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Building a Bulletproof Image Backup Setup

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It's only a matter of time before you'll lose a hard drive with your precious images. This article will teach you the principles of building an ideal backup system for photographers.

In the fall of 2012, I had my first data loss. In the blink of an eye, my entire photo library was gone. Although I was able to restore most of the images from a recent backup, the photos that I lost are irreplaceable. That terrible experience got me on the road to a truly secure and comprehensive backup system. In this article, you'll learn the parts of a secure setup for your data and hopefully avoid the perils that I faced.

When it comes to hard drives, it’s not a matter of if one will die. Instead, it’s a ticking clock that will eventually stop working. If you are not backing up your photos, you are gambling with the safety of them.

Whether you are a beginner or are looking to add more layers of data safety, this guide is for you.

Organization and Setup

Do you know where your images are stored? Many photographers scatter their collection across folders on their drives.

This is the enemy of good data practice. To backup your files, you first have to know where they are.

One recommendation that I've made time and time again is to follow a simple, repeatable folder structure. On my Mac, everything goes in the "Pictures" folder that comes set up automatically.

The perfect folder structure for my workflow has been to give each year its own folder, and then a folder for each date I shoot photos. Some users complain that this doesn't help to find the specific images that they are looking for, but I prefer cataloging and searching in Lightroom.

Inside the “year” folders are folders for each date. With this structure, there are never too many images in a single folder and I know that everything is in the "Pictures" folder. When I make backups, I can simply drag and drop that entire folder and have confidence that all my images are duplicated.

Pick a folder where all your photos live and stick with it. Doing so is the key to knowing where your data lives and making it easy to track and backup.

If you're looking for a way to automate this reorganization, Adobe Lightroom is a great way to do it. When you're setting up your photo library, you can give Lightroom a list of naming rules and it will re-sort the images.

Choosing "move" the Destination with the organization rules set to "by date" will sort images into folders in a neat and organized structure.

Backup Your Images

Level 1: External Backups

Even within the walls of your workspace, it is ideal to keep your images in two places. Duplicating your images in two places is the most basic measure in building a backup system.

A great start is to add an external hard drive to your workflow. With an external hard drive, you can always copy files off of your computer and onto a portable drive. They can easily be found at capacities of 1 terabyte (1000 gigabytes) or more for under $100. 

Many external hard drives will plug in via USB. If you haven't used one before, it's usually as easy as plugging it in and browsing to it on your computer. From there, you can always drag and drop any of your images onto it and your computer will make a duplicate of the file. As we talked about earlier, keeping all your images in one folder makes it easy to do drag and drop backups of your entire collection.

Level 2: Redundant Storage

Even more important than a simple hard drive is a true redundant storage system. With disk redundancy, you can use multiple hard drives to make sure your images are safe.

Building a redundant storage system is simple these days. You may of heard of devices like the Drobo or a term like "RAID" for keeping your data backed up, but not know much about how it works.

Redundant storage keeps your data mirrored across two drives, ensuring your data's safety.

Enter the world of redundant storage, where you can use multiple drives to keep your data highly secured. My choice for this task is a Synology DiskStation, particularly the DS212j, which has been serving me well for over a year.

When I bought the DiskStation, I found setting it up to be a breeze. It's essentially an external, networked hard drive that I added to my network with no issues. Using the setup disk and a network cable, I added it to the network and had it up and running in an afternoon.

The DiskStation is basically a standalone computer and can be accessed from any web browser. You can also add it as a network drive and browse to it just like you would with any drive. This drive met all of my criteria and I've been extremely pleased with it.

When I first set the DiskStation up, I put one 1 terabyte hard drive inside of it. For a year, it was a great external drive. I went the redundant route when I added a second 1 terabyte hard drive at the end of last year.

By adding a second hard drive, I made the storage redundant. This meant that I didn't increase the amount of storage space, but instead mirrored the data across the two drives. My computer and the DiskStations shows 1 terabyte of usable space despite having two drives of that capacity. If one drive should die, my data is still safe because the second hard drive stays mirrored. I can easily replace either of the drives and have no loss of data.

Inside the DiskStation is where the power lies. You can see here that I've got two hard drives inside of it, each of them 1 terabyte. The drive contains exact copies of my data on both drives at all time. My computer sees it as a single drive and it protects my data.

The DiskStation is a top recommendation of mine because of its ease of use. The Drobo is another product that many photographers swear by. You can also build your own custom "RAID" setup, with levels of data safety varying by your configuration.

Now that I'm working with redundant storage, going without it feels like I'm taking risks with my data. Keeping my data mirrored on those two drives is another level of data safety.

Level 3: Off-Site Backup

Once you've added the external hard drive to your workflow, you've taken a great step to protect your data. However, you are still exposed to theft or physical damage like floods to your work area.

Off-site backup protects you from physical threats. If you are serious about your data, keeping a drive away from where you usually work is another level of protection. If you have an office, you can keep an external drive at home. You can also ask a friend to act as your off-site data backup contact. Periodically remember to retrieve the drive and make an up to date copy of the data (all backups are useless if not maintained).

The ultimate in off-site security is to store a hard drive like this in a safe deposit box. Most banks offer this space for a small fee and the temperature and moisture are of no concern. These two factors often make it worthwhile to opt for the box.

Level 4: Meet the Cloud

The cloud is its own special type of off-site storage that is easy to maintain. If you're willing to pay the fee, cloud storage is another level of protection that can bring peace of mind.

The biggest issue with backing up your photo library to the cloud is the size of your collection. If your collection is like mine, it's stocked with 21 megapixel RAW images that take up many gigabytes of space. With a drive full of weddings, some cloud storage services will not accommodate a collection.

My personal recommendation is Backblaze, from whom I've received no compensation for this plug. With Backblaze, I can backup an external drive at a flat $5 per month, and there’s no limits on storage space. To me, that's a no-brainer.  If you have another cloud storage recommendation, make sure and leave a comment to let me know why you prefer that service.

The initial backup takes plenty of time but can often be completed within the timeline of the free trial.

With a large collection, you can’t set up a cloud system in one day. The initial cloud backup can take even days or weeks depending upon your connection speed. By the end of the free trial, I had my entire collection safely backed up to the Backblaze servers. If you are worried about connection speeds, make sure to give the backup high priority and limit its usage.

The Backblaze apps are smart, and once the initial upload is completed, it periodically sends the “changes” to their servers as more images are added to my collection.

In the event of a catastrophic crash, I can always restore a Backblaze backup from the cloud. The company also offers a drive sent to you for a fee for quick restore possibilities. 

One downside to the cloud is the possible security implications. Ensure that your accounts are protected with good strong passwords, and consider encrypting the archives that they are stored in.

Level 5: Scheduling and Automating

All the above methods are great levels of data security. However, if you don't make backups easy and repeatable, you’re likely to skip doing them. That's why I recommend a scheduling and automation process, and this can go from simple to complex quickly.

The first step that I recommend taking is setting aside time to make good backups. I set aside time on at least a monthly basis to make backups onto an additional external drive. I keep all of my long term data on the DiskStation, and then backup to a large USB external drive periodically. With the BackBlaze app running in the background, it handles its own backup. Those three layers of security are plenty for me.

Both Mac and Windows platforms feature some apps that can help you automate your backups. On Mac, SuperDuper or Time Machine can automates my backup. On Windows, there's a great utility called Cobian that will do the same thing. I put an event on my calendar that reminds me to periodically run backups.

One important note is to make sure you're verifying your backups. A data backup will do you little good if you can't restore from it. Test your backups by plugging a drive into a friend's computer.

Wrapping Up

Protecting your digital assets is essential as a photographer. Whether you're protecting the files of your clients or your own timeless memories, you have to prepare for the worst when it comes to your files. With this backup system, each level of data protection is another level of peace of mind that will scale to fit your needs.

How do you handle backups? How does it differ from my system? I’m interested to see your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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