Back up your photos. And again I say, back up!

If your home were destroyed, what would you miss the most? What could you replace? What is irreplaceable? Most people miss their photos. Most everything else can be replaced. Not so the photos of precious people, memories, and moments.

Backups of digital files is so easy. And yet we photographers are as guilty of negligence as anyone. Aren’t we? You know that external drive that is supposed to have a copy of all your photos? Is it up to date? What if that drive fails? “I don’t have to worry, I keep everything on Dropbox.” When you delete files from your computer to free up space are those deletions synced to your cloud storage as well? Often times, yes. “I used to have those kinds of worries  but now I have a NAS that backs up everything automatically.” And if your NAS is stolen or your home or office is destroyed where are your precious files then?

Having a disaster-proof back up system is trickier than we’d like to admit. Mostly because we have good intentions but poor follow through. Let me say this as clearly as possible: If your photos aren’t backed up automatically, you don’t have a back up plan. 

Let me show you how I ensure I never lose a photo. 

As a working professional photographer my backup strategy may be more elaborate than you need. Take what works for you. Ensure you have at least two delete-proof copies of all photos in at least two different locations.

Making Copies

Memory cards

Have enough cards! Until you can copy the images to a second device you don’t have a backup. Have enough cards and rotate through them. Also, don’t erase a memory card until you absolutely have to. That memory card protects you if your first backup dies and takes your photos with it to digital oblivion. You still have the original files on the memory cards and can start again.

Going on an epic African photo safari? Take more cards than you think you’ll need (you’d be surprised how many photos of fleeing gazelle you’ll take and you don’t want to miss the cheetah chasing an impala because you’re out of cards and are trying to delete individual files)! You might also take along a solar charger and extra batteries, but I digress.

If your camera has dual card slots, be sure to write to both of them simultaneously. Cards fail and sometimes get lost; have an instant backup straight from the camera to sleep well at night. 

Your computer (copy one)

Most of us will copy our cards to our computer’s drive. This is the first copy. A fast card reader such as the Lexar Professional readers will save you hours every year. 

Tip: if it’ll be some time before you can copy your photos to a computer, consider a battery-powered, portable drive such as the Western Digital My Passport Wireless or  My Passport Wireless Pro with built-in SD card reader and WiFi. Or get the necessary dongle and app to copy images to your phone or tablet.

An external drive (copy two)

Drives fail. Unexpectedly. Don’t trust your photos to any single device. Make a second copy immediately.

The software you use to copy your cards to your computer may have a setting to copy the images to two separate locations. If so, use it and you’ll never forget to make that second copy again. If not, find an automatic way to save your files to a second drive. I use Apple Time Machine, which also keeps versions of files (for weeks to months) even if I accidentally delete the original file on my laptop.

 An aside - what are we backing up?

When a shoot is completed I select and process the images in Lightroom and Photoshop for the client. Lightroom saves all edit data in it’s catalog (database) without altering the original RAW file. Be sure to back up the original RAW files and the Lightroom catalog (the .lrcat file). 

Importantly, also save your edit data in “sidecar” XMP files, which for some reason is not the default setting for Lightroom. This will prevent lost work if the Lightroom catalog ever becomes corrupted, which has happened to me. (In fact, I go so far as to create a separate Lightroom catalog for every shoot, but that’s me being paranoid. Though I get the benefits of much better Lightroom performance by not having a single massive catalog, which also makes backups and portability easier, but that’s another story.) 

I save photoshop edits as TIF files with all layers intact, in case I ever need to modify an edit. Save those, too.

Lastly, I create web and print-optimised files of the final images. I back up those, too.

All this creates more versions of each image with its edits, tags, and settings. More things to back up. More chances of recovering from a disaster.

The cloud (third copy, off-site)

As soon as photos are on my laptop they begin their journey to the cloud. 

Because I shoot a lot, and RAW files are large, and upstream internet bandwidth can be pretty poor this may take some time. From hours to days in some cases. Thus, I only rely on the cloud for long-term backups in the case of disaster. My first and second copies are always current while I process a shoot in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Getting files to an off-site location, whether in the cloud or on a hosted server, this absolutely must be an automatic system that doesn’t require you to do anything. Your cloud backup solution should also keep versions of files, even keeping files you delete locally. This is where Dropbox, Google Drive and all other non-backup solutions fail us.

My current cloud solution is CrashPlan, which I’ve been using for years. I’ve got terabytes of data backed up with them, from a number of different computers. Other options to consider include Carbonite, Backblaze, iDrive, Zoolz and many others. Just be sure you get enough storage, backups run automatically, and versions of files are saved and deleted source files don’t (necessarily) delete them from the cloud.

Server or NAS (fourth copy)

I run a small office and currently use a rather old Mac Mini and a Drobo for a redundancy-protected 7TB of space on my network. It’s quiet, fits in a small space, and meets my need for protection and price. You might prefer a Synology or other solution. Just be sure it is well-supported and provides some form of RAID so you can keep working even when a drive fails.

I’ll admit that have a separate file share on a server or NAS is not ideal. In fact, it’s probably the weakest link in my backup process. Why? Because I have to manually copy files. This is exactly what I railed about at the start of this post. And I rail against manual processes because we all know that we don’t do them quickly, consistently, or accurately. And yet…

Copies two and three are always taking place without my attention. And if that’s all you have that might be enough. I can’t afford to lose a client photo (or photos of my own family!) So I go further. 

When I’ve finished processing an entire shoot of RAW files, with its own lightroom catalog, XMP sidecar files, TIFF files with layers, and final exports for web and print, I manually copy the entire shoot and all associated files to the Drobo for copy number four.

Tip: though I could drag-n-drop to copy the shoot folder to the server, the Mac has a curious feature that can delete existing files when copying, which I’ve come to loathe. To be on the safe side and save time by not copying files that haven’t changed, I use the excellent Beyond Compare (Windows users might also find WinMerge a good free alternative).

Once I’ve confirmed all the files have arrived safely on the server/NAS I delete them from my local computer, freeing up space for the next shoot and editing process.

I know, I know. This is a manual process. All I can say is that I do this religiously. Partly because if I don’t move completed photo shoots off my laptop I run out of disk space. So I’m soon become forced to do it. Also, it’s now become a quick and painless habit. After all these years I finally do this important step the way I said I would (but didn’t) so many times over the years. 

The cloud, again (fifth copy, off-site)

Once the files are on the server, the server sends them to CrashPlan again. Two copies of everything in the cloud. If I were totally paranoid I’d probably use a different cloud service for this second copy. Indeed, I probably should.


If this sounds rather elaborate, maybe it is. Then again, when I finally got serious about a backup system that “just worked” I already had everything I needed except an off-site cloud solution. I connected an old drive to my laptop and turned on Time Machine. I then connected two external drives to an old laptop I had sitting unused on a shelf, using software RAID. I bought a CrashPlan subscription and started backing up my laptop and the “server”. Over time I’ve upgraded the equipment and made my backup process better and better. 

Writing this I’ve realised how important it is that I automate copying files to the server and I have a few ideas how I might do that over the Christmas holiday.

For you… It’s Christmas time. Equipment is often on sale. You’ve got some time off. Make sure your precious photos and memories are safe.

Blessings on you all!

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Douglas Robar

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