Image backup and Protection

Regular readers of my blog know how I feel helping emerging photographers find their way is my way of giving back to the photographic community. I regular answer questions regarding photographing in several forums across the internet. Recently, I cam across this post:

My external hard drive crashed, how can I get the pictures off?
I am a photographer and lost a couple’s wedding because of the crash, I really need to get them back. I heard you can download some programs that can do it? I have an iMac and it’s a ==brand name withheld== external hard drive.

Causes of Data Loss

Before we can talk about prevention, we need to look at the four most common causes of data loss. In this case we are talking about digital photographs specifically.

  • User error is by far the most common cause of data loss. This typically manifests in the accidental deletion of images. This can be caused by someone formatting a memory card before backing up the images, or accidentally deleting them from the computer. Often “shoot and burn” photographers will burn the images on to a CD, send them to a client, and then delete the images. Well what happens when that CD gets lost in the mail, or if the client loses it?
  • Hard drive failure is also quite common. All hard drives will eventually fail. It is not a matter of if, but when it will happen.
  • Theft is another source of data loss. I am thinking specifically about photographing destination weddings, and having a camera bag or laptop stolen from the hotel room after a wedding, but this could even involve someone stealing a computer from your home.
  • Fire or Natural disaster is also a concern. Having images stored on four separate hard drives in your home doesn’t help if your home burns down.

Solutions and Workflow

Recovering stolen property or data from a damaged hard drive is near to impossible. Recovering accidentally deleted data is possible but complicated. The old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is never more poignant than it is when it comes to digital image storage. In this section, I want to explain my workflow when it comes to image management and how it serves to protect a client’s images from the above sources of data loss.

  1. This step applied primarily to destination wedding photography. Immediately after I photograph a destination wedding, I return to my hotel and backup every image on to two external hard drives. One of them goes in my suitcase, and another in my camera/laptop bag. I do not delete the cards and keep them on me until I am home. This is designed to protect the images in case of a lost suitcase, a stolen bag, or if I get robbed since the images are kept in three separate locations.
  2. Once I am home, I sit down at the computer and copy the memory cards to my DROBO external storage unit. The DROBO is like a external hard drive, but it actually contains four separate drives similar to a RAID array. Anyone one drive can fail and no data would be lost. This is my method for dealing with hard drive crashes.

  3. Of course a single hard drive crash is not the only concern. If multiple hard drives in the DROBO fail simultaneously there is a higher chance of data loss. So the next step is to immediately back up all of the images to a second external hard drive (third if you consider the images are actually on two drives in the DROBO.) This drive is disconnect when not in use to protect it from a power surge.
  4. Next, I will go through and edit the images down to a reasonable amount for my clients to view. My goal is to try to present no more than 750 images out of the several thousand that were shot. The selects are color corrected, retouched, and eventually converted to high res JPEG images. These images are uploaded to for clients to view. However, because using full res images, the website actually works as an offsite backup. This is necessary in case of a fire or some other natural disaster. Even if all my hard drives and computers are destroyed, I know I have the select images on a server far from my home.
  5. The last step is to put all the selected images onto portable storage media like a DVD or thumb drive. This serves as the fifth form of permanent image backup. Most of my clients get their digital images with their wedding packages, so I will send them this disk or drive.
  6. At this point the images are backed up on the two drives in my DROBO, a separate external drive,, and on the client disc or thumb drive. Now I can finally format and reuse my memory cards. If I stored the destination wedding images on the portable hard drive, these too can be erased, but I normally wait until I actually need the space on the drive to do so. I now have the images on five devices in three separate physical locations, which will protect clients images from everything short of a Nuclear Holocaust.

In Conclusion

It may seem like all these steps are overkill or over complicated. It might be for some forms of photography, but wedding photos are unique. They cannot be re-shot or recreated. Once they are lost, they are gone for good, making them priceless. My system does not involve overly complicated methods, or a lot of expensive hardware. Hard drives are cheap; less than $100 per terrabyte. That works out to less than $0.002 per 20 megabyte image for storage. Even if you consider that they are stored in 5 places it still works out to only a penny per image.

Any photographer that doesn’t think it is worth one cent per image to properly backup their client’s cherished memories should not be in this business as far as I am concerned. The same goes for photographers who don’t put the time in to backing up images. I don’t spend much extra time doing this at all. The initial copy of the memory cards is the same. Everything else can be done in the background while I am working on other projects.

Tips for Photographers

For photographers looking to get a faster backup workflow:

  • Start by writing the steps down an posting it near your computer.
  • Get in the habit of following your workflow consistently and never skip a step thinking, you can get around to it later.
  • After a while you won’t even have to think about it anymore.
  • To learn more about DROBO visit

Tips for Couples Hiring a Photographer

  • Ask a potential photographer how they plan on caring for your images. If they are serious, they can easily tell you exactly what their plan is. Be cautious if they can’t give you their workflow or give you a lot of “uhms,” or say, “Its never been a problem before.”
  • Make sure they have an offsite backup. It doesn’t help if they backup your images to a CD and then leave that in the same house as the computer if they have a fire.
  • A RAID or DROBO is not sufficient as the only means of a backup. A power surge can easily destroy every drive connect to a computer.

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