As photographers, we are entrusted with not only capturing important moments in peoples lives, events, products, etc., but we are also expected to keep this imagery safe and secure. You may have heard in recent weeks about photographers who have had gear & image cards stolen and lost once-in-a-lifetime moments because of their unfortunate failure to back up their images. This is often an overlooked, but critical part of a photographers responsibility. Failure to do so can lead to not only some very uncomfortable conversations with clients, but in some cases (like weddings) tears, lawsuits or worse. Let’s cut to the chase here: we get paid to take pictures then deliver those pictures to the client. To do that, we have to take accountability for not only taking those photos but keeping them safe until we deliver and perhaps even beyond.

Before I start, my background, prior to being a full time photographer I was in IT as a Senior Engineer. I happen to speak geek, so to speak, and I recently upgraded and updated my backup ideology and hardware. After a few photographers heard about my setup and asked LOTS of questions (and for my help in setting their own up), I realized how valuable a “primer” on backups would be. With that being said, this is simply one way to backup your data and keep it safe (there are hundreds of ways to do this).  I highly recommend you talk with a professional with experience on backup systems, at least to start, to make sure you get off to a good start. Once everything is running smoothly, it will make more sense.

First, a little gear porn – this is MY setup:

photo backup system

To start, we need to explain some of the terminology first:

  • Backup – Making a copy from one device to another (If you delete the master, or it corrupts, the backup copy is safe).
  • Duplicate – Making an exact copy of data (If you delete the master, the backup copy will also be deleted).
  • NAS – Network Accessible Storage (a data storage drive that resides on your local network – Synology, Drobo, etc).
  • Cloud Storage – A large “farm” of machines with massive amounts of storage that is highly fault tolerant.  The faster the access, the more expensive it typically is.
  • RAID – Stands for “Redundant Array of Independent Disks”(There are industry standards as well as proprietary implementations of this).
  • Archiving – The act of moving old data off of your “active” system onto an old hard drive, CD, etc.  These are typically old shoots that have long since been delivered.

So, let’s talk about coming up with your backup “ideology”…

Your “strategy” to take reasonable measures for protecting your data is highly important. Coming up with a strategy that works for you and your schedule/workflow is just as important as the plan itself because, if its too complicated, you simply won’t do it (and you just wasted money for nothing). Every backup plan should consider four key areas: duplication, data corruption, theft/disaster protection and ease of recovery.

At it’s most basic, copying your images into multiple location protects you against hardware failures, data corruption or theft (like a hard drive failing or laptop getting stolen). Simple right? Well, as long as you don’t store everything in the same place where it could ALL be stolen at once, damaged in a fire or lost to some other unforeseen disaster, it is. Don’t get caught up in all the small details just yet. Remember, being able to access backup copies of your data is what will save you in the event of a problem (and save you LOTS of grey hair and sleepless nights).

Lets step through a ideal photographers backup workflow…

After a shoot, you load your camera card into a card reader and dump the images onto a single hard drive. This can be an internal hard drive or an external drive in a docking bay (which is what I use) – called your working drive. Now your images are in two places (the camera card and the hard drive). That hard drive should then backup (not duplicate) to another hard drive or NAS (we’ll call this your backup drive) either immediately or on a schedule (twice a day, once an hour, etc). This way if something happens to your primary (working) drive, the images are safe & sound on the backup drive (and now you have three copies). Then you can chose to have either your working drive backup to your cloud account or your backup drive backup to the cloud (which gives you 4 copies).  I prefer to use my backup drive so my working drive isn’t trying to do other things while I am accessing it for editing (see below about NAS systems for how I do this).  Once you have the data on three hard drives in two places, you can safely clean/format your camera memory cards.

I recommend using a backup software to start the process (from your working drive to your backup drive). There are numerous brands of backup software so look for one that best suits your skill level and computer platform.  You are wanting to backup folders and/or drives on a schedule so keep that in mind (almost all allow for folder and file level backups and scheduling). When choosing this software, make sure it creates an EXACT copy without any fancy compression, algorithms, etc.  You want to be able to SEE all of the data on both drives (trust me on this, it will save you lots of stress). With this setup, even if you accidentally delete an image from the working drive (or it corrupts), it still resides safely on the backup drive and the cloud. The downside of this is you will have to “clean” off your backup drive & cloud periodically because it will literally fill up with data over time (because when you remove stuff from your working drive, it stays on the other locations – as it should).

Did you catch the part about your backup drive filling up? This is where we start to get into some higher cost and complexity when designing backup systems. To be honest, if you’re shooting 10 weddings a year, simply having single hard drive for both your working drive and backup drives is probably fine because you don’t need tons of space. However, if you’re a full time photographer, that may just not practical and you’ll need more space then a single drive allows.

Let’s talk about NAS systems…

A NAS (Network Accessible Storage) is a device that combines multiple hard drives into a single “array” that lets you greatly exceed the storage space you can achieve with a single drive. It resides locally on your network so the data transfer speed is high (via your ethernet) and are available at  relatively low costs. There are many solutions out there but, again, when choosing one I highly recommend you keep it simple and forego any of the fancy backup “schemes” that you will find in your research. In other words, no compression, no “versioning”, etc. If (and when) those break, it can corrupt your data leaving you with no backup at all (which you’ll likely never know about until you actually need it). With a NAS you can easily get 8TB (Terabytes) or more of storage (that’s a LOT of photos) at a relatively low cost and easy setup. You will still have to clean it off regularly but with that much space, you won’t have to do it every week which saves you time in the long run.

NAS devices generally use a storage scheme called RAID which gives your hard drives fault tolerance. This involves storing one file across many hard drives. There are numerous types of RAID but let’s talk about ones that involve more than two drives for this example. If you have four hard drives running in a RAID environment and one hard drive fails, you can install a new drive and rebuild the data safely. Most RAID implementations can only handle when one drive fails at a time. If two drives happen to fail at the same time, then you have a problem (but chances are very slim that will ever happen). Some NAS boxes have their own proprietary versions of RAID that will offer additional benefits (like additional hard drive failure tolerance, hot-swappable hard drives, etc).  There are also RAID versions (such as RAID 0 which spreads data across multiple drives to dramatically increase speed at the cost of backups and works great for working drives) but, as you read above, this does not protect against file deletion or corruption so I generally recommend against that when coming up with a backup system.

If you look at the fancier NAS boxes (Synology has a great lineup of NAS devices available at different price points), they often will have built-in software that will allow you to backup directly to numerous cloud storage services from the NAS. This makes it very easy to have an offsite copy of your backed up data and once you set it up, it becomes very easy to manage.  One side note, if your NAS does not come with hard drives when you order it, make sure the ones you get are designed to be in a NAS environment such as Western Digital Red drives or something comparable.

When configuring your cloud backup solution, I again recommend you opt to backup (not duplicate) your data so if you have data loss or corruption locally, your cloud copy is still safe and secure. Again, the downside is you have to clean out “old” data from your backup (local) drive AND your cloud drive. It takes longer but is the safest method to retain your data in an emergency (which is why we are doing this in the first place, right?).

A trick I use when I’m cleaning off my drive is to confirm everything I have just archived is safe with no errors (just a cursory check), then I will change all of the “backup” jobs I have on my backup software (from working drive to backup drive and working drive/backup to cloud storage) to “duplicate” and run the job. When you change the job type from “backup” to “duplicate”, this will “refresh” your backups (NAS and Cloud) with only what is on the working/backup drive and purge the data you have archived off the working drive.

To put this all together in a short paragraph (TL;DR), we now have a primary drive, a backup drive and a cloud storage system. Each drive is backing up to the next which guards you against data corruption, your images are now in multiple locations (on and off site) which protects against theft/disaster and gives you ample data duplication in case you deleted a file or saved all of your master files as web-size (yes, I’ve done that). Since everything is stored without compression or other weird stuff, you can easily view and recover data at any time (from a single file to whole folders). This is a pretty solid setup that is easy to mange.

There are tons of variables you can introduce into this backup ideology and this is meant to be a beginners primer to keeping your data safe so once you get the hang of it, tweak it to your hearts content for your needs.

Here’s a image of our basic backup system:

NAS Backup Diagram

And there you have it!  A fairly simple and straightforward system which gives you lots of data redundancy, automated backups and a minimum of management to make sure everything is working properly. As you “fine tune” your system, you can start to take into account what really needs full redundancy (finished client files) and just partial redundancy (like old RAW files where you have already delivered your client JPGs).

Hardware Resources:
Drive Toasters
Synology NAS
NAS Hard Drives
Amazon Glacier Cloud Storage