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My full backup strategy

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There are few things more important in digital photography than having a serious backup system, as our image files are our most precious treasures. As the saying goes, the question is not whether you will ever lose data but when it is going to happen. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to design a backup strategy that is robust, scalable and not too time-consuming, and many people end up procrastinating this daunting task, copying a bunch of files to a random hard drive every now and then but never really protecting their whole image collection.

In the hopes of helping you design your own system, here’s what I’ve come up with over the years. It comes from my latest ebook, the Workflow Book, which discusses backup (and a lot of other things) in much more detail, but this should be a good starting point.

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  • The initial backup happens during import, either in Photo Mechanic or Lightroom, using their “make a second copy” feature. The second copy is to a 2.5” 1TB USB external drive. It is the only use I have for it, and it gets stored in a cupboard at home. I don’t ever delete from it, just swap it with a new one when it’s full. Once the import is complete, cards are formatted since there are now two copies of the files. The primary files are copied to a RAID 5 NAS with 5TB of storage, my main working drive.
  • Once I am done editing, processing and captioning, all finished images (labeled green in Lightroom) are exported to two special folders on the NAS, called respectively “raw backup” and “finished backup”. DNG files go in the first, and TIFF to the second. Those folders are watched by the Crashplan daemon, which starts backing them up to the cloud in the background, when I am not using my connection for something else. It should be noted that this doesn’t have anything to do with the “Published” folders we discussed in the previous chapters: this is purely for backup.

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Crashplan’s interface, showing what I chose to backup over the cloud: “bmc” is a full copy of my webserver, Dropbox contains all my business documents, “pub” has all my published images since 2005, both in low and high resolution, “high-res backup” is a secondary copy of the published high-res on the NAS and “raw backup” contains the raw files for all my selects.

  • The Lightroom catalog lives on the hard drive of my iMac and is backed up weekly to the NAS via a shell script (for less geeky photographers, you can achieve the same result with Automator and iCal). My Dropbox folder, which contains all my business documents, is copied at the same time. And the target folders on the NAS are also watched by Crashplan, which means there are always three to four copies in existence (iMac hard drive, NAS, Crashplan servers, possibly Dropbox folders), never more than a week old.
  • Every time I visit my family in Lyon, a few hundred kilometers apart, or every time a family member comes here to ski or hike, I have them swap two 2TB drives with my images from the previous 12 months. I have a copy at home that I write all my files to, and as soon as I receive the old drive, I update it with the latest images. This is my main offsite backup, and given how popular trips to Chamonix are, it is rare to go more than a couple of months without updating the offsite drive.
  • Every year, usually around Christmas, when visiting in Lyon, I retire one of the swapping drives to contain my files for that year and buy a new drive for the dance to continue. I also do a quick check of all the old drives to see that they are still in good shape, and when the first one reaches five years of age, I plan on copying its contents to a new drive as well. This means that old images are at least in two locations, the NAS and the off-site drives in Lyon, with high value images in a third: the cloud.

You can read more about file management, workflow and backup in my latest ebook by Craft and Vision, The Workflow Book.

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7 thoughts on “My full backup strategy

  1. Alexandre Buisse says:

    @Joshua: it’s almost exactly the same as Crashplan, and as great as cloud services are, they can’t do it all and need to be complemented with “traditional” backup solutions as well.

  2. Mark Ivkovic says:

    Hi Alexandre,

    This is one of the more “sound” and thought out back up plans I’ve read recently. It seems you have most of your bases covered although perhaps with a little redundancy. I have a couple of questions if you’d be so kind as to share.
    Firstly are you able to put an approximate yearly cost on this back up? Such as new drives/cloud subscriptions/crash plan subscription etc.

    Secondly, do you believe that this workflow is exponentially scaleable? Such as in 10 years time when your catalogue is most probably 100+ times larger (due to increased file sizes from larger sensors etc. and also from the number of images you hold).

    Interesting post especially after reading Daniels thoughts recently – http://www.smogranch.com/2014/05/21

  3. Alexandre Buisse says:

    @Mark: around 200€/year (Crashplan is $60, the rest in hard drives). I believe it’s scalable as long as hard drive capacity keeps growing at roughly the same rate as file size and total image number, which seems to be the case at the moment.

  4. Hi Alex – thanks for this post. Already a Crashplan user and a recent iMac owner so your article resonated with me. I’m looking to get a solid backup system setup – maybe with NAS or possibly just external drives at this early stage until finances allow me to expand my studio setup. In addition to the NAS and crashplan backing up you mention – do you also backup your OS/iMac HDD with Time Machine or other method? Thanks, Pete.

      • Thanks Alex.
        I’m just refining my process right now. I wondered for your finished backup TIFFs – do you store in their 16 bit format – or since all processing is complete save in 8 bit format – in the interest of keeping file sizes down? Also wondered – for the TIFFs (high res backup) do you save with all print sharpening (lightroom output sharpening) applied or leave that off so that you have flexibility in terms of printing different sizes / papers as and when required?

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