Photographers Guide to Backup

I’ve been a photographer for a very long time now.  I started shooting seriously when I was 18 years old (that was 34 years ago), then working as a photographers assistant for 7 years and finally turning professional and shooting for myself 22 years ago. So, I’ve always been interested in preserving my work. However, that used to involve buying archival film sleeves and the like. Not anymore. Since I started shooting digital way back in 1999 it introduced a whole new set of rules and problems on how to backup and archive my work.

This is a guide to how I currently do things (backup and archive wise). I don’t claim that it’s perfect or that it suits everyone. It’s also not a cheap solution. However, it is fairly solid (fingers crossed). That’s the important thing for me. Feel free to take bits from it that you feel may suit your own set-up. Much of my current set-up was founded on principles spoken about in The DAM book by Peter Krogh. Written back in 2005. The principles in that book are solid and logical.

I’m a working professional wedding photographer. Not only do I need to backup my work, I also need a system that can cope with a system failure. That means getting up and running again as quickly as possible from a drive crash, computer crash, house burning down etc.

I’ll try and break things down into stages to clarify each part and the reasons I have them set up this way. I’m Mac based, so apologies if I talk about things that are Mac specific. I’m sure the PC world has equivalents. Most things should apply to any OS to be honest.


Four types of Backup

Basic Backup – An exact copy of an original file.
Sequential Backup – incremental copies of the same file, as it gets changed over a period of time (TimeMachine & CrashPlan)
Off-Site Backup – what it says. A copy of the file in a location away from your workplace (to cover against fire, flood, theft etc.)
Archive – A copy of a file that’s not on your main computer system, but is kept live on an external drive.


Photographers Guide to Backup Flow Chart 2

Types of Drive (in relation to their task regarding backup/working procedure)

Internal Computer Hard Drive – in my own case a 1Tb flash blade inside a 27″ iMac (Late 2015)
Working Images Drive – ToughTech Duo 3SR RAID – with 2x Samsung EVO850 SSD inside (originally used 2x 1Tb WD Blue)

TimeMachine Drive – External Hard Drive – I currently use a 2Tb Samsung drive connected via USB3
Boot Drive Backup – Clone – Currently a 1Tb Lacie RAID (SSD)
Images Backup Drive – Drobo 5D

Archive Drives – 3Tb WD MyBook’s (x3)
Video Drive – 4Tb WD drive for keeping videos off my internal drive

Simple Backup – Apple TimeMachine

TimeMachine was a very clever invention. It not only backs up your files, it also copies sequential versions of them. That means, it not only takes one copy of a file, but if you change that file, it will then take another 2nd copy (and 3rd, 4th etc.) each time you change the file. This means, if you ever lose that file, you can go back in time and find the version that you wish to restore. Clever stuff. I have a dedicated external hard drive attached via USB3 that is solely for TimeMachine. It’s set to backup constantly, all day long as my day to day files change.

The only problem with TimeMachine is because it is always copying versions of files, if you have files (large files) that change often – your images, Lightroom Previews files etc. then it will constantly be making new backups of these files. That would make the backup very large, very quickly. For this reason, I would not recommend using TimeMachine to backup your images.

You could of course simply get a bigger TimeMachine disk – but it’s not very practical. I currently exclude my main LR catalogue previews, but do allow it to backup the LR previews from my current working weddings. This seems to work well. I exclude backing up any of the Archive Drives, Backup Drives etc. as you’d simply be duplicating things.

As you don’t want TimeMachine to backup your images, it makes sense to store them in a separate place on your system to all of your other files. This could potentially be an images folder in the Root Area of the main hard drive or even better on a separate external hard drive. The Working Images Drive.


Time Machine Drive – Simple Samsung 2Tb USB3 drive, connected directly to the iMac

TimeMachine Exclusion ScreenShot

Boot Backup Drive

What would you do if the main drive in your computer drive failed? How quickly could you get up and running again? Or, what if you’re using an iMac. What would you do if the graphics card failed or the computer blew up in front of you? How would you carry on working? I’ve been faced with this situation – had a Graphics Card fail in a 2011 iMac. All of a sudden, you’re stuck. All your work is on the hard drive inside the iMac – but you can’t get to it, as the machine needs to go to the repair shop.

Images? Read below (Working Images Drive). I’d personally recommend storing these on an external drive – not your internal drive.

But, what about all of your other files. The Lightroom Application, Photoshop, your LR catalogues etc? Even day to day things like your documents, invoices, spreadsheets with your bookings on etc. Sure, you’ve got a TimeMachine backup – so in theory, you could grab another computer and start restoring from the TimeMachine you have. However, have you ever tried doing that? It’s not fast. Also, you’d need enough room to restore it all on that other computer. In the case of myself, I have a MacBook Pro I could use, but it’s already rather full of its own stuff. So there’s not a lot of spare room on there to copy over things from my main iMac.

The Solution? Make an external Boot Backup Drive. Grab an external drive, the same size as your internal – or big enough to store the data on your internal drive – plus a bit of room to keep some sequential changes. I’m currently using a 1Tb Lacie SSD RAID. That I had from a previous set-up. Used to use that drive as an external boot drive for my old iMac. Which is another way of working that I liked. As if the Mac ever died, you could simply unplug the Thunderbolt connected drive and plug it into another mac – then boot it from there. Nowadays, I use the internal Flash Blade in my 2015 iMac, as that’s super fast and keep the 1Tb TB drive as my boot backup. So,  at 9pm every evening, I have an automated script (using ChronoSync) which backs up the whole of my boot drive – a 100% clone – to the external boot backup drive. If my mac were to die during the day, I’d simply plug the boot backup into the MacBook Pro, then boot up the MBP from the external drive – hold down the Alt Key during boot, to choose which drive to start from. I’d have a working drive – identical to my main iMac – just a few hours out of date. I could then update that drive, using the TimeMachine drive – or CrashPlan – to bring it right up to date. Lost work would be absolutely minimal. Meaning I could be up and running as normal in the shortest time possible – probably only an hour or so. As a working professional – that’s very important to me.

TouchTech Duo 3SR Raid

Working Images Drive

On import all of my images go onto an external drive. This is a ToughTech Duo 3SR (RAID), connected via USB3. If you have a Lightroom workflow, then your images do not need to reside on your main drive or with your Lightroom Catalogue. Your catalogue in fact should be on the fastest drive you own. The images can be on a slower drive, as LR simply references them, it doesn’t interact with them. So the speed of the drive won’t have much impact on your workflow – in Lightroom.

Why a mini RAID? This RAID is not for backup purposes. It’s for drive failure events. The two 850EVO ssd’s inside are exact copies of each other, as the drive works. If either drive fails, then the 2nd drive will have an exact copy of all of the working images. If the enclosure fails, then you can simply pull out either drive and mount it in an external dock to carry on working on the images. This means minimal downtime in the event of a problem. Being an external drive also means, that if my iMac fails – then I can simply take the drive and plug it into another Mac. My MacBook Pro for example and be up and running quickly. This is important for a busy working photographer.

In the good old days, where I used to store everything on the main hard drive inside a 2011 iMac – when the mac went wrong, work stopped for 3 days until it was fixed. That’s not a good way of working. And resulted in me re-thinking how to cope with such issues in the future. Always have a working backup plan.

So my flow of images is as follows. Import from card into the Working Images Drive. Backup the original version to the Image Backup Drive and Off Site Backup Drive. Once all editing is finished and the job has been delivered to the client, copy images over to the Image Archive Drives and delete from the Working Images Drive. At this point, I also trim my weddings down to only images that were delivered RAW and final JPG’s and update the backup versions to match this on the Image Backup Drive and the Off Site Drives.

Photographers Guid to Backup Flow Chart 1


Image Backup Drive – Drobo 5D

This is my 2nd drobo unit. I originally owned the 4 drive version, which was great, but very slow. The 5D is much improved as it connects via Thunderbolt direct to the iMac. There are lots of bad reviews of Drobo’s on the internet. I’ve read the horror stories, as should anyone considering one. However, personally speaking, I think so long as you understand what the Drobo is and what it does, plus its disadvantages, then you’ll be fine.

For an image backup drive, what you want is a storage place for the original copies of your precious images. It makes sense to have those copies duplicated. Because hard drives can die. So, you could simply have a single hard drive as your image backup drive, but if that single drive dies, you’ve now lost that data and are reliant on your main working image drive copy (or Archive copy) and your off site copy. Far better to build in redundancy.

One of the obvious solutions to a main Image Backup Drive is a mirrored RAID. The problem though is if you have a lot of images, you’re looking at a minimum of a 4 bay RAID, possibly in my case more like a 6 bay. With a RAID, you ideally fill it with identical drives. That means as well as the main box (Qnap come highly recommended) you also need to buy at least 4 drives of the same size and type. That starts to get very expensive as an outlay. The benefit of a mirrored RAID is you could pull any of the drives at any time and put the drive into a dock – and still read the data. This is one of the issues with a Drobo, that people don’t like, the data cannot be read by a dock. You have to put any drive from a Drobo into another Drobo unit to read it. Is that a problem? Not so far as I can see, no it isn’t. I’ll try and explain my thinking behind that.

With a Drobo, you can buy the box fairly cheaply (currently £520 on Amazon). Then you can add any drives you like to it. They don’t have to be the same drive – and this is the main reason I love the Drobo. When I started using it, I already had a bunch of spare drives lying around, so I just added 2 of them to the unit. Then added a 3rd. Then added a 4th etc. You don’t have to fill the Drobo up right at the start, so the initial cost is far lower than buying into a RAID unit. Also, as the drives fill up – you can simply pull them out and put in bigger drives. If you have a RAID full of 3Tb drives. You’d have to replace all of those drives with 4Tb drives to upgrade (or 5Tb, 6Tb etc.). With a Drobo, you can simply pull out an old 3Tb drive and put in a new 4Tb without issue. The clever software will work out how to distribute the data. Superb and very clever.

So what happens when a drive dies? The Drobo always keeps the data spread across a number of drives, so if one drive dies,  you won’t lose anything. If two drives die, you will  – but, you hopefully have other backups – you should have! So, simply replace the drives and continue your work.

Now what happens if the unit dies? This is what most online reviews complain about. I’ve had it happen to me, so know the issue. If the unit dies, you can remove the hard drives from the Drobo. But you cannot read them using a dock for example. No problem you simply send the Drobo for repair. In the same way that you’d have to send a RAID unit for repair if it went wrong. As you are using this as only one part of your backup solution (you have copies of the images elsewhere) you shouldn’t really be in any rush to get the images off from the drives. If you are – why? My Drobo took about a week to repair. When it returned to me, I simply put the drives back in and continued as normal. Now, what if I had of needed those backup images? Maybe one of my other backup methods had also failed? Well, the simple solution to that would have been to purchase a new Drobo 5D. Amazon would deliver one tomorrow, if in stock – or other suppliers stock them. I could possibly even pick one up same day from somewhere. Then, simps insert my drives and continue working. I really can’t see the issue with that.

I think the majority of people who hate Drobo’s used to complain about is because they were using them as a main images drive. Not a backup drive. Personally, I wouldn’t consider using one as a main images drive. For that, use a pure RAID – such as the ToughTech Duo 3SR. A much better solution for that task. But as a pure backup device, it’s hard to beat the value for money that the Drobo brings and ease of use. You don’t have to know anything about RAID’s to work a Drobo. It’s very simple.


Off Site Backup Drives

The easiest and cheapest solution for off-site backup is to use bare internal hard drives via a drive dock. I use an Inateck Dock, but there are many versions available. I like the Inateck version as it has room for two 3.5″ drives at the same time. Useful when moving files between two external drives. It can also take 2.5″ drives if needs be. So can read the SSD’s from my ToughTech Duo.


Another form of off-site backup, that I highly recommend is Crashplan. Cloud backup. I would always say to photographers, first and foremost, your off-site backup should be local to you. Not remote. i.e. it should be nearby, so that you can retrieve things in a hurry if disaster struck. And lets be honest here – your off-site backup is something you hopefully will never have to use. It’s the final phase – that covers you against theft, fire and flood at your workplace (home). CrashPlan works in the exact same way that Apple’s TimeMachine does. It’s very simple to use and just works quietly in the background. Once set, you don’t even have to think about it. Which is great, since it’s easy to us humans to forget to back things up. The main thing to understand about CrashPlan is its not quick. Uploading via the internet is a slow process. But still worth doing. My recommendation is always to start with small folders, then add larger folders to the system, once the first one’s are backed up. Images, being large are actually the last thing I’d backup to CP. The first things are documents, Lightroom Catalogues and such. Because once backed up, they will then regularly top up the backup as you make changes to those files. One day, hopefully when we all have mega fast upload speeds, CP will be even more useful. But for it’s cost, I still wouldn’t be without it – as the final piece of backup solution. Because it’s totally automated and totally off-site. It’s just comforting to know that my precious personal photos and documents etc. are all safe in may places (even other countries in this case).


Backup Software

On the Mac, my preferred software for copying files is ChronoSync. Carbon Copy Cloner is also highly rated. One of the functions of Chronosync that I like is its ability to check the file integrity of DNG files, as I copy them. I tend to convert all of my RAW image files from Canon’s proprietary format to the universal DNG format, as it is smaller in size. It also embeds the sidecar file into the DNG, making the images folder much more tidy. Plus, you can verify DNG files, via Lightroom and Chronosync easily. So you always know that the file is readable. You can check a whole folder of files without having to open each one up to check it.



Once an image is finished and I no longer need to work on that clients wedding. I then archive those images to an external archive drive. I currently have three of these, covering all of my digital images since 1999 personal and work. These archive drives are permanently connected to my iMac. Why? Well, here’s the thing. Some people like to archive their images on a hard drive, then store it somewhere on a shelf. That’s great. But how do you know that drive still works? You don’t. Same used to happen when people used to use DVD’s and CD’s to archive their images. Once you remove it from the computer, you have no way of knowing that it still works. That’s bad imho. The benefit of having an online archive is two fold. First, you always have access to every image you ever shot. Second and more importantly, you know those drives work. How do you know? Well, you would hopefully notice pretty quickly if one dropped off your desktop (unmounted). Plus you can easily regularly run Disk Utility on them to give them a health check. You don’t need those images clogging up your main drives, but it pays to keep them close by – so you know they are always available if needed.

Photographers Guide to Backup Archive DrivesThese are my three Archive Drives, plus the Video drive, used to store all my videos separately, so that they don’t clog up my other drives.

To be continued……

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