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 completely unnecessary in our ideal scenario .  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.  Actually, I have several objectives in my backup strategy:  avoid failure, keep the backup current, be able to recover quickly if needed, and make sure it’s robust enough for the worst case scenario.  Meeting those objectives requires  a combination of multiple backup strategies.

 

The best defense is a good offense (avoid failure)

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 personally 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).

 

Real-time backup (keep it current)

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.  For security, I have mine set to be encrypted (just like my primary drive).  I say practically because I’ve heard of a few situations where it didn’t restore when needed (apparently Drobo drives don’t always work reliably as Time Machine backup drives, and there have been reports of an Apple bug that can deselect drives when you’re data includes external drives).  But it’s generally a very robust backup that I would recommend (as part of a strategy that also includes clones, which I’ll discuss in the next section).

Having ditched Windows 6 years ago, I can’t really speak with authority on the best PC alternative.  Photog friends of mine have recommended SyncToy for Windows – they noted that it doesn’t offer multiple time points to restore, but that it does it’s job reliably.  Acronis also offers incremental backups.  Here are a few other Windows options to consider.  Please comment below if you know any Windows options that you believe stand out.

 

Bootable backup (get back to work right away)

Restoring 2+ TB of data can easily take a whole day.  If your income depends on your photography, a bootable backup is critical.  If you just have a lot of data, it’s a major convenience.  I personally use Carbon Copy Cloner to backup my Mac.  For PCs, Acronis is highly recommended.  I maintain 2-3 clones in addition to my Time Machine backup, but 1 is sufficient.  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.

 

Offsite backup (be ready for the worst case scenario)

No matter how many backups you have, you can still lose them all at the same time to a fire or theft.  It’s critical to have an offsite backup.  And, unless you’re prepared to lose weeks, months, or years of work, you need to save a backup in a different location from your working files.  A clone backup is a decent option and it can cover the need for a bootable option.  But the hassle of getting the drive, performing a backup (which will take days if you have a few TB of data and a typical backup drive) and then moving it back offsite means that most people won’t do this more than every few months or even just yearly.  That can leave you with a lot of missing work if you get in a jam.  I’m a much bigger fan of backing up to “the cloud”.  It sounds nice, right?   Some cherub is personally watching over your photos.  Ok, maybe not.  But the cloud offers a safe and easy way to continuously back up your work offsite.  I currently use CrashPlan by Code 42, however I’m looking at alternatives and no longer recommend them due to numerous product quality issues and poor customer service.    The only scenario where I wouldn’t recommend cloud backup would be for those with extremely slow internet.  For the annual price of about a month of cable, it’s critical protection for your valuable photos and great peace of mind.  They also offer their software for free if you want to backup to a friend’s computer if cost is a priority.

 

Plan B (bailout)

If you haven’t done any of the above, or if you’ve had multiple failures, you might need to consider extreme measures to recover what you can.  If your drive still functional, there are some self-help options like Disk Warrior that can try to help reconstruct lost data.  For more extreme failures, there are numerous professional services you can find on the web for more intensive intervention.  But, if you’ve followed the steps above, the chances you’ll be stuck in this scenario are extremely unlikely.

 

 

  • spitfire31

    Hi! Excellent website and ditto newsletter! And I think that backups and material safety simply cannot be discussed often enough. In the first paragraph above, though, there’s an error: “…and RAID 0 is cheaper yet (though disk speed is slower).”

    In fact, RAID 0 has higher speed but NO safety, should one disk take a dive, since data for every file is distributed across both disks as if they were one. Guess how I know this… 😉

    I suppose that “RAID 0” above is just a typo and you meant to write RAID 1, which mirrors complete data so that you have a built-in backup, at the cost of some speed.

    Kind regards,

    Joachim

  • Hi Joachim-

    Thanks for catching that! Yes, that is a typo. RAID 0 is “striping”, which actually reduces the security of your data (but makes the drive roughly twice as fast). As you correctly noted, RAID 1 (aka “mirroring”) is a good choice for backing up on a budget. RAID 1 will make a duplicate of your hard drive in case one of them fails. I have updated the article above to correct this mistake.

    Thank you,
    Greg


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