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Photography Tips: Off-Site Image Backup

Skill Level: Intermediate

I want you to imagine something for a moment. Imagine that your computer's hard drive fails. It just dies. You go to turn on your computer one day and...nothing. Every last file and photo on your computer has been wiped clean simply because your system's hard drive decided to up and die on you. There's no explanation why it died, it just died. After all, it's not if your hard drive will fail, it's when. All hard drives will fail eventually.

So imagine losing every single thing on your computer. All your work documents, all your music and, of course, all your thousands of photos. The documents and music might not be a huge issue in the grand scheme of things. But the photos...that would be devastating.

This is why a regular system backup is not only wise, it's just plain stupid not to do it.

Ah, but wait. You do a regular system backup. In fact, you back up your computer to an external drive every night. Actually no, every hour. And it's to 3 different backup drives. And a server in another part of the building. So you're covered, right?

Well, what if the building burns down? Or what if there is a flood, or an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a tornado? Or what if someone just breaks into the building and snatches all the computers and hard drives? If, God forbid, any of those things were to happen, all the backups in the world won't do you any good so long as all the backups are under the same roof.

This is why having an off-site backup drive is such a good idea. And in this post, I'll show you how I do it.

Off-Site System Backup Box

On-Site Backups

In addition to the original, I have a total of 4 backups of all of my photos and 2 backups of the rest of my computer (work documents, music, videos, etc.). This is on a total of 5 hard drives - most of them external drives. All of these backups are on-site. In other words, they are in the same room as my main computer.

Time MachineMy main system backup is performed automatically every hour. This is done through Apple's built-in backup software called "Time Machine." It comes on every Mac and it is truly awesome. It backs up your system in the background every 60 minutes, allowing you to continue working uninterrupted. It also allows to "go back in time" to specific dates and recover individual files from that date. This has saved my bacon many times from accidentally overwriting a file I didn't mean to. With Time Machine, I can simply go back to before I overwrote it, and recover the original file like it never happened. You can learn more about Time Machine here.

I'm not a PC guy, so I'm not real savvy on the backup offerings for Windows, but here is a list of the Top 10 Backup Apps for Your PC by makeuseof.com.

As for my image backups, I do those at the beginning and end of any photo-editing session. So anytime I load new photos in to my computer, make adjustments or move images around on my hard drive, I run a backup of my images. I use Aperture (by Apple), which has a great built-in image backup tool called "Vaults." A Vault is basically a backup of your entire Aperture library, including all its settings, keywords, adjustments and everything else. With the click of a button, the backup starts and writes all your new files and changes to the backup vault. This is an excellent feature and is one of the many reasons I'm an Aperture user. You can learn more about Aperture here.

Aperture Vaults

I know Lightroom allows you to backup up the catalog, but I don't believe it has a built-in backup tool for the images themselves. I may be wrong on this, but you can always just back up your images with a regular backup tool like the ones here.

Off-Site Backup

Now for the absolute worst case scenario: a fire or earthquake destroys my computer, both my system backups and all 4 of my image backups. After all, they are all in the same room. This is where an off-site backup drive saves the day.

The key to a good off-site backup drive is that it's kept very far away and it's well-protected against damage. You take it home/to the office every week or so, run the backup software, then take it right back to its remote, off-site location for safe-keeping. For me, I keep my drive at my girlfriend's place about 20-30 miles away and just take it back to my place to run a backup every week or two.

If you have a computer at home and at the office, keep an office backup at home and a home backup at the office. Or keep your backup at a friend's house, at work or in a climate-controlled storage unit. Just get it far away from the original drive, but still convenient enough to fetch it every week.

My hard drive of choice for this is a LaCie 500GB Rugged Triple-Interface portable hard drive. I've had a few of these over the years and I love them. They are reliable, fast and are built to withstand drops better than most hard drives. It has USB, FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 connections, too, which means it can connect to pretty much every computer around.

For added protection against dropping, jostling and water damage, I keep this hard drive in a Pelican 1120 case. Makes for easier transport and gives me a little more peace of mind against damage from being dropped accidentally. Using Pelican's customizable foam insert, I created a space for the hard drive and its cable. The whole package is solid, sealed and very well-protected from potential damage.

Off-Site System Backup Box

Off-Site System Backup Box

Off-Site System Backup Box

ChronoSyncThe backup software I use for this off-site external drive is called ChronoSync. It's a really extensive backup application with lots of customizable options. I don't use Mac's Time Machine for this off-site backup because Time Machine can only be used on one external drive (which I already have set up). So every week when I take this drive back to my workstation, I just plug it in, run ChronoSync and voila! My system is backed up and ready to return to its secure off-site location.

Online Backup

Just as a quick note, there are online backup services like Carbonite, which back up your system to a remote server and allow you to access your files from anywhere. It's a really great idea and isn't very expensive, but I tried it once and it just took too damn long to backup my 275+ GB. The initial backup would have taken weeks or months with my computer running 24 hours a day. But they offer a free trial, so give a try if you like.