My highly redundant yet simple backup strategy

How I protect my photos so I can sleep soundly at night

(This is a fairly long post, because I wanted to be thorough and share my entire process from A to Z.  So, grab a cup o'something and read on!)

As photographers, we live and breathe by our images.  We put in gargantuan effort to get to the right places at the right times, and (hopefully) do the right things with our gear to capture the images that we have visualized prior to arrival.  But we also probably just show up somewhere at times and hope for the best, firing away somewhat indiscriminately.  I know I do both of those things - the planned and the spontaneous - but either way, it’s always about the image.

And while we love our gear because it allows us to capture the images, it really isn’t about the gear when you get down to the very basic elements of photography.  It’s about the image.  Does the image work?  Do I like it?  Does it make me feel something, or does it make me think?  I feel like those questions (especially “do I like it?”) are the most fundamental ones of all.

We all (hopefully) buy insurance for our gear, so if it is lost or stolen, we *should* be covered.  Would it be a hassle if it was stolen?  Yes of course.  Is it potentially catastrophic?  Probably not.  (I can’t speak for everyone here because each situation is likely unique in some ways.)  You can always get new gear (Although, if you do not have insurance, that becomes a bigger problem for you.  That’s why I insure all my gear.)  It sucks, but it can be replaced.  Images cannot.

So, what about the photos?

If the bottom line of all our effort and expense is capturing the image, how do you protect those?  You can’t buy insurance for stuff like that.  If you lose your photos, you can’t recreate those things, especially in travel photography.  You can’t easily return to that same spot, and you can’t possibly recreate the lighting and atmospheric conditions that resulted in the images you captured.

If they are lost, they are lost.

That will cost you money (possibly), time and a significant amount of emotional thrash.  If I lost a memory card on a trip, I would be devastated.  Many years ago, way before I was serious about photography, I lost a few rolls of used film while on a trip.  These weren’t “great” images in any sense (at least I don’t think so, but then again I’ve never seen them), but nonetheless they were pictures that I wanted, and I will never see them.  That sucks.

So while I don’t sit around and worry about a lot of this stuff, I do take precautions to make sure that I always have multiple safe, secure copies of my photo library somewhere.  At this point, my Lightroom library is about 170,000 images, so we are talking about a LOT of photos, at least in my opinion.  I am certain that there are a lot of folks out there with some multiple of that quantity, but 170,000 is a lot to me and these are seriously precious things to me.  This is my life’s work, digitally speaking.

Are they all winners?  Gosh, I wish.  There are some great shots in there, but there are plenty of dogs too - and a big chunk of just “decent” shots.  Who takes a great shot every time? No one that I’ve ever heard of.  Nonetheless, I want to keep ALL my photos, good or bad.  They’re mine.  Plus, I’m a big fan of NOT processing all of your photos as soon as you return from a trip.  I definitely process and share some of them (usually the ones that grab my attention), but I find it fun to let many of them simmer so I can return to them at a later date with fresh eyes and better processing skills.  It’s tempting to want to rush through them all and “get them out there”, but I really think sitting on some of them is a good thing to do.  Then, with better skills, I can take the decent shots and (hopefully) turn them into something a bit more interesting,

So what this means is that of the nearly 170,000 images in my library, I have really only processed and shared a fraction of them.  I have a TON of stuff still waiting to see the light of day, which gets me excited.  What a great gift to yourself to have all that stuff waiting for you when you have some free time!

So Jim, what’s your backup strategy?  How can you be sure they WILL be waiting for you?

That’s a great question.  My strategy is very basic: have multiple duplicate copies of everything.  It’s really that simple.  It’s not rocket science.

Many years ago when I first started really working at my photography, I had an iMac desktop computer with a 1TB internal drive.  It seemed like plenty of storage at the time.  I would come home from a shoot, dump all my photos into Apple’s Aperture library which was on that drive, and start editing them.  I really didn’t give any thought to my backup strategy at the time, other than making a single copy of my Aperture library on an external drive (I was smart enough to do that).

Eventually though I started running out of space on the drive, and knew that I either needed a larger internal drive (which to my knowledge you couldn’t actually replace), or a completely different approach.

I chose a new approach.

I moved to a MacBook Pro and moved my library to an external hard drive.  I firmly believe that having your photos on an external drive is a much smarter choice, not only to free up drive space on your desktop/laptop but because it allows you much more freedom and flexibility.  If your computer dies, you still have your photos.  If you ever upgrade or change laptops, it requires no work at all to ensure your library will work on the new system - you just plug it in.  And at some point, your library will grow and you will need way more space than any internal drive could ever hold.  It’s just way more flexible to have everything on an external drive.

This thing is a beast, in a good way.

I have a single external drive that holds my Lightroom library, and that is the drive that I work from on a daily basis.  Call it my “working library” (aka drive #1).  It’s on a Western Digital 4TB My Passport Pro.  I’m currently using about 2.2TB of space, so there is plenty of room for that library to grow as I capture more images.  And while this drive is somewhat heavy (it’s technically two drives, each 2TB in size, which I formatted to work as a single 4TB volume), it is a complete copy of all of my photos and I can put it in my backpack and travel with it (and I have a 2nd one as well - read on).  This means I can edit any of my photos from any shoot over the years, no matter where I am.  I like that idea.  It also means if someone wants to license one of my photos while I am on the road, I have access to it and can email it over to them.  That’s convenient.

Here’s how I manage backups and sleep soundly at night:

  1. All photos go straight onto my 4TB drive (drive #1) when I return from a shoot.  After they are downloaded onto this drive, I generally open Lightroom and import them into the library.
  2. I keep the photos on the memory card for the time being.
  3. I have a second 4TB My Passport Pro drive (drive #2), and I then copy those images over to that drive as well from the first drive.
  4. I also have 2 of the G-Technology 4TB G-Drives with Thunderbolt that I use as additional backups (drives #3 and #4).  I make two more copies onto these two drives (assuming I am at home, which is where these drives stay).

I'm a big fan of G-Technology, I just wish they had a 4TB bus-powered portable drive!

So now I am sitting with my images in my working library (drive #1), as well as 3 more copies on other external drives (drives #2, #3, #4).  I also have the originals on the memory card.  So that is the original that I can edit in Lightroom (drive #1), 3 extra copies, plus the files on the memory card for the time being.  That feels like a good amount of copies.  That feels safe.

I keep the images on the memory cards until I end up filling nearly all of my memory cards and need the space for an upcoming shoot or trip.  I have something like 12 memory cards of various sizes, generally 32GB and 16GB cards.  So although I tend to take a lot of pictures, it still takes quite a while for me to fill up all these cards (or nearly fill them).  

(To be clear, I am not shooting every day of every week.  I shoot a lot when I travel, but when I return home I tend not to shoot as much.  Or if I am at home, I may shoot a lot on a single outing, but usually not more than one outing per week, and rarely would I fill up an entire memory card on an outing at home.)

When it’s time to clear all the memory cards in preparation for a big trip (or because they are all nearly full), here’s the next round of actions that I take on my photo library and the corresponding copies...

Since I have been editing photos as I go along, the Lightroom working library on drive #1 (Western Digital 4TB) has changed, because it contains edited photos, and the other 3 drives do not.  So I will completely wipe one of the G-Drives (drive #4) and then perform a full copy from the working library (drive #1).  This will take several hours of a day, which means I cannot edit any photos at that time.  That’s ok, as I tend to have many other things I want to do, so I just dedicate this time to that (like writing new things for the blog, or blog maintenance, or whatever else I feel like doing).

I have quite a few of these and they have been great to me.

Once that is copied over, I do the same thing to the next G-Drive (drive #3).  Again, this will take several hours.  Generally when I know I am going to be doing all this copying, I will make sure that I have plenty of pre-processed photos ready to go, since I tend to upload to Flickr every day and also I have new content I create for the blog.  So I always plan ahead since all this drive copy work ends up taking a couple of days in total.

Once that G-Drive (drive #3) has a full copy of my library on it, I then do the same step one more time on my drive #2 (the other WD 4TB My Passport Pro).  I’m not sure why, but I tend to make these drive copies in reverse order.  I guess I could make the first copy over to drive #2, but somehow I got started doing it with drive #4, then drive #3, and then drive #2, so I have just stuck with that order.  I just wanted to point out that it is random.

You may be wondering if I get nervous when I completely wipe one of my library copies, but I don’t.  I always have drive #1 plus at least 2 other copies, plus the memory cards on hand.  So even though I wipe drive #4 clean (for example), I still have drive #1, #2 and #3 on hand (and the originals on the memory cards).

Yes, hard drives can fail, but I seriously doubt that they would all fail at a single time.

But Jim, what if drive #1 fails?

Yes, that is a concern, since I have finished photos in the library on drive #1 and not on the other 3 drives.  So here is what I do about that:

  1. Once I finish editing a photo, I export from Lightroom twice.
  2. Export #1 is a full size JPG image, which goes into a folder on my desktop and will soon thereafter be uploaded to my portfolio site at SmugMug (usually once I am done editing for the day, I will upload all the photos at once).
  3. Export #2 is a smaller JPG which will be uploaded to Flickr, and quite possibly also make it onto the blog if it fits with a post I am writing up.  It will go into my “To Flickr” folder on my desktop until such time as I decide to upload it to Flickr.  Generally speaking, I usually have 30-50 finished photos in that folder which are headed to Flickr at some point.  I know everyone isn’t a fan of Flickr, but I still like the organization of photos there and use it as a chronicle of my work (even my iPhone photos).

So although there is a risk of drive #1 failing and me losing the edits I have made to photos there, I feel secure knowing that a finished photo is stored safely with SmugMug and I have a smaller one on my desktop for social purposes (Flickr, blog, Facebook, Pinterest, etc).

This whole RAID thing sounds a bit confusing, right?

And here’s another thought - even if drive #1 fails, I still have the originals on the memory cards (plus the other 3 drives), so I could technically re-import them and build them again.  Of course I don’t want to do that, but still it’s an option.  But I feel secure having already uploaded a final, full-sized JPG to SmugMug, which I could access if needed.  So I wouldn’t even have to rebuild a finished photo, in reality.

So now I have drive #1 which contains all the files and the edits I have made to them, and 3 more copies of exactly the same files and edits.  All together, all this copying from drive to drive is 2-3 days of work.  Really, it takes about 8 hours or so to make a full copy from one drive to the next, since everything is a Thunderbolt connection.  It’s not blazing fast, but it’s fine.  So I may do 1 copy job a day for 3 days, or 2 jobs on day 1 and the last one the next day.  It’s not an issue to me, but clearly it is time-consuming.  

Some folks may find this process to be inefficient or possibly stupid, but I’m just being honest here about what I do.  It’s a routine that I just sort of fell into, and I am comfortable with it.

At this point, after all this copy work is done, I get out the camera, insert each memory card, and wipe it clean.  I am now back to “starting over” with all my memory cards empty and waiting for the next outing, and all my files (originals and edits) securely stored across 4 external drives, with a final full-sized JPG stored at SmugMug.

A few other things I do with the external drives:

  1. I store these drives in a fireproof safe
  2. I lock that safe when I leave the house

That gives me another level of security and peace of mind.  Being a bit obsessive about this whole photography thing, it’s hard to have absolute peace of mind, but I’m pretty close.  :-)

So, what holes exist in my strategy?  What improvements could I make?

Apart from the time commitment (which really doesn’t bother me), I find this method to be easy and painless.  I also ALWAYS have at least 3 copies of everything, so it makes me feel good that there isn’t a single point of failure in the process.

But in fairness, I see a couple of possible holes in my strategy and some possible improvements I could make:

Do you use a cloud service?

  1. Apart from final, full-sized JPG images that are stored at SmugMug, I don’t have a cloud component to my strategy.  I hear good things about a number of different services, but I have yet to decide on one (and admittedly, don’t think about it a lot).  Cloud storage is a great idea to remove any environmental risk associated with having your photos in one location.  I have somewhat avoided doing this, partly because I believe it will take an eternity to get 2+TB uploaded somewhere, and it seems like many of these smaller, more affordable cloud backup companies might not be around tomorrow.  I know that sounds like an excuse - and maybe it is - but it’s something I think about.  I could use Amazon but last time I checked it was pretty pricey (although I remember something about Prime users getting a lot of photo storage - perhaps I should investigate that).  Do you have a recommendation for me?  :-)
  2. Another idea could be to store a copy in a bank vault, or a family members’ house, or something like that, in order to get a clean copy offsite in case of a natural disaster.
  3. I don’t use a RAID system.  I don’t think of this as a risk, but some might.  I have to be honest - I don’t really want to use RAID.  I’m not sure I like that it will “slice” up my data into different pieces and spread it across multiple drives.  That makes me feel a little uncomfortable.  What if the RAID gets jacked up somehow?  What if that causes you to be unable to extract your files?  I just want to take photos and edit them, not become a master of RAID storage.  It feels a little intimidating - and to be honest, I have worked in the RAID storage business in the past, so it’s not completely unfamiliar to me either.  I feel like even if I used a RAID system, I would still have all these copies on external drives.  It feels like a waste of time with little benefit, basically.  Does it work?  Of course, otherwise all these products wouldn’t be available.  It’s just a personal thing with me at this point.  But I am open to it.
  4. I have my primary library on drive #1 (Western Digital 4TB My Passport Pro), which does have a single point of failure - the cable that connects to it is NOT removable.  The cable is fixed into the drive.  Should the cable fail, the drive is unusable.  Yes, this is a possible problem, but I haven’t worried about it for a couple of reasons.  The first is that based on everything I have written thus far, I go to pretty great lengths to always have multiple copies of everything.  So should the cable fail on drive #1, the worst case is that I would have to rebuild some photos from one of the other drives (assuming I hadn’t yet done a full copy of all my edits).  Not the biggest deal in the world to me.  The other reason I have stuck with these drives is that I like that they are bus-powered and small enough to travel with.  They don’t require an external charger like the G-Drive units do, and are small enough to fit easily in a backpack while also being 4TB in size so they hold my entire photo collection.  Thus far that is a risk I have been willing to take, knowing I have ways to mitigate a disaster.
  5. Despite being a complete Apple guy, I have never used TimeMachine or anything like it.  I assume I could use that to clone my drives, even easing the complete “wipe and copy” process I currently employ.  It could perhaps even save me some time.  The truth is I just never really thought about it, and thus have never tried it.  Perhaps it would make things quicker and easier for me.  I’m not sure.  I have to admit though that I like seeing my entire library copy over from one drive to the next, and the number of files being moved count down to zero.  It feels satisfying, and it feels complete.  I can literally see how many files have moved, and how many are left. Eventually that number drops to zero, and I feel very confident that EVERYTHING is copied over.  I always check each drive after copying it and every time the number of files is an exact match.  There’s a kind of peace of mind that comes with that!
  6. Being a longtime Pro user at Flickr, I have unlimited storage there.  Theoretically, I could create private albums there for just myself, and upload full size JPG images just to have ANOTHER backup of my finished files.  This would essentially be a duplicate of SmugMug.  I have considered this but have never gotten off my duff to do so.  Anyways, it’s an option that I believe others take advantage of.

Well, that’s it - my entire backup strategy from start to finish.  By no means do I think I have all the answers or that this is a good plan for everyone, but thus far I am happy with this approach and it works well for me.  It feels iron-clad.  It’s simple and straightforward to me, and that makes me happy.  You might do something entirely different, so if you have suggestions for me I am all ears.  I am always happy to hear what works for you!

Thanks much and hope this helps!  Let me know if you have any questions!