How to Create a Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

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Most people take reasonable precautions when engaging in activities that are potentially unsafe or harmful, like wearing seat belts in a car or even washing your hands before eating. The benefits of these basic procedures are easy to understand which is one reason these practices are so widely adopted. But things look quite different where our digital lives are concerned; in other words, a backup strategy.

Every mobile phone, laptop, and personal computer stores your photos, documents, and other data on either a small memory chip or a spinning hard drive and it is not uncommon for these to fail. In fact, due to the nature of how hard drives (which are still by far the most common method of storing data) operate, they are guaranteed to wear out over time. It’s just a question of when. Anyone even remotely concerned with making sure their digital files are safe and accessible one, five, 10, or even hundreds of years from now needs to have a solid backup strategy in case the unthinkable happens.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

Don’t let your photos disappear when your computer fails.

The challenge

One problem with creating a backup strategy is that it can seem so complex and convoluted it’s difficult to even know where to begin. From clouds to closets to safe deposit boxes, the world of data backup has so many options it’s enough to make your head spin. I’m going to explore three common options in this article, but before I get too far I want to remind you of the words of Carl von Clausewitz who said, “The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.”

Don’t get so caught up with finding the ideal backup strategy that you don’t do anything at all. The important lesson, no matter which method you use, is to create copies of your data – especially your photographs – so you can still get them if something bad happens.

3-2-1 Strategy

One of the best ways to approach backing up your data is the 3-2-1 strategy:

  • 3: Have three copies of your data.
  • 2: Keep them in two separate places.
  • 1: At least one must be offsite.

This might seem like a lot of hassle, but it’s similar to most things in life that require small behavioral changes. Once you get over the initial setup of utilizing a backup strategy it becomes a habit or better yet, a completely transparent activity that just happens in the background. As someone who has lost data, and has had friends and family lose thousands of photos thanks to computer failures and hard drive corruption, I can confidently say that it is well worth your time to back up your data. It won’t save your physical life, but it could save your digital life.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

A good backup solution doesn’t have to be complicated and can help make sure your memories stand the test of time.

Option #1 – External hard drives

Inside nearly every personal computer is a spinning hard drive that rotates at a mind-numbing speed of 5400-7200 rotations per minute, every day, for as long as the computer exists. Over time, hard drives have proven themselves to be simple cost-effective vessels for storing massive amounts of data. However, their mechanical nature makes them not only prone to failure but quite expensive and time-consuming to recover your files and photos if something does happen.

Because of these caveats, one of the simplest methods of backing up your data is to use software to make a clone of your hard drive onto – you guessed it – another hard drive. This duplicates everything on your computer so you can instantly access it in the case of an emergency. Thanks to the relatively inexpensive nature of external hard drives and backup software (which is often bundled with hard drives) the process is mostly painless.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

Backup hard drives are a cheap and effective way of making sure your data is safe.

File recovery

Mostly, that is, until it comes time to actually recover your data. In my experience, this method of file backup is best when your entire computer dies and you need to start from scratch, at which point a clone of your hard drive can be used to create an exact copy on a new computer. I have had to do this a few times with excellent results, and except for re-registering some serial numbers with Adobe I was up and running again in no time.

However, if you accidentally delete some data, such as an entire folder of images, and need to recover just those specific things from your backup it can be tricky depending on the software solution you are using. Apple’s Time Machine, for example, is designed to facilitate the easy recovery of an entire computer’s worth of data but many people (myself included) have found themselves more than a little frustrated when restoring individual files or folders. Microsoft includes software called Backup and Restore which will do the same thing for Windows users. Either one of these is a great solution if you want a simple way of making sure all the data on your computer is saved and stored in the event of a complete hard drive failure.

One significant benefit of both Time Machine and Windows Backup and Restore is that they run automatically in the background so you never have to think about it once you set them up. However, one drawback is that because they only backup to external hard drives, if you lose data to a catastrophic event such as a fire or flood, chances are your backup drive will be toast also. For that reason I like to keep a second backup hard drive at the office where I work and switch the hard drives out every Monday. That way even if my house explodes in a freak meteorite incident everything but the very latest files and photos will still be available on my backup drive at work.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

Mac users can use Time Machine to easily create automatic backups on an external hard drive.

Extra options

If you really want to go the extra mile with an external hard-drive-based backup plan, you can set yourself up with a multi-drive solution where all your data is copied to not only one, but several hard disks at the same time. This is called a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Drives) system and while it’s more costly than a single drive solution, it’s virtually guaranteed to protect against data loss. If one of the drives in a RAID array fails you can usually just swap it out with a fresh drive and continue backing everything up.

Finally, if you are going to use external backups it’s important to keep them encrypted so prying eyes or thieving scoundrels can’t peek at your data. Time Machine lets you do this with the click of a mouse, and Windows has an option to do this as well using a setting called BitLocker. This adds a huge layer of security to your backups while taking almost no effort on your part. I highly recommend doing this.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

BitLocker offers a great solution for Windows users who want a simple and effective backup strategy.

Hard drives are so cheap these days that it’s hard to go wrong with this type of solution. If your backup drive ever goes belly-up you can buy another one for the price of a few movie tickets. I recommend buying a drive that is double the capacity of your computer’s internal hard drive which means you can restore old copies of files long after they have been deleted from your computer.

Option #2 – Save your data to the cloud

If you don’t want to bother with the hassle of setting up an external hard drive, encrypting your data, and switching out drives every week or every month, another good option is to go with a cloud-based backup service like CrashPlan, BackBlaze, or Carbonite. These companies offer paid plans that backup all the data on your computer, or just a portion that you specify, to their own servers automatically. In terms of convenience, these services are hard to beat since they require almost no interaction from you after the initial setup.

Drawbacks

One of the downsides is the price, as they require a recurring monthly or yearly fee which, though usually not too expensive, can add up over time. They also make the act of restoring all your data, such as in the event of a fire or flood, more difficult than just hooking up a spare hard drive with a full copy of everything. Thankfully many cloud-based services will actually mail you a hard drive with a full copy of your data on it for an additional fee if you really need to do a full restore of your entire computer. You also have the option of logging into your account from a web browser and selectively downloading individual files or folders, which can be useful if you just need to retrieve specific items and not restore your entire computer.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos - CrashPlan, BackBlaze, or Carbonite - cloud options

One of the major drawbacks of cloud-based backup options involves actually getting your data to them in the first place. While broadband internet access is becoming increasingly common around the world, upload speeds still lag far behind download speeds. According to BackBlaze, a typical home internet connection will let you upload 2GB to 4GB per day, which means it could take several months to backup your entire hard drive! If you shoot in RAW and are constantly filling up your memory cards, you might find cloud-based backup services to be quite limiting unless you have a very fast internet connection!

Other cloud-based options are available that specifically address the needs of photographers. Google Photos allows unlimited storage for JPG pictures up to 16 megapixels, and Amazon allows unlimited photo storage for Prime members. Flickr, that longtime stalwart of online photo sharing, gives users 1TB (Terabyte, or 1024 GB) of storage for free. Services like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Apple’s iCloud offer paid plans that allow you to backup massive amounts of photos and other data for a fee while also syncing them across your devices.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

Even if you already share pictures on social networks, it’s a good idea to have a full backup of all your images and a dedicated cloud-based solution is a nice way to accomplish this.

Shop around for the best cloud option for your needs

If you are thinking about using a cloud-based solution I would encourage you to investigate some options and see what you think would work best for your needs. I have used CrashPlan, BackBlaze, and Carbonite, as well as solutions like Arq which store your data on the Amazon cloud. Each of these has its own strengths and weaknesses and because of that, it is difficult to recommend a single cloud-based solution as every individual has their own needs.

All of them are good, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them if you currently don’t have a backup solution in place. I also like to caution people that when you utilize free services like Google Photos or Flickr it’s a good idea to review their Terms of Service so you know exactly what information and personal data you are giving up in exchange for the free use of their storage.

Option #3 – DVDs and Blu-Rays

Longtime computer users might fondly remember the days when CD-ROM drives first entered the scene. In those heady days of the mid-1990s the idea of putting as much data as you could fit on an entire 500MB hard drive onto one single CD was basically a computing miracle, and as CD drives became more prevalent they also became a good way to backup data such as documents and photos.

However as digital cameras rose to prominence in the early 2000s it became painfully obvious that backing up data to CDs and, subsequently, DVDs was too slow and cumbersome to be a good solution. Burning the discs took time, and getting files off them could be a chore especially as more and more computers abandoned these types of disc drives altogether.

So why in the world would this type of solution even be considered as part of a balanced backup strategy in 2017?

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos CD and DVD

Behold the classic Compact Disc. You might not give this type of media much thought nowadays, but it can still be an essential component of a comprehensive backup strategy.

Cost and drawbacks

The answer to this question is mostly related to cost. Blank discs are cheap, and even if your computer doesn’t have a disc burner you can buy an external one for about $50-100. CDs hold about 600 MB of data, or enough for your vacation photos if you shot on medium-quality JPG. DVDs hold about 4.5 GB of data or a couple months of pictures (if you shoot RAW this will be more limited). Blu-Ray discs hold about 25GB of data or enough for an entire year’s worth of JPG images which make them very well suited for long-term image backup. Even if you already use a hard drive or cloud solution, it’s still a good idea to make regular backups of your pictures to some type of physical disc that you can then store in a safe deposit box or even mail to a trusted friend or family member.

One of the notable downsides to disc-based backups is that this media is prone to the same harsh realities of time as any hard drive. Sooner or later all discs that you create at home will fail due to a concept known as “bit rot” which is when the layer of dye inside a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray that actually contains your data deteriorates over time. It might be a few years or 50 years, but it’s almost certainly going to happen to every disc you burn.

Thankfully some drives are capable of burning a special format of Blu-Ray called M-Disc which is supposed to keep your data safe for hundreds of years. Even though the actual discs are a little more expensive it could be well worth it to make sure your images aren’t lost to dust and decay over the years.

Solid Backup Strategy for Your Photos

It might be worth your time to dust off that old DVD or Blu-Ray burner and use it as part of your photo backup plan.

Annual plan

When adding a disc-based component to your backup strategy I recommend making it part of an annual ritual instead of something you do monthly or weekly. Get a Blu-Ray burner so you can store all your pictures from the whole year and make the process of burning a disc and taking it to a safe deposit box an annual tradition. It might seem silly at first, but it could really save your digital life if you ever need it.

The Solution

The great challenge with backing up your digital images is that all methods have their positive and negative aspects, no one single solution is best. And very few things in life are truly permanent, so even if you physically print your pictures they will eventually fade and will also be susceptible to mold, moisture, or physical damage.

Any digital backup option is better than none at all. If you leave your photos on your computer or phone without duplicates then you are at risk of putting all your eggs in one basket which is almost certainly guaranteed to fail. The solution, then, is to do something to make sure your pictures don’t meet a premature digital demise. It could be a second hard drive, a cloud-based solution, making a Blu-Ray disk, using a combination of all three, or another method I didn’t even mention.

My father still has a hard drive sitting in his closet filled with thousands of images he may never see again. The disk failed years ago and was not backed up. The same thing has happened to many photographers around the world. Don’t let it happen to you.

Read more here:

What about you? What solution do you use to make sure your pictures are backed up and ready to access if you need them? There are hosts of other solutions I didn’t address in this article and I’m sure other DPS readers would like to know what ideas you have and what works for you. Please share in the comments below.

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • David

    Just a small tweak there.
    It should be “2: Use two different formats.”

    Usually that would mean hard drive and cloud.

    So. “3 Copies; 2 Types; 1 Offsite”

    (and FWIW the working file can be considered a copy for personal use. Pros might want a second local backup)

  • I store my photos in two places: on a portable HD and on the cloud (Crashplan).

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  • Sus anne

    I strongly concur with your encouragement to use several methods, and locations, to back up one’s data – and to be consistent with all of them! A recent home burglary resulted in the loss of all of my digital, electronic and photo equipment. My backup strategy included Time Machine, Flickr, and MacOS Photos (Cloud). The external drive is gone (to include all of my RAW images), but with Photos I am able to at least still view and download their corresponding jpegs, once I replace the iMac. My documents, however, are gone forever – they were not in the Cloud. Mea culpa. Was a hard lesson to have validated.

  • Paul

    I like to think of failure modes you are planning for. Lets consider:
    1) Single Hard Drive failure. Your working HD fails and data is irrecoverable. Mitigated by RAID or any local or cloud-based data storage backup.
    2) Single Room storage failure. Your entire local storage fails (e.g. single room fire). Mitigated by any data storage backup in another location (room)
    3) Single building storage failure. Your entire local storage fails (e.g. complete house fire) Mitigated by any data storage backup in another location (building)

    So RAID only helps with failure mode 1 (assuming not NW RAID)
    An external drive in another room helps with failure modes 1 and 2*
    An external drive in another building (e.g. work office) or cloud-based helps with failure modes 1, 2, 3.
    *It could be argued an external HD in a suitable fireproof box in your house might help with failure mode 3 (this is my current low-cost archive back-up method)

    The first advice is the best – don’t put off the best solution when a good solution is better than none. Get an external HD today and back up now 🙂

  • I like this mindset, Paul. Think of the worst possible situation, and then plan for it. The answer will vary depending on the individual’s situation and data storage needs, but it will help everyone make sure they are safeguarding their data.

  • Oh no! I’m sorry about the loss of your data and documents!

  • Interesting thought about the multiple formats. That’s definitely something to take into account.

  • Sus anne

    Thank you. I am exploring a myriad of backup options – have yet to come up with a totally foolproof method. Editorials such as this one have been very helpful.

  • I’m glad you found this article to be helpful, and if you’re looking for advice my best would be that you start by backing everything to an external drive and then keeping it at another location. It’s not a foolproof method but it’s a start, and it will tide you over until you can find a solid solution that is tailored to your individual needs.

  • Depending on your expertise/familiarity with rolling your own cloud backup strategy, I can recommend from personal experience (I have no affiliation) a combination of CloudBerry Backup software with Amazon Web Service’s Glacier archival service. CloudBerry have a freeware version for personal use, and even the “pro” version is only a one-off purchase of approx $US30. Monthly costs for your archives are around half a cent per GB of storage. Realistically, a lot of the “managed” cloud backup services like Crashplan, etc are probably using the same/similar service under the hood and adding their own fees on the top.
    The particular reason I like CloudBerry Backup is that the same tool can cover your whole 3-2-1 strategy with a set-it and forget-it approach.
    You can configure it for multiple backup profiles; e.g. one to the cloud, one to your network attached storage (if any), one to your external HDD.

  • thierry

    hi,
    most computers and external disks use low-cost hd’s. whenever possible, change those for ‘server-class’ hd’s. yes they cost much more but are also more reliable. i have 2 NASes that i bought without hd’s (4 bays) and then used server class hd’s in raid5 (sorry if too technical and i will go even further). use ‘good’ brands like sinology, qnap, thecus for NAS and wd, hitachi for hd’s)
    now, with the ransomewares, if your are connected with your data (external disk and cloud) it is gone as well. therefore i use 1 nas for shared data & backup from pc-hd and the other nas is only connected via ftp and through a backup sw. the second nas is not accessible via smb (windows protocol) hence ‘unseen’ if a pc got hacked. the NAS are in different locations in the house, in places best protected from fire. further use good shielded cables (if long) and good gigabit switches.

    external hd’s are best used on a shooting pace just to avoid a catastrophy but their life will be shortened by the vibrations (travel) and other hazards (drop, shock, …)

  • Mark

    I would caution about reliance on the cloud, or external drives, without regular check-summing in the backups. Yes it can seemingly take forever, but there’d be nothing worse than thinking something’s backed up and it being corrupt when you go to restore it. On that note you need versioned backups in case it is your original that is corrupted being backed up to all those other outlets.
    Note also that various cloud providers have had “oops” moments themselves with data lost – which emphasises the 3 copies mantra.
    I’d argue that if you are using cloud I’d get an extra HDD and have 1 onsite, 1 offsite, and 1 cloud (in addition to the original). The onsite can rotate with the offsite i.e. back up every night/week and once per week/fortnight rotate the onsite with the offsite that you may keep in a locked drawer at work.
    The rationale is that the onsite has immediate restore capability for a crash or clumsy delete. The offsite will be slightly older/out of date but offers some resilience to corruption from malware as well as catastrophe from fire but is easier to get at for a mass back-up. The cloud one is there as a versioned redundant offsite.
    You can certainly do external drive + cloud backups with the crashplan software as well as using seed and recovery drives where required. Encryption is also possible.

    I personally don’t have the cloud option as part of the strategy I use which has (for photos/catalog only)…

    1. Original on SSD for speed of access
    2. Copy on external attached RAID volume
    3. Copy on NAS RAID volume
    3.1 Duplicate on NAS RAID volume 2
    4. Rotated rsnapshot external HDD (offsite)
    5. Copy on external portable HDD (mostly goes where I go).

    2 is on a different file system (ZFS vs HFS+) which gives an ability to check for changes/corruption between the original and the copy. It also exists because some software refuses to work with network storage volumes.
    3 is a RAID 6 volume (2 drives can fail) whereas (2) is only mirrored so has greater redundancy as well as storing all my data.
    3.1 occurs as I still have the hardware from long ago and it supports a complete backup of all my NAS data in case of the unit failing or corrupting. This machine synchronises regularly on its own. Once seeded with the initial data I could locate this box at a relative’s house for a complete offsite solution.
    4 is the primary offsite containing additional data from the NAS.
    5 is there because I had the device but, being 2.5″, is likely less reliable.
    They are listed in go-to order.

    Where I think my solution is lacking is in the area of versioned backups. Only 4 has this although it will expand to 2 copies so 1 is onsite whilst the other is offsite. 5 is more for testing purposes as I’d be interested to see how reliable a 2.5″ portable drive is at restoring 2TB of data. 1 & 2 will likely be combined (i.e. RAID SSD) as prices come down.

  • Apostolis Tsi

    Great article! I have a question both relevant and irrelevant to the point. I usually back up my photos in an external drive. However, everytime I try to find a photo, a nightmare begins. The drive seems to be really struggling to load the photo thumbnails in the folder, which leads to me waiting for about 5 minutes for the photos to load, only to find out that my photo was stored in another folder. Please guys, is there any solution for this??? Thanks in advance 🙂

  • What type of backup workflow do you use? If it’s a direct clone of your main drive, then your photos should be stored in the same folder structure as they are on your computer. If you are backing up specific folders and photos then you might lose some of your organization that you had on your main computer.

    However, based on what you are saying it sounds like the issue might be the speed of your external hard drive or the speed of the transfer bus. If you are using a low-power low-speed drive (5400RPM or lower) then that would explain why thumbnails are taking so long to load. Also, if you are loading a lot of data over a slower connection like USB 2 or, heaven forbid, USB 1, then it’s going to be very slow in pulling up thumbnails and other files.

  • Good point about consumer-grade vs. server-grade hard drives, Thierry.

  • Geoff Hargreaves

    Hi
    This is a very timely article, having just finished transferring all my images to an external hard drive with a back up to another one. I also keep all my memory cards instead of re-formatting them so that at least I have an original copy of all images. This may not work for all photographers, especially professionals but for me it seems a relatively inexpensive way of, at worst having the original shots.

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  • Mark

    My guess would be a combination of a 5400 RPM drive with a USB 2.0 connection. The connection would give you a theoretical maximum of 50MB/s transfer rate, more likely around 20-30MB/s. This would be the typical continuous sequential rate, once you start reading lots of small files then it really slows down. To give you an idea, an internal 3.5″ 7200 RPM drive has a maximum rate of around 180MB/s slowing to around 30MB/s for small files. For this reason I use a solid state disc as it is ideally suited to small frequent file loads.
    I wouldn’t worry too much though as your backup drive is meant to be reliable rather than fast.

  • Mark

    Server drives are not generally more reliable than good quality consumer drives. Backblaze produces a regular annual report regarding drive failure rates. They tend to use consumer grade drives as they found server grade were vastly more expensive but not more reliable. Best bet seems to be HGST Desktop NAS drives. You don’t need to fork out for Ultrastar versions.
    This doesn’t hold true for SSD drives whereby enterprise versions will have more overprovisioning of space for wear levelling and failed blocks along with “write on power failure” features.
    I’d also point out that you are living on borrowed time with RAID 5 and should be using RAID 6 as often you will see a second drive fail when rebuilding the array after an initial failure due to the load placed on the system finding weaknesses.
    There’s nothing wrong with external drives – better to use a quality internal drive in a caddy/casing so you know what you’re getting – as they provide useful offsite backups as part of a 3 pronged approach to backup. Yours are in (relatively) once place.

  • thierry

    Dear mark,

    in our offices we had to replace rather quickly most of the hd’s that came with our pc’s. we replaced those by ‘server’ or ‘nas’ grade ones (wd red & black) and had no more problems. we build now our own pc’s and directly put higher grade components. losing data or even time if much more expensive. you are true about raid6 being safer than raid5 : same hd’s coming from same batch and working the same time would have a higher probability of close failure. if one disk fails (not an early death) then all disks should be replaced for safety.
    i should have talked about ‘nas’ grade, less expensive than the ‘server’ grade
    there are also video grade hd’s (made for 24/7 accesses) a bit cheaper

    the ‘entreprise’ ssd drives are also quite often based on another technology, more reliable (but more costly)

    > There’s nothing wrong with external drives – better to use a quality
    internal drive in a caddy/casing so you know what you’re getting
    100% agree with you

    last point, you might use some app that regularly checks the ‘smart’ status of your hd. seeing high temperature, retries, … also sudden death always can happen (even i am not sure if the smart part on the hd is 100% honest – like the dieselgate)

  • Mark

    You mention QNAP as one of the NAS brands, I have one of these (plus a legacy spare). Much like others it can be configured to perform regular S.M.A.R.T tests across all drives in the array which is handy as well as emailing out alerts.
    I’m more than capable of setting up a FreeBSD home build but, I imagine much like yourself, I’d rather pay for a device and have more free time. I do think that they are still at the stage where the interface seems a little too complex for the layman which is a shame but they offer plenty for those willing to learn.

  • thierry

    Dear Mark,
    we build our pc’s, and buy appliances. indeed qnap (and other like sinology, thechus) presents consistent equipments with efficient gui interfaces for management and extra services (i also have qnap at office and home).
    if i do mostly trust the ‘smart’ app running on the appliance or pc, i ask myself about the possibility for the hd conterpart to withhold deragatory informations (à la diesel-gate).

    the gui interface of most appliances has replaced the text-only management i/f obtained through a serial cable (and – later – putty) making most appliances quite user friendly even for most laymen when you are happy with basic settings (please spare me of those studborns wizards – they make me wanting to become a necromancien)
    just beware when you start several of those extra apps (web, dbase, media, … servers) not to abuse and reduce the performances – it is ‘just’ a NAS after all. plenty of ram is always welcome (buy the model with most or a model where you can upgrade ram).

    the only extra app i really miss is a java plug-in for the coffee machine

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  • garcia davis

    Yes i agree with this post, there is need to have a backup for photos, incase if there is a misplacement or to properly safe the photos. Backup external drive is very essential for all photographers so as to not lost their files. Very informative post.

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