Backing up your digital photos is without question the least interesting part of photography. No photographer thinks, “You know, I really don’t like traveling or exploring nature, or exercising my creativity, what I really like is spending time at the computer copying files to multiple places.”
Backing up your photographs is a burden, but the price of not backing up your photos can be, and odds are ultimately will be, catastrophic. I know first-hand of too many horror stories to count, not just entire trips being lost but months and even years of photographs being lost – forever!
I have never had to learn the lesson the hard way, and my hope is that you won’t have to either after reading this post.
Note that I do not have any affiliation with the products or services mentioned in this post, they are simply what I use and personally recommend.
Why do I need to backup my photos?
The simple answer is this: hard drives fail, and fail often. If you have not had a hard drive fail you are lucky or full of crap. I’ve had at least three fail during my life and I consider myself to be fortunate. Copying all of your photos to only a single hard drive means you are betting that that hard drive will not fail. That is not a smart bet to make. Occasionally files can be recovered from a failed hard drive (especially if there is no physical damage), but this process can be extremely expensive and is not guaranteed to work. Also, hard drives can be stolen, lost, or physically damaged from water, fire, or an over-hydrated dog.
What is cloud storage?
Cloud storage means storing your files on servers hosted on the Internet by companies such as Google, or Amazon, or Dropbox. Their software automatically stores the data redundantly across multiple hard drives and also multiple physical data centers. When hard drives fail (and on the massive scale of these cloud storage providers, there are many failures per hour), they are automatically removed from the pool of hard drives and healthy hard drives are used instead. This all happens transparently to you, the end user. You just have a place where you can feel confident that your files are safe.
Storing files in the cloud has several advantages beyond peace of mind. Files stored in the cloud are easy to access from any computer or mobile device that has Internet access. Having your complete library available from your laptop or phone is really convenient while on the road if you need to fulfill a print order or licensing request or anything else where you need the original files.
There are two issues with cloud storage for photographers. The first is that you are limited to the speed of your Internet connection, which may have decent download speeds but most by default have relatively poor upload speeds. This makes uploading files to the cloud, especially when you are talking about hundreds of gigabytes or even terabytes, take a long time (on the order of several months). If you want to use cloud storage as one back-up method, you may wish to see if you can get a fiber Internet connection, even if it costs a little more, as the upstream speeds are much better. For large files like RAW files or TIFF files, cloud storage will be too slow to use as a primary storage mechanism, but is excellently suited as an auxiliary or backup storage system.
The other issue with cloud storage is (or was) cost, but recently Amazon Cloud Drive has drastically lowered prices. Unlimited photo storage (which means RAW files but not necessarily TIFF files) is $12 a year (or free with a Prime subscription), and unlimited storage for all types of files is only $60 per year (this is the plan that we use). Now uploading a few terabytes of data to the cloud is cheap!
If you do not use Amazon Cloud Drive be sure to read the fine print, as many so called “unlimited” cloud storage options are in fact limited to 5TB or 1TB. We have also had negative personal experiences with other cloud services, which is why we are not mentioning or recommending them here.
Update: Note that Amazon Cloud Drive's terms of service are somewhat ambiguous for professional photographers. Specifically this section: "You may not use the Service to store, transfer or distribute content of or on behalf of third parties, to operate your own file storage application or service, to operate a photography business or other commercial service, or to resell any part of the Service." What does "operate a photography business" mean? Surely I would think that sticking photos in the cloud if you are a professional photographer does not constitute "operating" a photography business (it is not crucial to your business operation, it is simply a means of risk mitigation). I would also assume that Amazon would not want associated negative publicity if they enforced this provision in the most narrow way, but it's important for you to be aware of the terms before going in.
Update to the update: I e-mailed Amazon and they confirmed that it is OK to use the service if you are a professional photographer as backup storage, but not to run your photography business. We personally have about 8TB of photos in Amazon Cloud right now.
Also note that storing all of your photos in the Cloud does provide some risk if you are not using a strong password. So use a strong password (and preferably, a password manager like LastPass, which is a good idea anyway). You may optionally choose to encrypt your files as well, especially any documents with sensitive information (usually not photographs), but that's beyond the scope of this post.
How should I backup my photos when traveling?
Traveling for several weeks away from your home presents a few challenges related to photo back-up. Here’s what I recommend, based on our own practices:
- Never format your memory cards until you get back home. This may mean you have to buy more memory cards and a memory card wallet. We use and recommend the ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket.
- At least a few times a week, copy the files on your memory cards to another hard drive. Sarah and I copy our files to her laptop hard drive. Leaving the photos on just the memory cards is asking for trouble (as Sarah knows from losing most of her photos from a hike to Zion National Park's Subway due to a corrupted memory card). Not only do memory cards fail just like hard drives, but also they are small and easy to drop or misplace (especially the smaller SD cards which are now common, my fat fingers at least had a chance with the larger CompactFlash cards).
- At least once a week copy from the laptop to another physically small USB powered hard drive, like this one. USB powered means you don’t need a separate cable to power the hard drive, which is more convenient when traveling, and they are small enough to fit in a reasonably sized pocket. This means we have our photos in three places: the original memory cards, a laptop hard drive, and an external hard drive.
- Always keep a complete set of photos on your person. We either have our memory card wallets or the small USB powered hard drive with us at all times.
- Store the card wallet, laptop, and external hard drive in separate locations. Do not put them all in the same bag, as if that bag gets lost or stolen, you will lose all of your files.
- If possible, you can also upload the photos to cloud storage while you are on the road. If you have a fast and convenient WiFi connection, this can be a great option. We usually don’t (or have limited data plan that won’t work for backing up GB of photos).
How should I backup my photos while home?
There are multiple strategies; here is how I would rank them, from worst to best:
- Only copy your files to one hard drive and then delete the files from your memory cards. Do NOT do this!
- Copy to multiple hard drives in the same house (perhaps one internal drive and one external USB drive). To make this strategy more effective, put one of the hard drives in a portable fireproof and waterproof safe.
- Copy to multiple hard drives, one (or more) in house, and one (or more) off-site, such as at a nearby relative’s house or at your office.
- Copy to multiple hard drives in house and off-site, and also upload to a cloud storage provider. This is the best system, at least in terms of practicality. The best system is actually to upload to multiple different clouds (say Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Drive) for extra paranoia, but last I checked only Amazon Cloud Drive has a reasonable price for truly unlimited storage.
Our backup approach while at home
All of the advice above is great but there’s nothing about it that suggests that it’s streamlined or easy. Sarah and I have finally settled on a system that we believe is streamlined and relatively easy and leaves us fully protected.
The short version: All of our files are stored locally on our Synology NAS/RAID, automatically copied to a connected external USB drive, and automatically uploaded to Amazon Cloud Drive. We also have an older Synology that is stored off-site, and move our external USB drive offsite when we travel.
The entire key to our system is the Synology (our specific model is a DiskStation DS1515+). The advantages of the Synology are:
- It has multiple hard drive bays (ours has five bays, currently with three 6-TB drives and two empty drives that we will fill with 6-TB drives when they go down in price). The Synology is a RAID device, which is a fancy way of saying that you can configure it so that files are stored redundantly across multiple hard drives, and if one hard drive fails, you do not lose data, and this entire process is automatic. The Synology allows you to replace and add drives on demand with no loss of data as well. We had one drive fail on it and did not lose any files in the process, and were able to quickly replace the failed drive with a healthy drive. Note that because files are stored redundantly, your storage capacity will be reduced; see Synology's RAID Calculator to calculate how much redundant storage you will have available depending on your RAID level. We have about 11 TB of usable capacity with our 18 TB of hard drives. Note that this appears to your computer as a single 11TB volume of space (the fact that the data is actually stored across multiple hard drives is completely transparent).
- The Synology has the ability to sync with all of the major cloud storage providers via its Cloud Sync package. We currently have ours setup to sync all of our photos to our Amazon Cloud Drive. We have a fiber Internet connection with a decent but not blazing upstream, but as this process happens in the background we never notice it (though you can throttle the upload speed if you need to). We have it configured as a one-way sync, meaning if we change or update or add a file locally on our Synology, it will be copied to the cloud, but if we delete a file on the Synology, it will still remain in the cloud (it’s no more expensive, so might as well leave it there as extra protection). We also have it configured so that if we delete a file from the cloud it will still remain on our Synology. Also if you want you can choose to encrypt the files before they are pushed to the cloud.
- Our Synology has four external USB-3 ports, so you can attach external USB storage devices to it. We have a 4-TB external USB drive connected to it that we copy recently modified files to automatically. If by chance the Synology has two hard drives fail at the same time (very unlikely but possible) we could still recover via the USB drive or (more slowly) via the Cloud.
- Files are stored and accessed via the network, which means that you can use any operating system (OS X, Windows, Linux, whatever). Sarah has a Windows laptop and I have a Mac laptop and they both work great. We also have a Sonos music player that can access the Synology to play our purchased music, and Synology has a few apps you can use on your Android or iOS device to access files, photos, videos, and music. If your Synology is connected to the Internet, you can securely access all of its files while you are away. Our main computers have a wired Gigabit connection to the Synology, but we also have it setup so that we can access it wirelessly if we need to (though wireless access is much slower).
- It is expandable. You can connect two more Synology devices to the main Synology device via a fast eSATA connection (for total of 15 bays and up to 90 TB of storage).
- You can use it for more than just photos. We use it to store our music and documents as well.
- The Synology has a great web-based user interface, many features, and an active community of users. If you’re a geek like me, you’ll find a lot of cool things to play with.
One disadvantage of our Synology is that because it is connected to our computers via Gigabit Ethernet, the write/read speeds are not as fast as a solid state hard drive (though they are faster than a normal mechanical hard drive, especially on reading files, because of the efficiencies of RAID). It won’t be long before large capacity solid state drives are reasonably priced, and something else besides Gigabit Ethernet (like, say, 10 Gigabit Ethernet) becomes standard. Still the read/write speeds are fast enough where I don’t feel the need to work with files locally on a solid state drive and then copy them to the Synology; I work directly off of the Synology for less headaches.
Backing up photos will never be fun but it doesn’t have to be hard. Our Synology greatly simplifies the process for us, providing us with redundant internal hard drive storage (RAID), redundant external USB hard drive storage, and cloud syncing ability. These solutions aren’t cheap (unless you compare them to other photography gear), but the piece of mind and ease of use is worth it. You also don’t have to go all out like we did, as Synology has a two-drive version that, along with syncing in the cloud, would be more than adequate for many photographers that don’t have the gigantic combined photo library that Sarah and I have.
If you use a system that works well for you, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments.
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