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Complete Guide to Backing up Your Landscape Photos Securely: Part One

Welcome to my three-part series on a very boring, but an undoubtedly essential topic for landscape photographers: how to properly (and securely) backup your precious raw files.

INTRODUCTION

If you’re anything like me, then you know how important it is to recover your images from any kind of destructive force…whether it be a computer meltdown, damaged/stolen external drives, or the most likely cause: corrupt files.

I must get at least half a dozen emails every week asking about my photo backup workflow, so I figured it’s time I outline (in great detail, as usual) the exact steps I take to make sure that my raw files are protected to the max.

It’s not a matter of “if” something will happen to your photos, it’s when. I’m not saying this to scare you, but to put the importance of a proper backup system into perspective.

Whether it’s hardware failure or simply deleting your images by accident, it’s going to happen. The goal is to make sure that you have redundancies in place to minimize the effects….because a proper backup system can be the difference between a slight inconvenience and a catastrophic loss of all your images.

You know you need to have a solid backup workflow in place….but just thinking about it can be overwhelming, especially when there are so many variables. If you’ve been putting off this crucial step….or have simply dumped all of your images onto an external drive thinking that it’s good enough, then this is the article for you.

HINT: An external drive alone is not a proper backup!

What you need is a solid backup strategy….and if you’re anything like me, the last thing you want to do is spend a bunch of time figuring out the best method for backing up your images.  Personally, I’d much rather spend my time in the field or processing my photos than masquerading as an IT professional.

Good news for you though: I’ve already spent hours upon hours researching and testing out all sorts of backup methods over the past few years so you don’t have to

A proper backup system is absolutely crucial because even a small oversight can cost you your entire library of photos. Believe me, there are a LOT of loopholes to the JBOD backup system, which stands for “Just a Bunch Of Disks” (yes there is an acronym for this method).

External drives give you a false sense of security, and you probably know deep down underneath that you should be doing more to protect and preserve your images. I’ve seen too many photographers lose their entire portfolio because of missteps in their backup workflow….and the worst part is that it was so easily avoidable!

My top goal here at creativeRAW is to make sure you have the best knowledge at your disposal…..even if I have to drag you through a long and boring series about proper backup strategy. I’m sorry, but it can’t all be about pretty pictures….so it’s time to sit down and etch out a solid backup strategy.

Here’s what to expect in this three part series: I’ll show you exactly how to create a solid and reliable photo backup system in a simple, straightforward manner….and without having to invest thousands of dollars or requiring a Ph.D. in computer science to implement.

FAIR WARNING: No backup plan is 100% fail proof….there will always be variables beyond control that could potentially wreak havoc on your library of images. However….you can take some simple precautionary steps to avoid silly mistakes, which will greatly mitigate the chances of a total loss. That is what we’ll be focusing on in this series.

And at the end of this tutorial, I hope you can have a bit more fun with your photography knowing that your precious photos are protected and backed up properly!

HERE’S WHAT WE’LL BE GOING OVER…

PART 1: For this post, I want to outline the “big picture” ideas of a proper backup system…because this is where I see many photographers get overwhelmed and ultimately abandon their backup efforts. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the small steps (like picking out the “best” external drive or cloud storage), but that’s putting the cart before the horse if you don’t  understand how all of the parts to a proper backup strategy work together.

Once you know the general structure of a dependable backup strategy, the smaller details fall right into place and will make much more sense.

PART 2: I’ll walk you through my personal backup system, step-by-step…from importing images off of my camera, backing up my raw files in several locations, and how to use cloud storage for an added layer of security.

PART 3: There’s more to a complete backup workflow than simply protecting your image files. I’ll also show you how to backup and sync your Lr catalog file between two devices, so changes you make on your laptop are automatically sent to your desktop (or any other synced device). Don’t forget about your PSD files too.

DISCLAIMER:

My backup workflow is best suited for hobbyists or otherwise non-professionals (or at least do not rely on direct business-to-client sales, such as with portraits or weddings)….or those who otherwise do not require network-level syncing and file storage. If that’s the case, you’ll need a more robust (and complicated) backup strategy to preserve your images and protect yourself from disappointing your clients. Your best bet for long-term success here is to hire an IT consultant to walk you through an adequate NAS backup workflow….which will not only protect your business but will best serve your clients.

For most landscape photographers like me though, my workflow consists of well-planned shoots and perhaps one or two PSD files from each outing. My needs are wildly different from those who need instant backups in the field and rely on high-speed syncing across multiple devices/computers. Those backup systems are overly complicated and offer me very few advantages for the time and monetary investment.

Let’s get started!

I want to jump right in by going over a HUGE backup pitfall that I’ve seen so many photographers unknowingly stumble into. Simply backing up your images to an external drive gives you a false sense of security because many assume that backups are 100% dependable. The reality is quite the opposite as it’s not a matter of IF an external drive will fail, it’s when.

Good drives will last five years or more, but poorly-made drives can fail much sooner….and faulty drives can fail at ANY time.

This means you absolutely need a Plan B (and a Plan C) in order to have a high degree of redundancy if your main backup source fails…giving you a chance to recover your images and replace your failed drive.

In other words, you need to backup your backups!

THE SINGLE POINT OF FAILURE

Every single case of a catastrophic loss of photos that I’ve come across has been due to one preventable cause: the photographer did not protect themselves from the single point of failure.

Most photographers rely too heavily on purchasing the “best” and most reliable external drive to place their images on…..but the focus of your backup strategy should be entirely on mitigating the single point of failure.

What is a single point of failure exactly?

In the simplest terms…it’s a single point in your backup system that if it fails, you’ll permanently lose your photos.

For example….let’s say you import your images onto an external drive with no backup copies in place. That external drive is now your single point of failure because you have nowhere else to turn to if your images are lost. This prompts many photographers to purchase an additional external drive and copy your images over…giving you two copies of your raw files.

This is the point where many photographers end their backup strategy…but what you may not know is that these two drives still leave you open to so many opportunities for a complete loss of images.

Let’s say you carry around both external drives in your camera bag, and your bag gets lost or stolen. Your camera bag is now your single point of failure.

How about this: you take one external drive with you on the road and leave another at home. You haven’t checked your home external drive for a few weeks, and at some point during this time the drive failed….and your camera bag takes a dip in the river (this is a true story, by the way). Your backup system has now completely let you down.

Here’s another situation: you go crazy and copy your treasure trove of images over to five different external drives. Your little nephew decides that your office is a great place to try out his new water pistol, or someone breaks into your home and cleans out all your hardware. Your house is now the single point of failure.

I could go on with scenarios (and you’re probably hoping that I don’t), but I think you get the point. You need to diversify your backup strategy so that if it fails in one area, you have another to fall back onto.

ALWAYS REMEMBER: your memory card is your first single point of failure, so you should copy your images onto another media as soon as possible. It drives me nuts when I see photographers come back from a once-in-a-lifetime landscape shoot and leave their precious raw files sitting on their memory cards for days or even weeks. No dawdling!

If you can think of a single point of failure in your own backup workflow, don’t worry….many photographers overlook this when backing up their photos. The number one goal here is to lessen your exposure to the single point of failure as much as possible….and this is where the 3-2-1 rule can help:

THE 3-2-1 RULE

  • Three (3) copies of your data — 1 Original and 2 backups….
  • Located on two (2) different media, such as the cloud and an external drive…
  • With at least one (1) being in a separate location.

While this is not 100% fail-safe (nothing is in the world of backups)….following this rule will put you in a great position to prevent and easily recover from any kind of backup failure.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE…

So now you know that you need to diversify your backups. However, the point of failure goes beyond just the physical location of your images (i.e. all backups at home) and the type of media you use….it also includes whether or not you replace all of your backups with the most recently saved version.

I love to use examples to illustrate my points, so let’s create a scenario.

Let’s say you copy over your images to your computer’s internal drive, and those same images are backed up via Dropbox (cloud storage) and Time Machine (synced backups to an external drive). This follows the 3-2-1 rule….three copies (computer, Dropbox, and Time Machine), two different medias (cloud storage and hard drives) and with one being off-site (Dropbox).

And even better – this backup strategy relies on syncing, so when you change the master file on your computer, any changes are instantly pushed off to your Time Machine and Dropbox so you never have to worry about keeping your images up to date across all backup media.

Sound great, right? You would think this would cover all your bases, but that is definitely not the case.

What happens if the images on your computer become corrupted….or accidentally deleted and you don’t realize it immediately? Since Dropbox and Time Machine are synced to the source files (the images on your computer), changes made to your photos (whether good or bad) are instantly pushed off to Dropbox and Time Machine.

Since file syncing can’t tell the difference between the GOOD changes and BAD changes, you could potentially wipe out or corrupt your entire backup system in one fell swoop.

In other words, file syncing can be a “single point of failure” as well and should not be your only form of backup.

This is a problem I see with many backup strategies is that they are connected, or synced, to one central source.  In theory, this is fantastic since any changes you make will be instantly sent off to all backup locations, but as illustrated above….it can be a monumental single point of failure.

If a corrupt file or bad data is introduced at the source, it spreads like a virus through all of your synced backups.

This is especially important for digital photography since a corrupted raw file can affect all your backups and render your photo useless. Or if you mistakenly delete one of your older images and don’t realize it for months or even years down the line, you’ll be well beyond the point of restoration and have lost those images forever….without any warning.

YOU NEED TO ISOLATE YOUR RAW FILES

What I find with many photographers who have quickly put together a backup workflow is that they do not even realize that file syncing is taking place, and they just assume they can restore their files to their original state indefinitely. Services like Time Machine or Dropbox will store deleted images and/or older versions of your images for a LIMITED time, but not indefinitely.

In other words, if one of your images becomes corrupt or if you mistakenly delete a photo from the source, and this spreads throughout all your backup sources, AND you don’t catch it in time….you’re going to lose those photos forever.

So in addition to the 3-2-1 rule above, you need to ISOLATE your original, unadulterated raw files (direct copy from your camera card) as soon as you transfer them off of your camera card and put them into “cold storage”….never to be altered or re-saved again unless you need to restore your raw files.

If this seems confusing to you, don’t worry. It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is…and will make much more sense in the next article when I show you my backup strategy.

Isolating your original raw files will give you a fail-safe to fall back onto in the event that your working raw files (the copies that you import into Lightroom, edit in Photoshop, etc.) are accidentally deleted or become corrupted.

The key here is to ISOLATE them on an external drive and protect them from file syncing or any kind of change from an outside source….in other words, to quarantine them. Think of these files as film negatives and treat them accordingly.

I’ll go over my step-by-step backup workflow in the next article and explain exactly how I keep these images isolated, but for now, I just want you to be aware of the importance.

I’ve seen so many photographers get unknowingly caught in this nightmare…where they do not have the original raw files to revert back to if necessary. It’s so easy to swap out a corrupted image in Lightroom with a fresh copy of your original photo and retain all of your edits (remember: your Develop module work, keywords, collections, etc. are stored separately from your raw files).

NOTE: Backing up my Photoshop files is a separate process and is something I’ll go over in the next part of this backup series. For the purpose of this article, I just want you to focus on backing up your image master files (the raws).

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE file syncing and use it every single day as part of my own backup workflow. The key here is to diversify your backup strategy so you have both the convenience of file syncing AND an isolated copy of your original raw files tucked away securely.

In fact, I use file syncing every day to share my Lightroom catalog file between my laptop and desktop, which has revolutionized my processing workflow. In part 3 of this backup tutorial, I’ll be showing you exactly how to do this…a fantastic time saver for those of you who use both a laptop and desktop!

This brings me to my next backup tip, something that I see many photographers overlook…..

BACKING UP YOUR LIGHTROOM CATALOG FILE IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR RAW FILES

When strategizing your backup workflow, many photographers will focus solely on their raw files….but completely neglect the incredible importance of your Lightroom catalog file. If this become corrupt and you do not have a proper backup system in place, you can say goodbye to countless hours of editing and organizing.

If you use Lightroom (and you should simply for your initial raw processing and organizational capabilities, as discussed here), then you probably know that the catalog file is the “brain” behind all of your processing work. It contains a set of written instructions that detail every raw change that you make (such as lens corrections, exposure adjustments, etc.), as well as all of the Library module work….such as keywords, copyright info, and collections.

Rather than package these changes together with your image, Lightroom will store these separate from your raw files and keep them isolated in the catalog. This is a good thing since you want to preserve your original raw file as much as possible with a non-destructive workflow, and not continuously re-write your raw file for every change you make.

With this in mind, you absolutely must treat your catalog file with the same respect and importance as your raw files themselves.

Don’t worry, I’ll be showing you my step by step backup workflow for the catalog file as well….but for now, I just want to make sure you know that simply backing up your raw files will NOT backup your editing work if you’re using Lightroom.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT INTERNAL BACKUPS!

All this talk about backing up your photos, it’s easy to overlook another integral part to your digital darkroom: your operating system and other computer files. Without a proper backup in place, a computer crash can cripple you for quite some….not to mention losing your important, non-photography computer files.

You may already know how to backup your internal drives….but if you don’t, it’s quite easy to create a backup. It’s often overlooked so that’s why I’ll be throwing that in as well in this series.

LET’S QUICKLY RECAP WHAT WE’VE LEARNED HERE….

A strong backup system for your photographs consists of the following:

  • Diversifying your backup media (i.e. a mixture of external drives and cloud storage) and locations to minimize the single point of failure.
  • Follow the 3-2-1 rule: Three copies of your photographs, using two different types of media, with at least one copy being in a separate location.
  • Isolate and preserve your original raw files so you can always revert back to the master file if necessary (like you would with a film negative).
  • Treat your Lightroom catalog file with the same importance as your raw files…and back it up accordingly!
  • Backup your computer(s) as well, as a small amount of prevention here can save you hours of frustration when your computer crashes.

Now all of this may seem overwhelming and confusing, but a solid backup strategy is pretty easy to implement when you have a game plan and a solid understanding of what you need to do. Once you understand all of the points above, you’ll be in a great position to easily recover from any kind of disaster.

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