Save Your Memories with the Right Digital Photo Backup Strategy

Tips on Digital Photo Backup

Most professional photographers are artsy geeks – photography is a fairly technical practice and many of you may already have a digital photo backup strategy even more thorough and complex than mine. But in case you are not a techie geek – maybe you are just the person in your family who takes the most photos and is thus are more or less “in charge” of recording your family history – here are some important backup considerations for you.

With my digital photos now taking so much more space per image on my Canon EOS 7D compared to my old Canon EOS 20D, I very quickly eat up hard drive space.  A couple of years ago I stopped being able to store all my images on my MacBook Pro due to hard drive space limits. I went from keeping all images, to keeping the past 2 years on my hard drive, then only the current  year … and now I can’t even store a full year of photos on it. Aside from getting a desktop like a MacPro, I will never again be able to store all my photos on my main computer.

So, it presents a problem, in that Time Machine can no longer automatically back up my photos as they are not on my main computer. Hmm. What should I do for backups ? My initial reaction was to copy my photos manually to another drive. Two copies. One was my Mac which TimeMachine backed up, and the other was a plug-in desktop external drive. I did that for a few years. I guess I was lucky …

Three is better than Two

Always keep at least 3 backups of each image on 3 physically different drives (not partitions of the same drive), ideally with one of those backups in another physical location to the main one you use daily.

I heard from Corey Rich at photography workshop that 3 was the least number of backups to keep, based on his experience with near-misses in the past. He should know, he has shot for major magazines and made his life off of photography since he got out of school. Lucky and talented bastard. 😉

I am glad I listened, because this year I had 2 backup drives go out within a week of each other, leaving me with a single copy of all my digital photos for the past 11 years ! I could have lost them all if I had only copied the images to disk twice. Whew. Drives just do not last very long these days.


Some photographers additionally burn their files to DVD after every shoot. This is OK assuming you might only need to get those photos out again in the next year or so for your client for reprints – but DVD media, all by itself, will degrade over time. It just does. There are a lot of articles on this out there about disappearing movies etc., trust me. So absolutely 100% do not use DVD as your only photo backup type. Use hard drives as well.

In the old days of negatives, you had one original and if you had some natural disaster that affected your storage area, your entire career’s worth of negatives could be lost in the process, leaving you only with any prints you had made that were stored elsewhere. But natural disasters were rare, and you could buy water proof storage units (fires were more problematic however).

Now with digital recording media you do have a chance, if properly planned, to escape that fate entirely. But if you do not plan it properly (keep multiple copies of your backups), a hard disk error can wipe out your entire photo collection in one fell swoop.  And it is practically guaranteed that every computer hard drivewill fail within 3-5 years of heavy use – so one could say that photographers are definitely under more threat of their photos disappearing now than in the “old days” since computer hard drives fail at a much higher rate than a natural disaster would occur.


I also have switched from shooting .jpg to always shooting the much larger and richer RAW files. When I stopped shooting film professionally in 2001 and moved to France, I spent a few years between 2001-2005 shooting rather crummy (now that you look back on it) digital with a Nikon 775 because it was easy to use for casual shots and even had a screw on wide angle lens, and saving film for “special occasions” as film was very expensive to process in Europe. The file sizes were minuscule even on “large” – just around 1MB and RAW was not an option.

When I made the “final switch” in 2005 from film to digital upon purchase of my  Canon EOS 20D, replacing my beloved old EOS 1N film camera (I had 2 but had sold one already), I “wanted” to shoot this thing called RAW and knew from reading articles it was better in detail, but in practice I found shooting RAW was difficult because you had to Photoshop each image separately and that was slow. Workflow was difficult. This was back when the RAW format was relatively new and most computer programs did not even support showing it in a preview window.

So if I was shooting something I knew was really interesting I shot both RAW and .jpg, but as I was not shooting professionally anymore at that stage I often shot just .jpg to preserve card space on longer trips. The file sizes then were around 2MB for a .jpg and 8MB for a RAW CR2 file. Now, on my 7D the RAW CR2 files are close to 25MB a piece … and if I ever get my dream Canon EOS 1DX … watch out. RAW files do eat up disk space, but they are far superior to .jpg files.

RAW is of course better – you can compare the quality difference to having the original negative in film days, rather than keeping the 60-minute photo store’s print as your only copy of your image. It holds vastly more data about the image than the in-camera processed JPG file does. I now shoot only RAW … but this is because of improvements in the digital darkroom realm.

Workflow Management in Digital

I changed my mind entirely about always shooting RAW when I researched photo management software and bought Adobe Lightroom, where the RAW workflow is totally automated. Another good good product for Mac is Apple’s Aperture and it has the same features regarding RAW processing. You can read many comparisons of the two and make your decision. Be sure to compare the most recent versions of the software, as that is what you would purchase. Both offer free trial versions for about 30 days so you can use them for a bit and make your final decision. It is money well spent – I don’t know why I waited so long to try it – I had no idea how much easier these workflow tools could make my ability to produce decent images for sharing and selling.

The RAW files will be exported in whatever format you need after you do your adjustments in Lightroom, with all your changes automatically applied, no matter what size or format you are exporting. It integrates with Photoshop and other editing software if you need to do major work on the image that Lightroom does not do (retouching sections of the shot to get rid of logos for stock use etc.) and you can make a separate copy for this export so that your original is always there, just like your negatives in the old days. Again, a dream come true. If I am shooting a fast-moving sports event I can use up 3-4 16GB media cards in a day ! Now I never shoot .jpg – I just buy more CF cards for long shoots, and always always shoot RAW.

Oh … I do not recommend iPhoto as a photo management tool if you take a lot of pictures. Or care about your photos. I started to use it and thought it was really not so bad. I often still had to use Photoshop for my important images, but for those casual shots between friends it seemed just fine. Then as my hard drive got full and I wanted to move images to external drives, I had issues in iPhoto.

iPhoto could not be reset to find the photos under the new drive automatically – I had to click on every single photo individually and answer thousands of  “helpful” messages that iPhoto sent out telling me my original photos were missing whenever I would try to use them after moving the underlying folder. In Lightroom or Aperture you can redirect the software to the new folder very easily by clicking on the parent folder and pointing it to the new drive. Not so in iPhoto – each photo must be re-directed one by one. When you have thousands of images to re-direct, this is just unbearable.

Secondly, in iPhoto you stand a very good chance of accidentally losing the original photo and being stuck with only a thumbnail if you do not realise what all the import options really do in iPhoto (the descriptions of what they do are not well-worded).  Luckily this never happened to me … it *almost* happened but I still had the photos on my CF card – and I consider myself a seasoned intelligent end-user of computer software. If you decide anyhow to use iPhoto because it is included on your Mac and integrates with other iLife programs, be sure to always download your photos into a separate folder using your camera’s import software and then import them into iPhoto in a separate step, without deleting the original.

This entry was posted in Photo Tech Tip, Photography.