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

Welcome back to my three-part series on how to properly (and securely) backup your precious raw files! In Part 2 here, I’ll be showing you the exact backup workflow I use for my own landscape photographs. This is a method that has evolved with me over the years, and I hope that it will help you strengthen your own photo backups and protect yourself from a catastrophic loss.

Let’s get right to it!

BACKING UP YOUR RAW FILES

The overall goal here is to copy over your original raw files from your camera card to at least two (2) external drives as soon as possible for “cold” storage, and then onto an additional external drive for your working files…also known as “hot” storage.

This will ensure that your original raw files straight from the camera remain isolated and intact while giving you another copy for your post-processing work.

NOTE: For further reading on why it’s important to preserve your original raw files and isolate them from any post processing changes, make sure to read Part 1 here.

Now three external drives may initially seem excessive, especially for a non-professional….but (1) storage is a LOT cheaper now than it was years ago, and (2) with the backup workflow I’m about to show you, I repurpose my “hot” storage as cold storage when it fills up.

Before we get started, first let me explain the difference between hot and cold storage as they each serve a unique purpose.

It’s pretty simple. When talking about photo backups, “cold storage” refers to images that you place into storage (whether your media is an external drive, cloud, etc.) that will NOT be accessed frequently.

Think of original, signed documents that you’ve tucked away safely somewhere. Usually, you distribute copies but very rarely have to access the originals….cold storage works a lot like that.

This means that slower, older and/or cheaper external drives can be used without any drawback since you would only need to access these files on occasion.

“Hot storage”, as you’ve probably guessed, is where you store the raw files that you use frequently…in other words, your working raw files that you import into Lightroom and use for your Photoshop creations. External drives with fast read/write speeds (preferably an SSD – solid-state drive) will save you lots of time here since you’ll be constantly accessing these images.

A QUICK NOTE ABOUT DNG FORMAT: It’s important to make copies of the original, unadulterated raw files from your memory card BEFORE any conversion to DNG format. Personally, I don’t recommend converting to DNG for reasons outlined in the lifetime membership course (most notably for the increased risk of file corruption). However, if you do decide to convert to DNG format….make sure to do so AFTER you’ve made at least three (3) copies of the original raw files and follow the 3-2-1- rule.

Here’s how my typical import workflow goes: I plug my camera directly into my iMac desktop and transfer my recent shoot onto my three external drives, one at a time: my two cold storage backups, and my hot storage hard drive.

I could transfer my photos onto all three drives at once…but in my experience, there is a greater chance of file corruption, so I’d rather transfer my photos to one drive at a time.

Previously I used to use Lightroom to import my images off of my camera and add them to my catalog file simultaneously (complete two tasks at once), but I’ve stopped doing that since this also can increase your risk of file corruption during the transfer. I’ve found it better to import onto your hard drives first outside of Lightroom, and then import those images into your Lightroom catalog straight from your external drive.

My external drive folder system is date-based and I have no plans to change this. I’ve experimented with other folder hierarchies, but anything other than date or location-based systems always seem to overcomplicate the folder structure and is simply unnecessary when I have Lightroom to organize my images for me.

I use Lightroom to obtain a highly-refined organizational system using collections, keywords, EXIF data, etc., so developing a convoluted folder-based system is a waste of my time…and my date-based folder structure has never presented me with a problem. Of course, feel free to do what you please with your folders.

My hot storage external drive, which is used to store the raw files that I use to process my images, is a 1TB SSD drive transferring through a Thunderbolt 3 connection. It’s an expensive investment compared to other drives, but the EXTREMELY fast read/write speeds are perfect for constant file access.

When you access raw files that are off of your internal hard drive, it can be a major bottleneck in your workflow as transfer speeds can be painfully slow….so for me, it’s well worth the extra investment here to have smooth post-processing experience.

WHY DO I KEEP RAWS OFF OF MY INTERNAL HARD DRIVE?

At this point you may be wondering….if accessing files on an external hard drive can be slow, why not just work from your internal hard drive?

It’s a good idea to NOT use your computer’s internal hard drive to store your raw files for a few good reasons:

  1. Internal drives are not meant for long term, high volume storage. Your computer will fill up very quickly with photos (especially in the future as raw files become larger and more landscape photographers delve into video production). You’ll eventually need to purchase an external drive anyways to catch the overflow, so might as well get into the practice of backing up your photos the right way.
  2.  MAJOR performance issues on your computer. When your internal hard drive fills up, it can greatly slow down your computer’s performance…especially for resource-intensive programs like Lightroom and Photoshop. By keeping your vast library of raw files off of your computer, you’ll keep your photo processing workflow running smooth.
  3. Portability. If you need to access your working, hot storage raw images (the source files) from another computer, it’s quite easy to plug in an external drive vs. transferring them off of your computer.
  4. If you’re copying your images to two cold storage external drives and one hot storage external drive, it’s redundant to also keep them on your internal hard drive.

A FEW TIPS WHEN BUYING AN EXTERNAL DRIVE:

Buy drives from different vendors/batches/manufacturers. This will help reduce the risk of a bad drive since bad drives are usually from the same batch.

Check the warranty of a hard disk. 3-5 years is good, less means that the manufacturer does not believe it will last that long.

Personally, I do not buy external drives larger than 1TB. Drives with large storage capacity (2TB or more) tend to have a higher risk of failing (not to mention that you’ll lose more photos if one of these fail), so I keep it 1TB.

At this point, I’m off to a good start. I’ve got three copies of my raw files, which partially fulfills the 3-2-1 backup rule. However, the “single point of failure” is still a big risk here since all my externals are in the same location AND I am using the same media (external drives).

The next step in my backup workflow is to upload my original raw files to Dropbox for off-site (cloud) cold storage. This takes care of both remaining guidelines in the 3-2-1 backup rule: two different medias, with one being off-site.

HOW I USE DROPBOX TO STORE MY RAW FILES

Dropbox works in two different ways. The first feature, which you’re probably most familiar with, is cloud storage that is synced across all of your devices (like iCloud, Google Drive, etc.). Dropbox will place a special folder onto any computer you choose, and the contents of this folder are shared amongst them all.

For example, if you place a photo into your Dropbox folder from your desktop computer, it’s instantly sent to the Dropbox folder on all computers you have connected to the service. This active syncing is extremely handy when you’re working on the same file amongst multiple computers….and later on, I’ll be showing you how I use this feature to sync my Lightroom catalog between my laptop and desktop.

While file syncing is great for convenience purposes, it’s not so good backing up your photos (as explained in the last article).

Thankfully, Dropbox allows you to selectively sync certain parts of your Dropbox folder, effectively blocking files from being sent to all your devices. Instead, they are simply stored in the cloud and are isolated from any files changes you make.

This is how I bypass Dropbox’s active syncing: instead of placing a copy of my raw files inside of the Dropbox folder on my computer, I’ve created a cold storage folder (named Raw Files) in Dropbox and have turned off syncing for this folder on all of my devices.

In other words, the files I place into this cold storage folder will only be present in the cloud and NOT on my computer.

I’ll then navigate to this folder via the Dropbox website and upload all of my new raw files for off-site cloud storage.

So now, thanks to Dropbox, I have off-site cloud storage in the event that my external drives fail for whatever reason (lost, stolen, destroyed, etc). It’s given me much peace of mind that I can access all of my photos from any computer in the world.

The best part to this workflow is that if I ever do lose all of my external drives, it’s quite easy to download my original raw files from Dropbox and transfer them off to a new external drive. All I have to do is simply go into the Dropbox app on my computer and check the folder(s) I want to restore, and Dropbox will start to transfer those files to my computer automatically.

Depending on the size, this could take days (or even a week or two), but it runs entirely in the background.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is my off-site “emergency switch” for backups in the event of a catastrophic event, such as a house fire or theft. I’ve never had to use it (knock on wood), but it’s my Plan C…. it is not meant to be routinely accessed since this can be painfully slow to download large volumes of images.

I also want to reiterate that this Dropbox folder is COLD storage, meaning that no live syncing is taking place for my raw images. If I were to sync this folder amongst all my computers and use these raw images as my working files, I run a huge risk of accidentally deleting these images and/or having a corrupt raw file transferred to the cloud to be spread to all locations….which defeats the purpose of a backup. As I’ve already gone over, having isolated backups is crucial for total protection.

Now the initial upload through the Dropbox website was a chore. I had trouble uploading large amounts of photos without errors, so I had to do it in batches of 200-300 photos at once….and sometimes I would forget to go and initiate a new batch to upload, so it took about a week to upload my complete collection of photos to Dropbox. It’s not ideal….but now that it’s done, I never have to do it again as long as I remain a Dropbox customer, and I have a solid backup to my backups.

And for me, this service is entirely free since I’ve already subscribed to Dropbox for other reasons, such as:

  • Syncing my Lightroom catalog across my desktop and laptop, and also the many other files that I routinely have to access.
  • The convenience of downloading Dropbox files to any computer in the world through the website. Think of being on vacation and needing a copy of an important document that you left at home on your laptop.
  • Easily sharing important files with others that can be updated instantly, which makes for cleaner collaboration on projects…especially when compared to the old way of attaching documents to emails.

WHY DON’T YOU MAKE A COPY YOUR WORKING RAW FILES?

I could if I wanted to, but it’s redundant since I use Lightroom and Photoshop to process my images. If an image file becomes corrupted, I simply switch out that bad raw file with a fresh copy from my cold storage drives, making sure to relink the file in Lightroom if necessary.

If I’m working in Photoshop, it’s easy to swap out the raw file since my workflow here is entirely non-destructive using smart objects…..meaning that any pixel based changes I have made are not fused to the raw file itself, so swapping the image out will not affect the final result.

So let’s quickly recap my raw file backup strategy:

  1. As soon as I get home, I copy over my raw files from my camera to my two “cold storage” external drives, one at a time.
  2. I then copy over the same raw files onto my faster “hot storage” external drive. These photos are to be imported into Lightroom and used to create my Photoshop files.
  3. When that’s done, I log into my Dropbox account via the website and copy over my raw files into an un-synced folder for off-site storage in the cloud.

This all may sound like a convoluted process, but it’s actually quite simple and takes all of perhaps 10-20 minutes for each shoot….and the majority of that time is waiting for files to copy over (giving me time to do something else). A small investment to ensure that my once-in-a-lifetime raw files are backed up properly….and that my backups are backed up as well.

GREAT! BUT HOW DO I BACKUP MY PHOTOS ON THE ROAD?

I had mentioned earlier that your first “single point of failure” is your memory card as soon as you press the shutter. Until you’re at home and can execute your backup strategy, your raw files are in a very precarious position. This is especially true for landscape photographers who often travel for weeks on end with once-in-a-lifetime shots before returning home.

This is where the Lightroom CC app comes in to help since you can transfer your raw files directly from your memory card to your phone or tablet, and have them automatically sync to the Adobe cloud (and also back home to Lightroom Classic). This computer-less workflow works fantastic for many photographers, and is something I outline in my membership program courses.

Any questions? Sometimes all it takes for you to comprehend a new skill is someone explaining it in a different way….so feel free to comment below if you need me to clarify anything here.

14 thoughts on “Complete Guide to Backing up Your Landscape Photos Securely: Part Two”

  1. Hmm… It looks like on your internal disk argument, you are expecting to use the same disk for system files as data files. Then your argument holds true; as your system disk fills up with programs and data, your computer performance slows down. However, adding a dedicated data disk for images (catalog and raws), does not impact your system at all.

    Your comments about being able to take your hot disk with you is well thought out when you do editing externally to your main system (I rarely do that, but sometimes..). However, setting up a sync between your main system and your portable drive (you aren’t editing on BOTH systems at the same time, are you?) negates that, and leaves you with the higher speed of the internal drive set. Now you simply plug in your external drive and sync out, when you get back (if you made changes), plug it in and sync in. The only difference between having your external disk is that it’s a dual step sync; once out, once in.

    1. Very good points Jason! Are you referring to partitioning your internal hard drive? Personally, I wouldn’t recommend that since it is not easily scalable and I would rather deal with an external drive vs. having to upgrade my internal hard drive or dealing with multiple internal drives….I’m just not comfortable doing it. For an IT person though this would be a lot easier to manage and would probably be preferred.

      If I were to house my raws on my internal drive then I could sync it to an external drive…but there’s really no need to since I have my original raws in two other locations.

      1. Hi Christopher, your view is that of an imac user with just one internal hard drive. From that point of view it’s probably best to work with an external hard drive. If you are using a windows desktop pc like me (and Jason I guess) you just plug in an extra internal hard drive within your tower (no need to partition your system drive). Same outcome in the end, raws stay off system drive.

        1. Absolutely Kai, if you have a tower and do not plan to edit on another device….then there are better options than working directly off of an external drive. Even if I had a tower though I would still use an external SSD to work from since I frequently go between my laptop and desktop (unless I also sync from my internal to an external drive…..but that can get convoluted if I forget to update my internal drive with any changes to my external).

          The point is to make sure your growing library of images is separate from where your system data is….as long as that’s taken care of, you’ll be good to go. Thanks for chiming in!

      2. Hey Chris,
        No, I’m not talking about partitioning your system drive. :}

        I’m talking about adding a second (set) of drives on the internal controller. The reason for this is both speed and recoverability without having to return to backups. Working with an external drive is much slower than using an internal disk. The bandwidth available is often much slower, which would impact my work flow. With internal disks dedicated to my images, it makes it very easy to make a pair of hot backups for the incedential errors (deleted a working image? No problem sync that one back from the hot backup and continue). Then cold backup is just that; catastrophic failure or massive failure of data.
        I have yet to learn why you hate raid systems, so I’ll just say that my internal (and one of my external) drives are raid5 systems. Heck, even my system drive is raid0 (mirroring).

        Cheers!

        1. Fantastic, thanks for sharing this Jason. I’m limited with my iMac but your setup sounds quite nice. I don’t hate RAID, just not comfortable with the risks involved and very little benefit for my personal workflow….would rather invest that money into SSD external drives. Part three of this series is already up if you care to take a look, I explain at the end my reasonings for not using RAID: https://creativeraw.com/secure-backup-photos-landscape-three/

  2. Hi Christopher,
    Thanks for your timely discussion on backing up. A few questions; you mentioned that you don’t like to use external drives larger that 1TB due to the higher failure rate of larger drives. Is that a proven fact?
    As the quantity of my photos has grown coupled with rising camera resolution, I have had to go beyond this and now have them stored on 6TB drives configured as Raid 1 (mirroring) i.e. 3TB effectively. I see that you are rather against Raid 1 drives, why is that please.
    Finally, when you said that you should first make copies of the original RAW images from your cards for “cold storage”, do you just copy the images and the file name your camera gives each one, like DSC_4231, or do you rename them using Lightroom?
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Bernard – if you have already bought a 6TB drive then I would not worry about it. There is a slightly increased risk of failure simply because it’s a larger drive and more opportunities for failure as one bad part can corrupt the entire drive (so more parts = increased risk). It’s only slight though.

      The bigger issue is what happens when the drive fails….more data is lost on a 6TB drive, and will take much longer to restore than a 1TB. Price is another issue as well; sometimes it is cheaper to purchase six 1TB drive than one 6TB drive.

      As long as you have a proper backup system in place and have several places to restore your data from, then this is all moot….you’ll be fine 🙂

      I don’t rename my files as I don’t see a point….but feel free to do so yourself!

  3. Thanks for the Tips on “What not to do”.
    I use Hot Plugable SAS Drives which allows me to have three drives on line and one Cold One off-site. It’s easy just to plug in a drive — update it and then remove so it’s off line and not subject to data corruption or Host Bus Adapter failures.
    Don’t us RAID as re-build time with large 4 TB disks is too long and subject to a second drive failure during re-build.
    Three drives as per following:
    1. Raw Working Drive
    2. Raw Backup Drive
    3. Raw Archive Drive

    If I want to work on my laptop, I just share the Raw Working Drive over a 100 GB LAN

  4. Hi, Chris, Thank you for the excellent and useful guidance for protecting and backing up and importantly, the reasoning behind the recommended do’s and don’ts.

  5. Chris, this is extremely helpful. Would you be willing to suggest brands of external hard drives (both the “normal” ones and the higher speed ones) that you have found to be of good quality? Second, you never mentioned SD cards as a form of backup. My camera has a second SD slot, so I often store the second SD card in a safe, external location as one of my cold storage backups. Apart from the cost, do you see a downside to this?

    Thanks in advance.

    Jill

    1. Hi Jill – There are many brands out there….some typically better than others (I personally would stay away from LaCie drives) but the bigger picture is that all drives do fail at some point, so it’s better to look at customer service and warranties and who has the best….and of course have a good backup plan in place so a drive failure doesn’t slow you down too much.

      Using SD cards as one form of cold backup is definitely nice as a last resort because it would be very difficult to try and find certain images…..much easier to do with external drives or cloud storage. This would be a good Plan C or even Plan D, but definitely should not be your first go-to when you need to find an image.

  6. So I have a question regarding deleting files. I usually delete files that I don’t want after I have imported them into Lightroom, since I can only view RAW files on Lightroom with my computer. But if I have already backed up the files, then I have a couple copies of the lousy images in my external drives, taking up storage space. What are your thoughts concerning this?

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