My backup routine

All hard drives will fail with 100% certainty. The only question is when ? It could be after a week, or it could be three or four years, but because they are mechanical it is a certain event. If you are not keeping redundant backups of your photos then at some point it is guaranteed you will loose some of your photos. They might be some family holiday snaps with only sentimental value or they might be your best selling stock images with a residual value of $100,000s . Either way there are some simple precautions you can take to prevent this from happening.

Different sizes of photography business will benefit from slightly different routines. If you are running a huge photo studio with 10 employees working on projects constantly then check out Chase Jarvis’ site for info on that scenario. My business is relatively small in comparison because I do that majority of the work myself, shooting, archiving, editing and client delivery are all done from my workstation and most of the time done by me when I am around. So if you are a one-man-band then this will be a bit more suitable to your needs. There are plenty of other permutations on how to handle this but this is what works for me. I will go into specific downloading workflow and Lightroom work in future articles, this one is just concerned with backup.

Office scenario (when I am not traveling)

Used cards from the day’s shooting are stacked up on my desk in one pile. In turn I take each card and put them into my Sandisk card reader. I use Lightroom 3 to ingest the photos from the card and tag them with the necessary metadata for the shoot. I use the COPY command in the Lightroom import interface and this is VERY important. If you use the MOVE command then it will delete the files from the memory card after it has moved them to your hard drive. By using COPY I am creating a copy of the file on my drive, and the original shot still remains on the memory card for the moment. All the files from the card are copied onto my DROBO storage unit into a folder called “Photo Archive” where they are then put into another folder labeled with the year and then a further folder with the date in dd/mm/yyyy format. For every day of shooting then I have a separate folder. If you are not familiar with DROBO storage then I suggest a read of their website which contains extensive videos on their usage. Basically they are somewhat similar to RAID systems in that they make duplicates of your files so if one drive in the DROBO fails, the data is still available on another drive and you have not lost anything. So at this point I now effectively have two copies of the photos on the DROBO (because it creates duplicates automatically) and one copy still on the memory card.

After import I have Lightroom setup to automatically backup the catalog when I close it. The backup catalog is stored on the DROBO in a folder called “Lightroom backups” so this means that any metadata changes and image alterations I have made are stored redundantly on the DROBO as a backup. The actual Lightroom catalog is stored on the main internal drive of my computer. The internal drive on my computer is backed up every hour automatically using the built in Time Machine functionality in Mac OSX, This creates a duplicate of my computer internal drive onto a CalDigit USB 3.0 AV drive. That means a further backup of my Lightroom catalog is also available on that drive so there are effectively 4 versions of the catalog and we haven’t even got to off site backup yet.

Any file that I decide to export from Lightroom to send to a client is exported to my computers internal drive into a folder called Exports and then into a sub folder with the clients name. That means that I have two further copies of files that I deemed worthy of sending to a client. One in the Export folder on the internal drive and then another that is automatically created by Time Machine onto the AV Drive.

Drobo makes things pretty easy for your archival storage but you can’t stop there. What if someone was to rob your office or it got burned to the ground ? You would lose both your Drobo, and your Time Machine/internal drive. So you need to have your files stored off site too and until this happens I do not consider the files to even exist. There are some serious horror stories of photographers out there loosing a lifetimes work due to house fires. The thought of buying more drives to store your work off site can seem a bit daunting but I have come up with a cost effective solution that is working great for me.

There is two things to understand about the off site backup. Hopefully you won’t ever need them because you should already have at least two copies of everything in your office so that will protect you from drive failures. So the off site backup is there to save you from natural disasters, burglary and multiple simultaneous drive failure. All these are relatively unlikely so my personal opinion is that you do not need the off site backups to be redundant in themselves. So I don’t keep 2 of everything in my off site location, just single copies. Furthermore, you can save some money by having your off site drives be just simple drives that are not in fancy, expensive drive enclosures with built in power supplies. The partially empty off site drives get added to frequently, but the ones that are already full are simply spun up every mew months to make sure they do not seize and are still working. To use drives in this manner you will need a “Drive Toaster” or a SATA dock. I have a Thermaltake BlacX which sits on my office desk and has eSata and USB ports. You simply take the bare 3.5″ (or 2.5″) drive and slot it into the toaster where it mounts like any other external drive normally would. Its a very neat solution for under $50 and means you can save hundreds of dollars by buying the bare drives and not fancy ones in enclosures that are only going to sit there and get looked at once every six months.

The off site drives that I have are stored in a Pelican Storm Case iM 2075. It is deep enough to stand drives vertically and holds 7 or 8 3.5″ drives in anti-static bags. Because Drobos drives are upgradable in size, when I add a bigger drive to my Drobo, I take the old drive and use that one in my off site collection. The means you get more usage out of your drives you you otherwise would do and you are rotating your off site drives too to make sure there aren’t any ten year old ones in there! The Pelican case is brought to me every week (or after very important shoots) and the new photos are copied from my Drobo onto my off site drive using the toaster. Because my files on the Drobo are stored in folders labeled by the date that they were added to the catalog, it’s easy to see which folders need to be copied to the off site drive to have both archives match up. After I have matched up the photo archive I take another drive from my Pelican case which is used for an off site Time Machine backup. You cannot simply copy over Time Machine backup files like any other file so instead you need to select this drive as the Time Machine Drive and get your computer to do a full backup. Now my off site collection contains a full archive of all my photos and a copy of my computers internal drive. If the wort happened and all my office gear was stolen I could be back up and running on an identical computer with all my business files and photo archive in a matter of hours.

There is really no end to how many backups you can make but this is what I would consider the absolute minimum. I would not say bare minimum because I think this is a great solution but having both your computer drive and photo archive in multiple locations is a must.

The travel solution

Now what about when I am away from the office and I don’t have access to my Drobo? In this situation cards are copied onto a firewire 800 LaCie Rugged drive using the Lightroom import dialogue as before. This time I also tick the little box that says “make a second copy to….”. This means that Lightroom will put your files in two places, I set the main one to the LaCie drive and a backup goes onto the internal drive of my laptop. When I travel I still carry another LaCie drive that is used as my traveling Time Machine and that backs up the internal drive every time it is plugged in and hence also backs up the backup of my photos that were imported. So photos are now in three places. When this is done I am free to format that memory card. The reason that I still have a Time Machine drive with me is that I want to be able to restore my computer in a hurry if I need to. If my internal drive goes down while I am away I can’t afford to be without my Lightroom and Photoshop programs so I can restore it all from Time Machine by just buying a new 2.5″ drive.

Now off site backup while you are traveling is tricky. Rule number one is that you never EVER travel with all your drives on your person. When flying, one drive goes in my checked luggage and the laptop goes in my bag. The third drive goes in my jacket pocket. That way if someone steals my laptop bag it is no big deal. Even at your hotel, never leave all the drives in there together. Hotel room robberies happen more often that you would hope, so give one drive to someone else to keep in their room. Typically I carry one with me in my pocket too every time I leave my room. If a trip is costing tens of thousands of dollars, the small annoyance of a bulge in my jacket pocket is a small price to pay. Sometimes the third drive in my case is a Hyperspace Color drive which also has the benefit of a card reader to do it’s own backups. You can read a full review of it HERE on my other site. The final protection that I have is that I take my 5 star shots from a days shooting, typically 10-20 shots, and I use an FTP program to sent them to my server back home in Canada. That way if the whole hotel burns down or somehow everything else is lost I still have my banger shots back home. Last year I think it was, one of the largest bicycle companies was shooting their catalog on location. They had an editing studio set up in a hotel and the hotel DID burn down with everything in it. I believe they lost it all and had to re-shoot…….

While I am away all of the Lightroom imported files are put into a new catalog labeled with the name of the trip and as usual the catalog is backed up onto an external drive too. When I get home to the office, the catalog is imported onto the Drobo and the files synced with my off site drives. At this point I remove everything from the small 2.5″ LaCies ready for the next trip.

If you enjoyed reading this article and found it useful, please consider making purchases using the links below.  It helps me to add more to my site when you do this. Thanks!

Gear used in this article


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Thermaltake BlacX


Pelican iM 2075

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LaCie Rugged drives

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CalDigit AV Drive

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Photo of author

Dan Carr

Founder of Shutter Muse, full time photographer and creative educator. Dan lives in the Canadian Yukon, but his wanderlust often sends him in search of images all around the world to meet the needs of clients and readers alike.

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