How to Backup Photos
Time flies much faster than we think. Ask me how long I’ve been shooting digital and I would say 10 years. When I checked, it’s over 15 years. And in that time, I’ve built up a huge catalogue with hundreds of thousands of images. That’s a significant investment in time and something that could never replace.
Do I look after this valuable asset? Not as well as I should.
As my catalogue’s grown I haven’t pruned it to keep only the good images. It just keeps on growing as I shoot and download more images. More importantly, my photo backup workflow hasn’t kept pace with all this. I keep meaning to do something about it, but there’s always something more important to do. Let’s be honest, copying image files isn’t all that exciting.
But then something happens to make you think more seriously. In my case, I wiped one of my computers and couldn’t recover it. But before I give you the details, it’s helpful to understand how my system’s set up.
Current Workflow to Back Up Photos
I currently use Lightroom to catalogue my images, downloading them onto a Drobo storage unit. If you’re not familiar with the Drobo, they’re just like an external hard drive, except you can slot multiple hard disks into the unit (4 in my case). These disks then act together, appearing as a single large drive to the computer.
The other benefits of the Drobo are resilience and scalability. If one of the disks in the unit fails, your data is safe as it’s replicated across all the disks. You can then swap out the failed drive for a new one. It’s the same when you need more space, just remove one of the smaller disks and add a larger one. Unlike with RAID, the disks don’t need to be the same. You can mix sizes, manufacturers and even spin speeds.
I have two of these Drobo units with the one attached to my iMac holding all my images. If the iMac fails, my images are safe on the Drobo and if a disk in my Drobo fails my images are also safe. If this seems like a great setup, it is, but it isn’t free from risk.
When My Backup Failed
Recently I encountered a problem on my iMac that’s made me realise I need to improve these arrangements.
Before Christmas I decided to partition the drive on my iMac. It’s a 3Tb drive and I wanted to create two drive partitions. If you’re not familiar with partitioning, it’s quite simply. You can do it with the “Disk Utility” which splits the hard drive, so it appears on the computer as two drives, each with its own name. It should be a simple process, but something went wrong. Half way through my computer crashed. When it restarted, I had only one partition with 800Gb of space. The rest of the hard disk was missing.
Apple support were very good, but eventually they admitted defeat. The only way to resolve the problem was to wipe the hard drive and start again. No problem we thought. My is Mac running Time Machine which automatically keeps a full backup of the computer. But when the time came to restore the backup, it failed.
Ultimately, the Mac needed a ground up rebuild. To make matters worse, the advice was not to apply the Time Machine backup as there appears to have been a long-standing software issue. Restoring the backup would probably reproduce the problem again.
What Did From my Backup Problems
Although the problem I encountered couldn’t have been foreseen or protected against, it did make me question my current photo backup workflow. Having now resolved my problems there are a few lessons I want to share, which might help you create a backup strategy of your own.
Create Storage Redundancy & Resilience
I’m sure you know, it’s only a matter of time until your hard drive fails. All drives fail eventually so you need some form of resilience in your image storage. In my example, the Drobo provides this. It’s possible for two of the four disk drives in the unit to fail and for my image data to remain safe. But if your images are on a single hard disk, you have a weakness in your storage resilience.
Be sure to maintain and update a second copy of your images.
Separate Images from Applications
Many people store their images on their computer’s hard drive. I used to do this myself, before starting to use external hard drives. I came to realise the computer isn’t the best place to hold images when I had to buy a new one. I had to move all my images onto an external hard drive just to transfer them to the new computer. That’s when I realised an external drive was the best place for them.
You probably find you need to change computers more frequently than you need to replace a failed disk. Having your images stored on separate storage to the computer makes it easier to swap your computer when the time comes.
Think about Storage Expansion
Although the megapixel race has slowed, image size is still increasing and placing heavy demands on storage. Fortunately, hard disk capacity is keeping pace and storage has become very affordable. I recently purchased a 5Tb Seagate disk drive for £120. In a couple of years, I will probably be able to by a 10Tb disk for the same price.
But if you store all your images on a single drive, when that’s full you will need to buy a bigger one. You then have the headache of transferring your images over to the new storage. It can take days. A single disk drive housing that allows you to swap out drives to expand storage may work out more cost effective and easier to maintain.
Portability is Important
The downside to disk housing units like the Drobo is portability or rather lack of. These units aren’t something you can pop into your pocket which creates risk. If your images and computer are at the same location, your exposed to the risk of fire, a flood, a robbery; you can still lose everything.
But if you have a portable backup at another location, you reduce your risk.
The ultimate in portability is the cloud. If you hold images in the cloud, you can have access from almost anywhere. Your data is also backed up automatically by the cloud company. Unfortunately, it can be costly, and you need a very fast upload speed, or it could take you days to store each photo shoot.
My own arrangement is a 2.5” portable hard drive which backs up the images on the Drobo. Holding this offsite means I have a safe backup of my image library.
Automate Your Backups
Being human, it’s easy to forget to update your backups. That’s why it’s important to automate as much of the process as possible in your workflow. You can then get on with more interesting things, whilst your software takes care of the rest.
If you use a Mac computer, you will have Time Machine installed. This can create a backup of your Mac’s hard drive and continues to update it hourly with any changes. What’s nice about Time Machine, other than the automation and how easy it is to use. You can use it to look back along a timeline to recover files from a day or time, even deleted files.
If you have this, be sure to use it. Although I couldn’t restore my iMac from Time Machine I could look back and recover a copy of my Lightroom Catalogue. If I didn’t have this I would need to import all my images to Lightroom again and I would have lost all my historic editing and keywording.
You can also use Time Machine to backup external hard drives providing disk space allows. If you have your images on an external hard drive, you’re going to need to use this feature. I found this helpful article on the internet that explains how to do it.
Despite the benefits of Time Machine, it may not be the right option for you. For example, I don’t want it scanning my Drobo every hour to check what to backup. I also don’t want all my image files adding to my Time Capsule (the Time Machine backup) as it would be full in no time. A great alternative if you don’t mind spending a little money (and one I now use) is Carbon Copy Cloner. It’s very reasonably priced and very flexible. Unfortunately, it’s only available for a Mac.
If you’re using Windows rather than a Mac, you also have a backup solution built into the operating system. It’s like Time Machine, you just need to configure and turn it on. If you want to know more the following article should help.
But, if you’re not happy using the built in Windows backup or want more flexibility, there are quite a few third-party solutions if your willing to pay. One good option is Disk Image from Acronis.
If you use Lightroom, having a backup of your Lightroom catalogue is critical. It’s the catalogue that holds all the adjustments you make to an image as well as important information such as ratings and keywords. Built into Lightroom is the option to periodically create a backup of your catalogue when you close Lightroom. I now use this to keep a backup of my catalogue on my Drobo together with my images.
If you want to know more about backing up your Lightroom catalogue, I found this helpful article on the Adobe website.
Ultimately, all these options need to give you one thing. A reliable backup of your computer and image files if the worst happens. Ideally, they do this automatically using a schedule you can control. This will minimise the chance that you forget to take the backup.
You Can’t Protect Against Every Disaster
The level of protection you create is a trade-off between competing factors. One of these is cost. How much are you willing to invest in software and hardware to implement your backups. Another is the level of risk you’re happy to tolerate. You can protect against most things if you’re happy to spend the money. But there comes a point where it’s not worth spending more money to safeguard against an extreme risk or “act of god”.
Do you really want to protect your images against an asteroid strike?
Work out the level of risk you’re willing to tolerate and then devise your strategy. My Drobo for example is my solution for protecting against a hard disk failure and my drives becoming full. My Time Machine protects against the loss of my iMac, the disk being wiped or my mistakenly deleting a file. My offsite image backup helps me protect my image catalogue against something happening in my office.
Remember, any solution you put in place will still carry risks. If you chose to put your data in the cloud, what happens to your data if the company hosting it goes under? What happens if someone hacks into the cloud storage? You probably don’t want to protect against every possible eventuality and determining the level of risk you can tolerate is important.
Here then are a few pointers depending on the size of the image library you want to backup:
- Keep your image back catalogue well pruned. Keeping it small gives you more flexibility in how you store and access it. It may even make a cloud-based solution viable.
- Try to separate your images from your computer in some way. You could create a separate partition on your computers hard drive to store your images and maintain a second copy of your computer (and images) on an external hard drive.
- If possible keep a backup of your backup at another location. If you do this, you will need to work out a schedule for updating the offsite backup.
- Where possible, automate your backup workflow and use scheduling software to help.
Follow this advice and you hopefully you will be able to recover quickly should the unspeakable happen to you.