Reminder: make sure you have a backup strategy for your photos (also, RAID is not a backup)

I ran across the above story on PetaPixel. Oakland, California, photographer Jennifer Little lost her life’s work in a burglary. Thieves stole her camera equipment and 21 harddrives containing all of her work from the past 10 years. I can’t imagine the devastation I’d feel from this sort of loss. When I was just starting out, I had a harddrive fail and I lost a couple months’ work, including my only pictures of a few college friends. To lose the entirety of one’s professional work is unimaginable to me.

General Backup Strategies for Photographers

I thought this would be a good starting point to talking about how photographers should back up their work. Two rules of thumb before we get started: RAID is not a backup (likewise for Drobo and other proprietary RAID-like systems) and have a 3-2-1 system for backups, meaning three copies of files, in two different types of media, at least one offsite. RAID is not a backup because it’s function is to constantly mirror data on a drive. RAID is intended to maintain uptime in specific types of hardware failure. If you accidentally delete a file or overwrite keywords for a shoot, that bad data is mirrored to the rest of the RAID array.

I recently came across this piece by Tony Roslund: Bulletproof Backup Strategies For Digital Photographers. He runs through his phenomenal backup strategy which starts with redundancy during image capture when shooting tethered and goes from there. He does use RAID, which can be a good part of a backup strategy, but importantly he has other offline and offsite drives which hold the files securely in case of human or computer error with the RAID. If you want to really get into the nitty-gritty of backing up digital data, the ASMP has a great web portal covering backup strategies for photographers in depth.

The above guide does not consider online or cloud backup solutions. You shouldn’t trust the cloud with your only copies of files but if you have a 3-2-1 strategy, online storage can be a good option for offsite, other media storage. Photographers should also remember the complete debacle that was the end of Digital Railroad. The biggest drawback of online backups is the time it takes to upload your data.

My Backup System

My own personal backup strategy has evolved over the years. When I started, I used dual hard-drive backups and DVD copies of my archive. As filesizes and my own photography output began to increase, I had to abandon DVD storage. A single day’s shoot might span 10 DVDs. Now, I have dual hard-drive back ups and two different online storage systems. For hard-drives, I’ve been using Western Digital My Passport Ultras. At Amazon, you can get 2TB drives for $90. The drives have decent reviews, and in my 4 or 5 years of using them, I haven’t had a single issue in any of the 10 or 12 I use. They’re also USB 3.0 rather than a proprietary connection type like what Apple’s firewire or thunderbolt. They’re also small, so really easy to transport. In the past, I often made my own external drives by buying a reliable internal and then getting a cheap enclosure for it. You might find comfort in knowing exactly what drive is inside any enclosure you buy. I use SyncBackFree to make an exact copy of one drive on a second. And then I store the second drives in another location. For the 3-2-1 rule, this satisfies two copies and one offsite location.

I also have two cloud backups, both of which came free with services I was already subscribed to. I’ve been using PhotoShelter for years, but just this year, they announced that pro-level accounts have unlimited storage. Whereas I previously only used PhotoShelter as an archive and delivery system for selects from my assignment and personal work, I know have a collection within my archive (hidden from the public) that is a full mirror of every picture I’ve ever taken and the processed selects. The folder structure in this PhotoShelter mirrors my hard-drives exactly. It took about a month to upload ~8 terabytes of photos with my FIOS internet connection. I had a slow-ish cable connection before and it was painfully slow to upload huge amounts of data. Going forward, uploading between 10 and 50 gigabytes a day isn’t a big deal. The other drawback with PhotoShelter is that using the FTP upload method does not check for duplicate files or folders. So, if I upload a folder as soon as I ingest it on my computer but then want to upload selects later, I need to upload through the web interface directly to the appropriate folder so the system will skip previously uploaded files. On the other side, PhotoShelter allows multiple user accounts for FTP uploads. By default, all FTP uploads go to an Incoming FTP folder, and that’s not very helpful. Using different upload accounts, however, you can specify upload location within your PhotoShelter system. So, I’ve got one upload account that goes directly to my 2016 New Hampshire Primary coverage and another that puts files directly in the full archive collection. That really simplifies the process of uploading and organizing. One other issue that is a bit of an annoyance is that this method duplicates files that I upload as selects to show a client or otherwise keep in my public-facing archive. PhotoShelter’s internal search system leaves a bit to be desired, so I run into duplicates when getting lightboxes together for stock inquiries.

Amazon Prime also recently announced unlimited photo storage including raw files from a small list of cameras (I don’t believe that list is exhaustive. The 5DMark2 isn’t included, for instance, but I believe those raw files are fine). In my experience, uploads to Amazon’s photo storage is slower than my connection should allow, so it took longer to upload there than to PhotoShelter. On the other hand, Amazon’s uploader does check for and skip existing files. This is good in that it generally simplifies uploading, but bad if you re-keyword a folder and then need to re-upload. In that case, you’d need to navigate through your Amazon photo storage and delete the folder or files you want to replace.

With these two online storage systems, I now have a 4-2-3 backup system. Four copies of files, two different types of storage (hard drive and online), and three different storage locations. I’m not sure where PhotoShelter gets its storage space, and it’s conceivable that they might use Amazon’s storage services, but even still, I’m protected in case PhotoShelter goes out of business. This strategy protects my photos in multiple ways in these different scenarios: if I accidentally delete a folder on a backup hard-drive or online, if my home is burglarized or destroyed, if my hard-drives quit working or becomes partly corrupted, if PhotoShelter or Amazon go out of business, if someone maliciously takes over my PhotoShelter or Amazon accounts, and other disaster scenarios.

There are other online systems for backing up photos and other digital data, but be careful when you choose. Google Photos, for instance, allows unlimited storage of photos up to 16 megapixels, but they apply some compression to the files and it is impossible to get your uncompressed originals back. If you want uncompressed storage, you’ve got to pay.

3 Responses to “Reminder: make sure you have a backup strategy for your photos (also, RAID is not a backup)”

  1. jim

    Arq is a great software option for connecting to a wide variety of cloud option, or even a FTP server. As an archive of last resort (in addition to multiple hard drives, one off site) I’m using Amazon Glacier to keep a copy of all my photos/videos. They recently dropped the price to $0.007 per GB. My hope is I will never need it, but it’s all there.

    Also using Backblaze to back up photos and my entire computer. On a standard crappy cable modem account it took almost a YEAR to upload everything to Backblaze.

  2. trent

    yeah, seconding that ARQ and Glacier is the way to go for cloud backup. encrypted, scheduled, etc. you can also backup to other cloud services, like Google’s Nearline, and again… encrypted.

  3. John Smith

    I use ashisoft free duplicate file finder to sort out the duplicate files problem…

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