Protect Your Photos With This Backup Strategy

Whether you are a beginner or professional photographer, it’s never too early to integrate a backup strategy into your photography workflow. Here’s a simple way to make sure you don’t lose your images.

Backing up your digital data is something that we all know that we should do but don’t seem to prioritize until it’s too late.  

My first hard lesson in this was back in 7th grade.  I spent hours and hours creating colorful graphs for a big science project (on an Apple IIe…), and didn’t save the file as I went.  I then accidentally kicked the plug to the computer as I adjusted my seating position, and boom.  All gone.  I then had to stay up most of the night to finish the project.  

That lesson was very valuable, and I’m glad I learned it early on.  Don’t let data loss be the reason you take action on backing up your valuable images, whether they are personally meaningful to you or ones that you use in some professional capacity.  

Some of the links mentioned below are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase from the link, I will earn a small commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you, and it helps support this website.  Thanks!

How Data is Lost

There are two main causes of data loss: an issue with the hard drive itself or some sort of disaster – whether that’s theft (or simply misplacing it), fire, viruses or malware, or some natural cause.

As many techies like to say, it’s not a matter of if you’ll lose data, it’s just a matter of when.  

Most decent external hard drives have a 3-5 year warranty, and their probability of failure increases over time.  So, if your data is stored on an external drive, chances are good that you will need to replace that drive sometime during its short lifespan.  When that hard drive starts to go on the fritz, you are really going to want to have a backup.

What Is a Backup?

A backup is simply a separate, identical copy of your data.  To be a backup, the copied data must exist separately from the original data.  For example, a backup of your computer’s internal hard drive can exist on an external hard drive or in the cloud.

Backup Versus Sync

You may be thinking – if I synchronize my computer’s information to the cloud, isn’t that considered a backup?

Well no, not really.

The main advantages of cloud syncing programs, such as Dropbox (Basic Level), iCloud Drive, Google Drive, or OneDrive is to give you the convenience of being able to access the same folders and files across many devices and to share them with others.  If you make a change to a file, that change will be reflected on all of the devices to which that file is synced.

Syncing services are super helpful for this reason; however, they do not work as a backup solution because once a change is made in a file or folder, it’s changed everywhere and there is no going back.  

Let’s look at an example.  Say you keep your image files in a folder on your computer that is synced with the cloud.  You want to cull some of your images to save on space, so you delete the files you no longer want.  The files are deleted across all of your devices during the sync.  However, you later realize that you deleted a file that was actually a keeper by mistake.  That file is now gone and can’t be retrieved.

So, syncing with the cloud across devices is not considered a true backup.  It’s a real-time copy of the data you have selected to sync, but you can’t go back in time to retrieve information if you need to.  

In addition, it’s rare to have your entire system syncing to the cloud; usually, you just sync selected folders because many of these services have data limits, and it can quickly become very expensive (and not feasible from a bandwidth standpoint) to sync large amounts of data.

And, if your computer’s hard drive should die, these selected synced folders and files are not going to be sufficient for rebuilding your system.  So, syncing is great for convenient access to limited files across devices, but is not an ideal backup solution.

Types of Backup

So, what are your backup options, then?  There are two types of backup you can choose – a physical backup or a cloud backup.  

A physical backup would be an external hard drive that contains all of your system’s data, including your directories, folders, and files. This would require you to backup your information to the drive on a regular and frequent basis.

If you are a Mac user, then you can use Apple’s Time Machine for this purpose, and once it is setup, you can let it run automatically in the background.  It’s a great option because you can go back in time and retrieve old data if you need to and set it up to backup connected external drives as well.  

I’m not a Windows user, so I’m unfamiliar with the automatic backup options there, but here are some free and paid backup options for Windows users.  Unfortunately, Windows doesn’t currently have a built-in option, like Time Machine.  If you know of a backup solution for PC users that you can recommend, please comment below and let us know!

Another backup option is to backup to the cloud.  Cloud backup services, such as Backblaze, Carbonite, iDrive, and Dropbox (Plus Level and above), automatically create backups in the background of any new or changed data on your computer once a full backup is created.  The data is safely stored in the cloud, and depending on the service, older versions and current versions are retrievable.

Many companies are now offering limited or close to unlimited storage of files with a subscription, such as Adobe, Amazon, and Google.  However, with image files only getting bigger these days with the advancements in digital cameras, it is easy to quickly max out any of the storage limits and it can get pretty expensive.  

3-2-1 Backup Strategy

Now, no backup strategy is absolutely perfect, but some are better than others.  If you’ve done any research into how to best backup your valuable image files, you may have come across the 3-2-1 backup strategy.

The 3-2-1 backup strategy is a simple method that many photographers, videographers, and business owners use to ensure the safety of their data.  I employ it as well and share my process both in the field and at home below. 

The 3-2-1 backup strategy requires that you have at least three copies of a single file.  Two copies of that file exist on two different mediums kept locally, and one copy is kept offsite.  

3 copies of a single file = 2 copies on 2 different local drives + 1 copy offsite

A simple scenario would be the following: your image files are stored on your computer’s internal hard drive as your “active” copy (copy 1 -local).  An external drive is attached that automatically backs up your computer’s hard drive as your “backup” copy (copy 2 – local).  You use a cloud backup provider to automatically backup your computer to the cloud offsite (copy 3 – offsite).  

Alternatively, the third copy could be another physical drive that you keep offsite rather than using cloud storage.  The downside of this approach is that you will technically need two additional external drives and use them in rotation so that one is always offsite.  

You would also need to backup and rotate them on a regular basis, such as daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly depending on your needs and comfort levels.  Obviously, the longer the interval, the less up-to-date that backup will be, and you would need to stay on top of the schedule, which can easily get pushed to the back-burner when life gets busy.

My Complete 3-2-1 Backup Process

Here is how I’ve decided to apply the 3-2-1 backup strategy to my workflow.  This system may or may not work for you based on your own needs.  Feel free to adopt it if it seems like it would be a good fit. I explain the schematic in more detail below.

My personal 3-2-1 backup workflow – details below.

At Image Capture

My backup process starts in the field.  I currently shoot with the Nikon D810, which has two memory card slots.  I have it set up so that my images are written to one card slot and copied to the second card, rather than having the second card as an overflow card.  This way, I have two files of the same image as soon as I take the shot.

I number and label all of my memory cards according to the camera for which they have been formatted.  I start with #1 and once that card is filled, I lock it and move on to #2.  This way, I avoid reformatting or rewriting over an already full card by mistake.

I also use two different memory card capacities.  The active card is usually 16-64GB and the backup card is usually 128GB.  When I’m doing a really important shoot, then I use smaller capacity cards in the active card slot so that I can swap them out more frequently once filled.  If a card should fail, fewer images would be lost by using a smaller capacity card.  And I always have the backup card and hope it doesn’t fail at the same time.

At the Hotel

When traveling, I bring along my laptop and two external hard drives.  I currently use the LaCie Rugged Mini 4TB drives, and they have served me well so far.  They are heavy, but rugged enough that I feel comfortable traveling with them.  I’ve had thinner, lighter drives fail on a trip before – not fun, and thankfully, I had a backup.

I set one external drive up as my “active” drive, and the other is my “backup” drive.  At the end of each day of shooting, I copy the images off of my backup memory card to the active hard drive.  I then copy the new images to the backup drive.  

Once I’ve confirmed that both copies of the image files are intact on both drives, I feel comfortable reformatting my “active” memory cards for the next day of shooting.  I keep my larger capacity “backup” memory cards with images on them until I get home.  

With this approach, I have three copies of the images on three different mediums.  Obviously, unless I’m traveling with others, it is difficult to separate these copies, so this doesn’t abide by the 3-2-1 backup strategy perfectly, but it’s close.

Back at the Office:

My main workstation for image editing is an iMac with a 2TB internal hard drive.  While it is fast, this isn’t large enough to store all of my image and video files, and so I put my image and video files on an external drive.  

I have three external drives attached to my iMac:

  1. Time Machine backup drive – this backs up my iMac’s hard drive 
  2. Active drive – contains my image files, video files, catalogs and other media related files
  3. Backup drive – is a carbon copy of my active drive that automatically updates weekly

I use Carbon Copy Cloner to duplicate the information on my active drive to my backup drive.  You can set the frequency of the duplication to happen however often you want.  I’ve decided that for my own needs, that once a week is sufficient.  I can always manually trigger a copy if needed.

So the scenario above means that I have two local copies of each type of data on two different mediums (active drive to my backup drive and my iMac to my Time Machine backup drive).  For my third copy offsite, I use and highly recommend Backblaze.  

Backblaze runs continuously in the background to backup my iMac, the active drive, and my backup drive.  So each is backed up to the cloud offsite.  Note that Backblaze does not make a backup of Time Machine files, so that drive is excluded.

Try Backblaze for free for 15 days

What I like about Backblaze is that it provides an actual backup of unlimited data and unlimited file sizes for a low price (currently $60/year for a personal plan).  Your data is kept for 30 days, so if you lose anything within that time frame, you can retrieve it at no additional cost.  If you want more protection, then you can pay an additional $2/month, and they will keep your files for a year or more.

If you need to restore your data, you can download individual files for free, or you can have Blackblaze send you a flash drive with your data for $99 (you get a refund if you return it), or a USB hard drive for $189 (up to 8TB), also refunded if returned within 30 days.  

Plus, if you do use sync services like Dropbox or Google Drive and have those folders living on your computer as well, Backblaze will also backup those folders.  Pretty amazing, huh?

Backblaze isn’t the only cloud backup provider out there, and if you want to see how their services compare with others and with online sync services, check out their comparison guide to see if they might be a fit for you.

Once I return home after a trip, I copy all of my trip’s images to my main images folder for Lightroom, and then import them into my main Lightroom catalog.  If I’m editing while on the road, I’ll create a new catalog in Adobe Lightroom for that trip that I then import into my main catalog once at home.  

Speaking of editing, I also backup my Lightroom catalog every time upon exiting the program.  You can set your preferences in Lightroom to be prompted to backup your catalog every time you exit or to skip the backup.  These backup files are stored on my active drive and backed up to the backup drive and the cloud.

Backup Versus Redundancy

Just a quick note about backups versus redundancy.  When you start maxing out the capacity of your hard drives, it may be time to consider going to a NAS (network attached storage) system, which can hold multiple drives.  If you’ve been looking into this, you’ve likely heard that setting up a NAS as a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) is a good way to go.  

And it is — if you are looking for redundancy.

There are various ways to configure a RAID system, and I’m not going to go into those details here.  However, the main point of using RAID is to protect against data loss if one of the drives in the RAID fails.  The data is basically written across the drives in a redundant way so that if one drive fails, the others can chip in to recreate a copy of the information.  

This is the advantage of redundancy – minimal downtime and speed of recovery.

However, RAID is not a backup, and that’s my main point here.  In addition to one of the hard drives failing, the RAID enclosure itself could fail, and errors could arise when rebuilding the data.  Not to mention, that the whole RAID system is susceptible to the same concerns we mentioned earlier of theft, fire, corrupted files, or natural disasters.  

RAID is great for helping you recreate your data quickly with less downtime; however, it doesn’t fully protect against data loss the way a backup does.  

So, if you go the RAID route, be sure to have a way of still applying the 3-2-1 backup strategy for the best protection of your data.

What backup strategy do you use to protect your data?  Feel free to comment below.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Ted Jerome

    Here’s a thought–label your hard drives with the date they were put into service, so you can easily judge *accurately* if they are getting old enough to consider replacing.

  2. Ted Jerome

    Fantastic description of a well-thought-out backup scheme!

  3. Charlene Nagel

    Thanks for this Brenda! I don’t know how many times I have thought about setting this up, but never quite completed all the steps. Would you recommenced just replacing external drives that are older? My photos are backed up to one that I have had for quite a while.

    1. Brenda Petrella

      Hi Charlene – glad the info was timely! To be safe, I would replace at least one of your local backup drives to a newer model. If it’s in your budget to replace both with newer drives, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. So long as you have one full copy (locally or offsite) available that you could do a restore from, then you should be all set if things should fail.

  4. Amith Mohan

    Very relevant and useful blog. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  5. Ron

    Brenda: Thank so much for another great article! I have one question. As you indicated, Backblaze doesn’t backup Time Machine files. However, is it necessary to keep Time Machine (TM) files on a separate external drive (like you’ve done) or can they be included with all my other files on the same external drive?

    1. Brenda Petrella

      Hi Ron, I’m glad the article was helpful! I believe for you to be able to use a single external drive as both your “active” drive as well as a time machine backup, you will need to partition the drive. I’ve not done this myself, so I can’t advise on the best way to do it. I found it simpler to have two separate drives.

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