Backup Your Digital Photography

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Today I would like to talk to you about a subject that is often uncomfortable, and even a little confusing at times.  Using protection.  Now I know what you are probably thinking.  “Why should I worry about protection? I’m smart about it, and I try to use safe practices.  Besides, that could never happen to me.”  I used to think that too, but yesterday I had quite a scare.  I realized hard drive failure and data loss can happen to anyone, at anytime.  Even if you have a RAID server and a backup system.  

It’s embarrassing to think about how I used to store my pictures.  External hard drives all over the office. Random pictures here and there.  Finally I realized that I needed to get serious and invest in a RAID Server. This thing has 8 hard drives in it, and it is possible to lose one drive without losing any data.  It’s happened three times now in the last year, which I am told is not uncommon for running that many drives.  I heard that Google has a hard drive go bad every three minutes.  Crazy! After the second drive went bad a few months ago, I decided to add an additional backup system to the server.  So now every few days, a copy of the data on the server is captured onto two external hard drives. 

Now for one of the scariest moments of my career.  Tuesday I heard a noise coming from the server.  My network admin said that it was a drive, but I should be fine to keep working until he could swap it out the next day.  Not long after, several hard drive lights started flashing red.  I tried to access the server, and in the root directory, I was greeted with, “0 bytes.  No files available.”  What!?  

It turns out that I didn’t lose anything.  One drive went bad, and after putting a new one in, everything went back to normal.  But this has me thinking I may need to add another RAID server to backup the one I already have.  I am also going to be keeping backup drives at off site locations.  No more taking chances.  I do not want to go through this again.

Even if you aren’t a professional photographer, it can be devastating to lose all of your personal pictures.   So many people have pictures on one drive, or on a disc.  Discs and drives go bad!  Always keep multiple copies of your data.  External hard drives are very affordable these days, so there are no excuses.  I seriously recommend taking the following steps to everyone.

1: Keep your pictures organized by creating a filing system that makes sense.
2: Never store data on the C: drive.  If you need to reformat, or reinstall your OS, this can be a problem.  Have a separate drive for your data.
3: Backup your data!  Make sure that everything you save is on at least two different drives.  I do not recommend CD’s or DVD’s.  They go bad!
4: Keep a backup of your data at a second location.  This might be extreme for some people.  But if it’s your career, like it is mine, do it.

There you have it.  Please talk to your loved ones about the importance of using data protection.


Hi John, Thanks so much for this tutorial. For years, I've been stuffing condoms and the like into the disk slot of my G5 tower. While on location or in studio, I can't tell you how many times I've gotten cross stares from creatives and models. Dumbfounded for years, it is only now I learn that this won't work. Thanks, Mike

POSTED BY Michael Clinard on 2-19-2009

Hey Mike, You should seriously consider switching to compact flash. Much safer...

POSTED BY John on 2-19-2009

Seriously, though--backing up your data is something a lot of people don't do, until "the crash" happens to them. I highly recommend Carbonite...it's around $50/year for unlimited offsite backup, and the backing up is all automated, so it doesn't take an extra work. Might not be ideal if you have huge files, but for me it's great.

POSTED BY Eric Schlange on 2-21-2009

I keep an external on my desk and two backups in safe that I update daily. This way if there is a fire or flood, the photos should be safe for a while in the safe. Not as guaranteed as online or another location, but about all I can do right now. By the way, there are two drives inside in case one fails.

POSTED BY Charlie on 2-25-2009

You should also consider some tape backup, for long term files that you don't use often and would like to archive. It's relatively and durable. Also, for your offsite backup, have your network admin set up a secondary raid server at your home (or any other place with a good internet connection) and install a program called rsync on both ends. It'll take care of completely replicating the data from one server to another in real time, and it saves lots of bandwidth. If you need more details feel free to email me. As a professional systems architect and amateur photographer I believe I can give some insight on this. And thanks for bringing up the topic.

POSTED BY Remy on 2-26-2009

John, good advice. While I've got my stuff on at least 3 HDs at my studio, I also wanted off-site backup. That said, uploading 1TB of images is not really an option on today's connections.. So I settled on JungleDisk. Point it to a folder and it backs up everything in it to amazon's S3 service. So when I'm done with an image I save out a full-res jpg to my 'Ark' folder which gets backed up. I've got about 10GB up there now and pay about 80 cents a month or something silly. I wrote about it on my blog a while back. http://www.ontakingpictures.com/2008/03/asset-management-essay-2-back.html

POSTED BY Bill Wadman on 2-26-2009

Hey guys DROBO is the answer to most of my problems with "backup solutions"!!!!

POSTED BY Andres on 2-26-2009

I work in IT and applications with terabytes worth of data. I agree with the other suggestion here is that you could do very well with a tape backup. The backup software can do incremental or full backups. Swapping in and out two tapes or so and keeping one in a safe deposit box gives you smoking hole syndrome protection too. As an example: PowerVault LTO-4-120 Tape Drive

POSTED BY Mike M. on 2-26-2009

Whatever you do, make sure your backup is offsite. It doesn't help you if you have a fire at the studio and your backup RAID burns right next to the production RAID.

POSTED BY Scott N on 2-26-2009

Hi John, Great article. As an old IT-Guy and sometimes-professional photographer, I can vouch for the fact that people usually don't get serious about backup until it's too late. One important note: Don't confuse synching with backup. A proper backup system will archive a copy of any changed file, whereas a synch-based system will simply overwrite the old file with the new one. If you accidentally screw-up a file, by file corruption or saving edits on top of an original, for instance, a true backup will save you. A synch-based system may not, if you've already synchronized that bad file to your "backup" server. A backup will take up more space online, on disk, or on tape, but it's very well worth it.

POSTED BY Scott Sutherland on 2-26-2009

In addition to a separate harddrive for backups in my Mac Pro, I have an external drive for an additional backup, I then use Mozy for offsite backup. Cheap and has unlimited storage. I am just an amateur and have 130+ Gigs already uploaded. Cheers!

POSTED BY TWiP on 2-26-2009

In addition to the great suggestions above, it also never hurts to have a copy of SpinRite around. It has recovered many a though-to-be-dead drives around our place.

POSTED BY David Jones on 2-27-2009

Good post. And a good reminder. In college once, my harddrive failed... but I was able to get all my photos off of the network through your harddrive and our Floor Jew's computer. I think that was part of his job description.

POSTED BY NeckBeard on 3-4-2009

Data backup is something photographers typically neglect because it's difficult to settle on a simple solution which doesn't cost an arm and a leg. I work for a digital capture company. We deal with storing dozens of large shoots a month, and with each one taking up anywhere from 20 to 100 gigs of data, we were forced to come up with an economical archiving system. Here's a post on our blog detailing what we strongly believe to be the easiest, cheapest, and most efficient archiving solution around: (Hint: forget RAIDs.) http://www.deathtofilm.com/2008/06/30/image-mechanics-off-line-archiving-system-the-next-generation/ And yes, you're exactly right John, even RAIDs need to be backed up!

POSTED BY Adam Kleifield on 3-5-2009

I'm very mindful of data backups and still I don't bother with local "backups" per se... At home I have a drobo that stores all my pictures, music, etc. I then use jungledisk ($20 one time fee) which sends all my files to amazon s3 storage service which costs the wallet breaking .12/gb/month or something. Right now my bill is around $1.50/mo I think. They recently also added support for rackspace cloudfiles storage service at the same cost. So I usually backup to cloudfiles and every so often sync those files to s3. So I have to fairly reliable offsite backup sites (they've both had service issues but never harmed data) and the local copies. It works well enough for me and is still far more than most people backup.

POSTED BY Todd Eddy on 7-24-2009

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