My Backup Plan: Building a Reliable System That Protects My Digital Photography From The Inevitable

Total Drive Failure WarningNothing electronic lasts forever. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is a wonderful image management tool, but it is not a backup system. Adobe Photoshop CS6 is amazing but it is not an image protection tool either. The thought of losing all of my digital images terrifies me yet I know that accidents happen and I know that my computer’s hard drive will not last forever.

I know that drive failure is inevitable and that when a disk fails that all of the photos that it contains might vanish. The real question is not “when will my hard drive fail” but rather I need to ask myself “what steps can I take right now so that I am properly prepared for my primary hard drive’s inevitable demise?”

The experts at the American Society of Media Photographers suggest that professional photographers adopt a “3-2-1” backup strategy. They define the core goals of their robust, and redundant, strategy this way:

  1. We recommend keeping at least three copies of any important file. For every photograph that is stored on your primary [working] drive we recommend keeping at least two additional copies on some other type of backup device.
  2. We recommend storing these backup copies on at least two different media types to protect against different types of hazards.
  3. We recommend that one copy of each file should be stored offsite and stored offline.

Moral: it takes multiple copies of your images, stored on multiple devices placed in multiple locations to truly be prepared for a major catastrophe.

After much thought, I have finally found an inexpensive solution that meets all of these goals and suits my needs. It has taken a lot of experimentation but I have finally pieced together a rock solid backup system that requires nothing more than two external hard drives, a high-speed Internet connection, and some simple software. My current backup system protects all of my digital images and it costs less than $2 per day!

Part I: Preparing the Hardware for On-site Backup

I needed to purchase a pair of new three-terabyte external hard drives for the on-site portion of my backup system. On-site here means for the backup copy that sits on my desk right next to my computer. Before I explain more about the backup system let me point out that I have been shooting digitally since 2003 and that I am currently storing almost 100,000 images on my computer’s primary [working] drive. To meet the “3-2-1” backup strategy goals I need additional copies of every one of these 100,000 digital images on my backup disks. I needed to buy a pair of three-terabyte external disks because I have already amassed a fairly large image library on my computer’s primary storage drive. If your image library is much smaller than mine then you do not need to invest in such large external disk for your backup system.

Likewise, for my backup system I saw no reason to invest in fancy RAID drives, Apple Time Capsules, or data duplication machines like the Drobo. Professionals running busy studios, or photographers with enormous image libraries, might need to invest in beefier hardware but a pair of ordinary “plain Jane” external drives are sufficient for my current backup needs. My backup drives do not need fast rotational speeds, stylish plastic housings, or the latest technological bells and whistles. There is no reason to spend extra money on eSATA, or Thunderbolt, external hard drives that are going to used solely for a backup system.

Getting the right hardware was the first step but no matter what you buy you still need to . Since I am a Mac user I needed to use Apple’s Disk Utility tool to prepare my new hard drives using the HFS+ (Mac OS Extended) file structure. Windows user will need to format their new backup drives using the NTFS file structure. Windows users working with hard drives that are larger than 2 terabytes might also need to convert their new disks to the GUID partition table before they can do anything else.

Along with formatting the new disks, I find that it helps me to keep their purpose clear in my mind if I give the new drives meaningful names. I like to give them clear names using my computer’s operating system before I begin configuring my backup software. Photographers tend to be wonderfully creative people, but simple drive names like “Backup Disk 1” and “Backup Disk 2” are all that’s required here.

Giving the new disks good names helps me to remember that these new external hard drives are for backup purposes only. These disks exist solely as a place to store additional copies of the files that l am keeping on my primary image storage disk. Hopefully, naming the disks something like “Backup Disk 1” and “Backup Disk 2” will remind me that I must never try to use these disks for any other purpose. These disks are for backup only.

Part II: Configuring the Backup Software to Make Daily Backups

Once configured properly, it is my backup utilities job to “clone,” or “mirror,” everything that I store on my primary disk over to one of the backup drives at least once per day. Good backup software can learn that its task is to copy all of the files from my primary image storage disk over to one the new backup drives everyday. The whole process should happen without my involvement. Once configured properly, I trust my backup software to copy all of my additions, alterations, and deletions from the primary drive over to Backup Disk 1 and Backup Disk 2 automatically.

When I add new photos into my image library, I copy them from my digital camera’s memory card to my primary [working] hard drive. I do not need to copy my new photographs from the memory card to either of the backup disks. Copying the new images from the primary disk over to one of the backup disks is my backup software’s responsibility.

If I decide to enhance one of my photographs using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop CS6, or any other program then I only work on the file that is stored on my primary storage drive. If my backup software is doing its job than all of the changes that I make should be passed along to one of the backup disks automatically.

When I decide to delete a bunch of lousy photo from my image library I delete the files from my primary image storage disk. My backup software will take care of removing these images from the backup drives at the appropriate time. The critical point is that I never go and mess around with any of the files that live on Backup Disk 1, or on Backup Disk 2, using my computer’s operating system or my image enhancement software. Only my backup software is allowed to make any changes to the files that are stored on my backup disks.

What software do I trust for these tasks? DM-image002For Mac users, Carbon Copy Cloner is my backup utility of choice but there are plenty of other solid options. Apple’s integrated Time Machine backup utility is a good option too for photographers working with OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion). Windows users can build reliable backups using third-party applications like Cobain Backup. There are lots of reliable backup utilities out there for every operating system. No matter what software you choose for this project, the goal–copy my files from the primary storage to a backup disk everyday–remains the same.

Part III: The Weekly Backup Drive Shuffle

Once my new external drives are properly formatted, and my backup software is all setup, I can let the software do its job. The first day I let my backup utility copy everything from the primary disk over to Backup Drive 1. The next day I disconnect Backup Disk 1 and run the backup job again only this time I tell my software to put the files on Backup Disk 2.

As soon as the second backup is complete I now have three copies of all my precious photographs! At this point, I have the original file on my primary [working] disk and an additional copy of this file on each of the backup drives. If my primary hard drive were to fail right now I would be upset but I now have multiple copies of images and photographs stored on multiple devices, so I should not lose anything!

Remember that “3-2-1” backup strategy? Well, right now I have achieved the “three copies on multiple devices” goal but if I keep all of these hard drives in my office then I am still putting my files at risk. Keeping both of my backup drives in the same room as my computer is still “putting all of my eggs in one basket” if something catastrophic were to happen to my house. To really gain some peace of mind, I need to store one of my backup drives far away from my office.

Now that I have two complete backup disks, I can start the “weekly backup drive shuffle.” In my world, Backup Disk 1 gets used for about a week and then I leave it over at a friend’s house. While Backup Disk 1 is stored at my buddy’s house I use Backup Disk 2 for my daily backups. A week or so later, I go over and drop off Backup Disk 2 and switch it out for Backup Disk 1. Switching the backup drives around each week is cheap and easy.

Storing one of my backup disks outside of the house adds an additional level of safety to my backup plans and it gives me a good excuse to go see my friends every week or so. If I wanted even more security I could pay to store the “off-site” drive in a bank’s safe deposit box. The important part is that by storing one of my backup disk outside of the house I am dramatically increasing the odds that my photos would survive a catastrophic event like a break in, a power surge or a house fire.

Episode IV: A New Hope

Online, so called “cloud” backup technology is in its infancy right now. This is a new frontier and there are still wrinkles in the system that need to be ironed out. Online backup holds tremendous promise, but it is no substitute for my pair of rotating external hard drive backup system.

The truth is that most of us do not have fast enough Internet connections to continually protect terabytes of data. Unless you have a fiber grade Internet connection then it will be
months of non-stop uploading to transfer a complete copy of your entire image library to an online backup account. Likewise, it will take weeks of non-stop downloading before you could recover a large image library from a cloud account following a major disaster unless you are fortunate enough to have a lightning fast Internet connection.

Although there are shortcoming to an online backup system I believe that cloud backup is well-worth my time and money. Continually storing one of my backup disks off-site adds a lot of protection to my backup scheme. Keeping a backup disk off-site, and offline, is good, but even with my weekly hard drive swap game there is no guarantee that my best images will survive a major natural disaster.

Fact: We live in a warming world where natural disasters grow more plentiful and more probable each year. The planet is not pleased with us and no place is truly safe from forces far beyond our control.

If a natural disaster strikes my hometown then I expect to loose my primary [working] disk and both of my backup drives. If I miraculously survive the catastrophe, and the world is not plunged into darkness, then I will eventually buy myself another computer. Following a Hurricane Sandy size disaster, I should expect that all of my current hardware will be gone but my online backups will survive.

In the end, all hardware is replaceable, but my most valuable images–those “once in a lifetime” family moments–they can never be replaced. Fortunately, companies like Mosaic Archive are making online backups for photographers easy and affordable. Mosaic even offers a “drive mail-in service” to get things started.

This is a great option. Basically, you create an account and then you ship them an external hard drive that contains copies of all your photos. They connect this external drive to their server and transfer in all of your data. Since the external drive is actual plugged into their server the photos transfer into your account at a much faster rate than they would through the Internet. In the end, you get the security of redundant cloud based storage without the need for months of continuous uploading.

In the end, what online backup really buys me is more peace of mind. It comforts me to know that even if all my local backup plans fail that my most precious images are still safely stored on multiple servers which are themselves backed up across multiple countries.


Is all of this completely paranoid? Yes, but the price that companies like Mosaic currently charge for online backups is so low that I think all of this is totally worth the effort. I have some photos that are of such personal value that each layer of additional protection is well worth the extra hassle and expense.

If all of this seems like a lot of effort then please carefully consider the dismal alternatives. If you have taken no steps to prepare for the inevitable, then what will you lose when your computer crashes? What will you lose when a power surge fries all of your hard drives? What will you lose if a flood washes through your home or a tornado touches down in your neighborhood?

Could you really re-shoot your favorite pictures or are those precious moments simply irreplaceable? Are you willing to sit back and wait for those images to vanish forever? There are no guarantees in life but I believe that the time and effort that I have invested in building, and maintaining, my backup system is time well spent even if a disaster never strikes.


David Marx will be teaching several sessions of our Lightroom for Photographers workshop in 2013. Consider joining him in one of these locations:

Lightroom for Photographers – San Antonio, Texas (5/9—5/12)
Lightroom for Photographers – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (5/30—6/2)
Lightroom for Photographers – Chicago, Illinois (6/6—6/9
Lightroom for Photographers – Cedar Rapids, Iowa (7/25—7/28)
Lightroom for Photographers – Nashville, Tennessee (8/1—8/4)
Lightroom for Photographers – Wichita, Kansas (8/8—8/11)
Lightroom for Photographers – Duluth, Minnesota (9/5—9/8)

3 thoughts on “My Backup Plan: Building a Reliable System That Protects My Digital Photography From The Inevitable

Profile photo of Mel Mann


Good to hear the method you taught us is what you’re still using. I’ve got my back system set up just like you describe and I’ve stopped worrying about losing images. It’s the keywording and metadata fields I have to keep reminding myself to deal with…..

David Marx

Hello Mel,

Great to hear from you. Thanks for reading my article. I taught your class most of this stuff. The software has changed a little–I no longer have any interest in Acronis True Image for my PC students–and the online system is much easier now thanks to Mosaic but the philosophy remains the same.

Good luck with the keywording and metadata. Someday the computer will do these chores for us but for now it is work that we all need to do with every import.

Best regards,

David Marx

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