Backups should be a key part of any photographers workflow. It isn’t a matter of if you will have a storage device fail, but when. However, many photographers, amateur and pro alike, lack the background knowledge to understand what is really needed. In this post I will explore backup strategies for photographers including risk analysis, general backup strategies and discuss what is and is not a backup.
This is a high level post discussing backup strategies for photographers as a part of our series on workflow. It does not discuss specific tools in detail.
Thinking About Risk
The first step in designing your backup system is assessing the risks, and then deciding which you can tolerate and which are unacceptable. The goal of the backup system is to reduce or eliminate the risk of data loss in those situations.
Before we go further, I’m going to introduce Bob. Bob is a serious amateur photographer and he is going to be one of our fictional case studies. We will meet Susan in a bit.
Lets think about a simple backup system. Bob has a computer and an external hard drive attached to it. Whenever Bob downloads photos he carefully copies them to both his computer and the external hard drive. Bob does not want to loose his photos.
What risks does this system mitigate? Which won’t it help with? To figure that out, lets brain storm some common risks:
- Data corruption
- Hard drive failure
- Power surge (e.g. from a lightning strike)
- House fire
- Physical theft
- Local disaster (e.g. a flood or wild fire)
- Regional disaster (e.g. a major hurricane)
- National/global disaster (e.g. WWIII)
This list is not exhaustive, but it covers most of the likely scenarios.
Know Your Risk Tolerance
No one backup system is perfect for everyone. In fact, no one backup system is perfect for all photo shoots. Some people, especially those that shoot casually may want to make a “best effort” to protect their images but with minimum cost.
Other people, in particular pro photographers, will place a high value on their image archives. They may even have a legal obligation to ensure that no minor disaster (i.e. a house fire, lighting strike or even something regional like a flood or hurricane) destroys images.
The Time Factor
Don’t forget the time it takes to complete a backup. A local backup might take minutes to complete. A cloud backup might take hours. If you use a system of off-site rotation, it might takes weeks before your recent work is fully protected.
The length of time you are willing to tolerate a risk for should play into your strategy. A professional wedding photographer has a very different tolerance for short term risk than a casual amateur photographer.
Backup Strategies for Photographers
Lets talk nuts and bolts now. What are strategies a photographer can use? What risks do they mitigate and how quickly?
A Local Backup Hard Drive
External USB hard drives are cheap and huge. It is simple to buy one and plug it in. You can manually copy your images over as Bob does, or you can employ and automatic system like Mac’s Time Machine to do the backup automatically. The net result is the same. Your images end up on the backup hard drive pretty quickly.
If, like Bob, you copy the images over as you import them, the time scale is nearly immediate. Your backup contains what you import. With an automatic system like Time Machine, there is some lag, but not much since it actively updates the backup very frequently (sub 1 hour).
What risks does this mitigate? This type of backup protects you from a drive failure. That is a good thing since hard drives fail all the time. Unfortunately, when used alone, it mitigates almost no other risks. Anything that threatens Bob’s entire house, like a lightning strike or fire can easily destroy Bob’s primary and backup copies at the same time.
As long as Bob knows this and accepts the risk, everything is good. If not, Bob needs to consider how to improve his backup strategy.
Off-Site Backup Rotation
Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway. — Andrew Tanenbaum
A step up from a simple local backup is a local backup with off-site rotation. For the mere cost of two times as many external hard drives, you make 2 backup copies of your images. Keep one copy off site at a friend’s house. Enterprises use this type of strategy all the time, with rotation of backups off-site as frequently as daily.
Believe it or not, this is likely the most affordable strong backup option for many photographers. Hard drives are cheap. If one backup hard drive costs $100, then 2 costs $200. A one time $100 fee for off site backups of terabytes of files is dirt cheap.
The cloud is a brand new thing as human society goes. For the last several years most people have had enough upstream bandwidth to push large amounts of data into “the cloud”. But what is the cloud? Reduced to it’s simplest, “the cloud” is just someone else’s computers. That is a vast oversimplification but it drives home the salient point: the cloud isn’t magic. It’s just technology repackaged a slightly different way.
Susan’s Cloud Backups
For our purposes, you can imagine that a company has a hard drive labeled “Susan” and when she makes a backup to “the cloud” she is just copying her images over the internet to that hard drive. That hard drive might be in a building 2 doors down from Susan or on a different continent.
Types of Cloud Backups
Here is where things get more complicated because not all “cloud” backup systems are the same. There are 3 general classes for this discussion:
- Image hosting systems: Zenfolio, Photoshelter, 500px, Smugmug, etc.
- Cloud Backup Systems: Backblaze, Carbonite, etc.
- General Cloud Storage: Google Drive, Mac iCloud, Microsoft One Drive, Dropbox, just to name a couple of them.
To make things more complicated, the above categories are amorphous. You can generally use #3 (general cloud storage) for either of the other 2 through a front end app or service. Some of them even include that directly.
Image Hosting Systems
Image hosting systems such as Zenfolio and Photoshelter usually have an unlimited level where you can pay to upload as many JPG files as you want. Photoshelter and Zenfolio both have options to upload raw files and some other image formats. However, these type of systems are not general purpose backups systems. They are a place to dump edited image files and maybe RAW files. They generally require manual management of the archive structure (i.e. creating folders, uploading to the right place, verifying everything got uploaded).
Even so, if your primary concern is making sure your images are safe, they are a great option, especially if you already have them for some other reason. We, for example, have the highest level Zenfolio account so we upload all our JPGs. The backup this provides is a “freebee” since we use Zenfolio as our method of delivering images to our clients. They charge by the megabyte for RAW files so we don’t use Zenfolio for that. We actually have the unlimited Photoshelter account for that purpose only.
Regardless of which system you choose, it is important to remember that image hosting systems are not a general purpose backups. They only protect the images you manually upload to them. They can still play a big role, but won’t help with other assets like scans of signed contracts, logo vector files, etc.
Cloud Backup Systems
General purpose cloud based backup systems are the new player in this field. To be viable for photographers they require a big upstream (that is upload) internet connection.
Lets talk about latency… Susan uses a cloud backup system. They claim their software proactively backups up new files on her computer “instantly”. That is marketing talk, which means it is a flat out lie. If Susan photographs a wedding and comes home with 32 gigabytes of raw files, that takes a while (maybe 8 hours) to upload even on a fast internet connection. The time it takes to complete that upload is the latency of the backup.
That latency time is the window to loose some or all of the images waiting to be backed up. Of course, the only way to do better is to copy the images to a hard drive and then drive it somewhere. Like the quote above says, it’s hard to beat the bandwidth of a station wagon full of hard drives.
The advantage of this type of system is that the backups are relatively automatic and they generally handle any type of file, not just images. They usually charge a relatively low fixed monthly fee. Once the upload completes, your images and other files are off site.
General Cloud Storage
Google drive launched general cloud storage into the mainstream, but now a ton of people offer it (many selling products using Amazon or Google’s enterprise cloud storage services under the hood). Google give you 15 gigabytes and rising for free (as of 2018). That sounds like a lot, but it is nothing for a photographer. Amazon and other cloud services have similar small free accounts, none of which will work for a photographer wishing to backup RAW files, not to mention other files on their computer.
Of course, all these cloud service companies sell larger and even unlimited accounts. They suffer from the same latency problem that the cloud backup systems suffer from. You have to push all those gigabytes of RAW and JPG files through your internet connection which isn’t as large as you think.
The advantage of this type of system is you effectively have a huge network hard drive you can access from anywhere in the world. Need an old JPG or RAW file from 4 years ago while on vacation? No problem, most cloud storage systems are app accessible from your phone.
The downside is that most of these require manual updating or some add-on backup solution to keep them up to date. That isn’t impossible, but it is another moving piece to maintain.
Creating a Hybrid Systems
If you like things simple, you probably want to pick a single strategy (local only, rotated local or cloud) and go with it. Know what it protects you from and what it doesn’t, accept that and move on with life.
If on the other hand, you know what you want and need, and are willing to put in the time, you can create a hybrid backup system to satisfy your needs while minimizing costs and effort. Use a local backup for short term protection from hard drive failures and another system (e.g. the cloud) for long term disaster protection.
Backups Are Living Things
Whatever backup scheme you set up, remember that a backup is a living thing. You have to feed and care for it. You should regularly check the viability of your backups by recovering a few random files to a temporary location. Verify that they are correct.
You should also check whatever software you use to handle automating your backups. Check to make sure that the quantity of data backed up is reasonable. If you have a mostly full 2TB drive in your laptop and your backup drive has 200GB of data on it, alarm bells should go off. If the software has any warnings or errors, dig into those. Don’t just ignore them.
And finally, you have to remember to do your job. If you plan on using rotating off-site backups, you have to remember to rotate the hard drives. Google calendar or another automatic system of reminders is a good idea.
Hopefully you have a better understanding of the strategies you can use to backup your images and other data files as well as the trade offs between them. Before you pick a strategy, start by thinking about the risks you can tolerate and what you are willing to loose. Assume you will have a hard drive failure or other disaster at some point and design your system to recover from that. When the worst does happen, you’ll be ready.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.