A Bulletproof Backup Plan for your Photos

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 one of those annoying things that are easy to keep putting off.  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.

 

Important Considerations for backing up

To create a robust backup strategy, you first need to consider all the potential ways you can lose data. There is no single solution that will address all of these concerns, which is what makes this list so important to consider. You can lose your data because of:

  • Computer malfunction. This is probably the most common issue when a hard drive or critical component of a computer fails. Any recent backup should get you out of trouble here.
  • Outdated backups. If you only back up occasionally, you could easily lose days or weeks worth of work. This makes Time Machine and/or scheduled clone backups critical.
  • Accidental deletion, corruption, or manipulation of data (such as making a bad edit and accidentally saving the file). This is where you’ll want Time Machine or an older clone to restore an older version of any affected files. For this reason, it is important to have older copies of your backups, or even make duplicates of important images on your computer. And given a corrupted file might go unnoticed for months or years, I recommend keeping some very old backups or duplicating important files.
  • Fire or theft. This is important to consider because if it happens, you may lose your backup drives at the same time as your working drive. Putting your backup into a fire safe at home is a good idea, but home fires typically get hot enough to destroy drives stored in fire safes. So it is critical that you are either keeping backup drives offsite or using an online backup system to ensure that your data and backups are not always in the same place.

 

Consider RAID or SSDs to help avoid a crash in the first place

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 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 1 is cheaper yet (though disk speed is slower).

That said, RAID is not a backup strategy. It reduces the risk of hardware failure leading to data loss, but the whole RAID unit can fail and multiple drive failures are a very real risk too. And even if it is in perfect working condition, you can still have data loss or corruption, fires, and other problems that RAID cannot address. And both RAID and SSD cost more, so they aren’t an ideal solution for everyone.

 

How to deal with Data Loss or Corruption

One of the most insidious ways to lose images is through data corruption. You can lose or change important files in many ways:

  • Accidental deletion of important files or folders
  • Accidentally saving a bad copy of a file. When I prepare to print, I always make a copy first so that I don’t accidentally re-save the original as a flattened file.
  • Data corruption. With terabytes of data, there will inevitably be a few errors. A single bit gone bad can ruin one of your files. Sadly, Apple’s new APFS missed a critical opportunity to add checksums for all data (they did add it for the File Allocation Table, but falls well short of what I would consider ideal). You can get this by installing a 3rd party operating system called ZFS, but I’m not sure tinkering with the operating system is the best way to ensure increased reliability.

Unfortunately, you might notice any of these errors for weeks, months, or years until you try to open the affected file. There are a few ways you can help monitor for changes. You should occasionally use Lightroom’s DNG validation  if you work with DNG files (however, this won’t check your layered TIF/PSD files). And you might consider a more complete solution to check all files such as Digital Lloyd’s Integrity Checker. If you use the latter and extension panels like Lumenzia, make sure you don’t let it write checksum files into the extension panel folder (as adding files to an extension panel’s folder will cause a failure of the digital signature). Of course, neither of these help you detect accidental changes or deletion, just corruption of the data.

Whether or not you use the above tools to help find data corruption, you still need to have something to restore when you find problems. So for that reason, it is critical that you have some older backups. I don’t consider Time Machine a good option here because it isn’t 100% reliable and likely you may not be able to go back far enough in time to get to a good copy of your file.

I recommend two different solutions to this problem. First, occasionally create a clone and store it at an offsite location. This adds cost, as you are tying up an extra hard drive. But I consider it a worthwhile investment, and spinning hard drives are relatively cheap these days. Second, make duplicates of your most important images. I occasionally export all my layered 5-star files from Lightroom to another folder on my computer. This takes up more space, but gives me a lot of peace of mind that I’m not going to lose my best work to data corruption.

 

Use Time Machine to backup your latest data

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. It automatically backs up your data in the background, and gives you the ability to go back in time to restore older versions of your file (within certain limits) For security, I have mine set to be encrypted (just like my primary drive). I don’t have any specific recommendations for PC users, so please comment below if you have a recommendation for others.

That said, Time Machine alone is not a complete backup strategy. There are many conditions in which it can fail. When my computer recently crashed, I discovered that my Time machine was corrupt. Thankfully, I had a “clone” in addition to Time Machine. Not only did this help me restore data that Time Machine failed to protect, but it let me keep working. You can boot from a clone, whereas you may well need to wait 24 hours or more to restore your data from a Time Machine.

 

Create bootable clones so you can get back to work right away

If your income depends on your photography, a bootable backup is critical. An exact duplicate of your hard drive is known as a “clone”. Clones offer several advantages over just using Time machine:

  • Time Machine can be flaky. Clones are much more reliable.
  • Creating multiple backups is a good idea in case one of them fails. While you can create multiple identical Time Machines, a clone should be part of your mix. I would consider 1 Time Machine and 1 Clone (or just multiple clones with at least 1 being kept very up to date) to be the absolutely minimum for a reliable backup plan.
  • You can boot your computer from a clone. This lets you keep working, rather than forcing you to wait for a Time Machine to complete a lengthy restoration before getting back to work.

I personally use Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) to backup my Mac.   I keep at least 2-3 fairly recent clones in addition to my Time Machine backup, but 1 is enough if you are concerned with cost.  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. My current cloning strategy includes:

  • Daily clones of my boot drive. This is critical to keep working. I have an old RAID drive that CCC clones to nightly whenever my computer is connected.
  • Weekly clones of my data drive. This larger drive is too big to backup nightly, and I don’t update it as frequently – so weekly updates are good enough. I still have the Time Machine keeping things up to date on a daily basis.
  • Occasional manual clones of both the boot and main drive. For convenience, I typically partition one large drive and clone both my boot and data drives to a single physical clone. I keep these clones in a fire safe and at multiple offsite locations. This is my best protection against fire or data corruption that could simultaneous wipe out both my working drives and recent backups.

 

How to create a bootable clone

I make clones an incredible software tool called “Carbon Copy Cloner” (CCC). If you don’t have it, I strongly recommend it. It’s the only piece of software that I think 100% of Mac users should own. It has a very clean interface, makes it simple to create bootable clones, can be scheduled to automatically update your clone backups, and the support is second to none. The company founder (Mike Bombich) often replies personally to support emails within an hour. And the quality of support is impeccable. They’ve dug me out of problems that senior engineers at Apple struggled with. For PC users, check out Acronis for making clones.

Steps to create a bootable clone with CCC:

  1. Click on “source” and set it to your internal hard drive. Leave it on “copy all files”
  2. Click on “destination” and set it to the external drive you are going to use for the clone. You can leave “Safetynet On” if you have a large clone drive, or turn it off if you have limited space or want to keep the clone identical (safety net is a bit like a trash can for the clone to help avoid truly deleting files unless there is no other option). You should start with a clean drive the first time, and follow these guidelines (https://bombich.com/kb/ccc4/working-filevault-encryption) from CCC if you are going to encrypt the drive with file vault.
  3. If you want to keep the clone up to date, click on the schedule and update it as you like.
  4. There is no need to mess with the advanced options in general, but I have the following modifications from defaults: “find and replace corrupted files” once a month and I uncheck the option to protect root level items (which gives CCC permission to delete content unique to the destination to free up space). Neither of these is terribly important.
  5. Save the task.
  6. Click the “clone” button in the bottom right.
  7. Anytime you want to update the clone, just connect it to your computer and click “clone” again in this task, or let the schedule take care of it for you.

 

Test that your clone is truly bootable

Just because you create a clone does not mean that it will boot up. It is important to use software like CCC to do it the right way, and just as important to do a test boot once in a while to make sure you are making clones that are truly going to let you boot when you need them. It only takes 5 minutes to test that your clone works as expected.

Steps to boot from your clone:

  1. If you have a new (2018+) Macbook, make sure your computer is configured to allow you to boot from an external drive. On newer laptops where this is an option, booting from an external drive is disabled by default for security reasons. Hold -R while booting the computer to get into recovery mode, then click Utilities / Startup Security Utility. See Apple’s support page for more details on recovery mode.***
  2. Hold down <option> while booting your Mac to choose which drive should be used to boot the computer (you can let go once you see the progress bar).
  3. If you have a WiFi available, you may want to connect to it when you see the list of drives. Newer Apple laptops now connect to the internet to verify the operating system is valid when installing (though you can disable/change this in the Start Security Utility mentioned in the first step).
  4. Click on the external drive and it should boot normally. Make sure your connection to the external boot drive is secure, because if it accidentally disconnects, your computer may become unstable and reboot.

If you feel like you are confused as to whether your computer is booting from your internal drive or the clone, try this: after you create the clone, change the wallpaper on your desktop. When you restart, you should see the old wallpaper if you are really booting from your clone.

 

Online backups

No matter how many backups you have, you can still lose them all at the same time to a fire or theft.  I consider offsite clones to be sufficient, but you might want to consider an online backup service. With this, your data is sent over the internet to a remote service, so it is offsite as quickly as the data can be uploaded.

While I have tried many different options, I have thus far been let down by all of them. CrashPlan no longer offers home plans (and had serious “de-duplication” issues with large backups anyhow). Online SOS told me they were raising my annual price from about $150 to about $1500 due to the size of my data (and that was years ago when I had much less data). Carbonite does not work with File Vault encryption, and I discovered a shocking security flaw with it (and their response was truly underwhelming when I notified them). I have not tried BackBlaze, but have generally heard good things about it (other than a recent issue where some users are saying they get strange prompts for system passwords – the screenshots I’ve seen give me pause about whether this is well-designed software). You may want to look at PC Magazine’s recommendations. If you use an online backup that you consider reliable, reasonably priced, and has a security-focus with support for File Vault, please comment below. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend any of them at this time. Fortunately, you don’t need one if you follow the steps outlined above.

If you are going to use an online backup, I recommend you don’t try to back up everything. That’s a recipe for uploads that never finish. Instead, configure it to backup folders with information that is critical and new. Your offsite clones should be enough to back up your photos from 2 years ago that you probably aren’t updating very often.

 


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