Basic Image Backup Tips for Beginners

One of the first things that comes to mind when faced with some sort of a disaster (fire or flood, for example) is the safety of the people we love. If one’s family and friends are well and within arm’s reach in the case of such a tragic event, people often tend to think of… photographs. Wouldn’t you? After all, photographs ensure the memory of our children, parents, siblings, friends and the greatest days of our lives remain no matter what. Consequently, it is a good idea to always have a safe copy of all or at least the most important photographs you may have. If you have been storing images on a single computer, DVD or other simple storage, there is no way to make sure that your photographs are 100% safe – all types of storage unfortunately fail, it is just a matter of time! There is a way, however, of eliminating the possibility of loss almost entirely. In this article for beginners photographers, I will provide you with several inexpensive basic backup ideas. Even if you choose not to follow this particular backup strategy, it should give you a decent starting point and help you figure out a way that suits you better. It is worth noting that we do not recommend these tips for professional photographers, as they should take more serious, reliable and faster means of backing up their work.

Basic Image Backup Tips for Beginners

1) Keep a Copy at Home

In addition to storing photographs on your hard drive, it is a good idea to have a copy of them on an external drive somewhere at home. This is in case your computer suffers from some sort of malfunction, data loss or physical damage. Storing copies of your photographs on the same disk isn’t a backup – if the disk breaks down, both originals and backup copies may be lost. Also note that it is a good idea to store original copies on a separate internal hard drive rather than the one used by the operating system. This way, if you ever need to format your computer you’ll know all the important files will remain untouched.

The Western Digital external hard drive pictured above provides a very safe back-up system. It has two separate drives that can be set up to mirror in RAID 1 mode. This creates drive redundancy – even if one of the drives fails, your files will be kept safe on the other one. The drive is called “Western Digital 8TB My Thunderbolt Duo Dual-Drive Storage System” (click here for B&H link). In a mirrored configuration, you lose half of the storage, but gain redundancy. 4 terabytes should be more than plenty for most people out there – you could probably back up all of your photographs, personal files and even home movies! If the price is an issue or you feel like you do not need that much capacity, there are also much cheaper dual-drive options with less space from a variety of manufacturers.

Even if you’ve never encountered any data loss before, don’t think the chances of it happening are all that low. One of our team members, Bob, has had some serious PC problems before. Read his article to find out the whole story. If you have suffered from similar accidents, you will find some good advice there. Nasim also once had a set of drives fail and he lost a month worth of very important photos, since he forgot to back them up.

2) Keep a Copy at Friend’s/Parent’s Home

Even if you have a copy of your images at home, it doesn’t save your from bigger accidents, such as fire. Both internal and external drives may get damaged. It is a good idea to have another copy somewhere outside your home or workplace, just to be safe.

3) Keep a Copy on a Cloud

A cloud is online storage. Cloud services are very accessible these days and finding one that suits your needs is quite simple. I am sure you have probably already heard of Dropbox, which is the most popular cloud storage platform today, with 2GB of free space to start with. Another great new cloud storage platform is Copy and they are giving away 15GB of free space right now. There are a number of other options out there to choose from. If the free storage is not enough, you can subscribe for a monthly or annual fee to significantly increase your storage limit, or you can invite your friends/family to add even more space to your account. Some cloud storage providers allow you to purchase unlimited amount of storage! Prices generally range from a couple of dollars to $10 per month and up. Storing your images on a cloud in addition to solutions provided earlier helps minimize the chance of losing photographs down to a negligible percentage. It also grants access to your images wherever you are, all you need is access to the Internet.

Read our “Cloud Storage for Photographers” article to find out more about Cloud services.

4) Preserve Folder Structure and Naming

Having your back-up images organized identically to your working files helps simplify back-up and restore process. Thus, it is a good idea to preserve the folder structure and naming methodology among all sources. Have trouble figuring out a basic folder structure? Read our article on “organizing pictures” for more help.

5) How Often Should You Backup?

There is no general rule – the more often, the better. Getting into a habit of backing up your photographs as soon as you move them to your computer may be a good idea. This way, you’ll also save a bit of time since you’re copying images anyway. Also, it will help you keep track of what’s backed up and what isn’t. If you use a specific software tool to manage and organize your photographs, such as Lightroom or ACDSee, you’ll find options on import that will allow you to make a backup copy to a predefined location automatically. Should you choose otherwise, I strongly advise backing up your images at least once a week.

6) Final Words

Perhaps you think having 4 copies of photographs is verging on paranoid. It sure won’t be easy updating all these sources. Just think about how well you want to ensure nothing ever happens to your family or business photographs. That will help you answer the question whether you need to take all these precaution measures or just a couple of them to feel safe.

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Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.


  1. 1
    ) Don

    Hi Romanas,

    Nice article but I have to provide a bit of history. The WD drive you pictured above failed a day after I purchased it and I learned on thing from this. 2 down, 1 in the shop meaning if either of those drives fail the entire device fails and all the images are lost. If you put it in a RAID 5 array, you will have some reliability but you will have to buy the exact same unit to try and recover your images, or you can of course send the drives away and pay an enormous amount of money from recovery specialists. I opted to but a 5 bay Drobo that backs up to another 5 bay Synology. I have currently 15 TB of storage in a RAID 5 array. One drive dies, I simply hot swap it. I would say it is statistically impossible for both systems to fail at the same time. Yes they are expensive but worth the money to me. I also have a 2TB external drive that I carry with me all the time. It has my entire photo library on it. It too is backed up over a network to another storage drive. I also have software for Mac that does incremental backups so it does not require the entire library to be backed up. Only newly added or modified files. You aren’t being paranoid… :)

    • 7
      ) Bryan

      I really feel the need to point this out; while you had a Western Digital fail on you, I have 8 WD and they’re all working fine, a couple of them are even 4+ yrs old and still work smoothly with no shakes or quivers. Meanwhile I’ve heard people praise Lacie to no end, but one of my good friends has been through 5 Lacie drives in the past 3 years. What this tells me, is that no one company can guarantee a perfect, failure safe drive. Buy a buy that suits your price range, from a company that’s been around a couple years and treat it properly, that means ejecting it safely (not just ripping the cable out to turn it off), handle it with care, don’t ever bump or move it while it’s running and if it even starts to look unstable, double check that your work is backed up somewhere else.

      All that being said, I am also a big fan of Iomega drives and I also have an online server with unlimited bandwidth that I use as my own cloud back up and it’s not much more than most of those web services charge, you just need to download your own FTP client.

      • Bryan, I fully agree – no product on the market can guarantee the same reliability or performance for basic storage. If you are buying an enterprise product, it is a whole different ballgame, but for simple end-user products, most offers out there are about the same.

    • Don, I have been using the WD Duo drives for a while now and I have not had one fail (I have had about 4 of them so far). And if one of the drives fails, you can just open the enclosure, extract the working drive and take all the data out of it. Just make sure to make both drives in RAID 1 configuration (mirroring) and NOT RAID 0 (striping). With RAID 1 you get redundancy, while with RAID 0 you get the maximum storage. RAID 0 should never be used, unless you have another drive that you back up to. As for RAID 5, you need at least 3 drives in order to be able to do it – not very practical for most people out there. And rebuild time for a RAID 5 array can be very painful when using slow SATA drives.

      I like Synology products, but I have had a lot of problems with the 5 drive array from Drobo. While the concept of Drobo products might sound appealing, it is a proprietary technology. If more than one drive fails at the same time, you are pretty much screwed. On a traditional RAID array, one could potentially recover data in a lab environment, although it won’t be cheap like you pointed out. Also, Drobo starts to suck in performance when the unit starts filling up beyond 80% capacity, so be careful about putting too much data on those drives. On anything over 50% capacity, rebuild times for a failed drive could take weeks and God forbid if another drive fails during the rebuild.

      Looks like you have a good backup plan though – Drobo to Synology, to external drive, to another drive – nice! Just make sure to store at least one drive in a separate physical location :)

  2. 2
    ) Robin

    When backing up images it can get very expensive having a backup through services Ike Dropbox. It’s not really much of a price-wise interesting option, neither for amateurs nor for pros. Crashplan is highly recommended in particular is you use their free plan to keep your external drive attached to a friend’s computer. It does up quite some processing power and bandwidth, but it’s nice that it runs in the background so you never have to do a thing

  3. After loosing a hard disk some years ago I certainly am paranoid. I use my PC “C” drive for programmes and my documents, but have a “D” drive which mirrors this and is also fitted internally. Then, I have 3 external disks, one resident near the PC and two others. The extra internal and nearby external back up automatically before shut down. The two others are rotated weekly. One is kept at my neighbours, the other in a fireproof safe. This way I have 2 disc drives locally in case of PC failure and two remotely in case of flood, fire or theft. Now, that’s what I call paranoid! My images are very valuable to me and my documents essential, so after loosing everything once I would rather it not happen again.


  4. 4
    ) Don

    This is my setup at home:

    The Drobo is the main storage and the Synology is the backup to the Drobo. This is done on a CAT6 network…

    By the way, there is no such thing as a good backup, only a successful restore. :)

  5. 5
    ) Grant

    A long time back I used 2x Drobos. Sadly they were the early ones that were slow (FW400+USB2.0) and dumb. You never could control much and there were no apps for them unless you bought a network share device. They may have improved it since then.

    Now I am a massive fan of Synology.

    1. Copy photos from my CF and SD cards to my PC’s hard drive. (Drive E)
    2. Then copy to a mirrored RAID with all the current years work on in the same PC. (Drive D)
    2a. I can now reformat my cards for the next shoot with no concerns.
    3. Do all the editing etc on the RAIDed copy. (Drive D). If one of those hard drives dies I lose nothing. Software RAIDs are easy to rebuild.
    4. Once the photo project is finalised I copy them to a Synology 213J. It is set up running a mirror.
    5. Every night at 3am the other Synology 213J boots up and an incremental backup is done. First time took many hours due to the amount of photos and other data but after that it takes maybe 20 minutes, then goes back to sleep, and then turns off at the time scheduled.

    With this method I can annihilate last years work from my computers with no worries as I hace two other RAIDed copies of the photos.

    I “offsite” when required (usually when going away) but its no longer very practicable to “Cloud” the data as we are talking terabytes. The cost mounts up fast.

    In the past I have set up Windows NT, 2000, & 2003 servers, FeeBSD and FreeNas servers to do all of this with 1U-4U rack server units (background is IT hardware support). The Synologies mean no need for client access licences or expensive enterprise level software and are easy to set up with very little dickering around to get everything working. They also draw very low power.

    My back up solution may seem excessive, however I have seen several wedding photographers go out of business due to accidentally losing a couples wedding photos. Social media and word of mouth killed them. I shoot worldwide, so getting a name for shoddiness is best avoided! :-)

  6. 6
    ) Dave FP

    I think people can get a little nutty.

    I maintain a copy on my Mac’s c drive.
    A second copy is created by Time Machine onto a WD Passport drive.
    Once a week (more when indicated) I manually run Carbon Copy Cloner and back-up my C drive to a third drive which is kept in a detached garage.

    The second copy is there if my Mac crashes.
    The third copy protects me if the house burns.

    Nothing wrong with forth and fifth copies but it can be a bit nuts.

  7. I have two external hard drives at home and one hard drive off site. I also have a Smug Mug account for my business. The main purpose is to sell prints but Smug Mug allows unlimited space and I can download the original JPGs anywhere with internet access. This gives me piece of mind. The only downside with the included backup is it will not take your RAWs. I figure if my hard drives all fail, I can still recover the JPGs which is better than an error message.

  8. 11
    ) Brad J

    When traveling (particularly overseas), I don’t bring a laptop with me (I’m not a pro photographer, so I’m talking about leisure travel), but I do bring a Hyperdrive memory card backup device. A few companies make something similar, but it’s a portable hard drive with built0in memory card slots and even logic to copy the cards to the drive. I back up the cards each night and then pack the drive and camera in separate bags on the return trip. It’s compact, but gives me some peace of mind on the road.

  9. 12
    ) Martin G

    Wow. We all have our own ideas about how to back up. I simply work on the ‘superstition’ model. Time machine backs up the drive at the root level. (1 Terabyte) My core data has also been copied to a LaCie Quadra Raid 0 (2 by 2 terabyte) drive. That is the long term data plan when the whole computer is updated, the Quadra will stay. New data now goes to the Quadra by default. The 4th copy of all the ‘pictures’ folder has been copied to a rugged portable (LaCie) which is usually with me. Finally, there is an additional time machine (Seagate) 1 Terabyte usb backup.
    Over the top? Absolutely. Necessary? I sincerely hope not. OK OK it is a bit crazy!

  10. Excellent advice thank you!

    I would simply add that the more more back-ups and the more types of back-ups and places to store them the better!

    And share old printed photos and negatives – different family members have been busy scanning old photos and sending them out to other family members. It’s great to see the old photos again as well as knowing that there are multiple copies out there.

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