You know when people ask you what’s the first thing you would save if your house was on fire? While some might save their children first (priorities, people), most will say they’ll grab their photo albums before running out the door / jumping out a window. Years of memories that you don’t want to lose. As a photographer the thought of losing my photos can literally keep me awake at night. And the problem is, having my house on fire is not even what scares me. Computers crash, laptops get stolen, external hard drives get lost or for no apparent reason stop working. Or I might just accidentally delete the wrong folder and empty my trash because I like to keep my computer organized.
So instead of waking up in the middle of the night and missing out on a lot of much needed beauty sleep, I decided it was time to come up with a foolproof photo organizing and back-up plan. Yes, I know backing up is something you’d rather do tomorrow than today. But if you make a pretty drawing of your strategy it’s so much more fun….. No? Just me?
Always have 3 copies of your photos
I decided to listen to all the back-up gurus on the internet and follow their advice of having 3 copies of your photos:
- The ‘original’ photos you’re working with;
- Back up number 1 on a different external hard drive;
- Back up number 2 that you keep some place else (as in not in your house).
Organizing your photos
For all the following steps it helps to have an organized folder structure on your computer or external hard drive. It makes your life a whole lot easier if you know that all of your photos can be found in one Photos folder.
You need to find a structure that works for you, but the way I do it is:
- Folders for each year
- Folders for main categories (in my case Travel, London, Family & Friends, Work)
- Folder for each project that I name as ‘yyyy-mm name project’ (for example 2015-04 Berlin)
- Folders for main categories (in my case Travel, London, Family & Friends, Work)
If I then use the same structure for my back-ups I will always know where to find what I’m looking for.
Because I’m using a MacBook Air as my main computer, I put all my photos on an external hard drive (G-Tech G-DRIVE). Not only because there’s not enough space on my laptop to store them, but also because this makes it easier when I decide to work on my photos on another computer.
Making a back-up on an external hard drive
For my first back-up I’m using the WD My Cloud NAS. This hard drive is connected to my network so I don’t have to physically connect it to my computer every time I want to access it or copy files. It just sits in my nerdy computer network corner together with my other computer stuff.
As I’m doing some big time overdue maintenance here, the first step is to manually copy my photos (in their folder structure) to a Photo Back-Up folder on my WD My Cloud drive. No rocket science, just drag and drop.
But because I’m trying to be a better person here, I want to make this an automatic back-up for all the new photos that I’ll be importing from now on. This way I don’t have to think about it too much and I’ll know that from the moment I copy files from my camera to my computer there’s already a second copy for emergency situations available.
If you’re using Lightroom, under File Handling in the import menu you’ll see ‘Make a Second Copy To:’. Choose your 2nd external hard drive with the Photo Back-Up folder and make this your default import setting. Easy does it!
Extra step for Photoshop users
If you’re using an external editor in Lightroom such as Photoshop to edit photos, it will create a new .psd file on your computer. Since we’re now backing up our photos in the import menu, these new edited versions are missing in your back-up folder. Best thing to do is to manually copy these files to your back-up drive once you’re done editing. Or copy and replace the entire folder if you want to remove the photos you didn’t like and deleted in Lightroom.
Making an off-site back-up in the cloud
Having a copy of all your photos on a different hard drive will already allow you to sleep a lot better. But…what if someone breaks into your house and takes them? Or there is a fire? The chances of this happening are of course small, but as I said in the beginning, I’m listening to the back-up gurus here.
Some people make a second back-up on a third hard drive and keep that at the office or at their parents’ place. But that wouldn’t work for me. So I decided to use a cloud service for my second back-up.
I love using cloud services (I’m a huge Evernote fan), but every time I looked into options to store my photos it was just too expensive. Or they wouldn’t let you store the original RAW files. And if there’s one thing I want to back-up, it’s the RAW file (it’s the digital negative of your photo).
But Amazon now lets you store unlimited photos for only $11,99/year. That’s a great deal! Other cloud services might give you more options (for example some were complaining that you can only see a thumbnail image of your RAW file), but for me it’s about having that peace of mind that there’s a copy of all my photos stored in a safe location. I don’t need to work with them, online storage is all I’m looking for.
I’m currently still in the process of uploading my old photos to Amazon Cloud which probably will take me a couple more days or weeks, but as far as I can tell this is just what I needed.
One thing you cannot store however are your Photoshop (.psd) files. Since I’m using a Photoshop plugin (RadLab) to edit my photos, I have a lot of them. You can upgrade your Amazon Cloud to Unlimited Everything ($59,99/year) which lets you store all sorts of file types. I decided that for now I’m okay with having 2 copies of my Photoshop files without the online back-up. As long as I have the original RAW file, I’ll always be able to recreate it. What you might want to do is export a high-res jpg once you’re done editing and back-up that.
So how often do you need to make this second back-up? Since I can’t do this step automatically I need to come up with a process that will remind me to do it. I think the best thing to do is back-up when you’re done editing. This way you’ve already deleted the photos that are not worth saving which will save you upload time. And if you want to back-up a version of your edited photos you can do that as well.
Backing up your Library catalog
Now that your photos are safe, you should also back-up your Lightroom (or any other editing program) Library catalog. This stores all your preferences, collections, the edits you made in Lightroom, keywords and star ratings, etc.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to do this. You can have Lightroom make a back-up every time you exit Lightroom, once a day / week / month, whatever you want. To do this go to Catalog Settings (under Edit on a PC or Lightroom on a Mac) and choose one of the options from the menu and choose your Back-up drive (with a new Back-up Lightroom Catalog folder) as the location.
One thing you need to remember is that when Lightroom creates a new back-up it doesn’t replace the old one. So make sure to delete old versions.
Following the 3 copies guideline, I decided to (once a month) also store a copy of my Lightroom Library on iCloud Drive, which is the cloud service I’m using to store documents in the cloud.
What about Time Machine?
Before all this, Apple’s Time Machine was my back-up strategy. I’ve used it in combination with a Time Capsule and a regular external hard drive, but never completely trusted it. I was getting error messages on a regular basis, and I found it difficult to check if all my files were actually backed up correctly.
It has saved me in the past when I accidentally deleted a photo, but other times I wasn’t able to find a document I’d lost. So it didn’t feel like a foolproof system.
I’m still using Time Machine to back-up my computer. Mostly for everything other than photos. And that additional photo back-up is now a nice bonus, but I don’t rely on it anymore to back-up my entire photo library.
How often should you back-up your photos?
I think the main reason I waited this long to start backing up properly is because it seemed like so much work. And it is the first time. But by making it part of your regular photo editing routine it’s not a lot of trouble at all. Especially when you automate parts of it.
Well, this has become a gigantic post! Hope you found it useful. Let me know in the comments if you have any tips you’d like to share.