Bulletproof Backup Strategies for Digital Photographers

As your photography archive grows, so does the need to handle and protect that data. What happens if your computer doesn’t boot, or an image file won’t open? What if your home or studio gets robbed, or worse, catches fire? What if your backup drive fails, or your laptop gets stolen? These are all questions I ask myself when planning my backup strategy.

I’m a photographer, not an IT professional. Everything in this article is from my own experience since I switched to digital in 2001. I use a Mac, so if you’re on a PC you may need to do a little research to find the equivalent to some of the steps I’m going to talk about here.

Bootable Backup

Many people think that if they use Mac OS X’s Time Machine to backup their computer they’re protected if a drive doesn’t boot. But Time Machine doesn’t make bootable backups. For backups to be restored from TM, you need to have a working OS. The solution is to create a bootable drive which would allow you to hold down Option+C during boot, select the external (bootable) drive as your start-up disk, and you’re up and running. There are several pieces of software (both PC & Mac) that will allow you to create bootable backup drives, but my favorite is Carbon Copy Cloner. Trying to resolve technical issues and restore operating systems with a client standing in your studio can be a stressful situation. By creating a bootable backup, you can get back in the game quickly and replace/restore your main drive when time allows.

Copy to second card during capture

Now that we have a solution to our bootable drive backup, we need to start thinking about protecting our images from the moment we create them. Most DSLR cameras these days have two card slots and will allow the user to setup how those slots are configured. While setting your camera to fill one card at a time so you don’t have to change cards as often may seem like a good idea, it doesn’t provide any protection of your data if something goes wrong. If you want to incorporate redundancy into your workflow, this is a good place to start. By setting up your camera to write both cards at the same time, you’re getting two copies of your data in case one card fails.

Shooting Tethered

When shooting tethered, you need to make sure your files are backed up while you’re shooting since you’re probably not writing to the memory cards. Once again, with an application like Carbon Copy Cloner, you can create “tasks” to automatically copy files, folders, or entire drives to a second location. I have modified my MacBook Pro with a DataDoubler from OtherWorldComputing allowing me to replace the internal optical drive with a second hard drive (or in my case a second SSD). I have created a task in CCC which automatically copies my “Tethered” folder from Drive A to Drive B every 30 minutes. This way if my main drive fails, I know I have a second copy on Drive B. Alternatively, if you don’t have the ability to replace your optical drive, you could just plug in an external drive and have CCC do the same thing.

Copy To Second Location on Import

Most cataloging apps, like Adobe Lightroom or Capture One, allow you to define a second location to store images during import. This way when you ingest images from your memory card, or during tethered capture, you can create a backup of your images automatically. Just don’t make the second location on the same drive as the original location.

Where To Store Files?

Although they can be stored on the local drive, storing your image files on a remote drive or networked drive is likely a better option. If you have large catalogs of images, you may need a RAID system in order to create a volume large enough to accommodate all your files. By getting them off the main hard drive of your computer, it will allow your computer run faster and enable you to setup a backup system that’s accessible from any computer and expandable to fit your needs.

Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID)

There are several variations of RAID available, but the four most common are:

  • RAID 0 = No redundancy (max size)
  • RAID 1 = Mirrored (50% total size)
  • RAID 5 = Spanned across multiple drives (60–80% of total capacity), 1 drive can fail
  • RAID 6 = Same as RAID 5 but 2 drives can fail

I won’t dive deep into RAID types in this article, there’s plenty of information around the internet to bring you up to speed on how it all works. I’ll leave that to the IT professionals, but the biggest advantages of RAID systems are their ability to survive limited hardware failure, and their virtually unlimited size.

3–2–1 Strategy

Now that we have our data on a dedicated external drive we need to think about how protected that data is. IT professionals have long promoted a 3–2–1 backup strategy for secure, redundant backup of your data, and it certainly applies here. 3 backups of your data, on 2 types of media, 1 of those off-site.

Putting It All Together

Hang on, this is where it gets complicated. You can probably store all your files on a single external storage device, whether that’s a 2TB drive, 4TB drive, or 24TB RAID system. Look at how much you shot in the last few years on average and figure out how big of a drive you need to store several years worth of data. Maybe you can fit it all on a single drive, maybe you need a massive RAID system. Either-way, that’s the main storage for your files, so this is where you want to spend your money. But remember that RAID systems only protect against hard drive failure. They don’t necessarily protect against file corruption/deletion. In order to do that you need to have a backup of your primary files. If you're thinking RAID 1 accomplishes that, not quite. RAID 1 is an exact mirror between drive A & B. The problem is that information is instantly copied from one drive to the other. If something goes wrong on Drive A, it also goes wrong on Drive B. We need to create an opportunity to restore corrupted data from the uncorrupted copy. This is where a second drive (whether it’s a single disk or a RAID system) comes into play. By using an automated application like Carbon Copy Cloner to make daily backups of your main drive, you’ll have a second drive to restore from in the event something goes nutty on the main drive.

Now we have 2 copies of our data (you still with me?). We need a third to complete the first part of our 3–2–1 backup strategy. We have a couple options here. For our third copy, we need to be on a second type of media (the “2” in our 3–2–1 strategy). In Ancient Greece they used CDs and DVDs for this, but in today’s digital photography world, those methods are slow and small. Not to mention that optical media fades over years. Instead of optical media, we can use “The Cloud”. Companies like Backblaze and Crashplan allow you to store unlimited amounts of data on their servers. It’s a great way to go and covers the "2 types of media" and "1 off-site" parts of our 3-2-1 strategy. There is a downside though, it’s slow to start and slow to recover from. This is where I cheat a little on our 3–2–1 strategy. In addition to creating my third media copy on a second type of media, I also use a third drive to take off-site. Confused? Let me break it down for you:

Drive A copies to Drive B every night at midnight. This gives me a full 24 hours to recover any corrupt or deleted files. Each week I bring in Drive C from off-site and replace Drive B (taking Drive B off-site). Guess what app I use to accomplish this? CarbonCopyCloner automatically runs a task to copy everything on Drive A to Drive B or Drive C when it’s reconnected … so all I have to do is unplug Drive B, plug in Drive C and it starts to copy anything that’s changed since the last backup. Can it get any easier?

Now I have a 4–2–1 backup strategy, even better!

The Gear I Use

I use three G-RAID Thunderbolt drives from G-Technology. I also use a G-Drive Mini as my Time Machine backup (keep in mind TM likes 2x size of your main drive, my main drive is a 240GB SSD). I also have LaCie Rugged drives (various sizes) which come in both HDD and SSD versions to create copies of our tethered folder in the field. Even though we have two copies on the dual internal drives, we want to be protected in case something happens to our laptop on the way back to the studio. This drive is stored/carried separately from the laptop by my assistant. The next piece of gear we purchase, that will make this a truly bulletproof backup, is a Network Attached Storage system that can automatically sync with a duplicate NAS system off-site. This will solve the issue of something happening to the two G-Raid drives in the studio and losing everything from the past week that hasn't been copied to the off-site rotating backup. We're reviewing a few models now and will update once we've made a decision and incorporated into our backup strategy.

A Few Closing Thoughts

Isn’t all this expensive? Sure, but isn’t losing all your data, or even data from one job (a wedding for example) more expensive? Buy good stuff, spend the money once, spend the money now. Don’t buy cheap stuff and have it fail, you might as well not do anything. Don’t establish a backup strategy AFTER you have a problem. I don't expect everyone to run out and buy a few thousand dollars worth of RAID drives, but hopefully I've given you the incentive to start thinking about how your data is protected. Good luck, and let me know in the comments if you have any questions.

 

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