Complete Guide to Backing up Your Landscape Photos Securely: Part Three

Welcome back, my friends!

Here we are….the final part to my comprehensive series on how to properly (and securely) backup your photographs. In the final chapter here, I’ll be going over how I:

  • Properly backup and sync my Lightroom catalog file between my laptop and desktop.
  • Handle the backup workflow for my Photoshop (PSD)files.
  • Also backup my internal hard drives, which are equally as important….but easily forgotten!
  • Bonus Topic: What RAID storage is (and why I don’t use it).

Picking up where we left off in Part 2, I’d like to first address a concern that I am sure has crossed your mind….and something you will inevitably have to address yourself:

What I do when my hot storage external drive (that contains my working raw files) becomes full?

Earlier I had mentioned that I repurpose my hot storage external drives when they fill up. Once that drive becomes full, I “retire” that drive and turn it into cold storage for my working raw files and purchase another drive as a hot storage replacement.

However, this drive holds more than just my working raw files….it also contains a backup to my Lightroom catalog, which is essential to my photography workflow. Let me explain how all this works by giving you the bigger picture, and also highlighting the unique benefits of this system.

BACKING UP YOUR LIGHTROOM CATALOG

I’ve brought this up a few times already in this backup series, but I want to reiterate the importance here once more: you need to backup your Lightroom catalog!

The actual location of my working Lightroom catalog is on my internal hard drive and lives on my computer instead of an external drive. There are a few important reasons for this:

It allows me to sync the catalog file through Dropbox with my other computer (I’ll go over this workflow in more detail later).

Faster performance: the constant transfer of information and real-time processing requires that your catalog file be on your computer. If I was working off of an external drive, even an extremely fast one, this would greatly bottleneck my workflow.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking: this is NOT a solid backup plan! If the computer crashes, there goes the catalog file.

Thankfully, Lightroom has a fantastic feature that allows you to automatically set a backup location for your catalog file. Depending on the frequency you choose (i.e. back up each time you exit the program), Lightroom will copy over your current catalog to a secondary location.

TO SET YOUR CATALOG FILE BACKUP LOCATION….

  1. Go to Lightroom > Catalog Settings from the menu.
  2. Select the General tab.
  3. May sure “Every time Lightroom Exits” is selected from the drop-down menu.
  4. Then quit Lightroom (or close out the catalog), and a dialog box will come up asking if you want to backup your catalog file.
  5. From that window, navigate to a different location (off of your internal hard drive) by selecting the Choose icon, and then select Backup.

Now that these settings have been changed, all you would have to do is hit Backup the next time you exit Lightroom.

What works for me is to set this backup location to the same external drive as my working raw files. This offers a few unique benefits, such as:

  • Keep my catalog file in the same location as the raw files it contains so I never have to guess which catalog file I need to access my images.
  • I can easily take my external drive and plug it into any computer for complete and convenient access to my raw images and the associated catalog file.

Smart Previews are your friend when working off of external drives…

Whenever I import my raw files into the catalog, I always generate smart previews so that I am not tied to the raw files themselves (in other words, I don’t have to carry around multiple external drives with my laptop).

While smart previews can’t offer 100% image quality for precise editing (such as pixel-by-pixel work with the adjustment brush or intricate sharpening), it gives me enough leeway so I can import, organize and perform some basic raw edits without having to be connected to my actual raw files. Since I do not perform precise editing in Lightroom and save that heavy lifting for Photoshop, this is very convenient.

For more information on my Lightroom to Photoshop workflow (specifically why I only perform basic raw editing in Lightroom), click here for a separate tutorial.

HOT EXTERNAL DRIVE IS FULL? TIME FOR A NEW CATALOG!

Now here’s the best part of this backup workflow, which has saved me TONS of time hunting through hard drives while searching for a particular raw file….

When my hot storage external drive becomes full, I will create a new catalog file to go with the new external drive.

In other words, each catalog file I have directly mirrors the content to one of my external drives: nothing more, and nothing less. When that drive becomes full, I’ll retire that catalog file as well and will create a fresh catalog to go with the new drive.

Not only does this have great organizational benefits, but keeps Lightroom running smoothly and helps to prevent those annoying crashes.

Let me explain how that works.

Now I am all for having one central catalog file for all my images…..it just makes sense and takes advantage of Lightroom’s excellent Library features for easy image organization.

However, in my experience…I’ve found that extremely large catalog files tend to slow down my computer and makes Lightroom run clunky. By limiting the catalog file to the size my external drive (typically 1TB, which can hold quite a lot of photos), I’ve found a happy balance between performance and limiting the number of catalog files I have to juggle.

Another benefit to this workflow is that I can keep ALL of my working catalog files on my computer (with smart previews), which means I don’t have to sift through external drives in order to find the image I want. Smart previews are only a small fraction of the size of my raw files, so this will not affect the performance of my computer and clog up my internal hard drive.

To make my workflow super easy and convenient, and prevent any future headaches….I will add a keyword during import that tells me which external drive the working raw file is located. If later on, I decided to combine catalog files or switch images between them, I know exactly which external drive those raw files are located.

This is a fantastic way to future-proof your backup workflow. As computers become faster and external drives (hopefully) more reliable, I can combine catalog files and external drives later on without having to guess where those master files are housed.

SYNCING LIGHTROOM CATALOG WITH DROPBOX

Once you have Dropbox installed and running on all computers, it’s pretty easy to sync up your catalog file between all of them.

NOTE: If you’re a subscriber to the Adobe CC plan, this will only work between two computers since you are only allowed to have Lightroom installed on two simultaneously.

IMPORTANT! Before moving your catalog file to Dropbox, make sure to have a backup of your catalog file created…and also put a copy of your catalog file somewhere else for safe-keeping, just in case.

This first step is to move your catalog file to the Dropbox folder by following the instructions here, under Copy or Move a Catalog:

https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom/help/create-catalogs.html

Once your catalog has been moved to Dropbox, it will be instantly sent to the other computer. This allows you to share your catalog file so changes you make on one computer will be pushed over to another, and the process is totally automatic. You’re essentially sharing the same “brain” here.

You probably want your presets to be synchronized along with the catalog so that you can use the same workflow across both computers running Lightroom, so here’s how to do that:

Go to Edit > Preferences > Presets and tick the box “Store Presets With This Catalog”. Make sure to do this AFTER you open the catalog from the new location (inside of your Dropbox folder).

IMPORTANT TIP WHEN SWITCHING BETWEEN COMPUTERS…

Do NOT have Lightroom open on two devices at once, this will cause a syncing conflict as Lightroom will not know which computer to listen to. While this is not the end of the world, Lightroom will get confused and create another catalog file for you…which means you’ll have to merge them together and figure out what changes you made in the interim, and it just gets messy real quick.

In other words, you can’t share the brain (the catalog file) between two computers at once…so always make sure that before you open up Lightroom on one computer, that it is closed out on the other.

You’ll also need to give Dropbox adequate time to push big changes to your catalog/smart previews to all computers…which can vary greatly depending on the amount of images you’ve imported and your syncing speed.

SPEAKING OF SMART PREVIEWS…

Make sure that smart previews are rendered during import (or you can build them for existing photos), and you’ll need these for when you’re working on your laptop (unless you want to be tied to your external drive all the time). Otherwise, you’re going to get exclamation points and question marks and all sorts of warnings because you’re not connected to your actual raw files.

Smart previews work well enough to perform that initial raw editing and Library module work, but they do not offer true 1:1 rendering for detailed work. However, you would probably save that intense processing for your desktop so that’s not much of a loss….and an easy trade-off for being able to switch between computers with ease.

Dropbox is limited in storage size for the free account, so you’ll have to upgrade to a paying account at some point in order to take advantage of catalog syncing.

Remember: this is live syncing, so what you delete from the catalog file on one computer will be deleted from all computers! However, this shouldn’t be a problem if you have your backups in order.

BACKING UP MY PHOTOSHOP FILES

Photoshop is where I truly create and can easily spend hours working on one photo…so it’s extremely important for me to backup my PSD files properly.

The file size of my PSD files can grow massively, so I place them on the same hot storage external drive as my working raw images (which has fantastic read/write speeds being an SSD drive).

This also helps with file organization since one external drive has all of the files that I’ve used to create my final images: the master (working) raw files, associated Lightroom catalog, and the PSD file. I can easily pop this drive into any computer and have full creative freedom to all of my photos….without having to hunt through external drives to find a missing file.

In other words, each external drive is their own ecosystem….keeping my workflow cohesive and saving me a lot of time if I ever have to find an old photo.

This workflow also helps tremendously if I am using linked smart objects since all of the source files are in one location. If I were to simply move the PSD file without the source files, my processing capabilities would be severely limited.

When I’m done processing a photo in Photoshop, I rarely have to revisit it. So when finished, I copy it over to Dropbox for online cold storage (via the website and NOT synced across all computers….because those 2GB+ files would eat up my internal hard drives fast).

I also have a dedicated external drive just for PSD files that I will place it on as an extra backup….and also serves as a convenient place where I store all of my PSDs.

Usually, I am working with linked smart objects…which means that the Photoshop file itself does not have all of the necessary sources files (the working raw images) so I can process the image independently.

In other words, if I decide to copy over just the PSD file to another drive or computer, those raw files won’t come with it since they are simply “linked”, not embedded into the PSD file itself. The link has been broken from the source files.

While linked smart objects provide an abundance of benefits (which I go over in my lifetime membership courses), this is a limitation which needs to be taken into consideration during backups. If you don’t know where to find your source files, it can be extremely hard to reestablish this connection in the event of a backup failure.

Thankfully with Photoshop, you can package your source files up with the PSD file if you’re using linked smart objects.

There’s a small increase in file size, but well worth the added convenience of keeping everything I need in one location.

HOW TO PACKAGE LINKED SMART OBJECTS

Choose File > Package.

Select the backup location where you want to place your source files and a copy of the Photoshop document.

NOTE: You must save a file before packaging the Linked Smart Objects that it contains.

What I do is first save the PSD to my hot storage external drive (the one with all my working raw files), then package it up to my Dropbox account (cold storage) and my PSD external drive.

DONT FORGET ABOUT INTERNAL BACKUPS!

The final part of my backup workflow is to make sure that internal hard drives and my operating system are backed up properly. While you can certainly recover from a computer crash if you have a lot of time on your hands, it’s a LOT easier and faster to restore from an external drive than starting over fresh.

You’ll want an active backup program that continuously creates “restore points” that you can revert back to in the event of a computer crash or any other change to your internal hard drive that you want to undo (such as a virus that slows down your computer or accidentally deleting a file).

Ideally, you’ll want to place your restore points off of your internal drive in case you can’t recover from a hard drive crash or your computer otherwise becomes compromised.

This also serves as a way to restore your computer environment on a new one in case your computer is completely unrecoverable…or it simply makes it easy to switch over to a new computer when you decide to upgrade your hardware.

For me, this also serves as a backup to my non-photography related files, as well as a hard disk copy of my local Dropbox folder (that includes my catalog files).

My backup workflow requires two tools: an external drive to store the data, and a program to initiate the transfer and create routine backups automatically. Since I work on Macs, I’ve invested in a Time Capsule which wirelessly connects to all my computers (through the Time Machine program) to create my internal disk backups. Very easy, wireless, and automatic.

For Windows users, you can achieve the same setup through any wireless external drive and a program that creates your backups in the background, such as Genie Timeline….which lets you choose which folders to backup (saving you space) and will also save an older version of your files (for a certain period of time) in case of an accidental deletion….sleek and effortless.

LET’S RECAP MY BACKUP WORKFLOW…

I know this has been a LOT to read through and has probably been quite a bore really….so kudos to you for making it to the end. I hope this series has demystified the world of backups a bit, leaving you with more time to enjoy photography instead of worrying about what would happen to your precious photos if your computer suddenly crashed.

Here’s a quick overview of my backup workflow, which is actually quite simple once you know the process:

  1. Images are copied over from my camera card to three external drives (one at a time): my “hot storage” for working files, and two “cold storage” drives for backups.
  2. The very same files are then uploaded to my Dropbox account to an unsynced folder (meaning the images are not sent to my internal computer hard drives) for off-site, cold storage.
  3. My Lightroom catalog is located on my internal hard drive, inside of my synced Dropbox folder. This also acts as a backup source in case of a computer crash; I have an up-to-date copy of my catalog file on my other computer and on my Time Capsule. I’ve also set my catalog to routinely backup to the associated hot storage external drive.
  4. Working Photoshop files are placed on the related hot storage external drive, with backups uploaded to my Dropbox account (unsynced, cold storage folder) and an additional external drive that is only for PSD files.
  5. And finally, my computer hard drives are backed up through Time Machine (the backup program) and placed onto my Time Capsule (wireless external drive).

On a final note….I’d like to quickly discuss RAID storage and explain why I’ve chosen not to use it. If you’ve researched how to properly backup your photos, then you probably come across the term “RAID” a few times….so let me explain how this works.

WHAT IS RAID STORAGE?

RAID stands for a Redundant Array of Independent Disks and is basically a house that your backup drives are stored in. Depending on what level of RAID storage you have, your data will be dispersed amongst these drives in different ways.

It’s the next level above having just a bunch of random external drives connected to your computer (the JBOD method), with unique benefits and drawbacks.

A RAID system comes in two parts: the housing that the actual drives are plugged into (a RAID controller), and the individual drives themselves. The RAID “house” will connect to your computer, and the drives will connect to your RAID device. Some RAID systems will allow you to mix and match drives so you can easily swap out a faulty one or upgrade it without disturbing the others.

There are different levels of RAID, most commonly 0, 1, 5, and 6….and the higher the number, the more secure the backup.

RAID 0 is basically combining all of your drives into one big drive, and your data is dispersed amongst them all. If you have eight 1TB drives plugged into the RAID controller, you’ll instantly have one 8TB drive. Sounds good at first….but in reality, this is a horrible backup system.

Since your data is randomly dispersed amongst multiple drives, if just one fails (and drives DO fail eventually) all of your information is lost…..just like what would happen if you had all your data stored on just one 8TB drive. You’re actually better off with just external drives here since if one of your drives fail, it does not affect the others.

RAID 0 may be convenient for working files that are already backed up, but definitely not as your sole backup source.

RAID 1 is a bit more secure. It will split up your drives into two separate storage areas, with one side mirroring the other…so in other words, an instant backup to your backup.

For example, if you have eight 1TB drives, you will now have TWO 4 TB “drives” with RAID 1 storage where the data in one area is an exact copy of the other…and both copies remain in total sync with one another. If a file changes one one side, it’s sent over to the other automatically.

In theory, this is good setup….two identical backup copies, right? However, when you start to go through all of the different scenarios where your backups fail, the flaws become obvious.

Remember how important I said it was to have isolated backups? Since both storage areas are synced automatically with RAID 1, if you mistakenly delete a file or it becomes corrupt, those changes are pushed over to the other copy.

Also, “hot swapping” is (almost) never possible with RAID 1 (meaning that when a drive fails, you can just swap it out with a fresh drive). This means that you’ll need to move all of your data into a temporary location while you replace the faulty drive….which is not only a precarious situation to be in, but is highly inconvenient when moving large volumes of data.

RAID 5 is a much better solution for photo backups since you can hot-swap drives. When one drive fails, you can switch it out without having to power down your RAID system and move the files to a temporary holding area.

However! This robust setup introduces additional risks (as well as being quite expensive). First, it can take a LONG time to rebuild a failed drive….so if another drive fails in the rebuilding process (it’s uncommon, but it does happen) you will lose everything.

RAID 6 aims to mitigate this risk by allowing you to lose TWO drives at once instead of just one, which means that there is a very small chance of losing all your data during a rebuild.

However, this can be a VERY costly system….and is (in my opinion) an unnecessary and overpowered expense for the type of backup I require.

NOW HERE’S WHY I DON’T USE RAID…

The added functionality of RAID storage also comes with additional risks….and they are not risks I find worthy of the benefits.

If your RAID controller dies, there is a chance you could lose all of your drives. It’s a big single point of failure that I’m not comfortable with (especially when you factor in the cost of a reliable RAID system).

I would much rather settle for my JBOD system (Just a Bunch Of Disks) which is a bit messy, but reliable and easier to manage….and allows me to keep files isolated to avoid the single point of failure.

Don’t get me wrong, RAID storage is a good system if you know what you’re doing….if you’re aware of the risks and have determined that the benefits of RAID are worth it for your particular workflow.

However – AND THIS IMPORTANT – what I see are many photographers who jump into a RAID storage system simply because it was recommended, and don’t truly understand WHY they are using RAID as opposed to external drives alone.

RAID storage is probably a necessity if you’re in business-to-consumer photography (i.e. weddings, portraits, etc.) where sophisticated file security for your clients is of the utmost importance…but for me and my landscape photography, not so much.

There are other reasons why I’m sticking with my JBOD system, such as:

RAID is just too complicated for me. I am not an IT person and am doubtful of my abilities to successfully manage a RAID system. I’m not equipped to spend days researching potential problems and would have absolutely no idea what to do in the event of a RAID storage failure.

RAID system reviews are conflicting, to say the least. It’s an expensive investment and not one that I would take lightly. If an external drive fails, I know how to deal with it…..buy a new one, copy the files over, and send the old one off for warranty replacement or refund….and move on with my life.

However, if a RAID system fails and it’s not related to the hard drives inside….I’m pretty much paralyzed until the issue is sorted.

External drives are easily scalable as well….when you run out of room, you simply purchase an additional drive. I don’t have to worry about outgrowing my RAID storage system or the added expense of replacing the hardware when it fails. I can easily switch my external drives to a new computer without complications….and easily mobilize my entire library of images and access them from any computer. I like it simple.

If you’re comfortable with RAID storage and can manage the potential problems that come with it….then, by all means, go for it.

However, for the purpose of my photography, I don’t want to significantly complicate my backup workflow….and the benefits of RAID do not justify the added cost and inconvenience. For my particular backup needs, I can not recommend going down this path…especially if RAID storage is unfamiliar to you.

I’m most comfortable with the JBOD system and have refined it over the years to settle on a happy balance that gives me ample file security and is not overly-complicated or time-consuming.

There you have it! I hope these articles have given you some ideas to think about when developing your own backup workflow. I am not saying that my system is the best or the most secure, but it works well enough for my needs…and has saved me from a few catastrophic failures.

UPDATE: The 5DayDeal Complete Photography Bundle is coming Friday, October 13th!

One thing I have noticed over the years is that many photographers overlook (or are simply unaware of) the best tools and features of their gear….things that were specifically designed to make photography easier and more fun.

It could be a simple change in your polarizer that gives you vibrant colors, or a Photoshop shortcut that trims 10 minutes off of your processing workflow….

If you don’t have a professional there to show you the best way to get the results you want…then this lack of knowledge leads to frustration and overwhelm, and puts a damper on a hobby that is supposed to bring you enjoyment.

Trust me on this….I’ve been teaching landscape photography since 2010, and I’ve literally answered thousands of questions (yes, I’ve kept count). So I know the challenges that photographers face.

Almost every single problem was solved with a missing bit of knowledge…..and was NOT caused by a limitation of their gear.

Photographers can be quick to blame their difficulties on the poor performance of their lens or camera, or that Photoshop “isn’t working right”….

But the truth of the matter is that whether your challenge is in the field or in the darkroom, it most likely can be solved by knowing how to use your tools a little bit better.

Think about it this way: why purchase such fantastic programs like Photoshop or Lightroom….or expensive lenses and tripods….if you don’t know how to use them properly?

This is why I am such a strong advocate for the 5DayDeal Complete Photography Bundle….because it does two amazing things for you:

1. Gives you the knowledge and confidence to overcome any kind of photography challenge thrown your way.
2. Saves you a ridiculous amount of money in the process.

Knowledge is the best investment you can make for your photography….not more gear. 

I’ve always been a firm believer of this mantra….and time and time again, it proves to be true.

This is what makers the 5DayDeal Bundle such a no-brainer investment….as you’ll only be paying pennies on the dollar for some of the best education money can buy.

You don’t have to take my word for it though:

“I look forward to this sale every year and I’m never disappointed. It is hands down the best value in photography period. My skill level has constantly seen a dramatic jump after each year’s offering. No matter what your skill level, no matter what type of photography you’re into, there is so much incredible knowledge to consume from the top minds in the industry it’s simply mind blowing how insane of a good deal this is.” – Gage Salyards

And I can not wait to show you what is in the bundle this year…..because it is an absolute dream for landscape photographers!

But first, we have the $10,000 Photography Giveaway coming up….

In typical 5DayDeal fashion, we’re kicking off the celebrations early with our annual giveaway….where you can win some incredible gear.

You’ll definitely regret it if you miss this opportunity to throw your name into the hat….so make sure to keep an eye out for another email from me when the contest opens!

Thanks for joining me for this series on backing up your photos. And remember: if you have ANY questions, just hit that reply button!

I’ll be back in a few days with more details when the giveaway starts…..
Chris

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10 Comments on "Complete Guide to Backing up Your Landscape Photos Securely: Part Three"

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Okay.. let’s see. First, raid isn’t hard if you buy a packaged solution. More expensive? Sure. (I bought four disks at the same time, so it is more expensive. How much are your photos worth? )I bought a ReadyNas, with 4 1T drives in it, way back when. When it got full, I bought four more 2T drives, and replaced them one by one over a couple of days. Then rebooted to have the new space available. That’s all, just rebooted. I just did it again last week, with 4T drives. Much easier than having to sort through individual drives.… Read more »
Thank you for your tip about storing the LR catalog with each external drive to more easily access your files. This has been the missing piece for me. I am a backup freak. My search for the perfect backup system has led to multiple full drives with the result being frustration in accessing the drive with LR. Round and round I go trying to find the missing link or the missing raw photo. Until now-so I shall immediately go fix the fatal flaw in my organizational system. I will come up for air in a few days. 😉

I have a question for Jason Winters
Did the ReadyNAS that you bought have all of the software for the setup you describe, and did it include the drive -failure detection feature?

Yes, it did. The drive failing detection is part of the operating system that it uses (linux under the hood), as it reads the disk drive status periodically for errors. The setup isn’t really much of a setup; open a web page, tell it you want one “share” and hit go. If nothing else, tech support will walk you through it. It comes with dual gigabit ethernet interfaces; so you’ll need to plug it into your network (whatever it is, i.e, your router you have somewhere). That’s about it. 15 minute setup, even if you don’t know what you’re doing!… Read more »

Which model did you select? There are a plethora of 4 bay drives made by Netgear.

We probably should not hijack this thread anymore. In any event, pick the one that fits your budget, and does RaidX. I have a rack mount that they haven’t made in years; that’s how long they last. :}
Cheers!

Jason

Very useful info here Chris! Especially the catalog stored with each full disk. Definitely something I’ll be doing. Thanks too for the reminder in the last lesson about importing to external disk first, then from that to LR.

Hi Chris, thanks for the very thorough writeup! I was happy to see that I am allay doing most of what you suggest. I just had a question about the cloud storage with Dropbox. I am on their ‘individual standard plan’ which offer 1TB of data (which I am now using for my LR catalogue after this article!) The problem I have is that all of my RAW files take up ~4TB so far. I get that out are making a new catalogue every 1TB, but can you clarify how you backup ALL of your RAW files in the cloud?… Read more »
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