Protecting Your Images

In GEAR, Lightroom & Workflow, Pep Talks, The Craft, Travel by David15 Comments

Bumping around in a Land Rover in Kenya a couple months ago, I did something I swore I would never do: I erased all the images on my SD card. Two days of photographing, gone with the accidental push of a button.

At first I wasn’t even sure I’d done what I had done. “Delete All?” my camera asked me. I’m sure I pressed the Not on Your Life button, hadn’t I? But I’d slipped and pressed the Yes, I’m a Doofus button instead. What a rookie mistake. I never delete images in the camera as it’s a short walk from there to card corruption issues and, as it turns out, is an easy way to delete a lot of hard work. I couldn’t believe it.

This kind of thing can wreck your day. Much worse are the days when you suffer a hard drive failure (though I’m guessing because it’s never happened to me). But I get emails all the time: “I lost all my photographs, what do I do?” In the case of a deleted SD card like mine, you put it safely in your wallet and you go home and you launch your file-recovery software ( I use Disk Drill for Mac ) and you (usually) get it back, even if you’ve formatted the card, just as long as you haven’t written over those images. In the case of a catastrophic drive failure, it’s less likely you’ll get those images back.

This is one of those rare emails that aims to be nothing but practical. No poet warrior, zen photographer meditations (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Just a reminder to you that as certain as life is short, it as equally certain that hard drives will fail, and unless you plan for this eventuality, you will lose all the photographs you worked so hard to make.

So I wanted to explain my own backup strategy and remind you once more, for the love of Ansel Adams, to back up your images. Today. Please. I’m begging you

When I travel, I shoot to large memory cards, either 64gb or 128gb. If the work is super important to me (read: client work) then I shoot to two cards simultaneously. That alone gives me confidence, and I do not format those cards until I am home and my work is all sitting on two or three drives.

Then, at the end of the day, I import my images to a small Samsung 2TB SSD drive (I like SSD drives because they’re smaller, lighter, and more durable in case of getting dropped or bashed around). And if it’s client work or I’m somewhere super dodgy where I worry my stuff will get stolen, I back it up to a second drive and keep my SD cards and each of the hard drives in separate places.

When I get home, I import all my stuff from the small drive (for the curious: first I do an Export as Catalog in Lightroom from my laptop, then I do an Import from Catalog (also in Lightroom), as this keep as my ratings and collections intact) to my home drive, which is a G-Tech G-Speed Shuttle 24TB RAID.

Then I immediately open the Pelican case in my office that contains my backup RAID, which is an exact duplicate of the drive on my desk, and I back my desktop drive to that second RAID. Now I have two RAID drives, which on their own are meant to be redundant, each with all my photographs on them. So if one dies a horrible death or comes to a screeching halt, I have another right there waiting for me. And then when my manager, Corwin, comes for his next meeting with me, he brings another Pelican case with another RAID unit, and I back that up again, and he takes it home with him so that each of the backup drives aren’t in the same location in case of a catastrophic event

Overkill? Yes. Maybe. But do I ever worry—even for a moment—that my photographs are at risk? Never. I sleep like a well-fed baby, drooling but carefree.

Yes, the drives were expensive, but not nearly the financial and emotional costs of losing all of my photographs.

My wife, Cynthia, doesn’t have nearly as many images as I do, so her approach is different. She has two large drives on her desk, each about 12TB. One is a primary drive for all her images; the other is an exact duplicate. And the third backup is in the cloud, using Backblaze. It takes a while to get there, and if you had slow internet you might look for other options, but it’s very reasonably priced and knowing that Cynthia’s images are stored in three places, one of which is off-site, gives me peace of mind on her behalf.

That’s the goal: three copies of all files, one of which is not at home, so that fire, theft, or some other natural disaster doesn’t wipe you out.

Backblaze costs $60 a year. A 20TB RAID at B&H is less than $1,000, less expensive if you don’t need that much space.  This is the RAID unit I use.  Yes, it cost me $6K for all my storage and backup, but that’s pennies compared to losing it all. You can do it for much less, but you’ve got to do it.
Here’s what I’m begging you to consider: if you have a system that works for you, with images are in three different places, one of them off-site, then give yourself a gold star, go make sure it’s all up to date, and sleep well tonight.

If you don’t,  then go figure out how much space you need. Then consider doubling it. If you have 4TB of image files, consider 8TB as the next drive you buy. Or 12TB. At B&H you can buy a 12TB drive for just over $200 right now: buy two of these (or something similar). Put your images on one and keep them there. Then back that up to the second. I use Super Duper to do those backups. It’s about $30 USD, so it won’t break the bank. Then look into Backblaze and bite the bullet.

  • Obvious Tip: If you need 8TB of space, remember you’ll need more in two years. Unless you’ve got money to burn, buy a drive that will allow for future growth. 

  • Another Tip: Remember when buying drives to make sure they’ll connect to your current computer. I know you can buy cables and dongles, but there’s nothing worse than thinking you’re getting a USB-C drive and getting something old, like Firewire 400, that no one uses anymore.

  • One More. I don’t want to complicate things for you, but if it’s a RAID you want, do your research. I set mine up as RAID 5, which means on a 24TB RAID, only 18TB is available for use because 6TB is being used for redundancy. So if you were to use RAID 1, you’d only be able to use 12TB of that space, which would be a shock if you thought you could use all 24TB.

There are plenty of things to consider when considering this stuff, and I’m the last guy who should be talking about the finer points of RAIDs. I set up my system to be simple and fast so I can sleep well at night. You can do it cheaper, like using straight-up hard drives and not RAIDs. You could go faster and more expensive, or set up a NAS as well. But most of you just want to make photographs, not become computer pros.  However you do it, make sure it’s backed up at least twice, and that one of those is in the cloud or otherwise off-site.

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. I had used DiskDrill and Stella Photo Recovery both software for recovering lost photos from SD card. Both software’s looks great and performs well. Thanks!!

  2. If you have an Adobe Lightroom account, you can back up to their cloud without paying for anymore than your Photoshop/Lightroom subscription.

    Personally, I don’t back up to the cloud, cause it would take a lifetime to recover all my images that way.

    1. This is true, but I think it caps at 1TB. I need WAY more than that. And yes, retrieving the files would take some time.

  3. Oh Thomas Geist thats’s very bad news. I popped in an SD card used in my Sony A6000 and unfortunately it began formatting immediately. I was hoping Discdrill might save me.

  4. Hi David,

    Apparently it can happen to even ‘one of the best’!
    Of course this is disappointing, fortunately it is not a serious disease.
    And1 ….. you have a good reason to go back someday
    And 2….. A good glass of whiskey helps with putting things into perspective (at least temporarily)
    Regards from also an experienced wrong button pusher 🙂

  5. What? That’s insane. Why would Sony do that? Scary. Thanks for letting me know, Thomas!

  6. I use the same strategy as your wife, two local external hard drives and Backblaze for offsite. For those concerned about Backblaze’s policy of deleting files after 30 days, they now offer a feature called Version History where they will keep versions for a year or forever. There is a $2 per month charge to keep versions for a year, and the charge for keeping forever depends on the amount of storage used.

  7. Fortunately such a thing has never happened to me. But on a trip to Brazil’s Pantanal I was able to restore a fellow travellers pictures on a SD-card that he had accidently deleted . I used San Disk’s Rescue Pro Utility on my Macbook. A program that came free with one of their disks. So if you travel with a notebook it might be a good idea to have a disk recovery program installed.

  8. Thanks for sharing David
    I do follow a very similar strategy as you do. And just to illustrate the benefit of a RAID 5 system, 4 weeks ago one of the disks in the RAID system failed. A simple hot swap with a new drive, no data loss or interruption of the work stream. Data should be kept redundant, how to achieve this depends on the personal needs and budget.

  9. I use every one of those Doofus buttons on my camera.

    I’m a big fan of superDuper and triple copies but migrated away from RAID. I’ve also failed to get on cloud storage after several attempts. I’m a laptop user so it’s important to note that Backblaze deletes anything if not touched for 30 days. It’s painful if you spend months uploading external drives and then go 31 days with it not connected. It will all disappear. Crashplan is similar, more expensive, but never deletes.

    Nothing exists until you have 3 is a good rule to live by. I live in fear of a power flicker or a software issue during the backup copying process. I like to always have that 1 copy unplugged.

    When Lightroom closes and asks to backup, I’ve also started pointing that destination to Dropbox so at least the library file is cloud backed up every time I use Lightroom.

  10. Also keep in mind when devising your storage and backup strategy that all media should be replaced periodically. Don’t plan on using cards or hard drives longer than you feel comfortable. For me, 4-5 years tops.

  11. And if you own a Sony A7 (R/S) say “thank you” because Sony mirrorless cameras OVERWRITE the entire card while formatting it.

    No chance for recovery.

    Wonder what smarty pants at Sony came up with this …

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