Back to Basics: Backup Strategy – Part 1

The subject of backing up your digital photos has come up many times over the years. With changes in storage mediums, the ever increasing need to come up with a diligent backup strategy should be on every digital photography enthusiast’s mind. While backing up your images can seem like a time consuming task (and there are ways to automate a lot of it), it’s one of those things you will be so thankful you did should you ever experience data loss.

Part 1…

I’ve been asked the question of how I backup my photos, and while mine is not the only strategy, it works for me and for the most part I believe it works for protecting my data. As you’ve no doubt noticed from the title of this posting, there are going to be several parts in this mini-series. I thought I would start by sharing my backup strategy first; we’ll get into the how’s and why’s in future posts.

Before Your Begin – Organize Your Drive!

Before I jump into my step-by-step backup strategy, I should note that some preparation and organization was required. Prior to starting this “backup plan”, I created a folder on my hard drive called “Photos” – one folder for all of my finished images. Inside this folder are year folders (2010, 2009, 2008, etc…) and inside those are subfolders by date and shoot (eg. 2009-12-25-Christmas-Day). I also keep a “Plugins” and “Actions” folder inside my main Photos folder so that when I upgrade to new versions of Lightroom and Photoshop, my Plugins, Actions, and Presets are easy to reinstall and they are all in one place. I also create a folder on a completely separate hard drive which I called “Photo Imports Backup.” I basically use this folder to backup every photo upon import, which I’ll then clear at a later time.

The only other thing I do in the way of keeping organized, is that I make sure to shoot with a freshly formatted memory card each time, and subsequently I make sure to transfer all of the photos off that memory card after each shoot. This way I don’t end up with the odd image here or there which I am not sure if I had copied to the computer yet or not. A fresh card for each shoot, and a complete export of the images on that card after the shoot ensure that I don’t lose any precious photos.

My Strategy

While mine is certainly not the only backup strategy, here’s the method I use. It works great for me and protects my data to the extent of my satisfaction:

  1. Copy All to Backup Folder: After a photo shoot, I transfer all of my photos from the memory card into my “Photo Imports Backup” folder. Although the word “backup” in this folder title may imply that it’s a secondary copy, I start with this folder since the photos here will not be used in my processing workflow. They will simply sit here as a backup while I work on other copies of them in processing.
  2. Import with Lightroom: My processing tool of choice is Adobe’s Lightroom. I load up Lightroom and “Import” the photos from my memory card into my main “Photos” folder, sorted into a new and appropriate subfolder, named by date and title of the shoot. These will serve as my working images for processing.
  3. Delete the Junk! In Lightroom, I’ll go through each and every photo and delete the “junk” photos. Images that were blurry or had camera shake, poor composition, etc… Photos which I know I will never use get completely deleted right away. I don’t need them, and I’m not coming back to them!
  4. Process the Keepers: With the images I know I’m going to keep, I’ll process them to my heart’s content, then if necessary, I’ll export copies of them as JPEGS into the same subfolder.
  5. Backup to Portable: With all of my “keeper’s” processed and finished, I’ll manually copy that subfolder onto a portable hard drive which is organized similarly to the “Photos” folder on my computer.
  6. Auto Backup AGAIN: On yet another portable drive (or you could use an external), I have my system set to run an automated backup of all of my important files (photos, documents, music, etc…). This is something that only needs to be setup once, and serves as redundant protection should your computer hard drive ever fail.
  7. Format Memory Card: With all of the images backed up and safe, it’s time to wipe that memory card clean for the next shoot!
  8. Delete from “Photo Imports Backup”: Now that I have several backed up copies of the images I am going to be keeping, I can delete the original backup of the memory card which I made in step one. I only keep those images during the processing period (which may span several days or weeks!), and clear them off the drive when processing and backups of the competed images are done.
  9. Stash the Portable Drive: With my images backed up onto a portable drive, I stash it in a firebox in my home. You could keep one off site if you want to be extra cautious, but this gives me enough peace of mind.

What This Leaves Me With

Just to recap, now I am left with my fully processed images on my computer, a copy on my portable drive, and a backup on another drive. Short of printing them out, 3 digital copies in separate places is enough for my satisfaction that my data is going to be as safe as I can keep it!

Of course, there are additional ways to further protect your data such as remote backup services and off site storage. We’ll cover those options as this series continues, but for now, this is the method which I find effective for me. For those of you who are just getting started in digital photography, this may seem daunting or even overwhelming, however, the importance of some type of backup strategy in something you should give some serious thought to. Besides the people in your lives, can you think of anything else in your home which is so precious and irreplaceable?

I’d like to know what strategies you all currently use, please share with us in the comments section so we can all pick up some tips from your strategies!

2 Responses

  1. Burt

    That would have been a good approach 10 years ago, but is woefully out of date now…

    1) Put your photos and other important data on Drobo drives (www.drobo.com). They give you instant RAID protection, and after the enclosure, you can expand space as needed dirt cheap, with up to 8TB available if needed. (I have three of these — one for my computer, one for my wife, and one as a CrashPlan target – see below)

    2) Use an automated local backup to a cheap drive (I use a 2TB drive that cost me under $200), using whatever free software you want. On a Mac, you get Time Machine free, which gives you hourly backups. PCee users have other solutions too.

    3) Use automated off-site backup. CrashPlan (www.crashplan.com) is the best by far for something like photos that take a lot of space. I put a Drobo at my brother’s house 50 miles away. Every day my entire system is backed up to that drive, and his entire system is backed up to a drive at my house. The software is FREE, and I have 1.6 TB (1600 GB) backed up that way. My mother, brother, sister, niece and nephew all back up to my machine (you can host as many backups as you want)

    With this, the backups are automatic, brainless after the initial setup (which is dirt simple), and you will never worry about a disk crash “the day before I was really going to update my backups” (been there, done that… about 10 years ago)

    Oh yeah, if I do have a need for that backup, I can go pick it up and physically bring it to my system, allowing me to do local recovery speeds, not cloud speeds like most of the other cloud solutions need.

    FWIW, I have no relationship to any of these companies, other than as a very happy customer. My first “home computer” was a $20,000 Data General Eclipse in 1975, and I have been searching for the perfect backup solution ever since. I finally found it, with the combination of Drobo, Time Machine and CrashPlan.

  2. For digital work I import images directly from the camera CF cards into Lightroom. In LR I select the “make a second copy to” option in the File Handling Panel. After import I have two copies of the original RAW files – one on my internal HD and one on a 1 TB external HD. My internal HD is backed up using Time Machine to a second 1 TB HD. I edit the images in LR and delete rejected images from my internal HD. Sometimes the rejects are deleted before a Time Machine back up and sometimes they aren’t.

    Every morning at 9:00 AM Lacie’s free software Silverlining Pro automatically executes an incremental backup of the LR 1 TB external HD. I now have two copies of the all the original RAW files. This back up is on a smaller portable HD. When this HD fills up I store at a relative’s home. I use 250 MB drives to get the data off-site sooner.

    Time Machine also backs up my LR Catalogs. I plan to convert all my RAW LR files to DNGs, so I will be less dependent on the LR catalog file.

    Film scans are not copied to the 1 TB HD upon import. They are backed up using Time Machine. Some scans are done by a lab and they are stored on CDs. In January I plan to add my film scans to the Lacie incremental back up so there is a copy off-site.

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