Are Your Photo Backups Rock Solid?


What would you do if your main computer was stolen, permanently lost, or just completely died?

Did you just get shivers up your spine? If not, you probably have some form of a backup system for your data and photos. That’s great!


By rust.bucket

If you got shivers, then you best start thinking about backing up your images, pronto. Let me suggest Backing Up and Saving Your Images: Part 1 as a place to get started.

Even if you are religiously backing up your photos, are you testing those backups? How often?

This article is intended to get you thinking about how precious your images are to you, and if you are doing what you can to ensure they don’t go POOF, and are gone forever.

A Moment to Give Pause

My iMac was recently stolen. I got lucky, real lucky. The thieves did not take my external Network Attached Storage (NAS), its backup disk, nor my iMac backup disk.

It’s because those items were left behind (which were valued at more than my old iMac) that I am not still crumpled into the fetal position, crying my life away in the corner of the basement.

One thing I learned from this experience is that Time Machine, Apple’s native backup facility, is not perfect. I was not able to use the graphical interface to restore my old profile to my new machine, and that’s not even talking abut the photos themselves. In the end I had to fall back on my days as a systems administrator and relearn Unix command line tools to find and copy the files from my backup, over to my main machine.

Keep More Than One Copy

First, if your images are highly valuable to you, you should be keeping more than one copy of all of them (and any associated catalogs like Lightroom). This means at least another disk, or group of disks, backing up your originals.

Think to the future when buying backup discs. If you currently have 500GB of images, I would buy at least a 2TB backup device, like an external harddrive. A four times multiplier should be used at least, depending on your rate of photo capture (and your ability to filter photos as they come in). If you are on a tight budget, go for two times your current size, and trust that harddrives get cheaper as time goes on.

Either way, do the best you can to capture all of your images on a single backup device.

Keep Them Separate

Second, if you can afford it, and if the level of protection you need warrants it, keep a third copy of your files off-site. I mentioned getting lucky that the thieves saw no value in my external storage devices and I intend to never have to be so lucky again.


Photo by: wonderferret/flickr

Some backup services, like Apple’s Time Machine feature, make it easy to plug in two backup drives and let the software automatically make backup copies of not only pictures, but all computer files to both discs. Once a full backup is built on both drives, you take one drive off-site. A relative’s house, a friend’s house, or even a safe deposit box. Then, on a regular schedule (mine is once a week), swap the drives.

This way, at worst, you lose a week’s worth of changes if both your main computer and your backup drive go missing, or are caught in a house fire, flood, or other disaster.

Consider Online Storage

Online. The Cloud. That jargon is shorthand for “someone else’s computer”. It can be helpful when considering where to keep a backup of your images.

There are now a plethora of services that, after you hand them some cash, will store your images for you. I suggest doing this as only a backup, but for casual users it might be handy for all your storage. Just remember, those images are on someone else’s computer.

PC magazine often does a decent job of reviewing products and they have a useful list of online backup solutions here. Also don’t forget other services like Amazon and Google’s Picasa which currently have unlimited photo storage (certain restrictions apply).

Understand What a Recovery Will Entail

Now that you have your photos backed up, do you know what it will take to bring them back to life if everything goes south?

Many of us are okay with storing our data on other people’s servers (the cloud), but fail to remember it will possibly take a couple of days to recover the images if things fail. What about a partial failure? Can your backup and recovery software detect a partial loss of data and fill in the gaps? Or will you be left to manually sift through the figurative ashes and fill the holes?

Get to know your backup software not “when I have a moment”, but today. Maybe tomorrow, but no later! You don’t have to obtain guru status, but you should know your way around recovering photos (and other data) while things are calm. I can tell you from experience that when the stuff hits the fan, and the panic of losing all your work sets in, that’s no time to be learning new software.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 3.54.21 PM

Learn your backup and recovery software

Schedule Tests of Your System

There’s only one way to know if your backups work – test them!

The systems administrator in me says you should test your backups monthly. But the realist in me knows few of you will ever do that unless you have an intern, or are making $10,000 per month from your photography business, or both.

Be realistic, and again, it will depend on how important your photos are to you. Realistically I suggest one test every three months. Once a season. That keeps your recovery skills fresh enough (hint: write out the steps you take for recovery so you don’t have to learn it new each time) that an honest recovery won’t take too long.

So tell me, are your photo backups rock solid?

If photography is your livelihood, or even if you just take family pictures, it’s best to find out right now with a test rather than find holes in your system after things have gone wrong.

Read more from our Post Production category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Morocco, Seattle, Los Angeles and more. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • I would say I have an ok backup but it’s not exactly rock-solid as you say. I’m aware of this issue but have probably been procrastinating a little bit. I’m very much into the art of photography and not so much into technology. I’m not exactly tech challenged, but I’m finding it hard to grasp some of the details… I’m currently backing up my computer including all my photos and LR catalogue to two external harddrives, which I initially thought I would swap to always have one offsite. Well, I got lazy and they are both sitting next to me at the moment. I would love to backup online but where I live the internet connection is too slow for that. Another recommendation is to store your backups on at least 2 different types of media, so I was initially planning on burning all my RAW files on Blurays which hasn’t been done in a while.

    One question I have is how exactly do you test your backups? My backed up files are in a special archive format so I can’t just go and find a random photo to test. Would I need to use the backup software I used in the first place to check the backup integrity (I use Paragon Hard Disk Manager)?

  • Sven Larsson

    Hope mins is kind of rock solid. Have one backup at home, two backups on different off-site locations and test the backups so that I’m able to restore files from them before taking them off-site again. Trying to replace the disks out on a regular basis as well. No matter what, there’s always the thought in my mind that something can go bad even though I have these routines. 🙂 Murphy’s law is always watching over us.

  • M S

    Surprised you didn’t mention Flickr as a backup option on the cloud. They will let you store 1 TB of photos for free and have a paid option for unlimited storage. They also have an app that automatically uploads photos from any device–all privately, so no one but you can see them. It’s super easy and is so convenient being able to access any of my photos from anywhere with an internet connection. I think Google made similar changes to their Photos program as well.

  • Robert Taylor

    I think I’m pretty well protected, I keep my images on a remote drive with a drive in my desktop synced to it, giving me two copies on site. I further use Flickr and Google Photos to back up to the cloud. I always wonder if this is enough, but I’m a bit OCD about my photos.

  • yup
  • Phil Coxon

    There is only one totally stable archiving option. optical discs. Burn to a write-once DVD or BluRay from Tayo Yuden or Verbatim, put it in a jewel case and store it at another address in case of fire etc. 100 years later and your photos are still there. Hard Drives spin at a minimum 5400rpm and are incredibly susceptible to damage.

  • Phil Coxon

    If you use a quality write-once Blu Ray like Tayo Yuden or Verbatim and copy at the slowest speed your drive allows, you will have no problems. Those discs just don’t fail.

  • Phil Coxon

    I also use Flickr, but I used to use a similar service by Kodak, who suddenly announced they were shutting the site down. I only just got back from holiday in time to download them all again!

  • Thanks for that advice Phil, I’ll make sure to look at these disks!

  • Anne4568h
  • Rselph

    Time machine actually does restore accounts, settings, and data extremely well. You just have to use the migration assistant to do it. Drag and drop won’t work, except for the data itself. I think you can find migration assistant in the utilities folder.

  • Rselph

    I see a few people recommending optical discs. I’m leery of that solution. Despite the archival ratings from the manufacturers, I’ve had a number of discs fail after 15 to 20 years. I’m talking commercial CDs here. They’re produced differently from a writable disc, stamped in metal whereas writable discs use dyes. I figure if the metal can’t survive that long, the dyes don’t stand a chance.

  • frances.roll
  • The Zoom Creep

    I have the Apple Time Capsule as well and was just pondering some fantastic pictures I took in Europe. Seeing as storage is so cheap these days, I’m having another 1TB external HD delivered from Prime for about 60 bucks. I was explaining to someone the other day: “I could never get those pictures back and 60 bucks is a small price to pay for additional piece of mind.”

  • lydia.shook


  • Floramina Design

    Thanks for that Peter, some real food for thought!

  • Robertoff


  • Nick V

    I currently use a Drobo 5N solution, and love it. My images are backed up on multiple drives (WD RED Drives), so if one drive fails, the other two have them backed up, and I can just replace the drive as needed.

  • I tend to agree with you. Also space is an issue. How many disks do you need to back up 6tb!?

  • Peter West Carey

    Most recoveries require a suitable host. If you are restoring the entire system from bare bones, as in your computer was stolen. Otherwise, an integrity check is a first step and then attempting to restore vital files (non-bare bones) to your current computer will usually suffice.

  • Peter West Carey

    I used the Migration Assistant with over 50 attempts and help from Apple’s support. When the Assistant won’t even index and show you the info so you can restore it, it’s not perfect.

    Your experience seems to be it works great. But my experience is it can sometimes break, that’s why I put this post out there. I used to think like you did as I had recovered things in the past, with Migration Assistant, and it worked fine.

  • Rselph

    In that case, thanks for the warning!

  • Peter West Carey

    I have had those ‘archival’ discs go bad as well. Plus there is the issue of space. I have 3.6 TB of data and that would mean 72 BlueRay discs. That’s a pain and horribly time consuming to write and read. Plus it also doesn’t solve the problem of my computer being stolen (although it would safeguard my more-or-less static image directory).

    Optical discs have a place and may be part of the solution. I just would not want to have to worry about what it would take to copy the data placed on a 72 DVDs to the new format we’ll be using in 30 years.

    Think of this analogy: consider moving all of your cassette tapes you had in the 80s to DVDs. I’d rather have a single device (with backup copies) because history tells me we are going to outgrow those DVDs pretty quick.

  • Peter West Carey

    Flickr is a solution as well and I’m sorry for not mentioning it.

  • joelluth

    I use a NAS also for primary storage, but I still have separate backups. This is a common misconception – RAID is not a backup! It protects against disk failures, but that is something quite different. You still need a backup solution. What if someone steals your Drobo? Or it gets lost in a fire/flood/whatever? Or you get hit by crypto ransomware and all your files on it are suddenly encrypted? (this actually happened to a friend of mine, very tech savvy, so it can happen to anyone)

    Always back up your NAS separately!

  • joelluth

    A magnetic hard drive that isn’t spinning (ie an offline backup drive) is pretty stable. It may not last 100 years but I’m a bit skeptical of those optical claims too (and will you have a device capable of reading a Blu-Ray in 100 years?). I use spinning rust for my backups, test it occasionally, and migrate to new drives from time to time (for increased capacity as well as freshness). When solid state storage becomes economical I’ll switch t that, and in 10-20 years I’ll switch to something else again.

  • joelluth

    Do they allow raw files? More services seem to be including raw files in their online storage, but it used to be most only allowed jpegs. If the raw aint backed up, the photo aint backed up.

  • joelluth

    I consider myself a stickler for backups, but you’re ahead of me! (I currently only have one offsite backup)

  • joelluth

    Great article! Unfortunately most people don’t think about this until it happens to them (after the disaster). Hopefully you getting the word out will save some folks from some real heartache!

  • Sven

    had a bad experience with the hard drive in the computer one day saying “RAW” and unable to boot up, happy that I had backups (at that time on CD/DVD’s) and installing up a new drive with OS then to find out the cd’s/DVD’s were not all readable, thus being thrown into scared state, luckily I was able to restore all but one of my Outlook pst file from the old drive. After that I decided to go from cd/dvd’s over to external HDD’s at first just one but then realizing that even that one could go bonkers, so go for two and save them at different locations. 🙂 I know, sounds paranoid 🙂

  • Phil Coxon

    My opinion is based on the fact that I work in the digital storage industry. My colleagues and I have all manner of HDD, SSD and Optical options available to us free of charge. Without exception we all use Optical.

    There are cobtractual agreements between majo governments and public agencies that ensure optical druves will still be manufactured in 50 years.

    As for SSD. That is not meant as an archiving medium, it is for transfer purposes. Like all silicon flash based products, it will lose data just by molecular changes within 7-10 years.

  • Phil Coxon

    The only writable discs that don’t use dyes are M Disc, and they are definitely not metal.

  • Peter West Carey

    I can tell you work for a optical disc company, Phil.

    What about daily or hourly incremental backups? Time Machine on the Mac would be horrible with write once discs.

    And while those discs may be readable in 30 years, the amount compared to a single HD makes it impractical for most. I have CD-R backups and I do have a photo I want to find, but paging through 120 of them (that I have offsite) has made me not do it for a few years now. Too much hassle and the average user here on DPS isn’t looking for hassle.

  • Phil Coxon

    Peter. I’m not talking about using the discs as a daily referenced library; I’m saying that they are the only truly stable archiving back up. My photos are mainly accessed from a 4TB two drive raid array, which is pretty belt and braces itself., but I keep copies on disc, as do the BBC, the National Library, The BFI, every university in the UK, the police, the armed forces, and so on and so on.

    The incremental sales of discs from people reading this post wouldn’t add even half a percent to my figures; I stated all of the above because it’s true.

    I shan’t bother next time.

  • George Johnson

    Having worked in IT for almost 30 years and I say this, “It’s not IF a hard drive will fail, it’s WHEN!”. Hard drives fail, they always have and even with solid state, they will continue to do so. I have 3 complete backup sets of my image catalogues on separate systems, 2 backups in the house ( 1 on the same machine and another on a network attached device ) and the final backup is stored in the Amazon Cloud. If you have an Amazon Prime membership you automatically get unlimited photo cloud storage and guess what, that includes major RAW formats ( CR2, NEF, ARW ) and PSD, TIFF and JPG, plus several others.

    One last saying we have in IT, “It’s never a backup until it’s been restored.”. No good making all those backup plans and never checking you can get your stuff back, Regularly do a random restore check, just bring something back and check you can read it properly in Photoshop or whatever editor you use. You do not want to believe everything is pukka and only discover that when the brown stuff hits the fan and you need it back, it’s no longer usable.

  • PicBackMan

    Redundant backups is the key to a rock solid photo backup strategy. Backing up photos at multiple locations (physical & virtual) can help you keep your photos safe from natural disasters and technical malfunctions.

  • PicBackMan

    There are automated Flickr uploader which help you bulk upload photos from your Windows & Mac PCs, iOS and Android devices to multiple locations like Facebook, Flickr, Google Photos, Dropbox, SmugMug etc., all in one go.

  • I have four backups: redundant hard drive, automatic Time Machine backup, a small portable external hard drive of just my photos and videos kept offsite, and a cloud backup on CrashPlan. I finally started uploading all of my photos to Lightroom and organizing them. I had left my older photos in iPhoto, but very recently I found myself unable to open iPhoto. So, I was kind of forced to migrate all the older photos over from one of my backups into Lightroom. I think the issue had something to do with Apple abandoning iPhoto for Photos and my library would no longer open. I saw some fixes online, but I decided not to mess with that and I went back to one of my backups to see if I could recover my iPhoto photos and it looks like it came through okay. It was quite annoying but I suppose a good test to see if my backup plan is up to the task. I write a blog focused primarily on photo books and backups was the topic of my first post of the year.

    b/t/w you mention that “casual users” might be okay with using online storage for all of their storage needs, but I would caution against that. As you said more than one backup is the ideal. I have had several readers write me about the total loss of their photos, videos, photo book projects etc. In those cases they trusted a free online storage service/photo company as their SOLE storage (i.e. Snapfish, Shutterfly) without a local backup. They seemed to think that because it’s a business vs an individual, that the company must employ a better backup system and/or that a company would surely assist a loyal customer should something happen. (Wrong.) Glitches can happen, companies can go out of business, get bought out or update their software – you never know what could happen to your precious photos.

  • Angel

    I back up my photos on both Flickr & Dropbox. Not taking any chances!

  • William J Chapman

    I take about a terabyte a year worth of photos and some short video. My backup plan consists of:

    1. I store photos on external drives.
    2. Most new of the data is mirrored onto 2 drives.
    3. All drives are backed up to
    4. Important photos, etc are stored on a 3rd external drive which is usually not connected to the computers.
    5. These same important photos are also backed up across the home network to a 6TB drive connected to my wireless router.

    I had a 3 TB drive go bad the other day. I was able to contact Backblaze and they sent me a 4TB drive with all of my data (encrypted) on the drive. I pay $50 a year for the service and then it cost me $189 to get the drive sent to me (but I could have sent it back and gotten the $189 back once i copied my data off). I was able to go online and download anything I needed in the short term while I waited for the drive.

    There are 3 things in life that are certain, death, taxes, and data loss.

  • Nicholas Cruz Cafaro

    A Terabyte a year? I have a pretty good sense of how many pictures a photog can take, but that sounds like A LOT to me. Is this just your finished photos? That doesn’t include your un-edited RAW files, does it? Do you ever purge your photos and get rid of old photo shoots you don’t care for anymore? I’m really curious about this…

  • Pip Hume

    How ironic! Just discovered this morning that there has been an issue with my Time Machine Backup No. 1 (portable hard drive) – so that the folders are empty. For some obscure reason Backup No. 2 I can’t get into (Air Port). And the particular folder I need is obviously the only folder I have forgotten to copy from my laptop to my desktop. Arrrgh. Ordinarily I would also be able to access these images on my website as well but this particular folder was not for web purposes!

  • William J Chapman

    That is everything. I do edit out most of the photos that are completely unusable, but keep the rest. Most of it is shot in JPG. (For 2016 this is 1.08 terabytes over 149,797 photos over approx 280 events). For business purposes I keep all files that are useable just in case (and I need to keep all original images of any edits that I send out too). Sometimes something occurs in the news and I need to be able to go back and find additional photos or people in the photos for sets that need to be sold.

    But once they are backed up to Backblaze they don’t ever have to go up again so it is not a continual upload stream. I looked this morning and I had transfered about 3000 files last night to my main computer from my laptop and this morning there were still 500 backing up so in 1 night 2500 photos uploaded.

  • Nobody

    I went through some catastrophes in my life a few years back. I moved three times in nine months. In the course of events, my two computers crashed, a basement where my belongings were being temporarily stored flooded, and more. There went every high-resolution copy of every photograph I had taken for half a decade.

    It took years to arrange my life in such a way that I could buy new photography gear, and start anew.

    One of my first priorities was external backups. I do have a preference: Copying files directly to at least one of the backup drives. It is a pain trying to recover files with a proprietary encryption or indexing method, depending on the way a backup is done. Files copied over to a drive can much more easily be recovered.

    I also do not keep my backups in the same place. If something happens in one room, I have another backup in another place, whether it is another room or another building. This can seriously save your files if something bad happens at home, but you have your extra backup at the office. Or say the basement floods, killing the NAS drive, but you have a USB hard drive up stairs.

    Storage is becoming ever more affordable. The more reliable method you can afford, the better, I say.

  • KC

    Coming from a tech as well as photo background, this is a great topic for me. Storage fails. All of it. From camera media to RAID arrays, hard drives to SSD’s, it happens. When you work in tech, you see it more often than you’d like. There’s a thing called MTBF (mean time between failures). Wait, there’s more. If your computer is acting odd, it may be writing corrupted data. Brilliant stuff. Cables fail, too. Those power bricks and hubs? Fail points. It’s scary stuff.

    It’s not “if it fails”, but “when it fails”. The trick is knowing how to get out of it and back to business. It can take a long time to recover data off a failed drive. It may not even be 100% successful. Then you have to reintegrate the data. Software you can reload.

    OK, I’m being over dramatic, but completely honest, to make a point. It’s great everyone is backing up, but you need to have that next thought: how long before I’m back in business? Do you have a contingency plan?

    I like online backups, more so if they work automatically, and invisibly. Pure “set and forget”. For local archival storage, RAID.

    Here’s a thought for those with old desktops collecting dust: they can be repurposed as a file and print server. So long as they’re reliable (and not jammed with dust and ancient drives), an old PC with multiple bays and a fresh copy of Linux (for security) makes a nice file server. Speed isn’t a factor, reliability is. Same goes for an older Intel Mac tower. OS X is Unix based, and there’s four bays.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed