Best practices for backing up images

Since the advent of digital cameras, photographers have been trying to figure out the best way to manage their images: where to store them, what format to use, and how to ensure a client’s image files aren't lost or corrupted.

With film, it was important to store negatives securely. But with digital, you have to consider multiple methods of storage. Because technology can and will fail. The key to making sure your digital images are safe is having a protocol—a digital asset management plan—you adhere to for every client session.

A comprehensive backup solution accounts for three things: 

  • A working backup of files you’re currently using
  • A local backup of all your files and archives
  • An off-site backup

By using redundancy in your backup solutions, you ensure all your files and data will be safe no matter what happens.

Backups can be on-site and local or off-site and external. Burning disks, backing up to a second hard drive, or using a mirrored RAID system are considered on-site local solutions; cloud backup or an external hard drive at a different location are examples of off-site backup solutions. On-site solutions tend to be faster and more accessible; off-site backups can safeguard against any risk that may be presented to your local backups. When evaluating your options, remember that manual backups aren’t updated or monitored. The biggest component for failure in any backup solution is the human component.

Before we get into the backup solutions, consider these two points:

  • Any time you import images, always back up to a second hard drive immediately. Computer hard drives can and will fail—at any time.
  • Your files are useless if you can’t find them. Modern operating systems search metadata, so taking time during your import procedure to add tags could mean the difference between finding an image and not. Consider adding tags like client names, session dates, phone numbers, session types, and session ID numbers. You can always strip metadata tags later, so it's OK to inlcude personal information.

Now, back to backups.


Back up to disc: Burning a disc is pretty straightforward, and excluding labor costs, it’s the cheapest form of backup, costing pennies per gigabyte and a fraction of a penny in electricity. Unfortunately, it’s also the least automated, the least consistent, and one of the most questionable forms of backup. Your backup’s safety, reliability, and longevity depends on factors we can’t account for or predict. Archival discs promise more longevity but can be affected by the quality of the burn, how discs are stored, and whether they’re transported off-site. Most important, no one knows how much longer computers will have disc drives. If you’re using the disc as just one part of a redundant backup system, the additional expense and effort may not be worth it. It’s probably best to consider discs a last resort—your final option for preservation or recovery. If you use discs, immediately burn a backup before and after doing any editing because files are at risk whenever they exist in a single location.

Back up to a second hard drive: If you use Adobe Lightroom to manage your image import procedure, you can check Make a Second Copy To (found under the File Handling tab) on your import dialog. This Lightroom backup is manual, and the files are saved in folders titled by import date, so you may have difficulty locating files later. There are  other software solutions for automated backup of secondary internal hard drives (hard drives inside your computer). The software monitors specific drives and folders that you set for changes. When a change is detected they automatically begin backing up the data. One caveat: Secondary hard drives are inside your computer, so consider them part of your on-site backup.

Invest in a RAID system: A RAID system has disks that effectively function as a single drive, automating the process of saving data on multiple drives. Two main options for RAID systems are stripes (speed-focused) and mirrors (redundancy-focused). Your best bet is a mirror for redundancy over the speed of a stripe. Many of today’s computers can support RAID internally, though you can also get an external RAID storage device. If you get an external device, do your research, as some brands use proprietary recovery software and have expensive data recovery fees.

All the  methods listed so far have a shared weakness: Backups are stored on-site and probably near your computer. You need to incorporate an off-site backup solution to fully protect data, and it should be as far away from your studio as possible. Your house may not be a secure backup storage site in the event of a natural disaster or concurrent multiple disasters. If you have a fire, a major electrical surge, or some other local catastrophe, chances are high that both original files and backup files will be compromised or destroyed.


Automatically back up files to an external drive: Many manufacturers include an automatic backup software on their external drives. After you install the software the drive monitors whatever you specify, copying new files as they're added and updating old files with more recent versions. Unlike a manual backup, this  option ensures all your changes are transferred to the backup drive. Since they're portable, external hard drives can be an on- or off-site solution (as long as you regularly transport the drive to a secure off-site location). You’d also need to rotate through several drives so that at least one copy is always safely secured (even as you transport the newer copy to the secure off-site location).

Back up to the cloud: With cloud backup, you can upload all your data to off-site servers that are stored in secure buildings with protections against fire, floods, electrical damage, and  heat. What’s more, your files are encrypted and completely inaccessible to anyone besides you. The biggest problem is that data backup services can be slow, especially if you don’t have high-speed internet. However, many cloud backup services (e.g. Amazon S3) will, for a fee, provide you with an large external hard drive to do a very large backup. After that, you can use the software to automatically perform scheduled backups via the internet. When you research cloud options, use a company that has been around for a while and evaluate customer service, software, and upload/download speeds.

Ultimately, you have to define an image storage procedure that works for you. And it really has to work. If you design a great protocol but don’t follow through, your images won’t be adequately protected. The best procedure is one  you can realistically implement consistently. So take some time to evaluate all these options, consider how each might integrate into your current workflow, and find the best way to ensure your studio’s digital assets are secure and backed up.

It’s not just the plan that counts —it’s putting that plan into action that’s essential. Take the time now to protect your creative life’s work before it’s too late.

Betsy Finn is a portrait photographer with a studio in Michigan.