A Secure Photo Backup Strategy For Photographers

by Andrew S. Gibson
A Secure Photo Backup Strategy For Photographers

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Now that so many of us are stuck at home it’s a great time to tackle some of those things that you know need sorting out but haven’t done yet. One of these is putting in place a robust photo backup strategy.

Why do I need to backup my photos?

Let me ask you a question. What would happen to your photos in any of the following situations?

  1. The hard drive you saved your photos on stops working.
  2. Somebody breaks into your home and steals your computer and all your external hard drives.
  3. Your home is destroyed by fire.

The last two possibilities are unpleasant to think about. But unfortunately they do happen.

The reason that you need a robust backup plan is to ensure the safety of your photos in any of the above scenarios.

Why your photos are important

On a personal level, your photos represent anything from your memories of family and loved ones to works of art. How would you feel if you lost them all?

On a business level, if you make money from your photos in any way they represent current and future income.

For example, I make a living by turning my photos into articles and photography books. Over the coming years this will feed my family and pay the mortgage.

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Of course, some of that revenue will be generated by photos I make in the future. But given the income potential it makes sense to spend a couple of hundred dollars a year to ensure my photos are backed up securely.

If you’re a wedding or portrait photographer, how much money do you make from reprints? Or how would you feel if you couldn’t deliver photos to a client because of hard drive failure or theft? What would that do to your reputation and business?

If you’re a commercial photographer, how much revenue do you make from re-licensing photos from old shoots? Would a client use you again if you lost photos from an old shoot they wanted to re-license?

If you’re in business, loss of photos means loss of income, reputation and clients.

What makes a good photo backup strategy?

A good backup strategy meets the following criteria.

Simple to put into action. Otherwise you’ll never do it.

At least partially automated. In case you forget to backup your photos.

It has to protect your photos in any loss scenario. This gives you peace of mind.

It has to protect the photos on your mobile devices. It’s not just the photos on your computer’s hard drive that need backing up.

Relatively inexpensive. The more a solution costs to implement, the less likely you are to do it.

My simple photo backup strategy

So now it’s time to share my backup strategy with you. This simple system ensures that my photos are backed up to three places, including an automated cloud backup.

Let’s go through it step by step.

1. Organize your photos and videos

Save your photo files on an external hard drive. Don’t save any other files on this hard drive, other than a backup of your Lightroom Classic Catalog.

Hierarchical folder structure.

Set up a hierarchical folder structure that organizes your photos by date (such as the one above). This isn’t as complicated as it sounds and doesn’t take long. Our tutorial linked below has the full details.

Learn more: How to Organize Photos For Lightroom Classic

2. Download any photos or videos saved on mobile devices

The next step is to download all the important photos and videos saved on any mobile devices to the same hard drive.

If you’re a Lightroom Classic user connect your device to your computer and click the Import button in the Library module. There you can access your device (you may need to authorize it first) and import photos and videos using your regular import workflow.

Why is this important? If you’re like me you have photos and videos of friends and family on your phone that you don’t want to lose.

What happens if:

  • You lose your phone?
  • Somebody steals your phone?
  • Something goes wrong during an operating system update and you have to do a complete restore of your phone, erasing all personal data including photos and videos?

Yes it’s true that you may have some kind of cloud based backup such as iCloud or Dropbox (you can consider that an extra layer of security).

But it’s far better to download those important photos and videos onto your hard drive. There you can manage them in Lightroom Classic and include them in your backup strategy.

Tip: You can also download photos and videos from your partner’s phone or tablet so they get backed up with your photos. They may think you’re crazy but they’ll thank you when something goes wrong!

3. Buy two more external hard drives

Buy two more external hard drives with the same capacity as the one used to save your photos. Copy all the photos to these two hard drives.

This is easy with the folder structure outlined above. Simply click and drag the top level folder to your new hard drives and let your computer do the work.

Tip: Label each hard drive so you know what each one does. For example:

  • Hard drive 1: Photos
  • Hard drive 2: Photo backup 1
  • Hard drive 3: Photo backup 2

You can of course use whatever labels you want. I call mine ASG Photos Main, ASG Photos Backup 1 and ASG Photos Backup 2.

Label your hard drives for photo backup

Extra tip: Remember that hard drives have a limited life span. Every hard drive is guaranteed to fail. The only thing you don’t know is when. It might be next week, or in 10 years time. Because of this it’s a good idea to replace your three photo hard drives at regular intervals, perhaps every two or three years.

Bonus tip: Set your Preferences so that your computer lets your hard drives rest (i.e. they are not active and the internal drive isn’t spinning) when it isn’t reading or writing data from them. This greatly extends the life span of your external hard drives.

4. Keep your hard drives in the right place

Now you have three hard drives, each with a full copy of your photo and video collection. But we’re not done yet. Now you need to organize your use of those hard drives.

This is what I mean.

Hard drive 1: This is your main hard drive and the one that Lightroom Classic uses. This should stay connected to your computer at all times (I’ll explain why later).

Hard drive 2: Keep this close to your computer. Copy your photos to this hard drive whenever you import photos to your main hard drive. This habit helps protect your photos. It’s much easier if you keep the second hard drive close to your computer so that you know where to find it.

Hard drive 3: Keep this one off-site. For example, I keep my third hard drive in our garage, which isn’t connected to our home, so it’s protected in case of fire. It’s also unlikely (I hope!) that if somebody breaks into our home, they will break into the garage as well.

Other options include storing your third drive at work or in the house of a friend or relative.

Every now and then bring your third hard drive home so you can copy your most recent photos onto it. How often you do this depends on how many photos you take. Once a month is probably fine for most photographers. Once you’ve made the backup return the drive to its off-site location as soon as you can.

Tip: Set a monthly reminder using a calendar app to prompt you to make this backup.

5. Add automation to your photo backup strategy

Now it’s time to add automation to your backup plan. This is important because it removes human error as much as possible.

Backblaze is the service that I use and recommend for this purpose. It costs $60 a year (plus tax). This may seem like a lot but it gives you peace of mind.

Backblaze works like this.

When you sign up for an account and install the Backblaze software on your computer it starts uploading the files saved on your computer’s hard drive and any selected and connected external hard drives to Backblaze’s servers.

Backblaze photo backup

For example, in my case Backblaze is set to backup my computer’s internal hard drive, the external hard drive I save my photos on, and another hard drive that I use for saving document files.

Once all those files are uploaded to Backblaze’s servers, the software keeps an eye on your hard drives and automatically backs up new or amended files.

It keeps those files on its servers as long as you keep the external hard drives connected to your computer and aren’t offline for more than 30 days at a time (note: you can pay more to extend that timeline, see below). That’s why I recommended keeping your main hard drive (for photos) connected to your computer at all times.

Backblaze questions

You may be wondering how well Backblaze works if you have several terabytes of photos to upload. In my case it took around two or three weeks, although I do have the advantage of a fast broadband connection.

A couple of things to bear in mind about Backblaze.

Backblaze backs up all your files (with the exception of some operating system and temporary files). That includes all documents including your Lightroom Catalog. In other words, it’s more than just a photo backup.

If you’re offline for more than 30 days (or a backed up external hard drive isn’t connected to your computer for that length of time) then Backblaze deletes the backups of those hard drives.

If you’re away from home for more than 30 days then set your computer to come on automatically and connect to the internet once a week. That way you won’t lose any backed up files.

You also have the option of paying extra for Backblaze to keep your files for a year, or even a lifetime, so you don’t have to worry about this.

If you need to recover all your backed up files you have the option of asking Backblaze to send your photos to you on an external hard drive (for an additional fee which BackBlaze refunds if you return the hard drive within 30 days). This applies anywhere in the world.

Backblaze only works as long as you keep paying the annual charge. Your photos will no longer be backed up if you don’t. You also need to keep the Backblaze software installed on your computer.

There’s a free 15 day trial that lets you install the software and start backing up your files. This lets you see how it works and get a feel for how long it will take to back everything up.

Click here to learn more about Blackbaze or sign up for the free trial

What about RAID and NAS drives for photo backups?

Some photographers use RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) or NAS (Network Attached Storage) drives as an automated way of backing up their photos to multiple hard drives. Feel free to do this if you understand how these systems work and can afford them.

Note: Backblaze doesn’t backup NAS drives.

Professional photographers may use a RAID array or NAS because it saves time. But for personal use it’s much less expensive to buy regular external hard drives and use the system explained above. They also take up less space on your desk and are more portable.

Also please bear in mind these are not secure backups as they are vulnerable to disasters like theft and fire.

What is a 3-2-1 photo backup strategy?

A 3-2-1 backup strategy works like this:

3 – Make three copies of your photos.
2 – Keep those photos in two different places.
1 – At least one of those places is offsite.

The 3-2-1 strategy gets mentioned a lot in articles about backing up photos. My backup plan uses this method and adds automation to make it more robust and secure.

What about Time Machine or Windows Backup and Restore?

These are the backup applications built into the latest Mac and Windows based operating systems. Personally, I see these applications as a safeguard against accidentally deleting files or internal hard drive failure rather than part of a secure backup strategy.

Time Machine photo backup

My Time Machine drive is permanently connected to my computer. If somebody steals my computer, they will probably take the Time Machine drive as well. It’s not a secure backup.

Summing up

Hopefully this tutorial explains all you need to know about backing up your photos. If you have any questions about it then please let us know in the comments.

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Pat Bell April 14, 2020 - 9:22 pm

I keep my lightroom catalogs and working folders all on dropbox and backup the drive containing the dropbox sync. So three places yes?

Andrew S. Gibson April 15, 2020 - 7:29 am

Sounds like it Pat, yes. Personally I prefer to have my photos backed up to three different drives plus a cloud backup. You could, for example, make a third backup of your drive and keep it offsite to add an extra layer of protection. Don’t forget to set Lightroom to make a back up of your Catalog when you close it down as well.

Donald Goeschl October 16, 2021 - 4:03 am

Andrew. I have 2 San Disk G Drives 4Tb at126 Mb and I wanted a third one for back-up but they no longer make the 126 Mb and the replacement runs at 196 Mb will it work with the 126?

Andrew S. Gibson October 18, 2021 - 7:20 am

Hi Donald, yes it will, you won’t have any problems with it.


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