Don’t Wait Until You Lose Your Photos for the First Time to Begin Working on Your Backup Strategy

“Because I’m a jerk who doesn’t back up data, I’ve lost at more than a year’s worth of photos, emails, documents, and more. And, really, who knows what else.” — Mat Honan

Mat Honan was hacked yesterday and apparently lost more than a year’s worth of his photos. Like Mat, I too have lost photos in the past. If you shoot enough it’s almost inevitable, unless you are very, very meticulous about your backup strategy.

As strong as I think my backup strategy is today, I realize that it can still be stronger and plan on improving it later this year when the Drobo Mini is out. I’ll get more into this in a bit.

First off though, I’m sorry you were hacked Mat. That really sucks. I’ve had my Twitter account hacked before too. It’s not fun. After they hacked my Twitter account, they got into my blog and some of my other sites. It took time and money to clean it all up. It’s misery.

I’m not going to chide you about not having your photos backed up. People that chide you or mock you about that are assholes. It’s like kicking someone when they’re down. So while I’m using your experience to illustrate a point, it’s meant in a very sympathetic way.

I’ve known a lot of people over the years that have lost photos. It’s happened to so many people. The problem is that most people don’t start seriously working on a backup strategy until *after* they lose their first batch of photos. Everybody always means to work on a back up strategy, but it’s not fun. It’s tedious and boring. It’s so much more exciting to be out shooting or publishing your photos to the web than to be working on a backup strategy. Having lost photos though I can tell you that the sinking feeling you feel when that happens is just horrible and you must begin working on a strategy so what happened to Mat doesn’t happen to you.

I always tell photographers that one of the best things that can happen to you is *almost* losing your photos. Almost losing them because you don’t actually lose them, but it’s enough of wake up call for you to take backing up your photos more seriously.

In my case I have terabytes of data and so most cloud storage solutions simply are not economical. The cheaper plans would take years (because they throttle your data — I’ve tried them) and the more expensive plans from folks like Amazon and Google are simply too expensive for me. I don’t have hundreds of dollars per month to spend on storing my photos.

So it’s up to me to develop my own back up strategy and here is where I am today.

1. Photos that I’m working on are on my MacBook Pro. This drive is a 750GB internal flash drive. This is backed up to a time machine drive. If I lose my MacBook Pro or my hard drive fails I’ve got this time machine drive. This time machine drive is kept in a fire proof safe that is bolted to a cement floor when I’m not using it.

2. All of my “to be processed” photos (organized into folder by date) are kept on Drobos (I’ve got six). These are photos that I will eventually move over to my MacBook Pro to work on them. These Drobos are kept in the fireproof safe.

3. All of my “archived” photos that I’ve already processed along with the Lightroom Catalog for that day are kept on Drobos in my safe.

4. All of my processed JPG files, my finished photos, that are waiting to be uploaded (about 22,000 right now) are kept on my MacBook Pro hard drive, which is backed up with time machine and another copy is kept on a Drobo. My photos that I have already processed as JPGs and have been uploaded to Flickr are kept in folders by the month uploaded on a Drobo.

Another periodic backup of all of my processed photos is done and these are kept on USB hard drives locked in a drawyer at my office. Another hard drive of some of my most important processed photographs and family photographs is kept on a hard drive at my parents house in Southern California.

The weakness in my strategy? My RAW files aren’t backed up beyond storing them on Drobos in a locked safe today. Part of this is the sheer number or RAW files that I have. I haven’t added them up but I probably have at least 10 terrabytes of RAW photos.

I feel sort of ok having the drives replicated in the Drobos. I have had drives fail in my Drobos before and was able to simply eject the old drive and add a new one in and have all my stuff back. I’ve also had one Drobo fail. When a Drobo fails you can just put all four drives from your old Drobo into a new Drobo and get it back (this was my experience). Replicated data should be your first line of defense though and not your only line of defense.

Your second line of defense should be against theft, fire, natural disaster, etc. I’m sort of covered here. I feel pretty good about being protected against theft. The safe is huge, almost as tall as me. It took four guys to get it into the basement. I didn’t realize how large a safe I’d bought from Costco and it’s a lot bigger than I really need. It’s bolted to a cement floor in the basement. I’m currently remodeling my basement and am putting up walls that will prevent it from ever leaving the basement without moving the walls. I’m also putting it inside a wine cellar with a locked door on it. I feel pretty covered against theft.

As far as fire or other natural disaster? Who knows. I’m not comfortable with my strategy there. The safe is fire proof, but I’m sure it’s only good up to a point.

My other weakness is when I’m travelling on the road. Right now I dump all my photos on my hard drive which is backed up with time machine. The problem though is that I almost always fill up my MacBook Pro’s hard drive and have to dump some photos on an external USB drives. These files are then unprotected until I get them home and get them on a Drobo.

So what will I do differently this year? Later this year I’m going to buy a Drobo Mini when they come out. These small portable units are ideal to use as primary storage on the road. They use the smaller laptop drives which are more durable and robust than 3.5 inch drives. The new Drobo Mini is a Thunderbolt device so it will be fast. I’ll use this as my primary storage device on the road. This way I’ll have enough storage to always have my data replicated (the first line of defense) on the road.

The other thing I’ll use this new Drobo Mini for though is to fix a glaring weakness in my current strategy. At present my RAW files do not enjoy the ultimate line of defense of off site storage. So later this year I’m going to use the Drobo Mini to make back up copies of all of my RAW files (both “to be processed” and “archive” RAW originals) Because the Drobo Mini takes smaller laptop drives these will take up less space and be more durable and portable. I’ll then rubberband the four laptop drives from the Drobo Mini together and get a safe deposit box in a bank vault. This is where I’ll keep these RAW files. Periodically I’ll go visit my box to add new laptop drives to the box. I’ll also keep a copy of all of my processed photos here as well.

Once I make these changes later on this year I think my back up strategy will be even better. I’m sure it can get even better still, but the important thing is that I’m working on a strategy and that it’s evolving and moving forward.

What is your backup strategy? I wonder what percentage of people are like Mat and would lose precious photos if someone stole their computer or they were hacked or whatever. I bet it’s a pretty high number.

The new Drobo Minis likely will be out by the end of September, along with the new Thunderbolt Drobo 5D. If you want one you should pre-order and get on the waiting list because they’ll likely be hard to get early on. You can pre-order directly from Drobo here. You can pre-order from Adorama here.

Disclosure: Drobo is a sponsor of our weekly photography show Photo Talk Plus. I’ve used them for years though even before that and have been happy with them personally speaking. They are not for everybody though and if you are doing something else, that is fine too. The important thing is that you do have *some* sort of strategy — and if you don’t have some sort of strategy that you plan to start one as soon as possible, whatever that may be.

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  1. Gary (SpionKopRed) says:

    Another useful tip is to reformat your memory cards before a new shoot rather than after transferring to storage device after a previous one, as that is one, albeit small, additional backup of your latest shots.

  2. Will Marlow says:

    Do you consider Flickr to be a reliable place to store photos for the purpose of backups? All my favorite photos tend to find their way to my Flickr account, and I consider that to be a key part of my backup plan…

  3. Ira Serkes says:

    Hi Thomas

    As best I can tell, right now all your photos and backup are in the same place.

    I highly recommend having 1 or 2 sets offsite – right now I’m using multiple 2-3 T Drives which I configure as RAID arrays … it means that each drive has half the capacity but redundant information since the backup is on two disks within each drive. I sneakernet the hard drives from the house to the car to the office (only 1 mile away but off-site)

    For traveling – I just bought a 2nd 2T USB Drive which I’ll partition into 2 parts – 1 for a SuperDuper Partition and the other for a time machine backup of the Mac Book Pro. I’ll use my other 1T USB Drive as another Time Machine backup … and also bought extra memory cards so hopefully won’t have to reformat any. When I travel the laptop, backup drives, computers and memory cards will be with me or disbursed between my luggage and Carol’s.

    Email me if you have any questions – be happy to translate this into English.


  4. Marvin Chery says:

    Your backup system seems rather complex & could be why most people don’t backup.

    My solution
    Time machine to backup current work & current LR libraries.

    2 2Tb gdrive to backup old archives.

    Crash plan online backup for full backup of current work & gdrive.

    Now what’s the likeliness of 3 backup medium failing at the same time?

  5. Ira Serkes says:

    Well … it is a bit complex but I developed it for several reasons.

    The first time I tried backing up all my photos using Carbonite … I decided it wasn’t such a good solution since my photo folder is huge. I probably wasn’t doing something right, but uploading several TB of data seemed to take a very long time. And then downloading it also a very long time.

    I’m a believer in redundant redundant backup drives. I used to install software into, and backup Digital Equipment PDP 11/34 computers for Chevron) Hardware is a commodity, the photos are irreproducible.

    I’m an even bigger believer in having backups off site (Crash plan online solves that for you). Local drives are faster to back up to and restore from. Thomas’ backup drives are in the same location as the computers … the safe might be fireproof, but having been in Berkeley for the Loma Prieta Earthquake and the Berkeley Hills fires … I saw what happened to buildings after each of those disasters. Having drives off site but within driving distance of your main computer means you can be back in business within hours rather than days, weeks, or years.

    The 2T Drive is a special situation for traveling. By partitioning it into 2, I can have one partition which is a super-duper clone of my Mac Book Pro (which means I can boot from it if my computer drive fails) and not miss a beat. I can also buy a brand new computer and transfer everything to it. The 2nd Partition is for backing up (I’ve shot as much as 32 GB in a day, so the 1T should be more than enough). Keeping that disk in a separate place from both my computer and my flash memory cards gives me a nice system when travelling.

    Will Marlow asked about Flickr. I’ve heard of Flickr shutting down accounts for violation of their Terms of Service … so wouldn’t use that as my primary backup.

    I think there are two kinds of computer users – those whose hard drives have failed, and those whose hard drives haven’t yet failed.

    I think most people don’t have a backup plan … and many of those who do keep their backup next to their computer.


  6. I guess I’m rather fortunate that I don’t have anything that I can’t live without; i.e.; my photography isn’t paying any bills. I do hope your safe has a 2-hour fire rating, preferably an AMSEC safe (I did a 2 year stint at a locksmith shop; some of the Costco stuff is crap [and some is not]). Concreting it in affords extra protection; you might also consider concreting from above ( you’re adding extra layers between the safe and combustible materials).

    Currently, my ‘good’ stuff gets backed up on a Buffalo Tb drive, and my ‘publishable’ stuff (God willing, one day) goes also to my GoDaddy hosting account, which is stored in Chandler, Az. and Dallas, Tx. If one goes down, the other should be okay as a backup until they get the downed one back in operation.

    But really–and you alluded to this–nothing is really safe. Digital medium by default isn’t permanent; anything can be lost, much will. If it weren’t so, we’d have many more documents and art forms from the antiquities going back thousands of years. Wars, famines, droughts, plagues–(some of) these have been replaced by computer hackers, viruses, Trojans, solar flares, electrical storms, and magnetic aberrations, be they natural, or vandalized.

    We do what we can, what we can afford, but sometimes, the rains will come and wash the chalk off of the sidewalk.

  7. Ira Serkes says:

    Hi Thomas

    Just read the SF Chronicle this morning talking about Mat Honan’s hacking … here’s the link to the Wired Article (the link in your blog post didn’t work for me)

    Ira .. in the midst of that 2T Sneaker-net backup procedure

  8. Bill Rees says:

    I’ve heard that hard drives left sitting as backups can fail simply from non-use. Not sure how true this is or how often it happens.

  9. Jeremy Hall says:

    Simple version of my workflow backup:

    Files get imported to working SSD
    Working files backed up to 2nd magnetic HD internal to machine
    Only then does CF card get formatted for new use

    Processed files get archived to Drobo and 2nd copy to External HD that gets taken to work (offsite)

    It’s not as elegant and there are times of weakness against natural disaster when sneakernet drive is on site where the drobo exists. Something I’d like to address with rotating drives. Fairly simple approach though.

    I do have to comment that having an external HD while traveling to keep an extra copy of files has always been a habit and just saved my bacon on my trip last week. I always import to the MacBook Pro via Lightroom, then make a copy to the external drive. My MBP fried this last week, and though the data on the HD is still intact I didn’t have to wait for the repair because the files were sitting on the backup drive and readily accessible. Thankful I wasn’t lazy and stuck to the routine.