drives for NAS (Network Attached Storage) grade or Enterprise grade drives.  For most of those who are fairly new to photography this is a completely understandable situation.  Investing in drives that are designed and built to withstand constant use and higher up-time averages makes sense to anyone who’s data is of critical nature – including photographers.  At time of writing, a Seagate Desktop 4TB (ST4000DM000) was $119.95 on, the NAS grade drive jumps $20 to $139.99, while the Constellation (Enterprise grade) is $169.99.  As part of my backup review, I have recently switched to using the NAS grade drives for archive storage where the slower spindle speed and cache isn’t a factor, and a Constellation drive for working directories and my general document storage.  Western Digital Red would be the equivalent to the Seagate NAS, and the have a drive called the WD Re with a golden-colored emblem that signifies their Datacenter grade drives.  I’ve been a fan of the WD Black drives for high performance drives in the past, but for longevity, you want a Honda, not a Ferrari.

December 2016 update – Seagate now has a new line of NAS grade drives replacing their ‘NAS’ labeled drives known as ‘IronWolf’.  For those of us not actually using them in NAS enclosures, the older drives are probably a better deal until supply runs out.  I was able to get my hands on an IronWolf drive which has now be slotted into my file server machine (more on that below).


Western Digital Red – NAS grade drive

Seagate Constellation

Seagate Constellation

Step 2 – Real-time local backup drive(s)

At bare minimum, if you’re not backing up your data locally, please, I implore you, go buy an external backup drive today.  Even if it’s a Consumer grade backup from Western Digital or Seagate, you have already vastly improved your odds against catastrophic data loss from Equipment Failure.  While a major electric storm hit, fire, theft could still result in a loss, a single drive failure will not cause you heart ache and financial strain.  Data recovery services can easily approach a thousand dollars or more, a $120 backup drive is cheap insurance against that need.

Real-time backups start backing up your files the moment they hit the drives from your card reader or computer.  Most are configured not to delete files from the backup unless specifically instructed to do so, helping ensure you can get back those files you accidentally included when you hit Shift+Delete at 4am (general rule, use the Recycle Bin people, clear it out once a month or less, storage is cheap these days).

With the bundled software that comes with the Seagate drives I have hooked up to my computer, I am able to setup multiple backup plans.  I have 3 as seen in the featured photo above.  One for ‘all the non-photo stuff’, one for the Archive, and one for the Photo Temp directory (working directories).  Since photos in the working directories get deleted, moved, etc so much more than the archive, I like to periodically refresh that backup from the ground up.  Keeping this backup on its own (and on a different drive even) ensures I can purge only that backup without causing any harm to (or need to rebuild) the bigger and more important archive backup.  The Memeo software that came bundled with my Seagate drive allows you to instruct the software to keep multiple copies of each file (I usually go with 2 versions), as well as encryption and other options.  The paid version of the software also allows for backup to more devices.  If these consumer grade Seagate drives ever fail or are in need of replacement, I can purchase a NAS device or simple USB enclosures for NAS grade drives down the road.

These local backups will be the most up-to-date source for files you have if a drive goes bad, but should also be unplugged during electrical storms and/or at least ensure your entire PC is hooked up to the best surge protector you can get.  If the strike is close enough – nothing but a physical disconnect is going to save your electronic equipment.

A short note on NAS devices – At some point I’m probably going to need one, but at this time I don’t see a need for myself personally go invest in one over the USB connected backup drives I have.  While I could plug it in elsewhere in the house, possibly hidden from anyone aiming to steal my computer, most of those locations are either very hot in the summer or will need some effort to get power and network connection to.  For the time being then, direct connection drives are my best solution.  Your situation may vary.

December 2016 Update – I recently invested in a new computer, leaving my old workhorse PC unused.  I decided to install two new 4TB NAS grade drives into the machine and move it into another room in the house.  With my current CrashPlan cloud backup software also allowing for local PC backup, this is now being used as a secondary local backup location.

Tip: I just recently bought a new UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) on Newegg for 30% off retail price.  Just as dangerous as power surges, any fluctuation in power supply from the wall can slowly damage PC components over time resulting in Equipment Failure.  I’m also looking into a whole-house surge protection device.

CyberPower UPS

CyberPower UPS

Tip: If you don’t need portable drives, stick with external drives that are based on the larger 3.5″ desktop drives, the most compact of the portable drives have their USB connection directly interfacing with the drive inside without a standard SATA connection in the middle.  Meaning if the USB connection becomes damaged, it’s much more difficult to gain access to the drive inside.

Seagate Backup Drive

Seagate Backup Drive

Step 3 – Local off-site off-line backup

This is an optional step that I just happened to be able to pull off for next-to-nothing since I was replacing an aging drive in my computer already.  Though with as cheap as consumer grade drives are these days ($120 for 4TB!) using them as off-line storage isn’t the worst idea in the world.  If you have an office, or home, family’s home, close friend’s home, safe deposit box, anywhere moderately climate controlled and not sitting in the same location as your primary storage – this is a great place to have a second backup that gets refreshed every few months.  I took the 1.5 TB WD ‘Green’ drive I had in my computer, loaded it up with everything I could stuff on it, slid it into a storage case, and took it across town.  A USB 3.0 SATA enclosure allows me to plug the drive into my home PC periodically to update it with the latest files until it fills up.  Then I’ll start a new inexpensive drive.  It won’t be up-to-the-hour backup, but it keeps everything in the archives close at hand yet safe from theft, fire, flood or other non-civilization ending calamity.

Step 4 – Cloud Backup

Ah, the Cloud.  I remember when I first heard the term, this wonderful puffiness that would solve all the world’s computer problems.  Really, it’s a buzz word that’s still way over used for what it really is in a lot of situations, but the idea is simple – vast internet accessible computing power that in its purest sense is spread over multiple locations itself building in redundancy automatically.  There are a number of ‘cloud’ based backup solutions out there, from companies you’ve heard of, and others you have not.  Amazon has a Cloud Drive, Google has online storage, there’s Dropbox too.  The big hitters in unlimited storage backup for things like your RAW files, PSD files, etc are Carbonite, and CrashPlan.  Ultimately I opted to go with CrashPlan, but as the in-depth comparison reviews of the others there will show – you really can’t go wrong with any of them.  Your needs and requirements may vary, so do your homework on which works best for you..  The down side of cloud backups is the initial upload.  Most internet plans have a much slower upload rate than download rate, meaning if you have over 1TB of data to upload, you might be lookg at around 60 days to complete.  Shortly after my initial 1.5TB upload, I decided to upgrade my home internet speed and tripled my upload speed, better late than never I suppose.


The Plan (on the road)

Having your photos backed up in a dozen locations does you no good if you can’t get them home from assignment to begin with.  Additionally, if your photos get lost on the road, there’s a good chance that some expensive gear was lost along the way as well.  So the first step is to do what you can to ensure your gear isn’t an easy target for thieves.  Theft is a crime of opportunity, reduce the opportunity as well as making the risk not worth the possible reward.  Keep your gear with you if possible, keep what gear you might leave in the car out of sight, and be mindful of where you park and what gear you flash around as you leave your car.  Also, resist the urge to advertise you’re a photographer on the side of your car if you’ve leaving gear inside.  I know it’s a cheap advertising tool for portrait photographers and the like, but it’s also a big sign that says ‘expensive stuff hauled around in this car’.

If at all possible, backup your photos on-the-road.  If you’re out for more than a day shoot, especially if you’re traveling on what could be a once in a lifetime adventure, try to find a way to get your photos onto a secondary storage location.  Keep one on you, keep one in the car/hotel/tent/camel.  My aim is to have so many SD cards, for even 10 day trips I don’t want to be faced with the need to erase cards.  They are my primary photo location.  As memory cards get filled up, they go into a waterproof storage case, empty cards stay in my bag in individual storage cases.  That way I know quickly which cards are good to switch to (also, ensure all your cards are empty at the beginning of the trip so you’re not tempted to hit that ‘delete all’ while on the road).  Also, back to the above comment about good drives – buy good quality cards.  I like SanDisk Extreme which makes up a vast majority of my cards, though thankfully (and knocking on all the wood within reach) I haven’t had a bad experience with a card of any brand failing on me yet.

Waterproof SD Card Case

Waterproof SD Card Case

Unfortunately, I’m still looking for the perfect on-the-go backup solution.  What my ideal solution would be is a simple device that has a card reader and a large internal hard drive, and maybe even a small battery for true mobile use.  Simply stick your card into the reader, hit one button and it sucks your files off onto the drive for storage.  A small display for the amount of space left and to display file transfer progress is all I’d need.  Till someone finds me that device, builds me that device, the next best thing is a laptop, tablet, something to act as the brain that can get your photos from your computer via cable or card reader, onto a second drive of some sort.

Putting this all together, and keeping it in practice I hope to never learn what it’s like to lose a significant number of files.  It was a close enough call the one time I deleted an SD card before import, and seeing what friends have gone through, and hearing the horror stories online was more than enough to prompt me into action.  Hopefully the information provided here will give you a good solid base of information to start or improve your own backup strategy.




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